With its Venetian ruins, red-tiled roofs, white sand beach, and neverending sea views, the Croatian city of Zadar is an unmissable vacation destination in its own right. However, if you’re after an island-hopping adventure for your Croatian getaway, you’re in the right place.
Zadar is Croatia‘s oldest continuously inhabited city and is most recognizable for its peninsular Old Town, a monument in and of itself, that juts out into the Adriatic with historical ramparts, Venetian gates, and a Roman-era Forum. Still, Zadar is much more than its old center and the dazzling Zadar Archipelago can’t go amiss.
Reachable by ferry or catamaran from the mainland, Zadar is flanked by hundreds of mesmerizing islands and islets, some of which, we’ll explore today. Zadar has fantastic connections with its local islands and is the perfect starting point for an island-hopping adventure, but once you venture across the crystal clear waters, there are entire new worlds waiting for you. Bustling towns, bare hills, and golden beaches, these are just some of the best islands to visit from Zadar. Let’s go.
The first island in the Zadar Archipelago, and therefore the quickest to reach from the mainland, is Ugljan. Still, you won’t have to compromise experiences and scenery for efficiency here.
Ugljan is a large but peaceful island punctuated with hidden treasures. From the old Croatian churches, traditional stone houses, and stunning beaches, there’s so much to discover. Luka Beach, located near the village of Muline, is a sprawling sandy cove surrounded by forest and met with sparkling blue seas. But what Ugljan is perhaps best known for, is its evergreen pines that cover the island and its more than 200,000 olive trees.
In fact, Ugljan is better known as the “Olive Island”. It was first named olio in ancient times but changed to ugljan, also meaning oil in Croatian, over time. The island has cultivated some of the finest extra virgin oil in Croatia since history books began and is home to a 2000-year-old olive oil factory. The remains of the ancient oil mill, also located in the spectacular hamlet of Muline, are where the Liburnian oil of Imperial Rome was once produced. Now, the mill is Ugljan’s most important archaeological site and a testament to the rich history of oil production on the island.
Ugljan is also the name of the largest village on the island and the oldest settlement with late Roman ruins and its own golden beach. However, Preko village, meaning “across” in Croatian in reference to its position opposite Zadar, has three times the population as Ugljan and is worth visiting if you’re after a more lively atmosphere. Preko is complete with its own Dalmatian architecture and wonderful summer houses, as well as picturesque beaches and charming tavernas serving up local cuisine.
The island of Ugljan is just 20 minutes by ferry from Zadar, so more than seeable on a day trip. However, we recommend at least a few nights in one or two of Ugljan’s nine towns to really experience the olive island for all it has to offer.
Connected to Ugljan by the Ždrelac bridge and separated from Zadar by the Pašman channel, which only reaches two kilometers wide at some points, Pašman is a green and family-friendly island in the archipelago. Pašman covers 60 square kilometers, ten more than Ugljan, but despite its size, Pašman is quiet and serene and perfect for a relaxing escape.
Pašman is surrounded by dozens of smaller islands itself, and thanks to the changing direction of the sea’s current, which happens every six hours off the coast of Pašman, this area of the Adriatic is one of the cleanest in the Mediterranean. This means the waters are crystal clear and unsurprisingly inviting, making Pašman a great place to explore some of Croatia’s thriving marine life.
The island also has a well-preserved landscape, covered in lush vegetation with vineyards, olive groves, and herb fields. Pašman has been inhabited since Roman times and there is tons of ancient architecture to account for it. From the Franciscan monastery which dates back to the 14th century to the 12th-century Benedictine monastery of St Cosmas with its collection of prize paintings, Pašman is brimming with valuable heritage.
There are also castle ruins, beautiful villas, and the remains of an ancient Illyrian town. Pašman is reachable by ferry from Zadar to Ugljan and onwards by bus or car to Pašman, or directly via ferry from Biograd, a town and former capital of medieval Croatia, located 30 kilometers south of Zadar.
Dugi Otok is the seventh largest island in all of the Adriatic and gets its name from its distinctive shape. Dugi Otok literally translates as “long island” in Croatian, and we can understand why with its 45-kilometer length but just one to five-kilometer varied width. Dugi Otok covers a massive 114 square kilometers in total and with size, comes diverse landscapes.
The island is blessed with some of Europe’s best beaches, set below craggy cliffs and low-slung villas with rust-colored roofs and Mediterannean herb gardens. The island is also home to Telašćica Nature Park, located in a bay on the southeastern tip of Dugi Otok. Brimming with wildlife and marine creatures, the protected coral lagoons and saltwater lake with dramatic limestone cliffs make up one of Croatia’s most enchanting natural wonders.
Dugi Otok has more than ten historic villages to choose from and various Roman ruins. One of the most popular attractions is Veli Rat Lighthouse, the largest in the Adriatic, perched 42 meters high overlooking the open sea. There are even former military tunnels and a secret underground beach on Dugi Otok, lots of which you could explore on a speedboat day trip from Zadar if you’re short on time.
The ferry from Zadar to Dugi Otok takes around 45 minutes covering a distance of 25 kilometers. There’s also a car ferry that sails two to three times a day from Zadar to Brbinj on Dugi Otok. Having your own car is ideal for exploring Dugi Otok as the island is sizeable but bus services are infrequent.
Iž Island is nestled in between Dugi Otok and Ugljan, just 14 nautical miles away from Zadar but surrounded by its own collection of picturesque islets. Fig trees, olive groves, and luscious gardens cover the island, which measures less than 18 square kilometers.
Iž is divided into two villages, Mali Iž and Veli Iž, each with its own unique ambiance. Iž is unspoiled and a place to escape the hectic crowds of the Dalmatian Coast. The two charming fishing villages are punctuated with traditional Croatian homes, small taverns, and scenic apartment rentals.
Mali Iž is known for its ancient hand-painted ceramic industry and is the perfect town to pick up an authentic souvenir to commemorate your trip to Croatia. Veli Iž also has its own small marina, with a few shops and bars that are open in the summer months.
The 14th-century church of St. Paul and St. Peter is also located in Veli Iž, in the center of the village, close to the harbor. Newly renovated, the Romanesque building still retains its rustic charm and it is easy to find it peacefully empty thanks to the fewer crowds that flock to Iž compared to other Croatian islands.
Iž is located very close to the entrance of Kornati National Park. Spanning 89 islands, islets, and reefs, Kornati is a nautical paradise with very few inhabitants across its rugged landscapes and mesmerizing waters. Marine enthusiasts and avid scuba divers can revel in the peaceful waters around Iž and towards the mouth of Kornati, without the year-round crowds that flock to explore the waters in more populated areas of the national park.
The local ferry from Zadar to Iž runs twice a day in the high season and takes between 50 minutes and one hour fifteen, although covering just 25 kilometers.
If you’re looking for the perfect romantic day trip, look no further than Zadar’s heart-shaped island. Located between Zadar and Pašman, Galešnjak covers less than one square kilometer with the main beach reaching 1.55km in length.
The uninhabited island is privately owned but became a sensation when “discovered” by Google Earth satellite images in 2009. Now the waters around Galešnjak are frequented by yachts and snorkelers. Visitors can also arrange private transfers to visit the hidden beaches and explore Lover’s Island with plenty of time for diving and snorkeling. Better yet, why not take to the skies for a unique experience and the best way to take in Galešnjak’s unusual shape with a private panoramic flight?
Galešnjak is located just minutes off the immediate Dalmatian coast but some 24 kilometers south of Zadar City itself.
With a small area of just 15 square kilometers, Silba is part of a small island chain in the northwestern Zadar archipelago and is the most populous of them all. Although remote, relaxation and a slow pace are all part of the island’s appeal.
Silba is entirely pedestrianized and the only vehicles allowed on the island are those that serve local businesses. A walker’s paradise, you can stroll the old town center and dip in and out of the taverns and small selection of shops. The fishing village is also enjoyed by snorkelers and divers, and there are plenty of unspoiled bays.
Silba’s most recognizable landmark is the Marinić Toreta, or Tower of Love. The impressive building is a destination for romantics and the most popular attraction on the island. It has an external spiral staircase that visitors can climb for sweeping views of Silba and the surrounding islands from the top. The tower was built by a local sea captain for his wife so she could look out across the ocean and wait for his every return.
Silba has a quirky cultural program with its annual summer festival. The island comes alive with small plays and concerts, exhibitions, outdoor screenings, and more. Croatian singer-songwriter, Branimir Štulić, also famously wrote many of his songs here, and his music is loved by local residents. The island has long-drawn creatives. Be sure to check out the Marija Ujević-Galetović gallery in the center of Silba near the church of St. Mary. The gallery houses the most complete overview of the sculptor’s work in her celebrated contemporary style.
Sea lovers also can’t miss Silba’s underwater wonders. Meadows of Posidonia and seahorses populate the sea floor, and Pocukmarak Bay, on the west side of the island, also boasts the remains of an ancient Roman sarcophagus just a few feet below the water’s surface.
Silba is around 60 kilometers across the Adriatic from Zadar, but this vibrant island deserves more than a few days of exploring, so the slightly longer jaunt will be worth it. The ferry takes around 1 hour and a half, departing once daily.
Even though all of the Zadar Archipelago is undeniably intriguing, Pag has one of the most unusual landscapes of any Croatian island. It covers an impressive 285 square kilometers and is best known for its barren topography and unique local produce as a result.
Pag is often described as lunar in appearance with its dry, rugged fields that meet pebbly shorelines. This terrain gifts Pag its most famous export, caused by the fierce Bora winds that sweep across Pag from the Velebit Mountains at speeds of up to 170 kilometers per hour, taking with them the salty sea water spray from the Pag strait and scattering dry salt dust all over the island. The salt infuses the milk of the sheep who graze on Pag, giving the much-loved Pag cheese its distinctive salty taste.
However, Pag is even more dynamic than its agriculture. Its old town is steep in history, with the 15th-century Church of St George residing here, one part of Pag’s defensive walls. There are also the ruins of a Franciscan monastery just outside the center, which forms Pag’s most significant archaeological site.
Don’t let the moonlike landscape fool you, Pag is bustling and populated. The island has even earned quite the reputation as a premier nightlife destination and Zrce Plaza, a beach to the north, is the setting for a number of international festivals, come summer.
Indulge in the cuisine, tour the olive trees at Lun, set sail on a dolphin-watching cruise, or dance the night away on its beaches, Pag is one of Zadar’s most happening islands and a nice alternative if you’re tired of the quiet nearby islets. Pag is located northeast of Zadar and accessible by bus or car in less than an hour, thanks to the bridges that link the mainland to Pag.
How much time do you need to island-hop from Zadar?
When it comes to island-hopping in Croatia, the longer you have, the better. We recommend 10 days to two weeks for a relaxing break filled with destinations. Still, you can see a lot in a few days and many of the islands off Zadar’s coast are easily visited on day trips from the city. Many of the islands on this list are just 20 minutes by ferry from the city port.
When is the best time to island hop from Zadar?
Croatia is busiest and most expensive during the summer, but this is when all the tourist attractions, and, importantly, ferry schedules, are in full swing. For the best of both worlds, consider visiting in June or September for the most frequent ferries without the peak summer crowds and stifling temperatures.
Is Zadar safe?
Croatia, on the whole, is very safe for tourists with very little violent crime and fair political stability. It’s been rated one of the ten most peaceful countries in the world, and even as a city, Zadar is one of the safest places in Europe with most visitors facing no issues while there. Petty crimes can occur but most are opportunistic and tourists can avoid falling victim to petty thieves by looking after their belongings.