From the rich history to the fantastic watersports scene, island hopping opportunities, and picturesque coastline, it’s little wonder Croatia is often described as the jewel of the Adriatic. Choosing to vacation in sun-soaked Croatia is easy, but deciding where to visit can be a challenge, especially when the destinations in question are the leisurely Zadar and vibrant Hvar.
Both attract a steady stream of holidaymakers thanks to their crystal clear waters, extraordinary sunsets, lively cultures, and delectable cuisine. The historically rich Hvar is home to charming cobblestone streets and 13th-century architecture, but it also has a reputation for having a bustling party scene. On the other hand, laidback Zadar is relatively crowd-free, and serves as a gateway to one of Croatia’s best beaches, while offering plenty of enchanting national parks, and several annual festivals.
Luckily for you, we’ve created a comparison guide covering everything from the vibe and beaches to the centuries of history. Let’s get into it.
Hvar or Zadar: General Vibe
They might be less than 150 miles away from each other, but Hvar and Zadar are more different than you might expect. Hvar is considered one of Croatia’s most upmarket travel destinations, but it has a bit of a reputation for its unforgettable nightlife too. Its central harbor is lined with world-class restaurants and bars, while its 13th-century walls encircle an island with a rich history dating back to its Greek, Roman, and Venetian occupation.
The island is also nestled amongst a host of smaller neighboring islands that make for great day trips, with a bubbly, on-the-go atmosphere dominating throughout the summer months. Hvar is positively packed with tourists from early June until September but it’s one of the sunniest destinations in Croatia, and Europe on the whole, and you can expect pleasant temperatures that tempt sea-swimmer until the autumn.
In contrast, Zadar is largely uncrowded, with a much slower pace. You’ll find plenty of exceptional seafood restaurants and foodie hotspots serving the delectable Northern Dalmatian cuisine, along with a host of easy-going lounge bars in its historic Old Town. Additionally, the island serves as a stepping stone to several popular music festivals held on the neighboring islands of Pag and Tasno.
Plus, there are hundreds of gorgeous, undisturbed beaches to explore, and the island houses a giant, solar-powered public dancefloor called the “Monument to the Sun”. You’ll find it on the edge of the waterfront, along with another contemporary landmark called the “Sea Organ”. It’s a charming art installation, consisting of underwater pipes that sound musical notes when filled with water, creating a harmonica-like sound effect.
Although the city isn’t known for having as lively a nightlife scene as Hvar, it’s steeped in history with ancient houses and squares dotted all around, and there’s still plenty to do after dark. There’s a wide variety of daytime activities on offer as well, like learning to blow glass with Croatian artisans, to name just one.
With its easy-going atmosphere, relaxed beaches, and exciting island hopping opportunities, Zadar offers the best of both worlds and is the clear winner in our eyes when it comes to vibe. It offers lively retreats, with enough laid-back hotspots to satisfy a relaxing break too, in contrast to Hvar’s touristy, on-the-go feel.
Hvar or Zadar: Getting There
When it comes to location, Zadar is slightly easier to get to than Hvar. Situated on the mainland, its airport is well connected to other Croatian and European cities, and flying there can be quite budget-friendly too.
There are also airport buses that leave every 30 minutes to take passengers to the city center. Those who prefer to travel by ferry can also reach Zadar from Ancona by boat. Zadar’s ferry port is roughly two miles away from the city center, and you can easily reach the old town from Gazenica ferry port by using public busses.
You can only reach Hvar by sea, but this doesn’t mean that it’s hard to get to. The closest international airports to Hvar are Split, Dubrovnik, and Brac, with Brac being the closest but least busy. From there, you’ll have to take a public speedboat or car ferry to Hvar. There’s also the option of private transfers but this can be pricey.
Split airport is less than 20 miles from the Split ferry port and the ferry journey can take as little as 50 minutes depending on the route. The car ferry to Hvar can sometimes take a bit longer, with the slower route to Stari Grad taking up to two hours. Naturally, you could also fly into Brac, but the airline prices are generally higher, and you’ll still need to take a ferry transfer to get to Hvar.
All in all, neither Hvar nor Korčula are isolated, or difficult to get to, and they both act as a gateway to exploring the surrounding Dalmatia region and Croatian archipelago. However, taking a ferry transfer to reach Hvar is unavoidable, which can make it one of the more expensive getaway options to visit in the Dalmatia region. As such, Zadar is slightly better-connected and marginally more convenient, which makes it the undeniable winner here.
Hvar or Korcula: History
Croatia doesn’t hold back when it comes to heritage. Its islands and cities have rich histories dating back centuries, with several cultures and rulers having left their marks on the country.
Hvar’s history dates back to the early Neolithic period, and many of the noble houses and public buildings you’ll find on the island have been around since the 15th century, while the island is also home to the oldest theatre in Europe. On top of this, it’s widely regarded as one of the birthplaces of organized tourism in Europe and houses several UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Sites.
Hvar is also the former home of Marco Polo, the first place in the world to abolish slavery, and the place where Moreska sword dancing and Croatia’s centuries-old boatbuilding tradition originated.
Although quieter, Zadar doesn’t have any shortage of opportunities to explore its rich heritage either. For starters, you could visit The Church of St. Donatus, which is one of the most famous buildings in the city, dating back to the 9th century. Other options include marveling at the 13th-century Romanesque exterior, and 5th-century foundations of The Cathedral of St. Anastasia, or visiting one of the city’s many museums.
Some of our favorites include The Museum of Ancient Glass, where you can see ancient Roman glass collections, and the enthralling Museum of Illusions, which boasts over 70 interactive exhibits. You shouldn’t miss out on the opportunity to explore the charming Land Gate monument either, which dates back to the 16th century and serves as the official entrance into Zadar Old Town.
All things considered, both destinations are fairly evenly matched in terms of opportunities to soak up their respective rich histories, but Hvar just steals the win for its wealth of UNESCO heritage and renowned Old Town.
Hvar or Zadar: Beaches
Truth be told, with the secluded hideaways and mesmerizing turquoise waters they both offer, you won’t struggle to find great beaches in either Hvar or Zadar. Hvar’s shores are typically rocky and pebbly, surrounded by pine forests, but you’ll find plenty of sandy beaches on the northern side of the island too. The stronger northern winds make these beaches great spots for water sports like sailing and windsurfing too.
The neighboring Pakleni islands offer excellent sailing opportunities as well, while the nearby Korčula channel and Peljesac Peninsula are very popular windsurfing destinations.
Zadar boasts several incredibly picturesque beaches, with most of them being largely crowd-free. The many Blue Flag-certified bays along the coast of Zadar make for some truly pristine swimming spots. You may have to lay out your beach towel on rockier beaches, but the inviting water is worth it.
Our favorite has to be the white sand Saharun Beach, which is widely considered to be one of Croatia’s best coves and frequently compared to the Caribbean. Another option is Kornati National Park, which is an uninhabited marine reserve south of Zadar, where you can spot dolphins, lizards, ring snakes, and several butterfly species. You could even book a scuba diving boat trip in summer and explore the park’s reef or lounge out on its gorgeous coves.
Zadar offers a bigger variety of dreamy secluded bays with turquoise seas, while Hvar’s beaches are more well-known, and generally more crowded. At the end of the day, your preference will depend on your individual needs, but we can safely say that sea lovers will be very satisfied with either destination.
Hvar or Zadar: Cost
Croatia has a well-deserved reputation for being a reasonably priced travel destination. While it isn’t quite as cheap as backpacking hotspots like Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, you can easily travel to Croatia on a budget. However, visiting the coast will be a bit more expensive.
Seeing as they have relatively close proximity, you might expect Hvar and Korčula to be similarly priced, but there are some discrepancies. Since it doesn’t have quite the tourism scene of Hvar, Zadar’s local transport and food options are a bit cheaper. The average daily expenses per person in Zadar come to around $75 based on other travelers, while you’ll spend nearly $86 in Hvar.
You can expect to spend roughly $8 on transport in Zadar, compared to the $40 you could spend a day navigating Hvar. Your daily food could come to as little as $24 in Zadar, but you’ll need around $32 in Hvar for the same amount of meals.
One of the few areas where Hvar is the undeniable champion is entertainment. Activities in Hvar are a good deal cheaper than in Zadar, likely as a result of the variety, and you can expect to spend around $6 to visit the landmarks or tour a fortress, compared to the $16 you’ll spend in Zadar.
Hvar also offers more diversity when it comes to budget lodgings, and the average price per night for two people is only $64 compared to $86 in Zadar. There are a few things that Zadar is slightly steeper for, but you’ll likely spend more money in Hvar with it being the busier, more sought-after holiday destination.
When is the best time to visit Zadar?
The best time to visit Zadar for warm, sunny weather is during the summer when the tourist season is in full swing. Zadar benefits from average highs in the mid-80s in July and August and sees very little rainfall. However, this is the busiest time to visit, and school holiday crowds swarm the beaches and ramp up the prices. Consider visiting in the shoulder season from April to May or September to October for pleasant weather and fewer tourists.
Is Croatia safe?
In terms of violent crime and homicide rates, Croatia is very safe and this nature of criminality is extremely rare. Pickpockets operate in touristy areas, as with any other country, but Croatia is very safe for solo female travels and there’s no reason to feel unsafe as long as you exercise general safety precautions. Croatia is at risk of some extreme weather like flooding, drought, and seismic activity, but you can follow weather reports to avoid getting caught out.
How many days do you need in Hvar?
There’s so much to see in Hvar and you could easily spend weeks exploring the island and not see it all, but three days is a good amount of time to get a taste of what the island has to offer and take in the old town and all its sites. If you want to see more of the beaches and inland scenery, we recommend at least one week in Hvar.