Zadar or Split is a choice between two of the most popular towns on the central Croatian coast. Both have one foot in the sky-blue Adriatic Sea. Both sit under the gaze of the rugged Dinaric Alps. Each has a selection of beaches and rich history that hearkens back to the age of the Romans in the Balkans.
But there are also differences between the towns. One, Zadar, is much smaller than its more southerly compadre. It’s got a student vibe and quieter quaysides. Split, for its part, is one of the most popular places to visit in the whole country. It booms with millions of visitors each year, some coming to see the UNESCO sites; others coming en route to the gorgeous Dalmatian Islands that dot the waters to the south.
This guide is all about helping you pick Zadar or Split for your holiday this year. It will take a look at all the ins and outs of both destinations to offer some insights into which is more suited to you and your travel crew. We’ll look at the array of beaches, the nightlife offering, the ease of traveling there in the first place, and much more. Let’s get started…
Zadar or Split for ease of travel?
Split is now arguably the easiest of all cities in Croatia for travelers to reach. In recent years, its airport – the large Resnik Airport – has risen to become one of the busiest in the country, trumping even Zagreb when it comes to passenger traffic. You can now get all manner of low-cost and premium flights direct to the town, coming from major European hubs like London, Dusseldorf, Stockholm, and Frankfurt to name just four. On top of that, Split is midway down the E65 motorway, which has links to Venice in around six hours. Plus, there are many cross-Adriatic boats that come over from Italy in the summer months.
Zadar Airport (ZAD) is much smaller than the one in Split. It serves something in the region of 37 destinations, all of them short-haul and in Europe. There’s a good mix though – connections come in from Krakow, Manchester, Warsaw, Vienna, and others, though most are seasonal. You can also drive to Zadar on the E65 and E71 highways. Croatian Railways run daily services to the town from the south and north, too, but those will also almost always serve Split as well.
Winner: Split – it has the larger airport.
Zadar or Split for beaches?
Zadar is in the middle of a lesser-known part of the Croatian coast. Just as in virtually the whole rest of the country, the beaches here aren’t really sandy. They’re mainly pebble coves that are occasionally chopped up by high and rocky headlands, usually hemmed in by woods of fragrant Aleppo pines. The closest of all to the city includes the little strands of Borik and Kozino to the north. They are both great options for snorkelers. You also have the isles of Ugljan and Dugi Otok if you’re willing to hop on a boat. They offer stunning inlets like Otrić and the beaches of the National Park Kornati.
The Marjan headland that sits to the west of Split provides ample beaches for anyone touring the town. The south coast there has gems like Kasjuni, which is better for sunbathing though does get busy. The north coast is ruggeder, with snorkeling locations like the Adriatic Steps that descent straight into the sea. Bacvice Beach out east is considered Split’s main party strip – head in for pumping clubs by the shoreline. Then there are the nearby isles, which are veritable beach meccas, especially Brac, the home of the iconic Golden Horn (arguably the best beach in the whole country!).
Zadar or Split for nightlife?
There’s really nothing in this one: Split is the nightlife hub of the Croatian mainland coast. The home of major EDM fests like Ultra in the summertime, it’s risen to offer truly hedonistic nights from May to August. There are two main places to let loose. The first is the Riva promenade in the town. That’s fringed by sunset bars and cocktail lounges that get lively at the golden hour. The second is aforementioned Bacvice Beach, where some seaside nightclubs will pump until later. We should also mention that Split is one of the prime gateways to Hvar – Croatia’s answer to Ibiza!
Zadar isn’t without its nightlife. There are bars aplenty stringing its own Riva by the Adriatic and a good selection in the Zadar Old Town to boot. The latter are mainly focused on a single block that spans out from Kovačka street. They include gritty rock bars and noir cocktail places. For partying all night long, you’ve got just one or two clubs. Or make the trip north to Zrce Festival Beach, where there are colossal arenas that pump with deep house all season long.
Zadar or Split for nature?
Zadar occupies something of a less-trodden part of the Croatian coast. Its piece de resistance is probably the archipelago of the National Park Kornati, where you can sail between limestone bays of gleaming white stone and swim in rock reefs with multicolored fish. Back on land, you also get good access to the waterfalls of the Krka park and the trails of the wild Paklenica National Park, where rock climbers flock to the sheer-cut faces of the mountains.
Split is also close enough to the Krka waterfalls to make that a daytrip. Heading there means getting rushing flows of water that gurgle into green pools between the woods. It’s unquestionably one of the highlights of the Balkans. To the south of Split, the Dinaric Alps crumple up to offer the wide massif of the Biokovo Nature Park, too. It’s a haven for hikers, who can scale to soaring lookout points above the Adriatic.
Winner: Zadar has more remote islands and wilder mountain parks within reach.
Zadar or Split for cost?
There’s never going to be a wild difference between the cost of trips to Zadar and Split. These are two towns in the same region of the same country, after all. They’re a mere 70 miles apart and both have a bit of a rep for being a tourist haven in the summer months. However, Split has more of that rep and that means prices are often higher in the more southern town.
We’d estimate that you’re looking at spending something like $89 per person, per day in Split compared to in the region of just $72 per person, per day in Zadar. Most of that hike comes from the increased cost of accommodation, which is more sought-after in the area around Diocletian’s Palace in the Split center than just about anywhere in the country bar Dubrovnik. Food and drink might also cost a touch more in these parts.
Winner: Zadar is cheaper, but just.
Zadar or Split for history?
Split has history oozing from every chink in every Doric column in its celebrated UNESCO core. To be honest, we’d go as far as to say that Diocletian’s Palace is among the top five most enthralling historic sites in the whole of Europe. Yep, it’s up there with Rome and Pompeii with its mosaic of imperial court rooms from 2,000 years back and Byzantine churches and Ottoman towers that loom overhead. It’s one of the musts of Croatia for history buffs.
Zadar also brings a rich Roman-era core to the table. It’s not as eye-wateringly dramatic as the one in Split, but you’ll still get to tour an ancient forum space with half-ruined colonnades and temple structures that date back to the age of the great emperors. There are impressive medieval ruins there, too, in the form of the Five Wells and the 16th-century Duke’s Palace, along with all manner of centuries-old churches.
Zadar or Split for onward travel and day trips?
It’s strange since Split is such an awesome place in its own right, but many of the summertime visitors here will simply whiz through the town on their way to other destinations in the vicinity. Boats link the harbor with the mainstay members of the Dalmatian Islands chain, which really are the stuff of travel brochures. They include Hvar – happening, party-mad Hvar – and the beach-fringed isle of Brac to name just two. Stay on land and you can travel out to handsome and sleepy Trogir town or hit the idyllic bays of the Makarska Riviera, which begins just to the south.
Zadar is more of a gateway to off-the-beaten-path Croatia. The islands that you reach from here aren’t as famous as the ones near Split. We’re talking the likes of Dugi Otok and Ugljan. Okay, they’re not A-listers as isles go, but they’re stunning – think azure bays and wooded banks with just a fraction of the crowds of Hvar. Elsewhere, you can plan outings to the dreamy isle of Pag and the gorges of Starigrad to the north, each offering something a little different.
Winner: Split. It’s close to arguably the most famous destinations in the country.
Zadar or Split – our conclusion
Zadar or Split? There are worse decisions to have. Seriously, both these towns are chart-toppers among Croatian holiday destinations. They each have lovely beaches and day-trip options on the menu, along with rich Roman histories and nearby islets. If we had to pick, we’d say Split comes out on top for its UNESCO core and closeness to Hvar. However, it does get busy there and Zadar is a good choice for dodging the crowds. You can always do both, too – they’re only 70 miles apart!