Most international tourists coming to Croatia skip Sibenik, the country’s tenth largest city. Which is a shame, because – as I discovered during the summer of 2021 – Sibenik and the surrounding Sibenik Riviera are among the most scenic parts of the Dalmatian coast. Sibenik boasts a rich historical and cultural heritage, has amazing architecture and is still authentically Croatian. On top of that, unlike other well-known and proud Croatian destinations, Sibenik is humble about its many alluring attributes, which makes it even more charming.
Sibenik is also the gateway to Krka National Park, one of the country’s greatest nature preserves, a unique ecosystem home to the most important bird sanctuary in Europe and to Croatia’s number one waterfall – Skradinski buk. And if all that was not enough to justify a visit, the Sibenik Archipelago has 275 tranquil islands and islets – the largest group of islands on the Mediterranean – where thousands of secluded beaches and coves are a haven for water sports enthusiasts. If we include the islands, there is a total of 500 miles of coastline to explore.
My three month stay in Croatia started in Dubrovnik, the country’s southernmost city. From there I followed a path north along the Adriatic coast on buses and ferry boats (public transportation is very good in Croatia). After being based for one week in Split – the transportation hub of the Dalmatia region – in order to visit the nearby islands of Brac, Hvar and Vis, it was time to move again. Sibenik was next on my list.
The bus from Split ambled along the cobalt-blue Adriatic Sea. From my window seat, I was absorbed in the scenery as the bays and nearby islands of the Dalmatian coast came into and out of view. This place does not owe anything to the French Riviera, I thought. It actually looked less spoiled, less crowded and more beautiful.
Small resorts with private marinas surrounded by modern white houses dotted the shore (similar to Greece, Croatian coastal houses tend to be white). RVs and motorhomes on the road indicated that people were arriving to enjoy their summer vacations. I hope Croatia stays as pristine as it is today, that it does not let itself be ruined by overdevelopment, I thought to myself, while observing the intense traffic in both directions.
I am not sure how realistic that hope is, though. Since the war of independence from former Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia has lost a large chunk of its industrial base – including its famous shipyards – and today tourism is one of the main sources of income in the country. So far, that does not seem to be spoiling the landscape; the attractive old stone houses, the awe-inspiring medieval churches and the centuries-old monasteries scattered around the land all seemed to be well preserved.
But in some spots a lone modern skyscraper invades the view (there is a hideous black one on Split harbor not far from Roman emperor Diocletian’s 2000 year old palace). Occasionally one encounters a shopping mall with loud billboards – like those we have in the USA – sure signs that modern times and cheap building methods are slowly arriving.
Too many tourists can also be a problem; some destinations in Croatia get too crowded in the summer. In Dubrovnik, you should be prepared to share the narrow streets of the old town with thousands of other people, if you visit in July or August. It has gotten to a point where locals are now trying to limit the amount of tourists allowed in the high season, especially the thousands arriving on large cruise ships. To see Dubrovnik in all its glory, it is a good idea to plan accordingly: I visited it in the beginning of June, when it wasn’t too crowded yet, and had no problem moving around.
Right before arriving in Sibenik, the bus passed by Primosten. Originally an isolated island, it is now connected to the mainland by a bridge and a causeway. Built on a hill dominated by a 15th century church, picturesque Primosten is a village favored by tourists for its calm beaches, good restaurants and rich wine making history. The famously high quality wine Babic is produced on the steep hillsides that overlook the road to the village. From the bus I could see the low, dry stone walls built manually by the farmers to protect the vines from the wind and heat.
The final stop on the bus to Sibenik was a modern and unattractive downtown bus station which – I was glad to hear – was going to be demolished to make room for a new one. I walked a few blocks on a drab and grey area to get to the waterfront – the Riva – to a street full of bars and restaurants where I was supposed to meet my Airbnb host.
While waiting for him I had a quick lunch, which proved to be a bad idea. When he arrived, he informed me that some places around the bus station are just tourist traps with bad food. “If you want to eat well for fair prices go to the Old Town,” he said, pointing to a medieval-looking cluster of houses on a hill behind us.
My negative first impression of Sibenik soon vanished, though. It helped that the place I had rented – in the Aurora Apartments – was spacious and within walking distance of the old town walls and facing St Michael’s Fortress. During the next few days, wandering through medieval cobblestone alleyways and passing under 15th century arches became a pleasant routine. Soon I was so smitten by Sibenik that I decided to stay longer than I had planned.
During the day, I would visit the places on my list – I love historical sites – and usually had the streets almost to myself. That tranquility invariably ended around 5:00 pm, when the tourists came back in droves, probably from nearby beaches or boat trips. That was when the stores reopened, after a long post-lunch siesta, soon to be full of shoppers. Street musicians sang and played, and the Old Town became the place to be.
The center of it all was the Republic of Croatia Square (Trg Republike Hrvatske), where elegantly dressed tourists strolled the streets at the end of the day, killing time before dinner. Some of the streets leading to the square were colorfully decorated with balloons and posters for the International Children’s Festival – the only one of its kind in the world. A few passageways to the square had been closed to allow stages to be set up, but fortunately the narrow medieval alley leading to my favorite ice cream shop in town was not (I arrived promptly at 5:00 pm every day to get my cone). In Croatia, ice cream is made from scratch and it is completely different from what we have back home.
Rich history and heritage
With 110,000 inhabitants, Sibenik is larger than its historical center. Most people live outside the medieval walls, but the old town is still the city’s core, where everything happens – it is where the shops and the local government buildings are located. Traces of the Venetian occupation of 1412-1797 are clear in the architecture; the houses and palaces exhibit luxurious doorways and inner courtyards with wells and imposing stone pillars.
However, Sibenik’s history predates the Venetians. The oldest Croatian city on the Adriatic, it was first mentioned in a document issued in 1066 by king Petar Kresimir IV, ‘King of Croatia and Dalmatia’ from 1059 until his death in 1075. Considered one of the greatest Croatian rulers, he is credited with founding the city. During his reign, Croatia reached the pinnacle of its territorial expansion, and the city pays tribute to him with a statue (for these reasons Sibenik is sometimes called ‘Kresimir City’). Royal favoritism perhaps explains why some of the most precious works of art in Dalmatia are kept in Sibenik.
The town became very wealthy from the 15th to the first half of the 17th century, thanks to the salt and wine trades and the maritime affairs conducted at its port. It suffered a setback in the middle of the 17th century, when it was struck by a plague that killed most of its population (only 1500 of its 12,000 inhabitants survived, and of the 150 aristocratic families, there were only 10 remaining when it was all over).
Throughout its history, Sibenik’s prominence also attracted the interest of powerful enemies. From the 12th to the middle of the 20th century, it was destroyed many times and was continuously under foreign rule; naval attacks from the Turks of the Ottoman Empire were a constant threat. Four medieval defense towers and fortresses (St John, St Michael, Barone and St Nicholas) that shielded the city as best they could during that period are still standing.
Those fortresses can now be visited and offer spectacular views of the city and of the surrounding islands. Barone houses a museum where visitors can use augmented reality eye glasses to see how the fort might have looked in the 17th century. St Nicholas Fortress, built by the Venetians, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A masterpiece of military architecture and the only fortress on the sea, it is located right at the entrance to the St Anthony Channel, next to Šibenik’s harbor.
An amazing monument
There is a lot to see in Sibenik, but its most treasured landmark is the renowned Gothic-Renaissance cathedral of St. James, built in the 15th and 16th centuries with a level of craftsmanship that continues to surprise art historians today. Master architect Georgius Dalmaticus used large slabs and stones from the islands of Korcula and Brac – each weighing several tons – at a time when the sophisticated technology of cranes and hoists we have today did not exist.
Surprisingly, the church’s barrel-vault and the dome contain no wood or brick – each stone block is fitted into grooves carved in stone ribs fitted together without mortar! Outside the church, encircling the outer walls, there is a curious frieze with 88 stone heads depicting locals who refused to contribute to the building’s funding. St James Cathedral’s dome dominates Sibenik, and the church has a unique place in the history of European architecture. It is now part of the UNESCO World Heritage List and a source of local pride.
That was why there was shock – and international outrage – after the cathedral was shelled by Serb artillery in 1991, during Croatia’s war of independence from Yugoslavia. The attack caused serious damage to the building, and it has taken Croatian and foreign experts many years to fix the damage. On the day I visited, renovations were still going on inside, but not even that could detract from the majesty of the cathedral. It is considered the most beautiful religious building in all of Croatia.
Mussels and sunsets
The Sibenik estuary contains another treasure: the legendary mussels harvested in its waters that are the most coveted delicacy of the rich local cuisine. They are the main attraction at Pellegrini, a top notch restaurant often voted number one by foodies, perhaps the reason why it was impossible to get a table there. I enjoyed my mussels at Sesula, a more friendly and unpretentious konoba in the Old Fisherman’s Quarter, where a front-row view of the stunning sunsets accompanied the dishes.
On my last day in Sibenik I stayed at Sesula until late, chatting with a local lady who was eager to tell me about her town, while we appreciated the sky’s colorful transformation. Fishermen back on the shore were cleaning their boats for the next day; couples embraced by the water until the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, and the restaurants along the Riva started to brim with nightlife. Among all of its many attractions, the relaxing pace of life in Sibenik is perhaps the greatest of them all.
Sibenik’s waterfront is the most protected natural harbor in the central Adriatic. It is where the Krka River meets the sea, forming an estuary with 275 islands and islets. The islands of the archipelago stretch along the coast for more than 58 square miles, but only six of them are permanently inhabited, with fewer than 7000 people calling them home. The serenity of these islands – where cars are prohibited – make them popular with those who seek isolation in a pristine natural environment. They are easy to reach: ferries from Sibenik depart from and return to the city at regular hours.
I took an early morning boat that made its first stop in Zlarin. A quaint, charming port a three–minute boat ride away from Sibenik, Zlarin is known for a traditional style of jewelry making that utilizes coral harvested nearby in the Adriatic. My visit was enhanced by having lunch at Konoba Aldura, near the port, considered by locals to have the best tuna steak in the region. I had mine served with crispy green beans; the taste and tenderness of the tuna honored the place’s reputation. The table next to me was full of Americans who had just arrived on a large yacht, proof that when it comes to excellent cuisine, word gets around fast.
Fifteen minutes away from Zlarin by boat lies Prvic Luka, one of two settlements on Prvic island (the other is called Sepurine). The place had me mesmerized from the moment I stepped off the ferry.
I stayed at Hotel Maestral – the only hotel on the island – for four days, although I had originally only booked two. During the day, I would explore the sparsely populated island of less than 500 people, mainly fishermen and farmers. I would swim in the clear blue waters of the Croatian Adriatic (called ‘the cleanest in the world’ by the late French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau) or take pictures of the medieval stone houses in both villages. When hungry, I would enjoy fresh seafood at one of the only three small konobas in Prvic.
Konoba Ribarska Dvor (half-way between Prvic Luka and Sepurine), became my favorite, due to its friendly service and simple but tasty local dishes. Ribarska was also right in front of a beach with calm waters, a favorite of families with children and of people afraid of rough tides, like me. I would place my order, go swimming, and when my food was about to be served, someone would wave at me to come back.
When I wasn’t exploring, swimming, eating or sleeping to the soothing sound of crickets, I was watching the boats. Well protected from the winds, Prvic is a boating paradise. It doesn’t hurt that there are seven miles of beaches and coves, due to its indented coastline, or that there are other islands nearby. Judging by the flags I saw in the harbor, most of the boats were from Germany, England, France and Italy – but I did spot a singular, splendid sailboat from the USA once. A long journey to get to Prvic, but I am sure they were not disappointed.
Prvic is under the protection of the Ministry of Culture, for being ‘a cultural heritage of Croatia,’ which perhaps explains why it is so pristine. As small as it is – only 1.926 miles long – Prvic has an interesting small museum called the the Faust Vrancic Memorial Center, dedicated to the Croatian scientist who is said to have invented the parachute and wind turbines, among other innovations of his time.
Every day at around 5:00 pm, I would join other hotel guests for drinks on the patio or ice cream near the central square, where there was a picture-perfect Catholic church (Croatia is predominantly Catholic). We would stroll the pier or just sit on the benches by the water waiting for the main event of the day – the last ferry boat from Sibenik, bringing people and goods. At the same time, the boats would be coming back to moor – often against a backdrop of a magnificent sunset – and the local konobas on the pier would start filling up with dinner guests. That was rush hour in Prvic.