While Dubrovnik and Split – Croatia’s de facto capitals – have had to adjust more than any others because of best-in-travel listings, overtourism and the cruise ship economy, Sibenik to the north has been able to avoid any stain on the city. So far, it retains the feeling of an outlier. It’s the Dalmatian coast as it once was.
In this respect, Sibenik’s majestic forts, Unesco-worthy cathedral and pedestrianised Old Town seem almost unique. Here, locals sip espresso, slurp ice cream, sit on steps and – more or less – master fjaka, the Dalmatian art of aspiring to do nothing. And that’s not mentioning the slow-motion pace of life in its cradle of islands beyond glimmering Sibenik Bay and St Anthony Channel.
In a way, it is as if the protected port city has absorbed energy over the centuries from its many overlords and invaders – Venetians and Greeks, Hungarians and Ottomans – and now decided it’s overdue time to sit back and relax. Indeed, Sibenik was founded by Croats more than one thousand years ago, making it the oldest native Croatian town on the Adriatic. You could say then, that its people have earned their right to fjaka more than most.
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What to do
Get lost in the Old Town
Begin at the triple nave Cathedral of St James, which bears witness to the cross-Adriatic exchange of architectural ideas between Italy and Croatia in the 15th and 16th centuries. Sibenik is the only city in the country with two Unesco marvels to shout about and the cathedral is its first; a holy house, but also an art and sculpture lesson writ in stone.
Like in many Croatian coastal cities, strolling from polished street to pedestrianised sunlit square is the only way to truly appreciate all the architectural pomp. So from the cathedral, climb past Gothic-Renaissance monuments to sea-view wine bars to art-filled stone churches as pretty as you’ll find anywhere.
Tour a fort (or two, or three, or four)
High points come thick and fast the higher through the Old Town’s inner streets you ascend. Among these is the medieval St Michael’s Fortress, a white stone bastion rising steeply, as if straight from the water like an Atlantis reborn.
From its battlements, the view towards the Krka River and the tight channel where it flows into the Adriatic is similar to that offered by the one to the rear: simply sublime. Behind are the equally marvellous St John’s Fortress and Barone Fortress, which afford higher perches from which to digest the city.
Further out at sea is yet another stronghold: St Nicholas’ Fortress and the city’s second Unesco sight. Anchored off the coast in St Anthony Channel and arrowhead in shape, it’s a defensive tour de force originally built to scare off Ottoman invaders.
Sail Sibenik’s archipelago
Imagine Hvar or Vis, but a decade or so ago. That’s the easy sell of an island-hopping safari to the lesser-visited Sibenik Archipelago, a knot of 249 cove-nibbled islands, only six of which are inhabited.
It would take years to see them all, but settle on a day trip to the uncrowded harbours of ridiculously handsome, Prvic and Zlarin, both creaky with history and overlooked by the throngs. Or, if you have the luxury of time, add Krapanj, Kaprije and Zirje to a multi-day itinerary.
For a memorable lunch or dinner, hop off the local ferry or drop anchor on a private charter at Zlarin for tuna and calamari cooked with flair and imagination at the wonderful Konoba Aldura, a traditional taverna in arms’ reach of nets, traps and Popeye-type fishermen.
Day trip to Krka National Park
Heading inland doesn’t mean wasting precious moments on the coast. Almost-secluded Krka National Park is one of Croatia’s finest – with the swelling summer crowds to prove it – and time here is well spent hiking through a wonderland of aquamarine waterfalls, riverine islands and karstic canyons. Come at the right time – straight after the park opens around 8am in summer, 9am in winter – and it feels a world away from the coach tour crush.
Above all, make time for the Old Town’s quiet with a wander. Seek out the Medieval Mediterranean Garden of St Lawrence Monastery, a hidden balcony of botanicals forgotten for 100 years before being rediscovered in the late 2000s (you’ll be surprised). Then head north along the Adriatic promenade between yachts and restaurants until reaching Banj Beach (you’ll appreciate a swim). It’s a fine strip of golden sand with old-fashioned taverna and bar, but also rewards with a terrific perspective of Sibenik’s higgeldy-piggeldy Old Town almost falling over itself into the water.
Where to stay
Below the ramparts on the waterfront, Amerun Heritage Hotels & Residences is for historical stone rooms with loggia views glimpsing the sardine-tight streets behind and shimmering blue out front. Hands down, it’s the most atmospheric boutique hotel in the Old Town, with two best-in-class restaurants (Buta and Bronzin) to try.
Doubles from £112, B&B; armerun.com
Sometimes you need more space and only a villa will do (preferably one with a pool too). These fit into the surrounding landscapes with minimal disruption – which can’t be said of many of the brutalist resort hotels between Split and Zadar – and there are hundreds available, from cosy-boltholes for two to sprawling, opulent houses for larger groups. Novasol offers a selection of handpicked villas across the Sibenik region and, for a longer stay, are superior to any hotel you might have in mind.
From £239pp for a seven-night stay; novasol.com
Where to eat and drink
For gourmands, there’s only one address: Pelegrini. The city’s first Michelin-starred restaurant is located on a cobblestoned stairway off Cathedral of St James square, and burrows into a series of historic buildings and unseen courtyards. The six-course tasting menu is mind-bending, with takes on veal and lamb, sea snails and urchins, but you might doubt your senses when looking at the price: it’s not cheap at €530 with wine pairings for two. Ask for a table overlooking the Cathedral.
Sibenik’s waterfront is chockablock with traditional restaurants, ice cream parlours and cocktail bars and it can be hard to know where to settle. All are reliable enough, though the consensus seems to be that for location, shoreline terrace, price and merry-go-round of fresh fish and shellfish, Peskarija consistently hits the mark.
After dark, St Michael’s Fortress has another face to it. The fort is maintained with a sense of purpose for cultural events and turns open-air auditorium in summer, when orchestras and pop stars like Bryan Ferry, Roisin Murphy and The National strut the stage under the stars.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Should I tip?
Ten per cent will do – though tipping is not expected in Croatia.
What’s the time difference?
What’s the average flight time from the UK?
Around 2hr 30m from London and 3hr 15m from Edinburgh to Split, which is 90 minutes’ drive to the south. Zadar is another gateway city, with flights taking 2hr 25m from London and 2hr 20m from Birmingham.
How should I get around?
What’s the best view?
All the shops, cafes, bars and streets strip away when taking the stairs and steep alleys to the ramparts of St Michael’s Fortress.
Not for the first time in the Adriatic, ice cream is on the menu. Despite the terrible name, nationwide chain aRoma gelato experience is a scoop shop of immense pedigree (spot the out-the-door queues on hot days), playing its part properly with a terrific selection of cone toppers. Dreamy flavours include almond with honey, sesame and fig, and mascarpone with date and walnut.
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