At the mouth of the Krka River in central Dalmatia lies the old city of Šibenik, the only coastal city in Croatia that was built by Croats.
Generally speaking, Šibenik doesn’t exactly occupy a prominent spot on the map of popular tourist destinations in Croatia. In this post, I’m going to tell you why it should. Hopefully, I can even spark your interest in visiting this great Croatian city.
You Only Need Two Reasons to Visit Šibenik
Unassuming at first sight, Šibenik is sure to surprise any visitor to the city. I have to admit that, before we paid a visit to the city on our Mediterranean road trip, I didn’t know anything about it. To make sure that doesn’t happen to you guys and that you arrive with some ideas about what to expect, I want to offer some useful info in this post.
In the city’s golden age (see the bottom of this post for more about the history of Šibenik), the city’s main architectural landmark was built, the imposing Cathedral of St. James. Constructed between 1431 and 1536, this huge cathedral is a testimony to the building skills of Šibenik’s architects, a monumental structure that is of such cultural and historical significance that it has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The Cathedral of St. James is unique in the world. It is the only monument of this type that is constructed completely out of stone—a building that couldn’t be more typical of Šibenik, which consists of only stone buildings and squares, is built on a steep rocky coast and is protected by stone walls.
The entire building is built with perfectly carved stones using a method known as dry assembly. No mortar was used. Additionally, the cathedral is characterized by a perfect geometric perspective, at the time of its construction the first time that had ever been done in European architecture.
Across the square from the cathedral stands the Renaissance Town Hall, another historical highlight in the city. This harmonious 16th-century building features rows of columns and a balcony, and is home to the town council and an exquisite ground-floor restaurant, Restaurant Gradska vijećnica.
Another important historic attraction in the city is the mighty St. Michael’s Fortress with its top-floor concert venue.
Further reading: Split is Full of Surprises
All these architectural landmarks are connected with one another via ancient cobbled streets and countless stairways—stone is everywhere in this city. Make sure to visit the three above-mentioned attractions (the Cathedral of St. James, the Town Hall and St. Michael’s Fortress) and spend the rest of your time simply strolling the medieval maze of streets that is the historic core of Šibenik.
This is a city to explore on foot.
Urban Parks and National Parks
Šibenik is also home to a few wonderful small urban parks. Although most of the medieval heart of the city is made of stone, you will occasionally stumble upon pockets of green when wandering around.
Further reading: The Sheer Beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park
In addition to boasting historic buildings, walkable streets and cozy parks, Šibenik is blessed with a superb location. Situated on the coast of central Dalmatia, it lies relatively close to cities such as Zadar and Split, but, more interestingly, also near two gorgeous national parks.
Kornati National Park comprises 89 of the 152 islands in the Kornati archipelago, the densest group of islands in the Adriatic Sea. These rugged, wind-blasted, salt-covered and sun-dried islands are, surprisingly, a paradise of biodiversity—many unique species have adapted to these harsh conditions, the very reason the islands were declared a national park. The islands’ star attractions are their famous so-called “Kornati crowns,” steep tectonic cliffs that rise steeply out of the seabed up to heights of more than 80 meters (260 feet).
The other national park near Šibenik is Krka National Park, named after the river that bisects it. This spectacular park protects seven waterfalls on the Krka River and the surrounding forests, as well as the fauna and flora that inhabit them. It also protects a few important historic sites, including a hydro-electric power plant that was finished only a few months after the world’s first similar plant was built on Niagara Falls by Nikola Tesla, incidentally a man born in Croatia. Krka National Park’s one main attraction is the gorgeous Skradinski Buk waterfall, one of the tallest and most breathtaking waterfalls in the country.
I suggest spending two days in and around Šibenik; one to explore the old city center and its architectural landmarks, and one to visit one of the two national parks, Krka being the recommended one.
A Brief History of Šibenik
Unlike Croatia’s other coastal cities that date from antiquity and were built by the Illyrians, Greeks or Romans, Šibenik retraces its history to the Middle Ages. It was founded by the Croats at the turn of the 10th century after the great movement of people that happened in Eastern Europe around that time. It was that very movement that brought ethnic groups such as the present-day Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Bosniaks and Montenegrins to Southeastern Europe. Those peoples are now known as the South Slavs—Yugoslavia literally meant South Slavia.
Mentioned in documents for the first time in 1066, Šibenik extended slowly but gradually between the 11th and 15th centuries, which is when a construction boom made it a city to reckon with in the Adriatic.
The city’s golden age lasted from the 15th century until the mid-17th century, a period during which all wooden buildings were demolished and replaced by stone ones. Numerous churches were erected, streets and squares cleaned, the old medieval city walls restored and fortified, and additional fortresses were constructed around the city and in the bay. Almost all these stone structures still make up the cityscape of Šibenik today.
Caroline and I were guided around by Vanja, a representative of the Tourist Board County Šibenik-Knin. She also arranged accommodation for us at Apartments Kala and dinner at Restaurant Gradska vijećnica. I would like to thank both the Tourist Board County Šibenik-Knin and the Croatian National Tourist Board for encouraging us to visit Šibenik and showing us around. All opinions are my own, of course!
This article is also available as a smartphone app, allowing you to use it as a reference when visiting Šibenik. You can get the app right here!