Šibenik is not one of those places that people mention when listing ‘must see’ destinations in Croatia. Mostly I’d heard about people stopping briefly to see the UNESCO listed cathedral when heading north from Split. But it made a convenient stop over between Zadar and Split and the photos I’d seen made me feel it might be worth it. So since expectations were not that high they were easily met and surpassed. While Šibenik doesn’t quite rank up there with Split or Dubrovnik, I think it is just as impressive as the more popular towns of Trogir and Zadar.
We took a bus from Zadar, having dropped off the car when we arrived there. We had one night, so again, about 24 hours. And like Zadar, I felt that was just about right. I'm glad I saw it in the evening and the morning and had time to explore the town and not just see the Cathedral, but you don't really need more than 24 hours. We stayed at another "room" found on booking.com (€72 night/double). Almost impossible to find, even with google maps, but once we did it was very comfortable. Palace Rialto Rooms. An old building, right in the center of the old town, with a collection of several ensuite rooms. In this case we never saw the 'host', they texted us a code which was used to gain entry.
Šibenik, population 34,000, offers a change of pace from Dalmatia’s strong Italianate influences since its origins are pure Croatian rather than Roman. Šibenik’s old town is described as a typical Mediterranean medieval city, with a collection of churches, noble palaces, and centuries old Dalmatian stone houses separated by narrow alleyways. The old town is very well preserved and totally charming.
The old town is not very large but it’s full of stone streets – narrow, winding and many stepped, lined with stone buildings. Many of the buildings have beautiful detailing, statues, plaques, stone carvings. Lots of tiny churches tucked away. Small squares all over the place. The waterfront has a nice wide riva with restaurants on one side, boats on the other.
But Šibenik is mostly known for the Cathedral of St. James (Katedrala Sv Jakova), a UNESCO World Heritage site built by the Venetians in the 15th and 16th centuries and is made entirely out of stone. In fact it is the only European cathedral constructed using only stone. The exterior of the cathedral is magnificent and the centerpiece of one of the most beautiful squares in Croatia. Across the square lies City Hall (Gradska vijecnica), a 16th century Renaissance building that looks like it was transplanted from Venice. Both the cathedral and the square were settings for Game of Thrones.
The other main ‘sites’ are the fortresses. There are actually 4 of them but a couple are a ways out of town. The main one, St Michael's, sits right above the old town and can be seen from below. Concerts are held there in summer so it’s filled with modern seats. St Nichola's Fortress, a little out of town, is also a site of major importance, protecting the area from invasion after its construction in 1525 and is being listed as a UNESCO site along with the cathedral.
Past the main part of town, the riva becomes a tad shabby, the boats are just small fishing boats and ‘local’ pleasure craft. But continue far enough and around the bend and the view back to the town spilling down the hill from the fortress is amazing.
The only real negatives about both Zadar and, to a lesser extent, Sibenik (and probably the reason they aren’t higher up on the ‘tourist’ trail) – is they haven’t done a good job integrating the modern with the old. Within feet of the Roman Forum in Zadar or the UNESCO cathedral in Sibenik you see ugly 1950s style apartment buildings in not very good shape. You can walk around the old towns and find ugly buildings within steps of a church built over a thousand years ago. Makes the ambiance less than it could be. It seems a lot of other places in Europe have done a better job of preserving historic centers.