Croatia /

Šibenik C’est Chic

Few destinations on the Adriatic have reinvented themselves so thoroughly as the central Dalmatian city of Šibenik.

When it comes to telling the story of the Croatian Adriatic, Šibenik has leapfrogged the glam-pot destination of Dubrovnik, whose resolutely old-school museums come over all frumpy in comparison.

In many ways Šibenik is the biggest surprise package on the coast, a former B-list destination that is now confidently rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dubrovnik, Hvar and Split. Main spur to Šibenik’s ascent has been investment in its historical and cultural attractions, with the restoration of its four fortresses providing most of the headlines.

The only thing that’s strange about Šibenik is why it ever got left behind in the first place. Blessed with a UNESCO-listed cathedral and a warren of medieval streets, it would be a mistake to think of it as some kind of ugly duckling. However Šibenik was up until the 1990s also a metalworking town in which tourism was never considered a strategic priority. Šibenik entered the new century with a stagnant economy, one ageing hotel, and an unenviable reputation for post-industrial gloom. The package resort of Solaris was only 6km away, but played little role in the life of the town, attracting the kind of guests who were happy to stay on the beach.

Suddenly, Šibenik has become the kind of place from which it’s hard to pull yourself away. Recent years have seen the emergence of a cluster of new attractions, each of which brings out something unique about the city. Very much the poster-boy of the city’s revival, St Michael’s Fortress (Tvrđava svetog Mihovila) was reopened in 2014 and quickly established itself as one of the most popular visitor attractions on the Adriatic. The Barone Fortress with its sweeping coastal views and an augmented reality-aided museum of sixteenth-century life, was reopened in 2016. The Faust Vrančić Memorial Centre on the nearby island of Prvić (dedicated to Šibenik-born Renaissance humanist Vrančić; opened in 2012) is one of the few museums that celebrates the Adriatic Renaissance in an entertaining and inspiring way. Already well established, the Medieval Garden of St Lawrence’s Monastery (opened in 2007) is an exemplary horticultural attraction in a country that has tons of historical gardens but doesn’t know how to use them.

When it comes to telling the story of the Croatian Adriatic, Šibenik has leapfrogged the glam-pot destination of Dubrovnik, whose resolutely old-school museums come over all frumpy in comparison.

Fortress Šibenik

The ongoing redevelopment of Šibenik’s fortresses is a story in itself. The restoration of St Michael’s Fortress, complete with the construction of a 1077-capacity concert venue featuring several terraces of audience seating, cost in excess of E1.6 million, 60% of which was provided by the European Union. Completed in 2014, the fortress immediately added a new dimension to the city’s status as a festival destination, hosting bands as diverse as The National and Nouvelle Vague as well as classical music, jazz and children’s performances.

St Michael’s Fortress

Most importantly the fortress was a big hit with tourists, attracting 115,000 in its first six months of opening (the pre-renovation figures were around 20,000-30,000 per year). Healthy ticket sales have eased fears about St Michael’s long-term sustainability, demonstrating to locals that the city’s fortress-restoration programme is no mere pie in the sky.

Equally ambitious was the transformation of Barone Fortress (also known as Šubićevac), whose jutting grey bastions now play host to an interactive, audiovisual display showing what fortress life was like for the seventeenth-century soldier. A short distance west of the Barone Fortress, the St John Fortress has been earmarked as the next stage in Šibenik’s ongoing makeover, the future site of a ‘children’s fortress’ which will feature interactive attractions and play areas that stress green technologies and ecological sustainability.

Arguably the most stunning of Šibenik’s fortresses is that of St Nicholas (Tvrđava svetog Nikole), the beautifully-proportioned Venetian sea-castle that stands at the entrance to St Anthony’s Channel, the narrow waterway that connects the bay of Šibenik with the open sea. St Nicholas is the furthest of the fortresses from central Šibenik and also the most challenging in terms of viable future restoration plans. However its beautiful maritime position makes it the ideal target for a coastal walk or cycle ride, and there is really no excuse not to make the effort to visit. The St Anthony’s Channel Walkway, opened in 2013, runs along the eastern shore of the channel and provides a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the fortress in its geographic context. The fortress itself, reached via curving wooden boardwalk followed by rough stone causeway, is every bit as dramatic as the pictures suggest.

St Nicholas Fortress

Hitherto never much more than a day-trip city, Šibenik has suddenly become a fashionable place to stay, thanks largely to D-Resort hotel, a curvy glass whale of a building designed by Nikola Bašić - creator of Zadar’s famous Sea Organ. Rivalling it in the comfort stakes is the boutiqueish charm of the Hotel Life Palace located in a restored Old-Town villa. Konoba Pelegrini, the innovative-but-traditional restaurant opposite Šibenik Cathedral, has been voted best restaurant in Croatia by national gastro-experts for two years running.


Arguably the place that best symbolizes Šibenik’s changing fortunes is Vino & Ino, the wine-and-much-else-besides bar that hugs the side of on an Old-Town piazza overlooked by St John’s Church. The drinks list charts the rise of the Šibenik region’s boutique wine producers and pays deserved homage to the Croatian craft beer scene – including Šibenski učenik (a craft brew produced by a Šibenik student in Zagreb) on tap. Adoring Vino & Ino’s interior are murals by Zagreb street artist OKO, inspired by the Šibenik witch trial s of 1444 - when Mrna Ratkova and her daughter Dorota were accused of seducing men by magical means.

The one potential blot on Šibenik’s copybook is its ambiguous relationship with the kind of cultural events that might boost visitors even further. It was after all the inception of the Terraneo festival in 2011 that kick-started the change in popular perceptions of Šibenik as the Adriatic’s dark horse. Terraneo was something of a Croatia-wide sensation in its first three years, when Šibenik became Zagreb-on-Sea, hipster central, the city that bucked the trend of Adriatic cultural conservatism. However the festival was suspended after 2013 (although a much more limited concert season entitled Terraneo Summer Break kept going for a couple of years). Super Uho, launched by Terraneo co-founder Mate Škugor, helped to keep the flag flying for alternative culture in Šibenik in 2014 and 2015, but is moving down the coast to Primošten in 2016.

Illustrating the potential clash between counter-culture and conservative interests is Azimut (/, the boho bar that took over the ground floor of the city’s medieval water cistern, right below the western façade of the city’s cathedral. Azimut used to have a summer-long season of concerts on an outdoor stage; in 2014 the bar’s closure was sought by cathedral authorities who objected to the crowds of nocturnal revelers milling around in close proximity to their sacred building. Popular protests in support of Azimut caught the national imagination, and the bar lives on, albeit without the outdoor stage that caused all the trouble.

One major development in 2016 was the emergence of Obonjan, “Europe’s first dedicated arts and wellbeing island”, as a self-contained dance, detox and find-the-real-you resort. Hitherto known as the island of youth, Obonjan used to offer inexpensive holiday-camp vacations to children from all over Croatia, and its re-launch as a resort for well-heeled foreigners has not been welcomed by everyone.

Keeping the flag flying for Šibenik as an inclusive, everyone-is-welcome festival destination is Deboto (18-21 August), a four-day celebration of cutting-edge DJ music and contemporary jazz that will use the city’s trademark fortresses to atmospheric effect.

Šibenik, it seems, is a story still very much in the making.

© Jonathan Bousfield