Disguised within this promenade, what looks like a stairwell is actually a musical instrument—and a work of art.
Question: Where in the world does an ocean promenade literally sing to you, but never the same song twice?
Answer: The Sea Organ of Zadar, Croatia
Depending on your angle, when you approach the western end of the Riva promenade in Zadar, Croatia, the stonework appears to become stairs, or concert bleachers, or even a set of harmonicas. The pale stone slabs descend into the water and continue out of sight. They run almost 230 feet long but it’s what you can’t see that makes them not just fascinating, but somewhat magical.
Beneath the water and under the slabs are 35 pipes of different lengths and thicknesses, featuring whistles that can play five tones in an array of seven chords. As the tide comes in and out, sending more or less water and air into the pipes, they react like the pipes in any organ: they blow audible notes.
The sea organ was a team effort. One of Croatia’s best known architects, Nikola Bašić, designed the concept, but it took a hydraulics engineer to figure out how to fit it into the sea wall, along with an organ pipe-maker to craft the pipes, and a professional organ tuner (who had never worked underwater before) to guarantee that it would actually yield sound at all. In its 2005 debut, it instantly became the prize attraction of the city, and it won the European Prize for Urban Public Space the next year.
While international visitors are now beginning to discover the sea organ, what keeps locals coming back to linger here as a leisure spot is that it is never the same visit twice. Because the shifting sea itself determines the length, strength, and combination of notes, there is no predictable melody, only an enigmatically spectral and ever-changing song without end.
6 More Treasures of Zadar, Croatia
- St. Donatus Church: The 9th-century St. Donatus is notable for several reasons. Typically, Byzantine churches are not circular, as this one is. What’s more, most of the buildings from its era were burnt to the ground by invading Mongols 800 years ago, so the fact that it still stands (unusually shaped or not) is miraculous.
- Cathedral of St. Anastasia: The 13th century cathedral, nearly destroyed in World War II, is the largest in all of Dalmatia, and the interior is elaborately adorned. But its real claim to fame is the marble sarcophagus containing the relics of St. Anastasia—which is complicated because there were two Anastasias, one burned and one beheaded, and no one can say for sure which one’s remains are supposedly interred here.
- The Sun Salutation (Greeting to the Sun): Just down the Riva from the Sea Organ, Bašić has installed a second artwork, a shining disc of 300 glass plates. Solar modules beneath the glass collect light all day and then reflect vivid color as the evening sky darkens, looking like a disco floor powered only by Mother Nature.
- The Gold & Silver of Zadar: This collection of precious metal artifacts was established by a Croatian writer in the 1950’s to show off the stunning beauty of centuries of his nation’s craftsmanship. Housed in the Church of St. Mary, it has since been re-named the Permanent Exhibit for Religious Art, but locals still call it by its original name: it’s not the faith but the flash they’re coming to see.
- The Ancient Glass Museum: A feast for the eyes, the best collection of Roman glassware outside of Italy is housed here in a 19th-century palace, and the colors are still jaw-droppingly vivid. From elegant make-up jars used by society ladies to the drinking flasks of Roman senators, the collection is a fascinating window into ancient life.
- Maraschino cherries: Granted, these aren’t landmarks per se, but they’re certainly icons here. The Marasca sour cherries grown outside Zadar put the city on the culinary map centuries ago, and were first mentioned in print in 1399. Distilled into an elixir known as “sun dew” in the 15th century, maraschino liqueur won fans from Napoleon to Queen Victoria, who once sent a fleet of ships to pick up an order. Better still, they’re a treasure of Zadar you can carry home in your luggage, not just your memory.
Discover Cruising the Adriatic: Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina and you’ll witness all the charms of Zadar and its Croatian counterparts. Explore Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast with travel expert, Rudy Maxa, in this film.
Produced by Small World Productions