Safely protected from the northern Adriatic shore and continental Croatia by the imposing Velebit Mountain, northern Dalmatia offers a whole new set of aesthetic and cultural values. The islands get smaller and more abundant and the architecture, which varies between Roman, Venetian, socialist and modern influences, still carries the elegance of locally quarried limestone. Make Zadar, a fast-growing historical city, the focal point of your sojourn, but do not overlook Nin and the islands, especially Kornati and Telašćica. Admirers of intact, rough nature will revel in the Paklenica National Park.
Where exactly does Northern Dalmatia begin? Zadar may be the region's cultural and urban capital—it is, after all, the first sizable city you encounter in Dalmatia on your way south from Zagreb or Rijeka—but it is not where the region begins, either culturally or geographically. Look instead to the southern reaches of Velebit Mountain, where that coastal range gives way to the flat, sandy coastline of Nin and environs. Practically speaking, though, you enter Dalmatia proper when you cross the long, bright-red span of the Maslenica Bridge going south on the route from Zagreb to Zadar.
Though it's easy enough to drive on straight to Zadar, you won't regret stopping for a visit in Nin. While today it's an unassuming little town with well-preserved 17th-century architecture, more than 1,000 years ago—and for centuries afterward—it was one of the most important Croatian towns of all.
Much of the region is not on the mainland at all but rather comprises the Zadar archipelago, including Pag Island, and, farther south, the Adriatic's largest archipelago, Kornati National Park. Farther inland, only miles from the coast, is a sweeping expanse of countryside still visibly recovering from the Yugoslav war of the 1990s, where tourists rarely tread. Benkovac, the region's center, is home to an imposing 16th-century fort; nearby are the massive ruins of the ancient city of Asseria. Zadar itself, with its mix of Roman, Venetian, communist-era, and modern architecture, has a bustling and beautiful historic center and is also the main point of access by ferry to the islands, which include the beautiful Telašćica Nature Park.