The region known as Upper Dalmatia, lying between Kvarner and Lower Dalmatia, with Zadar as its main city, is a collection of contradictions: The cities and sites are among some of Croatia’s most accessible and enchanting, but the region is also home to what is arguably some of the most forbidding and barren terrain in the world. Still, there is something for everyone in this gateway to Croatia’s glorious coast, whether your interests tend toward climbing the rugged peaks of the challenging Velebit mountain range, sailing the deep blue Adriatic to explore the uninhabited rocky islets of the Kornati, or listening to classical music at the medieval Church of St. Donat in Zadar.

All roads to and from Upper Dalmatia seem to go through Zadar, the largest city on the region’s coastal highway. In many ways, Zadar’s mix of monuments and commerce, of ancient history and contemporary nightlife, make it one of Croatia’s most cosmopolitan centers.

From Zadar, you can visit the arid rocky island of Pag, known for its delicious Paški sir (a sheep’s milk cheese similar to Parmesan), and the all-night summer parties hosted on Zrće beach in Novalja.

South of Zadar, the coastal city of Šibenik is home to a splendid UNESCO-listed cathedral, and from here you can make day trips to the waterfalls of Krka National Park and the islands of Kornati National Park.