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Even just a couple of years ago, Sibenik offered little in the way of food, drink, and entertainment. That’s changing, though, and this gem of a town is quickly becoming a must-visit destination on any tour of the Croatian coast. It’s an easy jaunt from Split, it’s convenient to beautiful Krka National Park, and it’s home to Terraneo music festival.

On a recent trip to Sibenik, I fell hard for its Renaissance charm and a feeling of laid-back, cultured cool I picked up on throughout the city, from morning coffee to dinnertime desert with a view. Here’s my list of Sibenik highlights.

Jumpstart

A perfect day in Sibenik starts with – you guessed it – a great cup of coffee. It’s just a short walk from your apartment to Caffeteria Giro Espresso, which (and the locals will agree) brews the best cup in town. Giro’s baristas practice the art of Italian espresso making, and they’ve gained quite a bit of recognition on the espresso scene. Back in 2009, Tomislav Mrdeza was named the 29th best barista in the world, and this year, Toni Klisovic was a finalist in the Best Croatian Barista contest.

Giro claims a corner plot right at the intersection of Zagrebacka, Sibenik’s main pedestrian drag, and a smaller cobbled street filled with tables and chairs supporting perfectly put-together Sibencani and their freshly brewed beverages. Take a seat and order one of your own. Though you’ll find an array of flavored espresso drinks on the menu, it’s best to keep it simple.

Sunbathing at Banj Beach

Until recently, Sibenik didn’t have a beach within walking distance from the city center. That all changed this year, with the opening of Banj Beach, a waterside playscape complete with a volleyball court, a bar, and a pebble beach offering fantastic views of old town Sibenik.

Because Banj is on a brackish bay where the Krka River flows into the Adriatic, the water isn’t as clear or clean as what you might find on a proper coastal beach. Still, that doesn’t deter beach-goers from enjoying a refreshing dip. If you don’t feel like getting in, bring a book and enjoy the view.

Quick lunch

As you saunter back towards the city center, keep your eyes peeled for Sesula, a portside, hole-in-the-wall bar that serves up greasy, tasty fish. Simple and cheap, it’s perfect for a quick lunch and a beer before heading back into town.

Don’t expect much in the way of decor and ambiance, though. At this no-frills eatery you’ll find a couple of wooden tables and perhaps a view of sailboats rocking in the port. The menu is also basic, focused on fish, either fried or grilled. Ask what’s good, but you can’t go wrong with the tuna, if it’s available.

The Cathedral of Saint James

Time for some sightseeing. First stop: the crown jewel of Sibenik and one of Croatia’s seven UNESCO World Heritage SitesSt. James Cathedral. Built from 1431-1535, the cathedral blends Gothic and Renaissance architecture and demonstrates impressive technical know-how. To build the cathedral’s dome, celebrated architect Juraj Dalmatinac devised a system of overlaying stone tiles so that they fit together perfectly, eliminating the need for other building materials.

The entire structure is beautiful and worth a peek inside, but don’t forget to spend ample time circling the cathedral’s exterior, where a frieze of 71 sculpted faces of Sibenik’s Renaissance citizens wraps around the building. You’ll notice distinctive facial features and a fascinating range of hairstyles. These aren’t idealized, symbolic representations of religious figures or wealthy elite. Rather, they are highly individualized portraits of the locals who walked Sibenik’s stone streets centuries ago – a very unusual sculptural detail.

An afternoon pick-me-up

Time to tackle that climb to the fort crowing the hill above Sibenik. On your way, stop for an afternoon coffee at the Medieval Garden of St. Lawrence Monastery. Hidden in a courtyard on one of the stairways leading up through town, the small garden is a lush oasis of fig, pomegranate, and other fruit trees and flowering bushes, complete with its own cafe.

Grab a seat on the shaded terrace, beneath the tower of the adjoining St. Lawrence Monastery, and enjoy the garden view. This peaceful hideaway is great for catching up on a good read or on correspondence.

A climb and a view

After refueling, continue climbing to the fortress of St. Michael. Construction on the fort began as early as the 11th century and continued into the 1600s. Now, much of the fort is in ruins, but you can climb the towers and walls for stunning views of the Old Town and the Cathedral of St. James. On the way back down, take a moment to stroll through St. Ana’s Cemetery below the fort.

Dinner and a drink

For excellent food and a memorable atmosphere, look no further than Pelegrini. The restaurant occupies an old wine storage facility, along with a staircase-turned terrace overlooking St. James Cathedral and an intimate rear courtyard. You’d best make a reservation to snag a table with a view.

Everything is tasty here, but the mussels, cooked in a cider-bacon broth, shouldn’t be missed. Other especially tasty dishes? The chilled tomato soup and the lentils with tuna sausage. For dessert, try Pelegrini’s ice cream trio.

After dinner, take one more stroll through town – Sibenik is especially beautiful at night, by the soft glow of its characteristic streetlamps. Make your way back up Zagrebacka to Vino i Ino, a newer wine and “concept” shop, for a nightcap. Take a moment to appreciate the Renaissance details of the neighboring church – a delicate balustrade here, an intricately carved window there, and enjoy the sounds of Klapa sung in the courtyard nearby.

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