The waterfront town beat bigger, more cosmopolitan destinations like Paris, Rome and Madrid to take the top spot and garnered about 57,600 of 289,000 online votes.
Over three weeks, the public was invited to cast their choice in an online poll on the best destinations in Europe. Voters from 179 countries cast their ballots, favoring smaller, quieter, and sun-soaked destinations over perennial favorites.
Rounding out the top five spots are Athens; Plovdiv, Bulgaria; Nantes, France; and Azores, Portugal.
Though not a household name, Zadar's win could help poach a bit of the spotlight monopolized by neighbors Dubrovnik and Split, two of the more popular seaside destinations in Croatia along the Dalmatian coast.
In Zadar, ancient Roman ruins, cobblestone streets, medieval churches and ramparts whisk travelers back in time.
Not far from the town, tourists can visit the world's smallest cathedral -- the Church of the Holy Cross in Nin -- and also travel to nearby national parks that offer climbing, trekking and swimming activities in some of the most dramatic locations along the Adriatic Sea: olive groves, white Dalmatia stone, and crystal blue waters.
During a spring visit to the town in 1964, writer Alfred Hitchcock called Zadar's sunsets the most beautiful in the world.
Brussels-based “European Best Destinations” is responsible for the promotion of culture and tourism in Europe.
Here are the top 10 European destinations of 2016 according to the online poll:
1. Zadar, Croatia
2. Athens, Greece
3. Plovdiv, Bulgaria
4. Nantes, France
5. Azores, Portugal
6. Paris, France
7. Novi Sad, Serbia
8. Brussels, Belgium
9. Kotor, Montenegro
10. Milan, Italy