In a country famous for its dazzling coastline, Croatia's inland capital has been sneaking under the tourist radar for decades. With a new airport terminal opened in March 2017 and exciting new cultural developments bolstering its long-cherished historic and natural charms, now's the time to discover the delights of Zagreb.
Stroll through the historic Upper Town
The city’s oldest district, Zagreb’s beautiful Upper Town sits on two small hills, between which Tkalčićeva street (once a river) meanders. Both hills are encircled by sturdy Renaissance-era walls, built to withstand an Ottoman invasion that never transpired. Kaptol, the eastern hill, was the old town’s ecclesiastical centre, clustered around the city’s elegant neo-Gothic cathedral. To the west, Gradec is crammed with pastel-shaded baroque palaces, once home to the city’s nobility.
To arrive in Gradec in style, take the mini funicular railway (at just 66 metres long, the shortest in the world) from Tomićeva street. You’ll arrive on Strossmayer promenade at the base of Lotrščak Tower, both of which offer panoramic views of the Lower Town. The best time to visit is midday, when a small but thunderous cannon is fired from the top window of the tower. At the heart of Gradec, Croatia’s neoclassical parliament and baroque presidential palace face each other across St Mark’s square. The pretty 13th-century church in the centre of the square is one of the city’s great icons, its colourful roof tiled with the emblem of Zagreb and the coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia.
Find comfort at the Museum of Broken Relationships
It is a strange feeling to walk into a museum and be confronted not by artworks or historic treasures, but ordinary everyday objects: a stiletto shoe, a toaster, a squeaky dog toy. At the endlessly fascinating Museum of Broken Relationships each seemingly mundane item provides an insight into an emotionally charged moment when someone’s dreams were shattered.
Originally a creative art project initiated by two Zagreb-based artists after they broke up, the exhibition toured the world for several years before finally becoming Zagreb’s most unusual museum in 2010. All kinds of relationships are represented, from whirlwind teen romances to marriages, and each object is accompanied by an anonymous story from its donor, some profound, some banal, some humorous: 'His dog left more traces behind than he did'.
Taste local produce, fresh from the market
Dolac Market is where locals come to buy fresh produce. The open-air fruit-and-veg market is impossibly picturesque, with views of the cathedral spires providing the perfect backdrop to rows and rows of mouth-wateringly colourful lemons, peppers and radishes. The meat and dairy market (downstairs) and fish market (adjacent) buzz with the voices of dozens of grandmothers negotiating the best possible price.
Buy yourself some fruit or pastries and sit down at one of the cafes surrounding the market. As long as you buy a drink it’s fine to eat your food in the sunshine and enjoy the lively atmosphere. For the chance to meet some local farmers and taste their produce, check whether Mali Plac s Tavana is on during your visit. The ‘little market’ originally started as a gathering of local organic food producers in its founder’s attic, before becoming a Zagreb institution.
If you want to taste delicious, inventive dishes made from ingredients bought at Dolac Market, nab a table at Pod Gričkim Topom (restoran-pod-grickim-topom.hr), a lovely laid-back restaurant on the edge of the Upper Town, with expansive views over the city.
Sip craft beer and creative cocktails in the backstreets
Croatia’s capital comes alive at night, when its streets and squares turn into a huge open-air party. Much of the action centres on pedestrianised Tkalčićeva street, which resembles a beach-resort strip, with outdoor tables and a buzzy atmosphere. There’s plenty of fun to be had right here, but if you want to find the real gems of Zagreb’s drinking scene you’ll have to dig a bit deeper.
Beer drinkers will be in their element at Craft Room, just one street over from Tkalčićeva, which offers a huge selection of high-quality locally brewed craft beers starting at the bargain price of just €2–3 for half a litre. For something a bit more traditional, head for Pivnica Medvedgrad beer hall and sup one of their five house-brewed beers in the pretty courtyard.
Wine lovers should seek out Bornstein – Yugoslavia’s oldest wine shop – and sample some of the outstanding selection of Croatian wines in their atmospheric cellar wine bar. For cocktails, ask one of the talented staff at the elegant Dežman Bar to furnish you with one of their extraordinarily well-balanced and sophisticated creations.
Join in with a year-round celebration
The chances are that whatever time of year you visit Zagreb some kind of festival will be enlivening the city’s streets. Summer in particular is a riot of raucous events, enthusiastically embraced by the city’s inhabitants. Highlights include Cest is D’Best in early June, which brings hundreds of street performers to the city, and Courtyards festival in July, which opens several private Upper Town courtyards to the public for concerts and general merrymaking.
Autumn and spring are packed with numerous film, theatre, puppetry and music festivals, with new events cropping up each year, such as March 2017’s inaugural Festival of Lights. And in winter Advent in Zagreb brings a large open-air ice rink in King Tomislav square, plenty of festive performances and Christmas markets that have been named the best in Europe for the last three years running.
Escape to the city’s mountain, lake or leafy squares
Its location in the foothills of the Medvednica mountain range makes Zagreb a great place to visit if you love the outdoors. At weekends, locals tackle the 2-3 hour hike up the heavily wooded mountain to the north of their city and enjoy the beautiful views of the city from the top. It’s easy for visitors to join them – just take tram 14 to its last stop, then change onto tram 15 and head through the tunnel at the end of the line. Soon you’ll be hiking up through the forest, accompanied by a soundtrack of birdsong.
Even if hiking up a mountain isn’t your thing, Zagreb has green spaces to suit every taste and interest. Zagreb’s Lower Town is beautifully leafy thanks to seven interconnected squares and a botanical garden that form a ‘green horseshoe’, the ideal place to take a break on a hot summer’s day. When temperatures really soar the place to be is glistening Lake Jarun, southwest of the city, where swimmers and rowers glide through the water, whilst sunbathers, cyclists and inline skaters enjoy the beaches and paths that encircle it.
See the city through the eyes of its street artists
A great way to get under the skin of the city and explore its vibrant creativity is through its street art. Probably Zagreb’s most prominent street artist is Lonac, whose name means ‘cooking pot’. He spray-paints large photo-realistic murals, often using buildings not just as a canvas, but as part of his composition, so that an air-conditioning vent becomes a snorkel, for example. Also well-regarded is OKO (meaning ‘eye’), who painted a large mural on the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015. Perhaps unsurprisingly eyes form an important motif in her paintings, as do black-and-white figures dressed in old-fashioned clothes with animals’ heads that represent spiritual guardians.
Two other Zagreb-based street artists, Bare and Modul, have teamed up to create the Lapo Lapo Street Art Studio shop in central Zagreb, as well as converting an area of derelict land in the Upper Town into a community focused Art Park. If you keep your eyes peeled you’re bound to spot pieces by these and many other artists as you wander the Upper and Lower towns, but if you want to specifically seek out street art, the best places to go are the Student Centre, southwest of the centre and Branimir street, to the southeast, each of which have dozens of murals.
Anna Tyler travelled to Zagreb with support from the Croatian National Tourist Office. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.