Little did we know how Zagreb would surprise and delight us.
After a brief sojourn in Hungary, we met up with friends who had Croatia on their itinerary, which suited us perfectly. Now I’ve heard so much about this country for its coastline and stunning islands, although never actually visited myself. So perhaps you could forgive me for not knowing the capital city of this former Yugoslavian state.
One of the many things I love about travel is how it broadens not only my soul, it expands my mind and teaches me so many things I didn’t know about culture, countries and their traditions. So my Croatian education was about to begin with a little dalliance into its capital city, Zagreb.
Unfortunately due to weather conditions in the area, our visit was only too brief; with floods, cyclones and torrential rain, lengthening our trip in Croatia didn’t seem like the greatest of ideas. So Zagreb became a pit-stop for us and a short excursion into the city was on the cards. Little did we know how it would surprise and delight us.
In this 24hr Guide to Zagreb, we share our heart-warming experiences of this vibrant, fresh and intriguing capital that is understated and simply not on enough people’s travel itineraries.
Zagreb’s eclectic mix
Let me create a visual jigsaw that we can fuse together for a Zagreb masterpiece! Imagine an eclectic mix of parks and greenery, rivers, ancient buildings, modern architecture, state of the art tram system, café culture, historical legends, outdoor market, mountain backdrops and you pretty much have the key components of Zagreb. Add to that a mixture of youthful exuberance from its student population, almost as many bicycles as Amsterdam, colourful roofs and a whole host of museums to see, you can start to feel its essence and vibe.
Zagreb was only made Croatia’s capital in 1945, although the city itself actually dates back to Roman times. Through its turbulent history Zagreb has made it to the leaderboard of Croatian cities and is today the seat of the country’s parliament. So don’t be surprised if during your time visiting the city you see a caravan of State Police escorting some nobility or dignitaries through the streets.
The first thing that captures your attention as you enter the city is its clean, smog-free highways, lined with trees, the Sava river, luscious parks and statues and fountains. No wall-to-wall traffic jams or hooting cars, just a gentle throb of trams and vehicles sedately going about their business with the mindset of a township rather than a capital city. It already feels like a great place to be and you’ve not even hit the main centre yet. What a refreshing introduction that is.
Walking past the impressive looking railway station, you almost feel as if you have entered through an invisible gateway that sucks you into the heart of the city. Highways are replaced by gardens, monuments and Austro-Hungarian designed museums and the cars have been swapped for trams that effortlessly glide through the capital’s streets.
Magnetised towards the old town and the history that it harbours, the walk through the tenderly cared for gardens make you forget that you’re in a major city and you instantly feel a relaxed air washing over you. How perfectly this prepares you for the buzz of the central plaza.
Ban Jelačić Square has you aghast with its neck-craning hotels and traditional buildings that somehow seem to blend so well and you feel caught up in indecision as you consider which way to turn. The traditional brown tourist signposts don’t really offer any help, as they reveal a plethora of attractions to check out, you are seriously spoilt for choice. Whether you love museums, art, music or history, this compact city has it all. Iliac Street is your main shopping avenue, which is strewn with a whole range of boutiques and branded shops. If you love shopping, this is the street for you.
Although for your 24hrs in Zagreb, to get an all-round feel for this wonderful city, why not get a panoramic perspective. You have two options:
The Observation Tower is on the main Plaza and costs €8 each to climb to Floor 16 of a modern office block. Or you can go walk 500m further down the road and take the charming vernacular which is thought to be the smallest in Europe. This, or the steps if you feel fit, will take you up to the old town known as Gradec where you get get lost in the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Museum of Torture and the 13th Century Fortress – Lotrščak Tower. For €2 you get to climb this ancient tower, built to guard the southern gate of the Gradec old town and see the old cannon, which to this day is still fired to mark midday.
Personally the Tower had a more authentic feel for me as you swapped the modern lifts of the Observation Tower for the stone steps where you feel like you are treading the same footprints as the ghosts of a bygone era. The views from here are quite incredible as you glance north towards the unique mosaic roof of St Mark’s Church and south back towards the modern skyline.
From here you are perfectly positioned to walk the streets of this medieval part of town, still beautifully intact and take in the delights of St Mark’s church. With the oldest coat of arms in the city and its Gothic feel, you can only gaze in amazement at the mosaic tiles forming the Zagreb flag.
Not more than 200m to your right you soon reach yet another gate of these ancient walls, the Stone Gate. This sacred site where local townspeople would light candles and pray is still upheld today and despite a number of fires in its history, a painting of the Virgin Mary still remains in tact.
Whilst on your brief sojourn through Zagreb, you cannot miss a walk down Tkalčićeva Street. In ancient times, the street used to be a creek which formed the basis for a thriving watermill industry of soap, paper, liquor and cloth. Sadly none of the mills remain, just a cobbled street paves the way, as you retrace the flow of water that made Zagreb such a thriving industrial centre. Today the street has a more café culture, with bistros and restaurants framed by multi-colourful facades. Listen for long enough and you may just hear the gentle sound of trickling water or is that just your beer?
Heading south on Tkalčićeva Street, you’ll be distracted not only by the amazing old buildings and street art, you’ll also be intrigued by Skalinska Street. A narrow lane that climbs steeply towards the alluring vision of the Cathedral. It is filled, wall to wall with umbrella covered tables where eager clients wait to sample Croatian fare. The buzz of this tiny lane is amazing and you feel as you walk up the tiny pavement as though you’re in a scene from Alice in Wonderland and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Walk slowly and soak up the atmosphere, which is almost palpable.
At the top of the street you suddenly emerge from the rabbit warren lane into the open air and a square that is filled with the vibrance of market stalls. Welcome to the daily Dolac Market which has been thriving since 1926. Bright red umbrellas give you the first indication of something exciting happening and then the gentle buzz of locals zipping in-between the hundreds of Farmers’ Stalls that offer you traditional and local products. This is the most popular and most visited market in Zagreb and it is unmistakable with its canvas painting backdrop of the Jalačić Square and the old town’s Cathedral. Imagine a handful of fresh figs in August plucked from the trees only that morning or the enticing appeal of home-made honeys and jams. Fresh fruit in a rainbow of colours calling to you to buy and a plethora of vegetables in every shape and size, just ready to convert you away from meat.
From the hum of the market, walking down the steps brings you back to centre stage and a turn to your right will take you towards the 11th century cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. This beautiful Roman Catholic building hosts two claims to fame; first is its height – the tallest building in Croatia and second is that the cathedral is the most monumental sacral, Gothic building south east of the Alps. It has survived Mongol invasions, Ottoman attacks and earthquakes; hence it has had to evolve in its thousand year history and still maintains its rightful lofty status amongst the city’s stunning architectural prowess, proudly rising above the city’s roof tops for all of Croatia to see. Spending time just wandering around these streets and the park will give you a chance to reflect back on lives of those who called this city home and those who defended it to the hilt. Just sit quietly to hear the echoes of their voices and the sounds of ancient times.
And of course, to round off your 24hrs in Zagreb, undoubtedly a night visit must be on the list. Although we didn’t get a chance to, you could easily imagine how these magnificent buildings, parks and fountains would light up once darkness fell. I think nighttime offers a completely different perspective on a place and an alternative vibe that goes beyond the clubs and restaurants.
Zagreb is an incredible city and unlike some of its western European cousins, it gifts to the visitor an intimate city rich in architecture, culture and colour. It appeals to every sense and seriously piques your curiosity. Whilst the coast might well calling you, take a diversion to this capital city and be enthralled by its treasure.