WHERE TO GO AND WHAT TO DO WHEN VISITING CROATIA’S CAPTIAL CITY, ZAGREB
As with many Americans, Croatia, even the Balkans, was simply not part of my image of Europe. I pictured Europe as a collection of French boulevards, London’s double-decker buses and Roman amphitheaters. Anything east of Venice or Berlin conjured up stereotypes of dull landscapes beyond the Iron Curtain. As a three-month resident of the ex-Yugoslav nation of Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, I can confirm that life here is far more nuanced than the typical image we have of the Balkans.
Architecturally, Zagreb, like much of ex-communist Europe, seems to swing between awe-inspiring churches, castles, and boulevards and behemoth apartment complexes and monuments erected by communist governments with a passion for concrete. Drive in from Zagreb’s Pleso International Airport and you’ll watch history peel itself back. Meticulously planned apartment blocks and community centers give way to lush parks, enlightenment-era monuments and cream colored stucco buildings. The capital’s principle architectural style comes from the Austrian Secessionist school, characterized by one building encompassing multiple styles. This gives Zagreb’s Art Noveau feel a kind of eccentric polish that seems to have rubbed off on the city’s stylish, eclectic citizens.
It is not a particularly large city, with just 686,568 residents. All Zagreb’s great sights and attractions can be reached on foot or its extensive system of above-ground trams. A good first stop is the Times Square, Trg Ban Jelačić—or “governor Jelachich square,” for English speakers. Dominating the square is a mounted Ban Jelačić himself, who during his time as govenor of Croatia—then a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was a prominent and popular campaigner for greater Croatian autonomy.
As the central transportation hub and general meeting place for Zagrebans, the square often hosts events and concerts during the spring and summer. From the central square, Zagreb’s massive Cathedral is a short walk to the east. Just north of Trg Ban Jelačić is the largest open market in Zagreb, Dolac. Croatia’s long agricultural traditions and Croatians’ general distain for anything but the freshest food make Dolac a paradise of local seasonal vegetables and proudly homemade cheeses, wines and handcrafts.
A short way east of Dolac you’ll find what Croatians refer to as “café city,” which is in fact a restaurant and cafe-lined cobblestone road called “Tkalčićeva ulica.” It’s worth the time to grab a seat on one of the cushy outdoor sofas and join the rest of Zagreb for a cup of coffee. Bear in mind, Croatians are particularly fond of their coffee “ritual,” in which the coffee itself is only an accessory to conversation and relaxation.
The serene hilltop district of Gradec sits above Tkalčićeva to the west and contains the majority of Zagreb’s government buildings, the Church of Saint Mark, as well the lion’s share of Zagreb’s museums. Coming up into Gradec, the bustle of the central square melts into peaceful cobblestone streets, eloquent baroque mansions and government buildings. There are two ways to get to Gradec from the rest of Zagreb. The city’s public transportation network operates a funicular that travels up the hillside and lands on the pedestrian-only Strossmayer street, which affords one of the best views of Zagreb and nightly carnivals featuring concession stands and concerts.
Gradec can also be accessed on foot via a number of stairways or through the Stone Gate, which houses a small chapel dedicated to Mary. You’ll often see Zagrebans pay their respects to the saint by pausing at the eloquently decorated painting of Mary that is said to have miraculously survived a major fire in the 18th century. In the center of this little district is the rather peculiar Church of Saint Mark. The church has a notably colorful rooftile arrangement that outlines the city of Zagreb’s seal and the checkerboard Croatian national seal.
Gradec also contains two of Zagreb’s more peculiar museums: the Gallery of Naive Art and the Museum of Broken Relationships. The Naive Art Gallery centers around paintings by villagers from the Croatian countryside. This art typically uses the villagers’ surroundings and daily life as subject matter and are fairly representative of the lifestyles and scenery of rural Central European life. The Museum of Broken Relationships consists entirely of artifacts donated by individuals who represent a past romatic relationship gone sour. The stories included with these objects range from cheesey break-up songs to rather personal accounts detailing personal tragedies caught up in historical events.
Zagrebans are an active bunch and take full advantage of the city’s many large outdoor spaces. For travelers looking to jog, hike or simply stroll, the city’s largest park, Maksimir, offers plenty of hiking trails and lakeside pathways to wander. Maksimir’s large fields and forested hillsides are a welcome way enjoy Croatia’s natural beauty without leaving the city. While many residents make a beeline to the coast during the warm summer months, others opt for the next-best thing—Jarun lake, alongside the Sava river which runs through Zagreb. During the day, Jarun is full of people swimming, biking and inline skating, the later of which is still extremely popular in Croatia. In the evening, Jarun remains packed with nightclub denizens and cafe loungers into the twilight hours.
Zagreb’s culinary institutions, like those in many of the Balkan states, draw upon numerous outside influences and local ingredients to form something that is truly unique. Croatia’s long Adriatic coastline, known as Dalmatia, hosted a sizable Italian influence for much of its history. In the interior, Austrian, Hungarian and Turkish influences all contributed to what makes up the local diet in Zagreb. It’s typical restaurant will serve everything from thick goulashes to grilled calamari drenched in garlic-infused olive oil. A particular favorite of mine is the grilled minced meat dish known in the Balkans as ćevapi (chevapi). ćevapi is often served between freshly made bread and with local mustard and a puree made of bell peppers known as ajvar. Spiced ground meat shaped into sausage form and grilled is a common and popular dish from the western reaches of the Balkans in Zagreb all the way to Afghanistan. Like many of the dishes you’ll see in Zagreb, it was originally brought from elsewhere and still remains. In many aspects Croatian food is a collection and combination of some of the best influences of the region.
Zagreb has easy bus connections to two excellent day trip options: the charming town of Samobor and the breathtaking, must-see Plitivice Lakes. Samobor is well regarded as a relaxing weekend destination because its ambience reminds many Zagrebans of their home villages. Most locals primarily see Samobor as a culinary destination and often recommend trying the local baked cheese ravoli known as štrukli, or local garlic-infused sausage, ćešnjovke, which often comes served with excellent homemade mustard.
A trip to Croatia would simply be incomplete without a trip to the awe-inspiring Plitivice Lakes. The series of terraced waterfalls set to a backdrop of a lush forrested valley is the result of a series of unique geological phenomena that are unique to the region. The Plitvice Lakes are one of the greatest natural wonders of the world and well worth a day trip from the Croatian capital, or as part of an extended tour down the coast.
For accommodations in Zagreb, perhaps the most prestigious and well-known option is the historic Regent Esplanade Hotel. Constructed in 1917 to provide accommodations for travelers along the Orient Express, the Esplanade is renowned as one of the best hotels in Zagreb, and with a convenient location close to the city center. Another excellent option close to the city center is the Westin hotel in Zagreb. The Westin is within a short walk of the majority of Zagreb’s museums and main square. The Aristos Hotel is a good option for travelers who don’t want to stray too far away from the airport, and is located in the Buzin business district just outside of the city.