With a million citizens the Zagreb is just large enough to be a metropolitan city, while remaining an elegant central European city of a human scale, where it’s easily manageable to enjoy it without using much of a public transport. Downtown area is famous for its lush parks, eclectic squares and abundant street cafes & restaurants. In a matter of minutes, one walks through a thousand years of its history. There are the ramparts built in 13th century shortly after an intrusion of Tatars with an original tower from the same period, where cannon fires loudly every day to signal noon – a hundred fifty year’s old tradition to synchronize church bells ringing. Not to miss landmarks are the Cathedral, Dolac fruit & grocery market, Jelačić square and Flower market, and the medieval historical core Gradec and Kaptol with the Stone gate, St. Mark’s square and bishop Strossmayer’s promenade. Zagreb is immensely influenced by Austrian and Hungarian culture, traces of which may both be seen in lifestyle and architecture. Locals will embrace you with hospitality at any of the four seasons; enjoy spring & summer street & art performances, autumn’s cozy & colorful streets or winter’s Advent & snow white Christmas atmosphere. Zagreb has it all yet on an moderate human scale with a warm and welcoming soul and cozy, elegant atmosphere that‘s easy to fall in love with. It doesn’t take long until it gets under your skin.
Zagreb’s historical Upper Town
Its historical core consisted of two administratively separate cities Gradec (a Slavic word for a city) and Kaptol (Capitol) built on top two neighboring hills, divided in the past by a narrow river. A short ride with funicular will bring you on top of Gradec, in front of old Lotrscak watchtower built after Mongolian Tatar’s intrusion in the city in 13th century. On top of the tower there is a canon that signals noon daily with a loud bang, now a hundred fifty year old daily tradition. Gradec is the residential area of old medieval houses, the quietest of all Zagreb’s neighborhoods. St. Mark’s church is the remarkable gothic building from 13thc, with a colorful roof added in 19thc. On eastern side of the church is Hrvatski Sabor – Croatian Parliament building. Every once in a while you may run into a politician who actually goes into a parliamentary session. On the opposite side is the pry minister’s office Banski Dvori. The street lamp lighter takes care of old gas lanterns that shine romantically in the evenings. There are few exceptional galleries as Klovićevi Dvori or Atelier Meštrović for art thirsty souls. Enjoy the background scenery of old architecture and magnificent views of the lower Zagreb at Strossmayer’s promenade. In the evenings artists stalls are on display out on the street with jazz performers playing, glasses of fine wine served and tasty chestnuts baked. Under the Upper town there is a network of WWII tunnels recently open to the public.
Eat & drink your way out of Tkalčićeva street
On the place of this tongue breaker street used to be a river dividing Gradec and Kaptol towns. After they unified in 1850’s, the river was paved (still keeps running through an underground pipeline) to form a present street full of cafes, bars, small restaurants and fast food joints. There is life music performed, and Booze & Blues bar has daily jazz or rock performances.
This is the area below the Upper town consisting of several streets, parks and squares. Eclectic Bana Jelačića square is the central square of Zagreb, a hub to all the major sights in the city. From here you may reach the Cathedral, the Dolac grocery market, Zrinjevac park, iconic Bogovićeva Street with the Flower market square or the Upper town. Zrinjevac is the most adored of seven parks complex in central Zagreb. With a music pavilion structure in the center, it is a venue to year round concerts and performances. Bogovićeva Street is the place to be during Špica (the peak of the week on Saturday mornings) when local fashion-conscious glitter in their finest garments, only to be seen and rumored about. There is a maze of cafes in the area where locals seem to be little concerned about life except for the time & place being. There are good music performances at Vinyl Bar.
Get hungry at Dolac open market
The belly of the city as we call it is the largest of many grocery markets we have in Zagreb. The open area designated with red umbrellas is only the outer part of the large food complex. Most veggies sold are brought to Zagreb daily from nearby local farms, while fruit comes from Neretva river valley from the south of Croatia. There is a fish market on the western side of the complex and flower part on the North. The rest of the complex with butchers shops & meat products area; and milk & dairy products in the underground departments. As you will certainly get hungry, there are several very good on-site small restaurants, as our favorite Plac kitchen & grill or simple locals delight Amfora bistro.
Strengthen your bonds with the Museum of broken relationships
A few steps south from St. Mark’s church, this one of a kind museum became a new landmark site in Zagreb. It is a collection of donated artefacts, each one with the story how and why it was significant in once to be relationship. Some stories are cheerful & fun; some will make you sink down in a whirlwind of thoughts. I love the simple irony of this exhibition: contrary to famed galleries which invest millions in their acquisitions and then hire experts to describe them, these flea market frippery will draw emotion even from the stone hearted and leave you stunned. Moreover, their shop sells “Bad memories eraser” that we all could use sometimes.
Light a candle at the Stone gate
As most contemporary medieval buildings, the Stone gate was originally built from wood, being cheaper and more available building material. Since candles and oil lamps were used in the day, occasional fires were inevitable. The catastrophic fire hit Zagreb on May 31st 1731, when a large part of the city was swallowed in flames, including the wooden gate. Cleaning the ashes, people found the painting of Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, oil on wood painting that was burnt on the back side, while intact on the front. Believing it was a miracle, the painting was placed in rebuilt Stone gate, with Virgin Mary of the Stone Gate become patron saint of the city of Zagreb. The original painting is taken on processions around most important churches on each May 31st. The gate is a shrine with walls tiled with numerous engraved votive stone tablets saying Hvala (Thank you) or Hvala Majko (Thank you Mother). Nuns sell hade made candles in a medieval shop that one may light in a hope of good health, safe trip or good marks on an exam.
Go active year round in Zagreb
Zagreb is an outdoor city. During spring & summer there are countless and ever full street cafes, restaurants, street performances, open-air festivals and summer cinemas. Locals enjoy weekends on Jarun and Bundek lakes where they suntan and swim during warm months; row, paddle, bike, run, inline skate and sledge in winter; or just relax and enjoy sipping coffee with friends. Just twenty minute tram ride from the city centre, Medvednica Mountain allures locals to hike awarding them with a mouthful of traditional mountain-hut style delicacies. In winters it is very popular ski destination where in just minutes one can hop from city shoes to ski boots, with pleasant slopes to enjoy skiing. East of the center park Maksimir is landscaped as English garden with promenades, water fountains, lakes, forest and kid’s favorite ZOO. In December city’s eclectic squares provide setting for Advent fairs, an event of its own right awarded as the Best European Christmas market in 2016. Plenty of fun, excellent food, unique performances, art, but also a genuine Christmas atmosphere awaits you on the streets of Croatia’s capital.
Enjoy coffee & Zagreb’s cafés
More than a beverage, coffee makes inevitable part of Zagreb’s daily beat & soul. While it’s enjoyed inside or in omnipresent street cafes, in the mornings or afternoons, with friends or alone, standing or sitting, before or after meal – when it comes to preparation there are few compromises. If boiled at home, we still call it Turkish coffee even though ottomans left Croatia centuries ago. With a cup of boiling water and half cup of freshly ground coffee we enjoy very strong unfiltered beverage. In restaurants and cafes espresso made its way as most popular essence. Filtered or American style coffee is something to seek & negotiate for. The popular green lady logo brand is nonexistent in Croatia. No matter if they are employed or retired, golden age or students, Croatians crave their coffee and cherish the habit of enjoying it in a café daily. Or two times?!
Zagreb for kids
My daughters are two very picky & sharp judges when it comes to choosing how to spend their free time. The following items are from their refund list of choices: Zagreb ZOO is gradually being modernized in the past decade, providing better conditions for animals and removing visible fences between animals and their observers. The ZOO is situated within large Maksimir park which provides plenty sporting possibilities for kids. Archeological museum has very good and interactive display, with kid’s favorite Egyptian display. Visit hippodrome to get close or ride amazing and ever elegant horses. Learn to sail or bike at Jarun lake, where you may also play all ball-kind sports. Try out your motoric senses on Bundek lake kids Adrenaline Park or test your sanity in Museum of Illusions. During late autumn to early spring, Zagreb hosts several open public ice-skating rings. The most fun one is set on King Tomislav square during the Advent time. Hike up or snow sledge down the Medvednica mountain.