A guide to the city of Zagreb, Croatia's intriguing capital
Croatia’s beguiling capital offers a heady mix of Western Balkan heritage, proud coffee culture and outdoor markets selling produce from the encircling Dinaric Alps.
Locals like to say Zagreb is a big town disguised as a small city. Its laid-back rhythm and leafy charm is apparent from the first moment visitors set out into the Croatian capital. Residents, up with the sun, make a beeline for outdoor markets to visit their trusted butchers and favoured vendors, whose produce — a rainbow of fruit and vegetables, just-baked cornbread, rows of fragrant honey — is largely drawn from the surrounding countryside. A diverse citizenry of designers, businesspeople, musicians, artists and catholic nuns pass each other on the main square, walking to their respective workplaces; people, young and old, gather on terraces for rakija (schnapps) and kava (super-strength coffee) at all hours. Early evening, families promenade city streets and piazzas to catch up with neighbours. It’s easy to believe you’ve just discovered the very essence of European life.
Wedged into the Dinaric Alps, Zagreb is a two-hour drive from the Adriatic coast and it’s this remarkable geography that lends the city its unique character. The city’s strength comes from its amalgam of European sensibilities; a place where Mediterranean vibes and Slavic Continental climes combine. But such are the coastal riches of Croatia that its chief city — home to around 800,000 people — is often treated as a stopover for visitors on their way to the sea.
No matter. What lingering travellers quickly find is that this is a city that takes care of its own. Cafes spill across squares and streets, because Purgers (as folks from Zagreb call themselves) like to luxuriate over multi-hour, coffee-fuelled conversations. Museums and galleries display world-class collections to accommodate local tastes, and the capital’s stages showcase productions for discerning native theatregoers. This isn’t a city that goes out of its way to cater for tourists, and it’s all the more beguiling for it. The key is for travellers to lean into the rhythms of local life.
Stretching north from the Sava River to the foothills of the Dinaric Alps, Zagreb’s neighbourhoods offer eclectic rows of architecture from secessionist and neo-baroque to gothic brutalist and beyond. But it’s the proliferation of parks, gardens and leafy hills that dominate Zagreb’s landscape, coming into spectacular bloom in spring but hosts for festivals year-round. With its easy, natural charm Zagreb isn’t a city that tries hard to win visitors over — so it’s almost quite likely, therefore, that it will.
What to see and do
Green Horseshoe: Take a sightseeing stroll from the 19th-century, neoclassical central train station, Glavni kolodvor, to the main square, Ban Jelačić Square. From there, follow the aptly named ‘Green Horseshoe’ of parks and sites that wrap around Donji Grad, or Lower Town. As trams rumble by, you’ll pass the art deco Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, built in 1925 to accommodate Orient Express passengers. Next door, the Zagreb Botanical Garden and its 10,000 plant species provide a peaceful oasis. The last stretch takes you through Zrinjevac Park, for regular live music sessions in the bandstand, surrounded by vibrant flowerbeds.
Zagreb Cathedral: It’s full name being the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the city’s top photo op stands on the spot where Zagreb was founded — an 11th-century bishopric known as Kaptol. Today’s neo-gothic cathedral — dating from 1880 — is the latest of several constructed over the ensuing millennium. It’s famed for its two 354ft spires, its goosebumps-inducing organ, with nearly 6,100 pipes, and for being the final resting place of beatified Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.
Upper Town: Historically, Zagreb’s hilltop Upper Town, Gradec, was the merchant yin to Kaptol’s religious yang. Today, Gradec’s medieval spirit endures as you walk its tangle of cobbled streets, where gas lamps are still hand-lit every evening. After passing through the district’s Stone Gate — the last of four original, 13th-century entrances — you’ll find the Croatian Parliament en route to the showstopper: St Mark’s Church. This architectural masterpiece — a mix of romanesque and gothic styles — contains exquisite sculptures and is topped by roof whose colourful tiles depict the coat of arms of Zagreb and the historic Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia.
Where to visit
Tkalčićeva Street: Or simply Tkalča, was once a creek dividing Kaptol and Gradec. These days, that waterway is a pedestrian-only promenade and the centre of Zagreb’s social scene. The row of two-storey, pastel-coloured buildings is an atmospheric place for a bite or a be — a backdrop for buskers, evening strollers, shoppers and lively social gatherings.
Museums and galleries: The Museum of Contemporary Art, south of the river, is a celebration of multimedia installations, imagination and societal commentary via a 12,000-strong collection. Zagreb City Museum, set in the cavernous former 17th-century Convent of the Clares in the Upper Town, explores the city’s history from prehistory onwards, while the nearby Museum of Broken Relationships displays painful, sweet and humorous items
donated following failed romances.
Medvednica: After getting to know the Croatian capital on foot, head up to 3,396ft Medvednica (‘bear mountain’) for clear-day views that stretch as far as Slovenia, Hungary and the Adriatic coast. One of Zagreb’s most seductive qualities is its proximity to open countryside, and this peak, in the north of the city, is one of the most accessible spots, its slopes (part of Medvednica Nature Park) offering scores of hikes for trekkers of all abilities.
How to live like a local
Špica: It seems the whole of Zagreb wakes early on Saturdays, flexes its collective fashion muscle and lounges at cafes in the centre to see and be seen. This weekend strut is known as špica. Pull on your best threads, take your špica waltz down Ilica Street, then duck into Eli’s Caffe for the city’s best kava. Owner and roaster Nik Orosi has turned a cup of coffee into an art form.
Gric Tunnel: This protective measure, built during the Second World War, runs under the city centre and serves as an occasional art venue. Emerge from Art Park Entrance 1 (one of multiple access points), and you’ll come face to face with two city landmarks: the Zagreb Funicular, which connects Upper and Lower Towns, and the Lotrščak Tower, with its Grič cannon, which is fired daily at noon.
Croatian National Theatre: Zagreb is a city of theatregoers, who pack out its performance venues every night. A highlight is the 19th-century, neo-baroque Croatian National Theatre; anchoring the western arm of the Green Horseshoe, it stages drama, ballet and opera.
Where to shop
Croata: Purgers are fashionable. Shop the look with hyper-local adornments like the necktie, invented in Croatia centuries ago and seen in adventurous iterations at this world renown emporium, which also stocks scarfs in unique designs.
Dora: This boutique is located in Gradec, between the Stone Gate and St Mark’s Church. Owner Dora Rubić creates bespoke women’s clothing, with a focus on coats and dresses. Using natural fabrics such as cashmere and alpaca wool, she only produces around 200 pieces a year.
Outdoor Markets: To really shop local, visit Zagreb’s open-air markets. Climb the steps behind Ban Jelačić Square to reach Dolac Market, whose expanse of red umbrellas covers vendors selling fruit, vegetables, cheese, nuts, honey and liqueurs — accompanied by a cornucopia of local knowledge. Head west along Ilica Street to British Square, where, on Sunday mornings, antique dealers hawk everything from jewellery to Yugoslav memorabilia.
Where to eat
Broom 44: Spilling onto Dolac Market, this classic brunch spot seamlessly blends alternative cool with old-school hospitality, and, most importantly, its homemade vegan and vegetarian food — served on plates thrown by a local potter — is divine. Dolac 8, 10000.
Lari & Penati: Lari & Penati takes generous liberties with its fusion of Croatian and US fare, created using ingredients from nearby Dolac Market — accompanied by a sterling wine list. It’s impossible to go wrong with this menu, especially the marinated sea bass salad and the barbecue spare ribs.
Dubravkin Put: A short walk away from the main square, this retreat of a restaurant in Tuškanac Forest Park offers exemplary Zagreb fine dining: rustic but refined and replete with Croatian produce including fine home-grown wines. Expect seafood and specialities such as tuna tartar and slow-cooked veal cheeks with a morel sauce, served on white linen-clad tables both inside and outside on the lovely, leafy terrace.
Where to drink
Bornstein: For Croatian wine connoisseurs, Bornstein is something of a pilgrimage. Opened in 1900, the country’s oldest wine shop is a few minutes north of the cathedral and one of the best places for cheese and wine pairings, wine flights and tastings featuring reds, whites and sparkling wines representing Croatia’s generous number of terroirs.
Kavkaz: Upmarket cocktail bar, Kavkaz is, for a certain generation of Purgers, an institution. Overlooking the Croatian National Theatre, this was once the cafe for the intelligentsia. Following a period of decline, a 2018 revamp saw it once again among Zagreb’s most atmospheric drinking spots, perfect for ordering a Hugo spritz (sparkling wine, elderflower syrup, lime, mint), and people-watching.
Kulturni Centar Mesnicka: With a constant rotation of music nights — jazz, hip-hop, blues, funk — and eclectic patrons, any rendezvous at this popular spot, next to the Grič Tunnel, is certain to be eventful. The bar serves a great selection of rakija, so it’s best to rule out any morning-after responsibilities.
Where to stay
Hotel President Pantovcak: A true boutique hotel, each of the 10 rooms at the four-star President is uniquely decorated with art — both modern and antique — while the elegant lounge and garden terrace would be worth a visit in their own right. It’s in a great location, too: a five-minute walk from British Square, 15 minutes from the main square.
Esplanade Zagreb Hotel: Esplanade is not only a hotel but also a city symbol, a landmark that is very much a part of Zagreb’s historic fabric. Built to wow Orient Express passengers in the 1920s, this art deco five-star with more than 200 rooms has withstood the test of time, shifting fashions, and travel trends.
Hotel Republika: Located near the city centre at the edge of Tuškanac Forest, Hotel Republika, with its seven spacious apartments, is a great base for exploring both the countryside and the city. Best of all, because the ‘aparthotel’ is owned by the Croatian Hunting Association, the in-house restaurant menu includes scrumptious venison and boar dishes.
Getting there & around
From London, nonstop flights to Zagreb are offered by British Airways, Croatia Airlines, and Ryanair (the latter also flies from Manchester). Several European carriers fly from UK airports via their respective European hubs.
Average flight time: 2h15m.
Compact and clearly laid out, walking or cycling is the best way to get around Zagreb. Like many things in the Croatian capital, bike hire is a bargain for most foreign visitors, as are guided tours: the 2.5-hour Zagreb Highlights itinerary with Blue Bike Zagreb costs from £33 per person.
Trams are a great option for longer trips across the city: 4 kuna/£0.45 one-way. Bolt and Uber provide inexpensive taxi services to and from the airport and across the city.
When to go
With mild temperatures, Zagreb is an excellent choice year-round. April to June and September to November may be best for weather (averaging around 20C), but the city throws a wonderful Advent festival from December to January. Summer — often empty, as many locals head to the coast — has a relaxed, city-to-yourself beauty, although some businesses may be closed. infozagreb.hr/events
Zagreb Tourist Board
How to do it
British Airways Holidays offers two nights, room-only, at the Canopy by Hilton Zagreb City Centre, including flights, from £149.
Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Follow us on social media