Karla Loncar is part film critic, part lexicographer, but she’s Zagrebian through and through. Born and raised in Croatia’s capital, Karla’s true passion is her city. When she’s not ambulating about discovering the best Zagreb has to offer, Karla shares her perspective for Spotted By Locals. Whether you’re Balkans-bound or just curious, here’s how to tackle Zagreb like a pro.
Zagreb is My City
When someone comes to visit me, the first place I take them is the city center. It’s rather small and filled with historic sites and attractions that are all easily accessible by foot. The area is also full of cafés, restaurants, and patisseries where you can relax, have a cup of coffee or a pint of beer, and watch the world go by. Afterwards we’ll head to the Upper Town, another quaint neighborhood laden with history.
Late spring is the best time to visit my city because the days are mostly sunny and the temperature isn’t too hot. The whole city center comes to life, with people all about. During the summer, Zagreb can seem empty because a lot of locals spend the months by the seaside.
You can see my city best from Kula Lotrščak in Upper Town. Climb to the top to enjoy the view, or ride the funicular. Every day at noon a ceremonial cannon is fired from the tower, so don’t be alarmed if you hear a loud boom!
Locals know to skip the fruit and vegetable sections at grocery stores and check out the city’s outdoor markets instead. The food comes directly from local farmers, but be warned that it might be a tad bit more expensive.
Dolac Market is the place to buy authentic, local souvenirs. Traditional craftsmen regularly display their work here. If you’re looking for antique souvenirs, try British Square (on Saturdays or Sundays). Visit Natura Croatica for good home-grown products like wine, oil, or rakija.
In the past, notable people like Orson Welles (though briefly) and renowned inventor Slavoljub Eduard Penkala have called my city home.
If there’s one thing you should know about getting around my city, it’s that you should do so by foot. Trams and taxis are a fine alternative, but prices are higher here than elsewhere in southeastern Europe. Expect to hit traffic during rush hour. Renting a bike is also a good option. Though Zagreb is not yet a truly bike-friendly city, there are now more bike routes than ever.
The best place to spend time outdoors in my city is in one of the city’s parks. Maksimi Park, where you can rent a rowboat in the spring or summer, is a beautiful place. Cmrok Park is another calming green space (and especially fun for sledding in the winter). There’s also the Zagreb Botanical Garden, a serene oasis in midst of the bustling city center. If there’s one park you shouldn’t miss though, it’s Zrinjevac.
My city really knows how to celebrate anything to do with sports, probably because Croatia is a small country with a fair amount of successful athletes.
You can tell if someone is from my city if they don’t take full advantage of the city’s green space. We’re definitely more of a café culture than a picnic culture. Locals are more inclined to use a bench than to sprawl out on the grass! Luckily, tourists have shown Zagrebians that every inch of green space should and can be used. You can also tell if someone is from Zagreb if they are passionate fans of Dinamo football.
Just outside my city, you can visit stunning Medvednica Nature Park, the picturesque town of Samobor, or the region of Zagorje, which is best known for its hillsides and white wine. My personal favorite spot outside Zagreb though is Moja Kućic, a countryside cottage.
My city is known for being a bit boring and conservative, but it’s really not like that at all. Zagreb is also known for its sophisticated, fashionable, and attractive women. But I must admit that the appearance of men in Zagreb is rarely a topic of conversation!
Unfortunately a good breakfast is still a work in progress in Zagreb. Definitely try a smoothie at the Cyber Funk Café. The spot for late-night eats is definitely Pingvin. They serve up different kinds of sandwiches 24/7.
When I’m feeling cash-strapped, I usually hang out in one of the city’s parks. If I’m hungry, I’ll go to budget-friendly restaurants like Nokturno near Dolac, Bistro MZ near Maksimir Park, Tomislav Pub near King Tomislav Square, or Kod Šime near Kvaternik Square. For bargain hunting, check out the dusty treasures at the Hrelić Flea Market.
To escape the crowds, I avoid the city center and seek fun in the quieter neighborhoods.
If my city were a celebrity it’d be Heather Locklear because like her, Zagreb is pretty, somewhat posh, and has been around for awhile.
The dish that represents my city best is sarma, peka, zagrebački odrezak, or strukli. Don’t forget to try the sweets at Kraš, Zagreb’s famous confectionery, either. My city’s signature drink is Ožujsko beer, although I’d say that locals like to drink Karlovačko beer as well. Different kinds of rakija or pelinkovac are also typical of Zagreb.
I’d say that the outer wall of Mirogoj Cemetery is my favorite building in town because it possesses an eye-catching combination of a brick facade and a turquoise roof. It was designed by the architect Hermann Bollé at the turn of the 20th century.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The most random thing about my city is that it’s home to a proportional model of the solar system. You can find nine model planets and the sun scattered about the city (Pluto was still a planet when the exhibit debuted in 2004). Each piece is hard to find, especially the outer ones. Try to find them all!
In the spring you should enjoy sunny days and warmer temperatures. Hike to the top of Sljeme or walk along the Sava between old and new Zagreb. Spring is also a terrific time to experience the cinematic arts at the Subversive Film Festival or at the World Festival of Animated Film, known as Animafest. Or, if you’re more into literature, don’t skip out on the Festival of The European Short Story.
In the summer you should try to cool off by spending time outside of Zagreb. Take a dip in the Mrežnica river. Go to a bathhouse near Zagorje. If you’re in Zagreb, try to grab s scoop of ice cream at Vincek or Orijent, or at one of the Ledo stands. Music lovers, take note of the INmusic Festival, which kicks off summer on a high note.
In the fall you should get ready for excellent film and music festivals. Film festivals include the Zagreb Film Festival, 25 FPS, and One Take Film Festival. VIP Zagreb Jazz Festival offers premium jazz music, while Rujan Fest is a giant lakeside celebration in September. Fall is also chestnut season in Croatia, so seek some chestnut purées or cakes in the local patisseries.
In the winter you should find a cozy place, whether it’s a café, patisserie or a restaurant, and stay warm by eating some of Zagreb’s traditional cuisine. For outdoor types, there’s plenty of skiing on Medvednica hill above Zagreb. And because Zagreb seems to have a festival for every season, winter brings about ZagrebDox, a celebration of international documentary filmmaking.
The best book about my city is O Zagrebu by Gjuro Szabo.
When I think about my city, the song that comes to mind is “Zagreb, Zagreb,“ performed by Ivo Robić.