Zagreb is a capital city that doesn’t feel like one. With a population of nearly one million, it accounts for approximately a quarter of Croatia’s total population, and yet it still has a small-town feel. The city’s urban area extends more than 600 square kilometres — making it roughly five times larger than Paris and three times larger than Amsterdam — and yet one can squeeze in most of the key sightseeing in a day or two.
At the national level, Zagreb has remained the post-Yugoslav centre of power, academic education and government, without much extra charm added to the mix. In a tourism-oriented country, cities such as Split and Dubrovnik get much more attention and, inevitably, visitors. At the regional level, Zagreb was never going to be as green as Ljubljana, as fun as Belgrade or as historically-charged a city as Sarajevo. So what does it offer the intrepid visitor? Plenty, as it turns out.
Zagreb’s historical centre encompasses two medieval settlements developed on two neighbouring hills — secular Gradec (today’s upper town) and ecclesiastical Kaptol — that unified in 1850. From that moment on, Zagreb’s urbanism and architecture have been influenced by its neighbours, Vienna and Budapest. Its streets developed along gridlines, with large green spaces and leafy parks in the middle . “Little Vienna” shared not only the Austrian capital’s Classicist architecture, but also its penchant for cafe culture, still visible throughout the city centre.
For a long time, this Viennese aspect was the heart of the city’s tourist attractions. In Zagreb’s upper town, you will find old Viennoise-style palaces and cobblestone streets. You might also stumble upon nažigač, Zagreb’s lightlampers, men dressed in black who still light and extinguish 214 gas lamps every morning and dusk. You can also take the blue funicular — probably the shortest public transport ride you’re likely to experience, with the trip taking up less than a minute — to enjoy a romantic view over the city from the top of the Gric hill. Here you’ll also find the memorable Saint Mark’s Church, surrounded by the buildings of Parliament, whose tiled lego-like roof displays the coat of arms of Zagreb. Descending down the hill via a staircase, you find yourself on the central Ban Jelačić Square, whose horsemen statues are among the city’s most-recognised landmarks, and whose blue clock is the main meeting point for locals.
Although Zagreb feels small and often quiet, to call it a provincial town understates the power of its charms
Just above Ban Jelačić is Dolac, a busy open-air farmers’ market worth a visit for fresh produce or just to take a couple of colourful photos. Next to the market passes the busiest pedestrian street in town, Tkalčićeva, with plenty of bars, cafés and small restaurants catering to different palates. At the other side of the square, is Cvjetni trg, where beautifully dressed people gather on the weekends to drink coffee and, more importantly, to see and be seen.
The charm of Zagreb city centere earned it the title of best destination in Europe from Lonely Planet in 2017. The very same year, the German weekly Der Spiegel called it the most boring capital in Europe, with its sole attraction being the highway leading to the Adriatic coast. It also compared its city center to a provincial German town. This is the central contradiction in the city’s character, and overcoming it is the best way to enjoy your visit. Although Zagreb feels small and often quiet, to call it a provincial town understates the power of its hidden charms; you need to look further than the facades.
After the Second World War many migrated from rural areas to Zagreb, and the city expanded to the southern bank of the river Sava. Although high rises are rare in the city centre, just over the river loom large, socialist-era blocks. The Novi Zagreb (New Zagreb) neighbourhood is today home to residential buildings separated by the patches of green, large avenues and parks. One of the biggest construction experiments was Mamutica (Croatian for a female mammoth), the nickname given to the biggest building complex in Croatia, some 240 metres long, standing at roughly 70 metres high, and containing 776 apartments. Mamutica might draw Brutalist aficionados to Novi Zagreb, but its scale is the exception rather than the rule, so those looking to experience a post-socialist-Moscow-suburbs vibe might be disappointed.
When it comes to experiencing nightlife and culture, your best bet is to cross back over the Sava and head towards the city centre. You might have to look to find Zagreb’s hidden charms, but that doesn’t mean you need look far. On bustling, central Tkalciceva, for instance, you can note the statue of a woman in a buttoned-up up dress and an umbrella — a tribute to Croatia’s first female journalist and well-known writer, Marija Jurić Zagorka. It could mean paying attention to the murals and graffitis that have covered many walls through the centre. It could mean getting lost in the botanical gardens, a great respite from traffic and noise situated at the very heart of town.
Visiting Zagreb also means checking out the museums. On your way back into town from Novi Zagreb, you can stop off at the Museum of Contemporary Art, home to exhibitions of Croatian and international artists. The Museum also hosts film projections and theatre plays in its multimedia hall, and on summer nights concerts take place on its rooftop. With its open ground floor, straight geometrical lines and outside screens showcasing current exhibitions, it was meant to both become a recognisable symbol of Zagreb, and also to decentralise the city’s cultural scene.
Zagreb is a destination where visitors get to choose their own experience of the city — without interfering with the laid-back lifestyle of the locals
Another highlight is Museum of Broken Relationships, the brainchild of a couple who broke up and decided to dedicate a museum to lost loves. It displays a wide range of objects — from an axe to an old passport — with a short story explaining the history behind the relationship and breakup in question, depressing and touching at the same time. Just a ten minutes walk from here, is the Museum of Illusions, exhibiting puzzles, a mirror maze and optical illusions. In between the two is a 350-metre-long tunnel, the Gric, built in 1943 as a Second World War air-raid shelter and opened to the public in the summer of 2016. It has become more than just an urban passage, hosting exhibitions and performances.
In recent years, the city has also (re)discovered its abandoned warehouses and industrial palaces. Today, you can attend parties at Lauba, a museum opened in a disused factory that has morphed into a club, dance to electronic music in the former industrial halls of clubs like Depo or Masters, or attend rock concerts in bars such as Vintage or Bikers. Plocnik stands out among the newer ventures: a bar with red lighting, minimalist interior design and a great offer of craft beers, whose basement turns into a dance floor resonating with electro beats on most weekends. A 15-minute walk away near the Savska thoroughfare is an oasis for the alternative crowd, Krivi put, with cheap beers and a large yard that fills with people as soon as the weather gets nice. A further five minutes on foot gets you to Botaničar, a mix of an art gallery and a cafe, a peaceful place to enjoy a coffee, craft beer and stylish interior design. In the very centre, well hidden from the main streets, is Art Park, a long-abandoned park turned into one of the favourite destinations for locals, where they can listen to DJs, watch movies, play ping-pong or relax with a drink.
Like many other cities across Europe, Zagreb has been flattered in some lifestyle journals and blogs as a contender for the status of the “new Berlin” — while quieter and less wild during the week than Berlin, the terraces of Zagreb’s cafes and bars are full and brimming with life on the weekends and in the summertime. The city’s Mitteleuropean culture is enhanced with a Mediterranean touch, as people lounge on the grass and gather around food stands and drink kiosks in the central park of Zrinjevac.
It is hard to predict which way Zagreb’s cultural scene and tourism will develop over the next few years. As the Croatian capital becomes more and more coveted by tourists, the prices of apartments have been on the rise — especially since Airbnb made its entrance on the Croatian market. Yet, for now, Zagreb seems to have found the right balance: it is not a party town nor a tourist mecca, but rather a destination where visitors get to choose their own experience of the city — or even a different one with each visit — without interfering with the laid-back lifestyle of the locals.