Croatia - Travel tips
When traveling to Croatia, most people don’t even consider going to the capital, but go straight to the country’s coastline. Granted, Croatia’s coastal villages are truly picturesque and the sea is amazingly blue.
Having temporarily lived in Zagreb, however, I have had the chance to discover the city’s amazing atmosphere and immediately fell in love.
When traveling to Croatia, most people don’t even consider going to the capital, but go straight to the country’s coastline. Granted, Croatia’s coastal villages are truly picturesque and the sea is amazingly blue. Having temporarily lived in Zagreb, however, I have had the chance to discover the city’s amazing atmosphere and immediately fell in love.
Zagreb will not draw your attention because of its grandiosity or amazing city planning. Croatia’s capital isn’t an open air museum, unlike its Slovenian sister Ljubljana might be. But when you’re strolling down Zagreb’s streets, you immediately feel the lively city vibe. Weekday or weekend, wintertime or summertime, the many coffee houses, bakeries and cafes will always be filled, as locals like to go out on the streets to meet up with friends and family on an almost daily basis. The many trams and buses might not be very eye-catching, but they give the city its particularly vivid and busy character. Most of the buildings are stemming from Austro-Hungarian times and give you the feeling of visiting a smaller and cosier version of Vienna.
Zagreb has a small airport with connections to most European cities. You can also choose to fly into Ljubljana or Rijeka and take a bus towards Zagreb. Zagreb is connected with the rest of Croatia and its neighboring countries by a network of long distance buses that are equivalent to Western European railways and usually leave in time. There are some train connections as well, but note that trains will cost you more money and aren’t always reliable.
There are also plenty of car rental services in the city if you plan on driving from Zagreb to any other destinations. Driving on Croatian roads is pretty easy, but take into account that you will need to pay toll on most highways and that the rates aren’t as low as you might think (we paid about €20 from Zagreb to Split one way).
Zagreb has a very comprehensive inner city transport system, consisting of trams and busses. Tickets will cost you 10 kuna and need to be validated on the vehicle. Freeriding is quite common, but note that officials check more and more often whether you bought a ticket or not, and on busses, the driver might not take you on board if you don’t have one. Taxis provide another means of transportation. Rates for official taxi companies such as Radio, Cammeo or Eko are quite low, but scam taxis at the airport or bus station might take advantage of tourists and charge up to 10 times the regular price.
What to see in Zagreb?
Zagreb is the biggest city of Croatia, but the city centre itself is quite small. Everything revolves around the main square, called Trg Bana Jelačića. Many events and festivities take place on the square and it is usually packed with people. The big statue of Ban Jelačić on a horse is the city’s meeting point. Whenever locals plan to go out together, they meet up ‘below the horse’. The Zagreb Eye, located on the square, offers marvellous views on the city. It’s best to visit it just before nightfall, so you can enjoy the sunset over a glass of local spirit, called rakija.
Going north of the main square, you’ll see Dolač, the city’s biggest market place. Every morning, fruits and vegetables are sold on the upper square, while meat, bread and home made pasta can be bought below, in an underground market. The most famous street is Tkalčićeva, located left from Dolač. The street is packed with cocktail bars, little restaurants and cosy coffee places such as Kava Tava (try the pancakes!).
Also north of the main square lies the upper town, called Gornji Grad. You can reach this part of the city through the Kamenita Vrata, a centuries old passway that serves as a chapel. There is also a funicular that takes you from Ilica Street towards Strossmayerovo šetaliste, a promenade looking out on the city. Zagrebs upper town is where most government buildings are located, as well as the famous St. Mark church, the roof of which is covered in tiles that represent several coats of arms.
The main landmark of Zagreb’s lower town is the Cathedral. Being the most monumental gothic-style religious building in the region, it is certainly worth a visit. Another architectural masterpiece is the national theatre. The majestic yellow building was unveiled by Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1895 and hosts many ballet, opera and theatre productions.
What to eat?
Zagreb is a great place for foodies. Restaurants are quite cheap and offer good quality food. Don’t bother booking a hotel with kitchenette, since buying groceries is almost as expensive as eating out.
Enjoy a cup of coffee with some cake. The oh-so-typical kolači are eaten for any occasion at any time of the day. If you’re a chocolate lover, go to Chocolat 041 near the national theatre. Their chocolate cakes and ice cream are to die for.
Never have I seen more bakeries than in Zagreb. Croatians love to eat on the go, and bakeries serve both sweet and savoury pastries. Try burek, a typical pastry filled with meat, cheese, spinach, apples or potatoes.
f you fancy something classier, the best place I went to was Apetit, a small bistro where prices are higher than average for Croatian standards, but still quite cheap compared to what I was used to in Belgium. Hidden away in an alleyway in between Varšavska and Masarykova Street, it is mostly visited by local business people and you won’t meet many tourists.
What to do?
After eating pastry and kolači and flushing it all down with Croatian wine or beer (Pivnica Mali Medo in Tkalčićeva street brews its own – it’s pretty good), you might want to get a little more active. Zagreb is located underneath a small mountain called Sljeme. During wintertime, you can go skiing on the mountain's slopes or have some hot wine at one of the Austria-style bars and restaurants.
The mountain doesn't only attract people in winter, but it's also a popular spot to hang out during the summer months. When it's hot outside, many locals take the car or bus towards the peek, where it’s cooler and the views are stunning. You can, however, also hike towards the top. Take the tram from the main square to Mihaljevac and hop onto a smaller tram taking you to Dolje. From there, walk through the tunnel and follow the hiking path (indicated with colour code) to the top.
If the weather is bad or if you want to enjoy some culture, the city has a lot of museums to offer. The most entertaining one is the Museum of Broken Relationships in upper town. Through short texts and objects, it tells the stories of people whose relationships with someone, whether a significant other, friend or relative, has been broken. Some are as trivial as a childhood friend moving to another city, others tell the story of a parent committing suicide or a fiancé changing his mind on the wedding day.
Zagreb has a particularly young population and is host to the country’s biggest university. At Friday night, the streets will be filled with people, looking for a fun night out. The city has many bars and pubs, so the party animal in you will certainly be satisfied. A fun place to go to is lake Jarun. Attracting sunbathers and wake boarders during the day, the lakeside has some very popular bars, attracting many locals and students during the weekend.