As the inland capital of a country famous for its dazzling island-speckled coastline, Zagreb is often overlooked by travellers.
It may not have the Adriatic Sea or the beach, but I was immediately charmed by the Croatian capital’s vibrance, culture and history. Visiting a less well-known city meant I arrived with no expectations. Unlike iconic European heavyweights such as Paris and Rome, Zagreb is not instantly recognisable, which meant I could enjoy exploring and discovering local life without feeling the pressure to tick off its most famous sights.
From its intriguing architecture to nearby natural havens – not to mention its coffee scene – this underrated European capital has something for everyone. This all-encompassing Zagreb guide provides proof.
Its intriguing cityscape
Unlike most western European capitals, Zagreb’s cityscape is a fascinating mixture of classic Austro-Hungarian architecture and gritty socialist structures. Some of the city’s most emblematic buildings include the iconic, colourful roof of St Mark’s Church and the twin spires of Zagreb Cathedral which tower above the Croatian capital.
In contrast to old-world cobbled streets of the old town lined with ornate, centuries-old buildings, Novi Zagreb is home to starkly brutal and modernist communist architecture and concrete structures built under the Yugoslavia era. I loved checking out Zagreb’s cityscape from the Zagreb 360 tower and Lotrščak Tower.
Croatian coffee culture
Caffeine addicts will be in their element in the Croatian capital. One of the first things I noticed when wandering around downtown Zagreb was the endless row of café terraces filled with people sipping coffee. With an electric mix of Italian, Turkish and Austro-Hungarian influences, coffee culture here is steeped in history.
While many enjoy sitting and watching the world go by, in Croatia coffee is all about socialising. Whether its catching up with friends or doing business, the social role of coffee is crucial. And unlike in many bustling cities, coffee is not just a quick pick-me-up but an event, only to be drunk at a café table and never to take away.
For the best beans, try Cogito Coffee, U Dvorištu or Eli’s Caffè.
For those who love the outdoors, Zagreb has far more to offer than your average European city. Mount Medvednica perching over the Croatian capital offers a natural escape for locals who come to admire beautiful views over Zagreb. While hiking up the heavily wooded slopes I couldn’t believe I was only a short tram ride away from the city centre.
If hiking isn’t your thing, spend a summer’s day basking in the sun at Jarun Lake or wander around Maksimir Park.
Every European capital has some very impressive art and history museums, but few have displays as quirky as the Museum of Broken Relationships.
Initially an art project between two Zagreb-based artists after they broke up, the exhibition toured the world for several years before becoming the city’s most unusual museum. From an old vine record to a toaster, each seemingly mundane item on display comes with an emotionally charged story about a lost love. It was definitely one of the most memorable and poignant exhibitions I’ve been to.
Its historic Upper Town
Perched on two small hills encircled by Renaissance-era walls, the Zagreb’s oldest district is home to many of the city’s main attractions. The picturesque medieval part of the Croatian capital boasts its most impressive architecture and great views over the rest of the city.
Croatian beer and wine
For those who aren’t so keen on coffee, there are other popular beverages on the Zagreb drinking scene. After sunset the city centre comes alive as the streets and squares transform into an open-air party. The epicentre of Zagreb nightlife is on Tkalčićeva street, a buzzing, pedestrianised street lined with bar and restaurant terraces.
Beer drinkers will love the huge selection of locally brewed craft beers – starting at just €2 to 3 per half litre – at the Craft Room. Wine lovers have to make a stop at Bornstein, Croatia’s oldest winery.
Get a taste of local life by browsing Dolac Market, a colourful, open-air fruit and veg market in a picturesque setting in the old town. Buy yourself some fruit or a pastry and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
You can also try Mali Plac (little market), a weekly event which promotes local produce from small producers.
One of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe
Situated on the lower slopes of Mount Medvednica, Mirogoj cemetery is home to the graves of many famous Croatian figures. Its majestic leaf-covered arcade boasts an impressive, fortress-like piece of architecture from the outside which provides a place of tranquility and peace on the inside. The lush cemetery’s winding paths are lined with sculptures and beautifully decorated tombs.
Adventure to the Plitvice Lakes
If you’re staying in Zagreb for more than a couple of days, it is the perfect distance for a day trip to the gorgeous Plitvice Lakes.
This densely forested, eden-like paradise is home to 16 crystal clear lakes which change colour according to the season. I debated over I had the time to visit but I am so glad I did – the lakes are absolutely breathtaking.
Wander along the Green Horseshoe
Unlike many capital cities, Zagreb is not short of green spaces thanks to a forward-thinking urban planner called Milan Lenuci. The trademark U-shaped collection of urban greenery is home to parks, squares, fountains and beautiful architecture.
Want to pay this special city a visit? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group adventures in Croatia.
(Hero image c/o Intrepid Travel. All other images c/o Selina Sykes.)
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