More than the stopover en route to the Adriatic coast, Croatia’s capital and largest city possesses the grand architecture, wide boulevards, and sprawling parks of a major European city. In the old city center, smartly-dressed Zagrebcani outnumber visitors as both enjoy the sights and smells of outdoor cafes, flower markets, and fresh produce stalls. With its welcoming, English-speaking inhabitants, growing economy, impressive cultural offerings, and unspoiled surroundings, Zagreb is an enjoyable, laid-back, and worthwhile alternative to the sun-splattered coast.
Unlike the city’s sprawling outskirts, the center of Zagreb, bounded by Mount Medvednica and the Sava River, is easily walkable. To the north, historical Gornji Grad (Upper Town) is composed of the Kaptol and Gradec hills, once warring towns and the focus of the city’s historical sites and churches. The central Donji Grad (Lower Town), home to most museums, squares and parks, spreads south of these ancient sites before reaching the train station. Beyond the station lies the Sava River, which separates these neighborhoods from the modern residential area Novi Zagreb (New Zagreb). Both Gornji and Donji Grad are bustling centers of activity, but the winding streets of Gornji Grad, often open to pedestrians only, tend to be more peaceful. Most shopping is located around the city’s central square, Trg bana Josipa jelacica, and on Ilica, the commercial artery that runs westward through the square. With your back to the bus station, walk left up Avenija Marina Drizica and turn left on Branimirova. Follow the parks opposite the train station into the city center or catch the tram toward Crnomerac, which does to the main square.
Zagreb is best seen on foot. Climb any of the streets extending north from Trg Jelačića to reach the historical Gornji Grad (Upper Town). To explore the more commercial Lower Town, start at Trg Jelačića, and head south along Gajeva, a thrumming center of sidewalk cafes, with street performances in the summer. Strolling down Masarykova will bring you to the monumental Croatian National Theater, adorned with sculptures by the renown Ivan Mestrovic. Farther south, peaceful parks and stately buildings mark the museum center, which leads to the Botanic Gardens. If all that walking tires you out, hop on the funicular, an entertaining but peculiarly inefficient way of getting up the short hill. Walk down Ilica from Trg Jelačića: the funicular is on the right.
Don’t miss out on the best Zegreb has in store. Here are our top 3 destinations to visit. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Meat lovers are spoiled for choice in Croatia. Although Croatian cuisine varies by region, with strong Italian influences in Istria and an emphasis on seafood in Dalmatia, visitors to Zagreb and its surrounding areas will find most Croatian menus dominated by meat—from lamb to pork, from duck to veal. Restaurant menues reflect this carnivorous taste, offering local specialties like cevapcici (beef or pork meatballs with distinctive Croatian spices) and the ubiquitous prsut (smoked ham). Here, Place Pass offers some guidance for your own meaty meal:
Croatian cuisine is defined by the country’s varied geography. In continental Croatia and to the east of Zagreb, heavy meals featuring meat and creamy sauces dominate. Purica s mlincima (turkey with pasta) is the regional dish near Zagreb. Also popular are burek, a layered pie made with meat or cheese, and the spicy Slavonian kulen, considered one of the world’s best sausages. Paticada (slow-cooked meat) is also excellent. On the coast, textures and flavors change with the presence of seafood and Italian influence. Don’t miss out on lignje (squid) or Dalmatinski prut (Dalmatian smoked ham). If your budget does not allow for such treats, slane sardele (salted sardines) are a tasty substitute. Vegetarian and kosher eating options can be diffcult to find in Croatia, albeit not impossible. In both cases, pizza and bakeries are safe and ubiquitous options. Mix red wine with tap water to make the popular bevanda, and white wine with carbonated water to get gemišt. Karlovačko and Ožujsko are the two most popular beers.
The colorful and lively outdoor cafe line Tkalciceva, in Gornji Grad, attract young people from all over the city; most are indistinguishable from each other but pleasant. many discos are open all week, except in the beginning of August, when the entire city goes on holiday. The best nightlife is at Lake Jarun, which is a bit difficult to reach but worth the trip.
Croatian texts first emerged during the 9th century, but for the next 600 years, literature consisted almost entirely of translations from other European languages. Because Dubrovnik was the only independent part of Croatia after 1102, it produced literature that had a lasting impact on Croatian culture. But the city’ devastation by an earthquake in 1667, the nexus of Croatia’s literature shifted north. The 16th century dramatist Martin Drzic and the 17th century poet Ivan Gundulic turned to Italy for literary models. During Austrian and Hungarian repressions of the Croatian language in the 19th century, Ljudevit Gaj led the movement to reform and codify the Croatian vernacular. August Senoa, Croatia’s dominant 19th century literary figure, played a key part in the formation of a literary public. Croatian prose sparkled in the 20th century. Dubravka Ugresic’s personal, reflective novels, which discuss nostalgia and the revision of history, have become instant bestsellers. The novelist Slavenka Drakulic is popular abroad.
Croatians has a vibrant music scene featuring folk and contemporary styles, as well as unique hybrids of the two, such as the Turbo-Folk genre, which gained popularity in the 1990s and drew controversy for its nationalistics and sexualized content. Pop singers like Miso Kovak and rock groups like Prijavo Kazaliste have enjoyed longstanding popularity. Other performers include Tony Cetinski in the pop genre, rapper Edo Maajka, and surf-rockers The Bambi Molesters.
Characterized by the rejection of conventional and “civilized” depictions, native art presides as the most popular painting style. This movement begun with Krsto Hegedusic (1901-71), is highly influenced by folk traditions. It eliminates perspective and uses only vivid colors. Croatia ‘s most famous modern sculptor and architect, Ivan Mestrovic, has achieved fame outside Croatia. His wooden religious sculptures can be seen in London’s Tate Gallery and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as in squares throughout his homeland. Vinko Bresan is Croatia’s most prominent contemporary filmmaker.
If you wear shorts and sandals, you’ll stick out as a tourist in the cities but will blend in along the coast. Though southern Croatia tends to be beach-oriented remember that this land of skin and shorts is also devoutly Catholic. In cathedrals, wear long pants or skirts and closed-toed shoes. Croats have few qualms about drinking and smoking, but abstain in buses, trains, and other marked places. Maintain eye contact when clinking glasses or face seven years of bad luck. Tipping is not expected, although it is appropriate to round up when paying; in some cases, the establishment will do it for you – check your change. Fancy restaurants often add a hefty service charge. Bargaining is reserved for informal transactions, such as hiring a boat for a day or renting a private room directly from an owner. Posted prices should usually be followed.