Croatia is often overlooked by American tourists, but has long been a popular destination for Europeans. That’s mostly in part because much of Croatia has been part of Austria, Italy, and Hungary at various times throughout history.
While part of the EU, Croatia isn’t in the Eurozone or the Schengen zone. That means that everything is less expensive than the rest of Europe and it’s a great spot for when you’re running out of time on your Schengen visa.
The history of Croatia is long and fascinating. I’m not even going to try to do it justice here.
Up until recently, most of the restaurants were serving special occasion food only. No, the Croatians don’t eat literal piles of meat every day. If you’re looking for fast food, grab a burek from the nearest bakery. The Italian food is phenomenal, obviously. In this country without Yelp, Foursquare and Trip Advisor are the way to go.
Tourism in Croatia has increased dramatically over the past few years. While Croatia has long been a popular tourist destination, the overall numbers were fairly small for a long time. Because of this and the small size of the cities, even the cafes with menus in five languages are likely to be frequented by locals.
English is spoken by a majority of the population. A little German or Italian will go a long way if you happen to meet someone who doesn’t speak English.
Bathrooms can be found in train stations, shopping malls, large stores, gas stations, and cafes. You’ll find the occasional squat toilet, but that’s rare. Bathrooms are typically clean and stocked with toilet paper.
Tipping is usually just rounding up your bill, but leaving 10% is appreciated.
Tap water is totally safe to drink.
Crime is rare. If you need it, the emergency number is 112.
Zagreb is one of those places that never gets the respect it’s due. It’s the Toronto to Ljubljana’s Montreal. It’s a beautiful, vibrant city with a ton to offer, but every other guide will tell you that no one falls in love with Zagreb. It’s got great architecture, a gorgeous old city, and a cafe culture that can’t be beat. It’s easy to navigate and very safe.
Right now the Zagreb Airport is essentially a soviet-era bus station. That’s about to change, as a shiny new airport is nearly complete. The current airport is very small and can be a bit of a nightmare at peak travel times. Off-peak it’s quite convenient. You can catch a bus or take a taxi into town.
The Zagreb Train Station is flanked by the local and long-distance bus terminals. It’s a beautiful building with a few little shops inside. You can leave your bags in lockers at the train station. It’s conveniently located between the old city and Novi Zagreb (the new city) and spits you out into a grand walkway leading directly to the main square. I highly suggest you buy whatever fruit is being sold in the plaza outside the train station, as it’s guaranteed to be amazing. The trams are directly in front of the train station.
Local busses can be found directly behind the train station, connected through an underground pedestrian mall. This is a great spot to find stores that are open late. The long-distance bus terminal is a 10-minute walk from the passenger terminal in a concrete building that’s of noteworthy design, although it has few fans.
As a European city with less than a million people, most of Zagreb is easy to explore on foot. The tram and bus network will take you just about anywhere you want to go. If you’re using public transit, you’ll want a ZET Value Card from a kiosk. Your tap card will give you instructions in English and allows you to pay for multiple passengers on a single card. The entire city of Zagreb is in zone one. It’s also a great city to get around on by bike, but occasional riders will want to stick to recreational paths.
Trg bana Josipa Jelačića is the heart of the city. It is the, ahem, Times Square of Zagreb. You’ll find markets, concerts, and all sorts of special events happening here. It’s a great spot for people watching. There’s a tourist information center in Ban Jelacic Square as well as four others throughout the city. There are also several apps all promising to guide you to the best of Zagreb.
What to see
Zagreb is a perfect city for wandering. The city is full of regal architecture, as well as the forgotten. Look closely to spot the gas lamps. Kaptol and Gradec, now the historic old town or Gornji Grad, were once rivals. The lower town, Donji Grad, is a bit newer and is a clear product of the Habsburg Empire. It could easily pass for Prague or Budapest. Like Budapest, much of Zagreb’s life happens in the courtyards that are easy to miss from the street. The upper town is a ghost town at night, so be sure to wander through it on your way to get dinner and drinks in the lower town.
Life in Zagreb is lived outdoors. Every cafe has a patio and they’re always packed with locals and tourists all enjoying the people watching and fresh air.
Don’t limit yourself to the center city. Venturing into the neighborhoods where people actually live will show you a whole different side of the city. The seeming lack of zoning has created a fascinating mashup and the Soviet architecture is stunning. It’s up to you to decide if it’s stunning in a good way or bad. The hyper-modern is mixed in with cottages with hand pumps for wells.
If you’re not content to wander unguided, Travel Honestly has a great collection of Zagreb City Walks.
It’s like a peek into someone’s grandma’s attic. You can also check out the Antique Fair on British Square.
A squat turned cultural center.
If you walk between the train station and the long-distance bus station, you’ll see the first part of the Museum of Street Art. You’ll find great street art all around town.
The University of Zagreb was established in 1669. It’s the largest university in Croatia and while its architecture isn’t stunning, it’s fun to walk around and get a feel for what being a student in Zagreb is like.
You wouldn’t believe how many people pass the sun without realizing there’s the rest of the planets, too.
Mirogoj has spectacular architecture and is the final resting place of quite a few of Croatia’s celebrities.
Zagreb turns its back to the Sava River, except when it comes to flood control. Take a long walk on the bank and see the sculptures it holds.
Even if you don’t walk there, it’s hard to miss the mountain Medvednica. Sljeme is the highest peak, but the view tends to be obscured by trees. You’ll still be delighted to find Medvedgrad and other ruins. Or maybe the cat retreat at Gorščica is more your style. Medvednica is full of hiking and biking trails or you can take a bus to the top.
Like any proper European capital, Zagreb has an impressive collection of museums, impressive buildings, public squares, and historic monuments. You’re basically required to walk around upper town and lower town. If you’re interested in art, the museums here focus on artists from the Balkans, so you’ll be delighted to discover new works.
Museum of Broken Relationships
This was the motivation for my second trip to Croatia, as it didn’t exist yet the first time I went. It didn’t disappoint. It’s in a prime location in the upper town, surrounded by government buildings.
Museum of Contemporary Art
It’s worth it go out to Novi Zagreb to see the building alone. Double helix slides. No joke.
This walkway to upper town turns into a beer garden at night. There are concerts, movie screenings, and art festivals overlooking the cityscape. You’ll find it at the top of the funicular.
If you don’t make it to this one, there’s others in Zadar and Ljubljana.
This was what drew me to Zagreb the first time. Tomislav had a good laugh at that and didn’t let me go. I finally made it to the museum a few years later and while it’s a nice museum, I’m glad he sent me to the lakes instead. The Nikola Tesla exhibit is quite small and only a corner of the large science center. If you’re short on time, take a photo with the Nikola Tesla statue and call it a day.
It’s mandatory. You also need to see the Archbishop’s Palace, Dolac Market, Lotrscak Tower, St Mark’s Church, and the Stone Gate.
What to eat and drink
Zagreb is a city of farmers markets. The food is all fresh and local. It’ll be some of the most delicious fruit you’ve ever tasted.
The city is big on charcuterie, but vegetarians won’t find it too hard to eat well. Meals tend to be hearty and enjoyed slowly over drinks and long conversations. Zagreb’s cuisine is a mix of Mediterranean, Slavic, and Viennese foods. The waiter is not going to rush you from your table.
While Croatia has a large wine country, beer is the main drink in Zagreb. Craft beers are making a resurgence and more and more places now offer a stellar beer selection.
On my third trip to Croatia, I feel in love with their homemade fruit brandys, rakija. Honey rakija, medica, is the safest, while a friend advised me that her grandmother washes windows with pear rakija, viljamovka. I drank it anyway. There are lots of flavors, many specific to a region, and the alcohol content varies considerably. It’s often served in shot glasses, but you don’t have to take it as a shot. Locals sip it, along with a pint of beer or a bottle of mineral water. Travarica, herb rakija, is served before meals along with fruit. You can pick some up in Duty Free at the Zagreb Airport, or you can flout the law and make it yourself.
The name says it all.
The best spot for smoothies and juice in Zagreb.
It’s owned by a Canadian, but whatever.
A charming little spot.
The oldest family-owned bakery in the city, with an interior that’s frozen in time.
Where to work
Zagreb is charming enough that you might be tempted to stay. The quality of life for digital nomads is pretty high.
Where to stay
Croatia is a country where FlipKey and AirBnB are nothing new, it’s just a new website to connect the thousands of rooms and apartments that have been rented to tourists for as long as anyone can remember. The tourist office will happily connect you to private rooms and apartments.
This isn’t just a hostel, this is also the hippest bar in the city. During the day there’s a lovely backyard cafe. A pool is currently under construction.
Can’t get enough of overnight train trips? You can stay in an old sleeper car right in the Zagreb train station on track number 6. It’s inexpensive and very centrally located. Just note that showers cost extra.