Zagreb has for a long time lived in the shadow of the more popular Croatian coast. But now things are looking up for the country’s capital city. Just this year, Lonely Planet placed it at the top of their hotlist of Europe destinations. And Zagreb Advent festival won the Best Christmas Market award two years running.
This new Zagreb’s appeal has a lot to do with what the locals are creating – regenerating neighborhoods, setting up edgy festivals and taking the food scene to the next level. Most visitors, however, look only for Zagreb’s top attractions, which often means going after places that are packaged for tourists.
From a tourist point of view, Zagreb may seem small. You can cover the highlights in only a couple of days and, unlike Paris or London, it still has no tourist traps to avoid. Zagreb is actually on the opposite end of the spectrum. The list of pre-packaged tourist experiences isn’t long, which is precisely why you should focus on something else: the local vibe, the stories behind its architecture and the people’s daily rituals.
So, let’s explore Zagreb in a fun way. I’ll list Zagreb’s top attractions and, with each one, I’ll suggest what else you can do to experience the city in a more memorable way.
If by the end you feel motivated to explore further, check out my ultimate list of 101 things to do in Zagreb.
1 | The Upper Town
Zagreb’s Upper Town is the oldest part of the city. Its narrow winding alleys are full of mystic charm where you’ll love losing yourself in aimless walking. People usually get impressed with three attractions here.
St. Mark’s church is famous for its amazing red and white checkered roof tiles. The inside also boasts impressive artwork by Croatia’s renowned sculptor Ivan Meštrović.
The medieval Lotrščak Tower houses the Grič Cannon which fires a 130 dB loud shot every day at noon. This unique tradition is 140 years old.
The best way to approach the Upper is through the Stone Gate – the only entrance that remained intact since the Middle Ages. Inside this arched gateway, there is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary where people light candles and pray.
What else to do
Walk around the Upper Town and notice gorgeous Baroque palaces. Behind their gates are even more stunning courtyards. Some are open to the public, like the one in Demetrova 11 where you can see the last remaining Upper Town well. If you’re visiting in July, watch out for the super cool Courtyards Festival, when many more palaces open their doors and host live music events.
The Upper Town is criss-crossed with a network of staircases. Some are simple wooden and others monumental and made of stone. They can be difficult to spot unless you peep inside openings between the buildings. But once you find them, you’ll love walking up and down – plus this will cut short your route to the next popular place. It’s the true charm of the hilly old Zagreb.
2 | Zagreb green spaces
Zagreb is an intensely green city. There are parks all around the historic center, as well as large green areas further out.
Its two main leafy attractions are the Green Horseshoe and Maksimir Park with the Zagreb Zoo.
Zagreb’s Lower Town – the historic part built largely in the 19th century – boasts a unique urban project called the Green or Lenuci Horseshoe. It’s a U-shaped network of parks and squares which connects many of the city’s landmark buildings and sites. The locals’ darling is Zrinjevac Park lined with centenary plane trees and home to fantastic open-air festivals.
Further to the east is Maksimir Park – a sprawling green haven where the locals go to walk, run, or to simply unplug from the urban bustle. Maksimir opened in 1794 and is the oldest landscaped park in this part of Europe.
What else to do
My favourite leafy experience of Zagreb is roaming in Tuškanac forest. This stretch of semi-wild greenery begins a few hundred meters north from the main Ilica Street and connects Zagreb with Medvednica mountain.
The allure of Tuškanac forest is that it stayed semi-wild. Its green pathways meander among Zagreb’s most opulent neighborhoods Tuškanac, Pantovčak, Kraljevec and Zelengaj, where nature blends with the early 20th century villas. Find Dubravka’s Trail (Dubravkin put) north from Dežman Passage and follow it to Cmrok meadow. You’ll be hiking in the center of the city – priceless!
Speaking of hiking, don’t miss exploring Medvednica mountain – a nature park that overlooks the city. Every weekend, thousands of locals hike up there to enjoy the views and excellent homemade food.
3 | Dolac farmers’ market
Zagreb locals love small-scale shopping. Going to the market in the morning is a deep-rooted ritual which combines shopping and mingling with other people.
Dolac market, set just above the main Jelačić Square, attracts people from all around Zagreb. This colorful market with the landmark red parasols is also called ‘the belly of the city’ where the true stars are kumice – women farmers from nearby villages who sell their own produce.
Dolac is easy to navigate. The outdoor level features stalls with fresh fruit and vegetables. In the north-western corner you’ll find the fish market which boasts a fabulous range of all kinds of seafood from the Adriatic Sea. The ground floor stocks all kinds of artisan produce, such as organic meat, pasta, cheese and dairy.
What else to do
Dolac is now home to different types of vendors, not only local farmers. Try to spot a real kumica. She’ll have smaller heaps of veggies, her apples won’t look perfect, her carrots may have a bit of dirt left on them. This is the sign you’re buying the real thing.
Explore Zagreb’s second biggest market – Britanac. On weekdays, the atmosphere will be similar to the one at Dolac. But on weekends, the farmers’ market transforms into a lively antiques fair where you can pick up all kinds of wonderful knick-knacks.
From May to October, look out for wooden stalls at various locations across town where farmers sell their fruit. The season opens with strawberries and ends with blackberries. I love getting a punnet of fruit and have a picnic in a park.
4 | Zagreb Coffee Culture
Zagreb locals love their coffee. One of the first impressions of the city are numerous café terraces sprawled at side-walks and squares.
There are two areas in Zagreb that are famous coffee strips – Tkalčićeva Street and the area around Flower Square. This is where people get together over a cup of coffee but also to see the world and be seen.
Coffee connoisseurs have a few cafés where coffee is roasted on site and carefully blended. These are Eliscaffe (Ilica 63), Cogito (Varšavska 11) and U Dvorištu (Žerjavićeva 7).
What else to do
Instead of looking for a perfect coffee blend or a unique coffee shop setting, focus on the ritual of coffee drinking. Meeting for coffee is the glue that keeps Zagreb people together. That’s how they spend time with friends and take things easy. Here, almost no one takes their work to a café.
Visit two cafés with a peculiar history and character. Pod Starim Krovovima (Basaričekova 9) is the oldest Zagreb café that opened back in the 1830s. It also prides itself as the place with the cheapest coffee in town. Booksa (Martićeva 14d) is the most bookish cafe where you can catch interesting literary events and just chill with other bookworms.
5 | Zagreb museums and art scene
Zagreb abounds with museums of all kinds: from large traditional ones to small and quirky.
Museum of Broken Relationships (Ćirilometodska 2) is the most famous one that gets featured in almost every blog post about Zagreb. The concept of celebrating failed relationships is so unique but at the same time deeply familiar to everyone.
The second most popular place is the Museum of Illusions (Ilica 72) – an unusual gallery of exhibits which play tricks with your mind and the ways you perceive reality.
What else to do
Save an afternoon to explore the Museum of Contemporary Art (Avenija Dubrovnik 17) which is a tram ride away from the city center. The remarkable meander-shaped building is a sight in itself while the museum’s gallery showcases a fantastic range of contemporary art from Croatia and beyond.
The latest art buzz are Zagreb street murals. There are many excellent local artist who continue to paint the city walls with eye-catching work. Check out Medika Art Center, Student Center and Gradec Plateau – three locations where you can see pieces by Lonac, OKO, Pimp My Pump collective, Lunar and the French artist Etien.
Andrea Pisac is a travel writer and Croatia expert. She exchanged her London-based academic life with being more creative, free and fulfilled in Zagreb. Follow her adventures on her Croatia travel blog.