Zagreb | Croatia’s answer to sophisticated city life

A city that started out as two separate hilltop settlements, today offers a sophisticated city life that is can compete with any of its European counterparts.

Croatia is a land of beautiful coastline and paradise-like islands. It’s land-locked capital, Zagreb, may lose out to some of her beach-destinations but anyone visiting Croatia will do well to travel inland to this city for a little bit of sophisticated city-life. The intersection between Central and Eastern Europe, the historic districts, numerous museums, an excellent selection of restaurants and a vibrant café life put Zagreb up on our list of top destinations.

Kaptol, the diocese of Zagreb, is home to the cathedral which dates back to 1094
Kaptol, the diocese of Zagreb, is home to the cathedral which dates back to 1094

Best spot for sightseeing

The city of Zagreb developed as two separate hillside settlements. Kaptol and Gradec did not integrate for many hundreds of years. Kaptol, the diocese of Zagreb, was clergy based, while Gradec was a secular medieval town populated by artists and tradesmen. Today it is home to the Croatian Parliament and the Constitutional Court. The Kaptol cathedral dates back to 1094, though it was razed by Mongols in 1200 and then damaged by a 19th century earthquake.

Jelačić Square is a hub of activity. Several trams meet in this square and, as it is closed to traffic, if the perfect place to stroll around, admiring the Habsburg-style architecture. There are plenty of cafés with patios where you can stop and enjoy lunch or a coffee and watch the world go by.

Licitar is so much a part of Zagreb, that UNESCO have recognised this as part of Croatian culture
Licitar is so much a part of Zagreb, that UNESCO have recognised this as part of Croatian culture

Best local thing

When travelling around Zagreb, you’ll see plenty of bright red hearts, whether on brochures or shop signs. These are the traditional symbol of Zagreb and are even more delicious than meets the eye. Yes, delicious. These bright red hearts, known as licitar, are cookies that are pained with a glossy, edible, red enamel and decorated with piped patterns and messages. This craft is so much a part of the city of Zagreb that it has been recognised by UNESCO as representative of Croatian culture.

The Dolac, described as the ‘Belly of Zagreb’ offers a taste of life in the Croatian capital
The Dolac, described as the ‘Belly of Zagreb’ offers a taste of life in the Croatian capital

Best place for shopping

If you’re self-catering then a daily visit to the market is a must. Locally known as Dolac, it is located in the historic Upper Town, only one block from Jelačić Square and offers a selection of fresh produce from regional farms. It is a great place to buy meat, diary products and vegetables as well as artisanal items. They also have a great array of fresh fish brought in from the coast and flower stalls that add a little bit of brightness. Many stalls will be offering gableci, cheap lunches that will be twice as expensive when served a la carte. Bean stew (grah), turkey with Zagorje pasta (purica s mlincima) and squared pasta with roasted cabbage (krautflekerli) are the sort of dishes you might expect.

Tkalčićeva street, in the Old Town, comes alive after dark with people walking along the streets lined with a selection of bars, restaurants and boutique shops
Tkalčićeva street, in the Old Town, comes alive after dark with people walking along the streets lined with a selection of bars, restaurants and boutique shops

Best place for a night out

The fairytale street of Tkalčićeva, offers the best in the way of a night out. Packed with live music bars and plenty of sit-down restaurants this should be your first port of call after the sun sets. This is the time to try their traditional rakija, which is a clear grappa-like fruit brandy most often made from plums and grapes, though you’ll also find rakijas made from apples, peaches, pears, cherries and figs.

Best place to eat

You can’t go though Zagreb without sampling some of their traditional štrukli. This pastry is made with soft rolled dough filled with cottage cheese and sour cream and can be served as a sweet or savoury dish. There are many places that serve this distant cousin of the Austrian apple strudel and Turkish borek, though if you’re looking for the best traditional version you might head down to Esplanade Hotel. La Štruk offers a more contemporary take with some unusual combinations such as cheese and nettle and cheese and paprika.

Lake Jarun is the venue for one of Croatia’s best music festivals INmusic that takes place at the end of July
Lake Jarun is the venue for one of Croatia’s best music festivals INmusic that takes place at the end of July

Best place to wind down and enjoy nature

Croatia is home to some of Europe’s most underrated beaches. Zagreb, as it is not a costal town, loses out somewhat being named a beach destination. However, if you’re in the city in the summer, a trip to Lake Jarun gives you the opportunity to get your feet wet as well as take part in a variety of water sports including competitive rowing and kayaking. People flock to the lake for its nightlife where a number of bars and clubs set up on the lakeshore. This is the destination of the INmusic festival, which takes place at the end of June. This rock and electronic festival has seen big names such as Pixies, PJ Harvey and Wilco in recent years. This year’s line up includes Alice in Chains, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and Queens of The Stone Age among others.

Around 45 minutes southwest of the city is a place the locals call City of Parks. Karlovac is a 16th century Austrian outpost that was used against the Ottoman advance. Though the original walls are long gone, you can see the remains of the Old Town as state-of-the-art military defence system. The moats and trenches that once surrounded the city have been left as they were, allowing you to stretch your legs in the forests and gardens left behind.

How to get there

Air Malta offer regular flights to Zagreb in Croatia.

Currency

As Croatia is part of the European Union, the Euro is used here.

Best time of year to visit

Late spring or early autumn are the best times to visit Croatia as it is not cold but accommodation rates are still reasonable. As it is popular with tourists, rates increase over the summer months. During the winter it is cold in Rijeka though this is good for skiing and the Christmas markets are in full bloom in December.

Visas

Croatia is part of the European Union therefore no visas are required when travelling on holiday.

More in Travel

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition

Subscribe