Travellers visiting Zagreb meet 5 challenges to having a true experience. But where’s challenges, there’s also solutions. Exciting, isn’t it?
#1: Zagreb is not a touristy city
You can tell a city is a popular tourist destination when it becomes known by its nickname. Paris – the city of light, New York – the city that never sleeps, Rome – the eternal city, Tokio – the city of the future. But Zagreb? You tell me.
It’s sometimes called Little Vienna, but this description doesn’t give it due credit.
Zagreb is not a touristy city. Trust me, that’s a good thing. Most people whizz through it on the way to the Adriatic coast, or choose it as a 2-day city break. If you judge it on first impressions, expecting tourist sights as monumental as those of London, Berlin or Moscow, you’ll be disappointed. Because Zagreb is a city that needs unravelling.
‘Zagreb’s main attraction is its attitude — a sophisticated laid back cool that puts life on pause in favor of friends and family […] if Zagreb has taught me one thing, it’s how to relax.’
If I was asked to give Zagreb a nickname, it would be this: the slow city.
Because visiting Zagreb for longer than 2 days will make you slow down. It could be a challenge at first, especially if you’re used to rushing around. Or if you’re the kind of traveller who simply must see everything. But after covering ‘things to do’ and ‘places to see’ from guidebooks, you’ll realise that the best things are not packaged here.
Zagreb’s way of life is similar to the slow food movement. Think of Zagreb’s highlights in terms of local and seasonal. Just as you love knowing where your food comes from, the best of Zagreb will come to you from the people you meet. Much less from travel guides.
#2: Zagreb guides don’t capture the whole picture
So what could be wrong with reading a guidebook before visiting Zagreb?
Nothing particularly. It’s just that official guidebooks have a copy-paste model they apply to cities universally. 10 best restaurants, 5 must-see places, you know the drill. They categorise your experience into formulaic chunks – sights, nightlife, cuisine – making you believe this is all there is to a place.
I’m a huge advocate of picking a local’s brain for the best time in Zagreb. But some of these big ‘like a local’ brands replicate their print siblings: they start in one place and soon clone to encompass the whole world. Do you honestly believe every city’s local knowledge is formed and spread in the same way globally? I don’t.
Which is why you should get your free copy of the locally made guide Zagreb For You. Find it at any tourist information office, most museums and local cafes.
Many helpful tips come from expats living in Croatia. Check out these 3: Zablogreb, Chasing the donkey, Frank about Croatia. You’ll get good suggestions on what to do and where to go. Plus, their insights relate to what you as a foreigner could experience in Croatia. What might be a cultural shock to you, how to interpret what appears as weird Croatian behaviour, etc.
For foodie travellers Taste of Croatia is a treasure box of everything you can taste in Croatia. It’s a culinary pop up, run by a group of enthusiasts – food bloggers, chefs in their spare time and most of all Croatia connoisseurs. Connect with them and you’ll learn about food and wine events before they enter official guides.
Delve into some local literary fiction, which is a great source for learning about the local culture. Literature doesn’t give you a postcard-perfect image of a place, but it definitely paints the most vivid local colours. Check out this amazing collection of noir-is short stories, written by local writers and set in different locations around the city.
#3: Zagreb hotels are overpriced
Most Zagreb hotels are not the best value for your money. You might spend around 100 Euros a night for a room that looks the same in every city. OK, it comes with breakfast, but you can always buy pastry around the corner and have it in your local coffee shop.
Zagreb private accommodation, on the other hand, is booming. Zagreb Tourist Board has around 900 listed apartments. This is 60% more compared to last year. While the number of tourists to Zagreb rises all the time, vacation apartments offer is still larger than the demand.
Booking, Flipkey and Airbnb feature amazing rentals for as little as 30 Euros a night – all centrally located. Many of these properties have been turned from long-term lettings into tourist apartments.
If you want to find a great host that will make a difference to your Zagreb visit, go through Airbnb. Their website allows you to find out about a person you’re renting from. Look for someone who shares your interests. Read people’s biographies. If you’re into art, a host with similar interests will give you great tips about the Zagreb art scene – even if they are not a professional tourist guide.
Rental agencies also list Zagreb hostels. There is now a large number of them and they are very affordable. The biggest advantage of staying in a hostel is that you meet fellow travellers who’ll share tips or join you for sightseeing. Make the most of the word of mouth knowledge about Zagreb.
Check out Frank’s comprehensive guide to the best accommodation in Zagreb, including: hotels worth staying at, best private apartments with an added value, and funky hostels offering private rooms.
#4: Zagreb is not an authentic place and that’s a great thing
Our greatest travel desire is to unveil what is most authentic about a place – food, drinks, crafts. But here’s what you need to know about your search for the authentic in Zagreb.
The best thing about Zagreb is that most what is authentic here has been influenced by different cultural heritages.
The great-tasting apple strudel dates from the Austro-Hungarian times. If you tried ćevapi, you’ll recognised the Turkish kofta kebab as its sibling. Lightly steamed vegetables seasoned with olive oil, garlic and parsley – a staple food in Dalmatia – is a yummy offspring of the Italian cuisine. And međimurska gibanica – a delicious filo pastry cake with 4 fillings – is also recognised as a Slovenian national dish.
Zagreb offers such rich varieties of all kinds of culinary influences. You’ll enjoy most when you start recognising how these influences have been adapted locally. Just take filo pastry as an example. Zagreb is the place where you can find both Central-Europan sweet strudel and Turkish-style savory burek – both made with the same dough. Delicious!
#5: Zagreb customer service sucks but Zagreb friends make up for it
When you travel, you are basically a customer – at least most of the time. Visiting Zagreb could become a true challenge, because customer service is not a very developed concept. Here you’ll really need to keep your zen.
Let me give you an example.
Last year at Zagreb Christmas fair, I bought a horseshoe shaped chocolate. I paid the saleslady and while I was still stuffing the change into my wallet, she handed me the bag with chocolate. I took it clumsily and immediately dropped it to the ground.
‘Could I have another one, please’, I showed her the broken pieces.
She replied: ‘No.’
‘But you could easily mould it back together’, I reasoned with her.
‘It fell from your hand, not mine’, she grunted and turned to the next customer.
Many foreign travellers experience Croats as rude. I agree. The way that saleslady treated me was rude. But Croatian people are not really rude by nature. They just haven’t been taught the basic customer service principles.
In the West, a successful sale is mostly based on whether the customer is made to feel good. Which is why smiling and the ‘customer is always right’ attitude are part of every salesperson’s education.
If you run into stroppy salespeople in Croatia, know that they haven’t been taught to treat you otherwise. It’s something that stuck with us from the socialist era – a time with little competition.
Here’s a little trick you can try. Respond to a grumpy waiter in a friendly and personal way and wait for a change to happen. The moment you cross the line from being a customer to becoming a friendly face, you’ll experience a different side to most Croats – they’ll walk an extra mile in order to help you.
Remember this: Croatia is a country where not all exchanges between people are monetised. For example, what I’ve been used to paying for as a service in the UK is often done as a personal favour in Croatia. In London I’d pay for a cat-sitting service, whereas in Zagreb I have friends do it as a favour.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you discover how much your Zagreb friends can help you.
Let me know of your own Zagreb zen moments!