When I put my superpower travel goggles on, I can see you hover over a map of Croatia, tracing a wish-route that’ll make your holiday unforgettable.
Your eyes sparkle at the sight of Croatia’s crystal blue water.
Next, your mouth waters as you read about Istria’s hand-harvested wines and pastas drowned in opulent truffle sauces.
Finally, your heart races when you imagine yourself exploring ancient Dalmatian towns that your blogger idols just returned from.
And there’s just one question before your sweet travel anticipations turn into a set itinerary.
What about Zagreb? Is Zagreb worth visiting too?
If I simply told you ‘Yes, of course it is’, you’d want to know why. Is it an instant winner as the fabulous Croatian coast? Is it ‘the next Prague’? Or something completely different?
I hear you.
When I lived in London, I’d coax my British friends to stop in Zagreb before rushing off to the coast. Not a single one regretted changing their plans. Even when it meant less time sun-bathing or island-hopping.
Of course, I made sure they had me to unravel Zagreb for them. But even if I don’t take you by the hand to my favourite places and share the city’s stories over a cup of coffee, this post will help you find out:
- what to generally expect from your visit to Zagreb
- what travel experiences Zagreb is worth visiting for
- where to get information and inspiration to have a blast in Zagreb
So, is Zagreb worth visiting?
Timeless and elegant like a small black dress, Zagreb is a city that draws you in slowly. If there’s a destination that delivers on the ‘still water runs deep’ statement – it is Zagreb.
Like any Central European capital, Zagreb is not short of praiseworthy highlights: bountiful museums, captivating architecture and an explosion of outdoor activities.
So, think of vibrant food markets, everyday cafe culture, lush greenery and a host of street festivals. But know, they are stylish accessories to the graceful fabric of its biggest highlight – the life attitude.
Where other cities attract with charismatic yet prepackaged tourist attractions, Zagreb delights with its human-scale graciousness.
As James of Nomadic Notes says, it’s ‘a real city, without all the tour buses and restaurants with menus in four languages’. Even when you set out to explore its sights, you’ll be spared the corporate tourist aftertaste: a feeling that you’re in a theme park.
Maybe you’re already itching to explore the best of Zagreb? Then dig into my ultimate guide!
Zagreb is worth visiting if you like:
1) getting around in a laid-back style
If you have a thing for characterful public transport, such as trams in Lisbon or San Francisco, you’ll be easily impressed in Zagreb.
The squealing sound of Zagreb blue trams adds a note of the old word charm to the city’s unhurried pace. Riding a packed carriage will give you a flavour of the local life. But you can just as easily explore the historic centre on foot.
Walking is one of the greatest things you can do in Zagreb.
The Upper Town dimly lit narrow streets will draw you in on a romantic quest. You’ll be poking your head around each corner, wondering where such a secluded alleyway or a staircase might lead? A mysterious park, hidden courtyard, or a world-class museum?
Even when you join pedestrians in the busier Lower Town, walking from point A to point B will be a joyful sidewalk dance. A mellow stroll infused with window-shopping, people-watching and happily getting distracted with new discoveries.
1) Michael Hodson of Go See Write loved the idea that you can get inside a courtyard of each historic building and find a world for yourself: a café or a boutique shop. He could stay in Zagreb for 3-4 months!
2) Frank of Frank about Croatia created a guide to Zagreb for couples, revealing places and itineraries that make Zagreb a perfect romantic getaway.
3) Some Upper Town spots are so perfectly hidden and beautiful, they just lend themselves to romance. I call them Zagreb kissing spots. Find them on this Romantic Zagreb Walk.
Zagreb is worth visiting if you like:
2) straying off the path
Rambling around Zagreb pretty cityscape will put you in a perfect holiday mood. You’ll be carefree as well as thrilled with things you do and places you see. If you completely ditch your to-do list, Zagreb’s walkable character will wow you even more.
Aimless meandering could take you to secluded leafy paths, just around the corner from bustling streets and squares. So follow your curiosity. There is street art, spooky gargoyles, bygone courtyard wells or painted water pumps waiting out there.
You’ll wonder why these enchanting oddities are not sign-posted or widely advertised. The answer? Because Zagreb is still not a touristy place. You’ll be thankful for that because part of the excitement is discovering them on your own.
1) Get deliciously aimless with my self-guided Zagreb walks through city’s uncharted territories. You’ll get a map and a bunch of captivating stories, from art history to the city lore, to keep you going.
2) Iva Silla from Secret Zagreb is more than a tourist guide. Her gripping storytelling about Zagreb legends leaves no stone unturned, even in the darkest Upper Town alley or inside secret Zagreb tunnels. If you want your curiosity fired up and then be guided to lesser-known parts of the city, book one of her inspiring walks.
3) Kris and Sarah of Jetsetting Fools stayed in Zagreb long enough to discover the delights of many Zagreb outdoor spaces. Follow their trail through landscaped parks, such as Maksimir, the Green Horseshoe or the Botanical Garden, or venture out to semi-wild greenery and Zagreb lakes.
Zagreb is worth visiting if you like:
3) travelling without to-do lists
Do you know the feeling of overwhelm after spending a few days in Paris or London?
It’s not only the busy ‘things to do and places to see’ itinerary that sends you off spinning but the gnawing guilt about not having covered it all. Even your memory of these grand places carry a tinge of failure.
On the other hand, Zagreb is utterly different. Not only can you do your to-dos short and sweet, it’s a city that forgives you for missing out on some of its official highlights.
In fact, many travellers wish they had allowed more time in Zagreb. But the regret is not about running out of time to do more sightseeing. It’s about not realizing sooner that Zagreb is at its best without an itinerary.
Anne Lowrey of Part Time Traveler said next time she visits Zagreb, it’ll be only to loaf around and sip one coffee after other. Honestly, if you want to experience Zagreb at its most exquisite, you need to match its languid attitude to life.
What Zagreb people love most is their free time. Actually, they’ll conduct even their busiest tasks in what seems like a leisurely context – coffee drinking.
If the sight of crowded terraces in the middle of a workday makes you think no one works here, remember that you might be witnessing a bunch of business meetings.
Also, having a drink with friends is often a spur of the moment thing. Few people will ever require you to arrange a date long in advance. It’s an attitude thing.
Zagreb people believe they should have time for their friends, even if it means taking it out of their work schedule.
So throw away your agenda.
Instead of getting busy sightseeing, meet a local and enjoy the sweetness of doing nothing… one cafe after another after another. Or if Zagreb is a stop on your world travels, use your time here to slow down and recover from other busy destinations.
Pretend you live here and the coulda woulda shoulda’s will soon disappear. You’ll love Zagreb for giving you a wonderful freedom to just be.
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Zagreb Cafes: the ultimate guide for everyone's taste
As you move from a café to a restaurant, you’ll soon encounter something worth seeing. Maybe it won’t be a guidebook highlight, but it will be just as memorable. Why? Because you’ve discovered it by chance.
And because it’s the way Zagreb unfolds to visitors.
1) The beauty of Zagreb for Matt Long of Landlopers is in discovering small and unexpected delights like statues of the famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović: ‘a tour just of his statues in Zagreb could easily fill a day’.
2) Iva Silla’s guestpost for the popular Croatia blog Chasing the Donkey praises Zagreb street art scene – just as vibrant and interesting as must-see museums. Why not track down the Zagreb Solar system – a treasure trail of nine planets scattered around the city, relative in size and distance to the real thing. Or stop at a painted water pump to learn about the Pimp My Pump art project?
3) Kami of My Wanderlust took amazing photos of the Zagreb graffiti – another lesser-known city delight, discovered only if you lose your itinerary and hop on an aimless walk.
Zagreb is worth visiting if you like:
3) cities with their own cool
People often compare Zagreb to the Croatian coast or to cities like Prague or Vienna. But Zagreb is neither and both at the same time.
An eclectic mix of Central European and Mediterranean mentalities, it’s smart in an Austro-Hungarian way and spruced up with warm Southern gusto.
Most of all, Zagreb has developed its own way of cool.
Resisting the onslaught of large international franchises, the city centre abounds with idiosyncratic cafes, restaurants, boutique shops, even old-style cinemas.
In the words of Jonathan Bousfield, author of the Rough Guide to Croatia, this ‘makes Zagreb something of a collector’s item among connoisseurs of Central European authenticity’.
Facts that make Zagreb a singular city:
#1 Zagreb has the biggest number of museums per square meter.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is the most raved about gallery. But more unique museum spaces are sprouting all the time.
1) Sarah Ricks of Traveling Mom speaks of Zagreb as an architectural feast and includes a list of must-see museums. Her impressions will set you off on a cultured trail.
2) There’s hardly a blog post about Zagreb that doesn’t praise the Museum of Broken Relationships. You get the point – go see it. But Wandering Earl has the most poetic and touching review of his afternoon spent in this ‘graveyard of love’. For him it was an uplifting experience.
#2 Zagreb is a cinephiles’ paradise in more than one way.
It was a movie set for the famous films Sophie’s Choice, Fiddler on the Roof and Orson Welles’ The Trial.
It hosts an incredible number of independent film festivals. For example, The Zagreb Film Festival (October), Animafest (June) and Fantastic Zagreb Film Festival (June/July).
Independent films are screened in old-style arthouse cinemas and are never dubbed. Come summer, you can watch them under the starry skies in the middle of the Tuškanac forest.
#3 Zagreb has over 20 farmers markets.
The most central and famous one is Dolac. Mingling at colourful fruit and veg stalls is a prime tourist attraction.
But markets here still keep their primary function. They connect Zagreb people with local food producers. Walk into any neighbourhood and the freshest from farms awaits at the stalls.
#4 Zagreb restaurant scene has exploded.
The whole of Croatia is dished out on Zagreb plates: traditionally cooked or with a twist.
Fish restaurants cook up a storm with ingredients caught the same day. Whiffs of Turkish-influenced filo pastry or kebab radiate from street bistros. And continental meat dishes wait at vaulted-brick dining rooms.
Eating out in Zagreb has never been so exciting and so easy on your wallet.
Frank of Frank about Croatia really knows his way around Zagreb restaurants. Not only does he know what and where to eat, but, most importantly, how to eat. Dig into his guide to Zagreb best lunch restaurants and learn why gablec (lunch-time meal) is so crucial for the city food culture.
Zagreb is worth visiting if you like:
4) Life alfresco
From April to October, Zagreb lives outdoors.
Café terraces swarm with happy faces, their chirpy chatter pulling you in like a siren song. But the city alfresco life doesn’t stop there.
Festivals of all kinds roll in week after week: coffee and chocolate, street food, art performances, music – the weirdest one possibly being the festival of pickles.
C’est is the Best, the oldest street festival, launches the season, turning the city centre into an open-air theatre. Think live music, hula-hoop, joggling, but also get ready for more unusual gigs. Like checking into the centre for mood repairs where your long face can easily get fixed.
The fun continues through the summer at the Upper Town Strossmayer Promenade, dubbed Strossmartre. Even when Zagreb people leave for the coast, Summer on Stross keeps going with music, art and theatre festivities.
The most recent gem is Dvorista festival. For one week in July Zagreb Upper Town courtyards open their doors and throw up music and food parties.
Winter doesn’t mean the end of open-air fun.
Yes, Zagreb gets snow – real thick and crispy – but it doesn’t stop us from getting out and about. During December there’s a Christmas buzz around town called Advent in Zagreb.
Streets are lit up, food stalls sell sausages and mulled wine. And each square has a unique range of tidbits at their Christmas fair.
The rhythm of live music quickly makes you forget the below zero temperature that turns your feet stiff with cold. If your inner child rejoices at the thought of ice-skating, you can glide across Europe’s biggest open-air ice-rink at the Zrinjevac Square.
Finally, Zagreb’s quintessential open-air experience is climbing the Medvednica Mountain.
Within 20 minutes on public transport, you’ll start on the trails through an unspoilt nature park. Whatever the season, there are lodges with hearty meals and impeccable city views waiting at the top.
Locals venture out there every weekend, so if you really want to crack Zagreb, you’ll follow too.
1) Follow Frank’s suggestions on how to conquer Medvednica for yourself. If you prefer a more unorthodox leafy stroll, take his word and go to the amazing Mirogoj cemetery.
2) Rambling Mandie has a funny account of hiking up Medvednica in search of the elusive Medvedgrad Castle.
3) Travel writer Anja Mutic takes you on an intriguing exploration of Zagreb hidden courtyards. You’ll be amazed with cafes, restaurants and shops concealed from the main street view and better understand why Zagreb keeps its biggest charms away from the spotlights.
Are you sold on the idea of Zagreb now that you know what to expect?
Drop me a comment if there’s more you need to dispel your dilemma…
And book your perfect stay in Zagreb now!
Try Swanky Mint B&B in the centre of Zagreb. It’s a revamped 19th-century factory full of character and historic industrial features. The best part? It has a fantastic garden and a private roof-top pool! Imagine chilling with a cocktail (they’re famous for that) and enjoying a superb view of the city!