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. For example, Paris is the city of light, New York the city that never sleeps. Rome goes by the eternal city, and Tokyo is the city of the future.
But what about 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 and expect tourist sights as monumental as those of London, Berlin or Moscow, you’ll be disappointed. Because Zagreb is a city that needs unravelling.
Here is what an American expat working in the American International School of Zagreb said.
‘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 had to give Zagreb a nickname, it would be this: the slow city.
ZAGREB 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 rushing around is all you know. 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.
Check out my ultimate Zagreb guide which includes plenty of non-touristy things to do!
In essence, Zagreb’s way of life is similar to the slow food movement.
Think of Zagreb’s highlights in terms of local and seasonal. For instance, 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.
VISITING ZAGREB SOLUTION 1
Come to Zagreb to rest; forget a tourist itinerary, don’t burden your downtime with to-do lists.
#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. For example, you get recommendations about sights, nightlife, cuisine… And you think this is all there is to a place.
VISITING ZAGREB: OFFICIAL GUIDES
Well researched guides to Zagreb (Zagreb in your pocket, Timeout Croatia, Rough guide to Croatia) can help you enjoy established places. But well-known is not always the most interesting.
Next, there are online guides revealing what Zagreb locals love and do, sometimes before these sights become the city’s must-dos. Check out Zagreb like a local and Zagreb spotted by locals.
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. In short, 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? 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.
VISITING ZAGREB: LOCAL BLOGS
Many helpful tips come from expats living in Croatia. To begin with, check out these 3: Zablogreb, Love Zagreb, 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.
VISITING ZAGREB: LITERARY FICTION
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.
VISITING ZAGREB SOLUTION 2
Explore different types of guides – official, local, expat – and keep an open eye for things that aren’t yet listed.
#3: Zagreb hotels are expensive
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 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.
Check out my guide on how to use Airbnb in Croatia.
VISITING ZAGREB: RENTAL AGENCIES
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. It includes hotels worth staying at, best private apartments with an added value, and funky hostels offering private rooms.
VISITING ZAGREB SOLUTION 3
Private apartments are the best value for money, even more so if you find a host who is a good ambassador or the city.
#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.
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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.
We do, of course, have authentic Croatian dishes (strukli, purica s mlincima, soparnik), but the point is something else.
Zagreb offers such rich varieties of all kinds of culinary influences. You’ll enjoy most when you start recognising how these influences 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!
VISITING ZAGREB SOLUTION 4
Enjoy the global influences that mix and match in Zagreb. It’s the place where East meets West.
#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 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 learnt the basic customer service principles.
In the West, the customer’s satisfaction always comes first. Which is why smiling is part of every salesperson’s education.
ZAGREB CUSTOMER SERVICE
If you run into stroppy salespeople in Croatia, know that they haven’t learnt 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.
Learn how to say thank you in Croatian.
Remember this: Croatia is a country where not all exchanges between people are monetised.
For example, what I was paying for as a service in the UK often comes 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.
Check out my guide on how to make friends with the Croatian people.
VISITING ZAGREB SOLUTION 5
Keep cool in cases of shitty customer service; approach stroppy salespeople in a friendly way and see how they transform into helpful strangers.
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I wish this article was available before we visited Zagreb. It is accurate, insightful and very useful.
Zagreb is a wonderful city, and a frustrating city. We met the most beautiful people there, and ran up against the most unhelpful people there.
We could have easily spent weeks there, yet I believe we saw many of the sites to see in our 4 days there.
It’s quirky, historical, interesting, and socially active. On the other hand, it’s distant, unengaging and untouristy.
If I may say so, there is an opportunity in Zagreb for a professional, entrepreneurial tourist agent to put together itineraries, programs and tours that could display Zagreb in a light it deserves, it needs and from which it would benefit.
Of all the place we visited (as tourists) in Croatia, Zagreb was the place we would love to revisit, even linger in, to explore the nooks and crannies non-tourists visit. It is interesting to note that we know who we want to be our guide and mentor. She is someone with excellent interpersonal skills, extensive knowledge, and a love of the city.
Visit Zagreb, utilise this article, and explore this wonderful, hidden jewel of Europe.
Hi David, I’m so glad you found the article useful. Thanks for the encouraging words. I know exactly what you mean about Zagreb being both beautiful and frustrating. Having lived in London for a long time and now being back ‘home’, I am experiencing the very same emotions. Which is why I really wanted to use my anthropological eye and my writing skill – my mission is to help travellers discover the real cultural identity of Zagreb, and not just to point them to cafes and restaurants. I hope to have many more helpful posts by the time you come back to Zagreb 🙂
I am not sure it is fair to say that the Zagreb customer service is all rude… i grew up in the States – and i have had my fair share of “rude” service – but i wouldn’t say everybody is rude… i am not sure it is fair to say there is nothing authentic about Zagreb either – Zagreb is small, not widely popular or well-known … but i have lived here for 19 years and have a hard time seeing what you see Andrea – other than the fact that it can be very comfortable… most of the things you notice here i could say about Madrid, Barcelona and even London… i think your heart was in the right place – but i just don’t think you got it completetly right…
Thanks for your comment, Diana. Of course, not everyone is rude in Croatia and nice elsewhere. My aim was to explain possible reasons as to why some service people might be rude in Croatia. I’ve been treated nicely in Croatia plenty of times. Also, when I spoke of authentic, I wanted to emphasise the multicultural heritage of Zagreb – something that is too often neglected in tourist guides while the search for the authentic is overemphasised. I couldn’t agree with you more on the last note – Zagreb is a very comfortable place to live in. Except when it pours down with rain like today 🙂
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I’m an American who’s lived in Zagreb a couple times and visited several others. I’ve found customer service different than in the US, although not necessarily unfriendly. In most shops, you’re greeted with a “dobar dan” right away. The clerks may not always be so smiley, but they will help even if they don’t speak English and my Croatian is minimal. A poor salesman at Nama once spent a good 20 minutes trying to find me what I needed (a jar opener!). In fact, I’ve found Zagreb salesclerks’ patience with my lack of language skills to be extraordinary. Also, apparently I can say dobar dan with a good enough accent to pass. 🙂 When I’m answered–understandably enough–with Croatian words and I ask for English, every clerk who speaks English has been delightful: appreciative of my very poor attempt at the language, eager to practice English, even apologetic for not having perfect English! One sweet young woman even told me to “have a nice day,” which may be the first time those words were ever uttered by a Croatian salesclerk. The only consistently grouchy salespeople are the checkers at Konzum–but they’re grouchy to everyone.
Kim, thanks for your comment – it’s great to hear a well balanced opinion on this instead of sweeping generalisations you can find online. I am glad you had an overall good experience while shopping in Croatia 🙂
Is Zagreb suitable for solo travelling?
I speak/ understand no Croation what so ever.
Hi Andras, yes, very much so. Most people speak enough English for you to get by, younger generations are very fluent in English. You’ll have a good time 🙂
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My husband and I will be visiting Zagreb this week. We are very excited. The pictures looks amazing.
Hello.I am Born Croatian,parents live in Zagreb.I moved to US 6 years ago and comparison to Croatia when it comes to sales is not so different.All depends on place where they work,you have grouchy ones where they are more busy and don’t earn as much money.I am was working in Croatia in different kind of sale stores and what you have to understand is in Croatia people in sales work for as little as 300 dollars a month,work overtime without being payed and working other things besides selling things,like cleaning entire store inside and outside ,toilets and so on and that after their shift is done so you have to understand they don’t really look forward to smile at everyone.Mostly people do know English,younger generations especially.Zagreb is beautiful old city,should learn about it’s history,is very interesting.Zagreb to me is not so slow living as the rest of Croatia,especially Dalmacija and if you visiting ZG,should visit Zagorje and Dalmacia as well,good thing is wherever you go in Croatia,everything is few hours away so you can see everything 🙂