One of Zagreb’s unique features is having Medvednica nature park at its doorstep.
You can see those majestic green hills from any corner of the city. They are like a beacon gracing the northern skyline.
The city and its mountain have a long history together. Medvednica has been a rock to Zagreb, always having its back against enemies and cold winds.
It provided locals with food, water and firewood for centuries.
You can best see how deep that bond goes when you look from above. The mountain begins where the city leaves off.
It’s like when watercolours mix and merge.
Today Zagreb people don’t need sustenance from Medvednica any more. At least not in the way of protection and survival.
But they do need something else – food for their soul. And this the mountain gives in abundance.
Hiking on Medvednica is one of the favourite pastimes for Zagreb locals.
They flock there to enjoy the fresh air, hang out with friends and admire fantastic views of Zagreb. Of course, all that combined with simple but unbeatable home-cooked food.
They always feel replenished. Because hiking to Sljeme hilltop is like climbing a staircase to heaven.
You leave the noise behind and enter the enchanting woodland with plenty of mysteries waiting to be discovered.
So next time when you start wondering which of many fine Zagreb parks to hit – let me help you.
Think out of the box.
Go hiking and exploring Medvednica Mountain.
It’s a park. A nature park as it happens.
There are so many marked hiking trails you could spend a week on the mountain.
But just so you can pick and choose, here is the list of my top 10 things to do on Medvednica.
1) Walking along the top of Medvednica
With so much unspoilt countryside, it’s strange that Croats haven’t grown into keener walkers.
Those who regularly visit Croatian mountains are hikers. They do day or over night trips with the goal to conquer a mountain summit.
Aside from needing to be fit, hiking is easy in Croatia. Marking trails all over the country are well maintained. Mountain huts and shelters are plentiful.
But when it comes to walking… well, the trails are hard to come by.
This is why Medvednica is so special.
With Sljeme hilltop at the altitude of 1035 m, it makes for a good old 2 hour hike. Lots of calories will be burnt on the way up. Knees may wobble on the way down.
But then again, you can drive or take a bus up and walk along the mountain ridge. Most trails will be flat-ish but gorgeous just the same.
Don’t underestimate Medvednica for not being the highest of mountains. The nature park covers a pretty large expanse of 17,938 ha and measures 42 km in length.
This means you could be walking up to 20 hours. Of course, only if you wish so.
One of the nicest trails along the top is the one connecting Grafičar and Puntijarka mountain huts.
It’s gentle and easy to walk. And as you meander through verdant forests, you get to see many Medvednica landmarks. Such as Sljeme Chapel and the very summit.
2) Bathing in Medvednica forests
It is lush and varied forests that made Medvednica into a protected nature park.
Wherever you go, trees soar high around you, doing their majestic rustling.
Walking on Medvednica is a proper forest bathing experience.
Inside the nature park, there are 8 protected forest reservations. You will come across many common species. Such as oak, chestnut, beech, but also the rare ones like linden and yew trees.
Beech is the most common of all trees. You will recognize it by its silvery, almost glowing bark. And when it dons on its autumn foliage, a beech forest looks utterly etherial.
Forest bathing sounds like a particular thing to do. But actually, you only need to be among the trees, and notice them.
Listen to the wind rustle with leaves, feel the crunch of old leaves under your feet. Gaze into sun rays breaking through the tree tops.
That’s forest bathing. It’s all about using your senses. But if you want to keep your mind busy too, play a game of guessing trees.
Learn to recognize them by their bark and the shape of their leaves.
Most of us city folk are out of touch with nature. So it’s a good idea to rekindle that bond.
3) Exploring Veternica Cave
Veternica is the sixth largest cave in Croatia with several secrets hiding in its belly.
Its atmospheric canals were home to prehistoric animals. Think cave bear, lion, leopard, hyena, rhinoceros, wild cattle and giant deer.
With all of them now extinct, Veternica’s main inhabitants are bats.
These nocturnal creature have picked the cave as their favourite winter sleep destination.
Which is why you can only visit the cave from April to the end of October.
But don’t worry. You can spot a few of these sleepy fellows even in spring.
You’ll be surprised how tiny they are. Small enough to fit in your hand. Of course, don’t try to do it. Just let them sleep.
A licensed guide will take you along 380 metres of canals and show you some spectacular rock formations.
There is the Stone Waterfall – a nature’s design that looks like water frozen in time.
You also get challenged to go through the so called Gibraltar. A passage between two rocks that barely fits an average-sized person.
I never imagined that clambering inside dimly lit Veternica could be so exciting. Following along its rugged terrain, ducking and bobbing as I sighed with each new vista.
Still, my fondest cave adventure was when we settled on a plateau and the guide turned all the lights out.
It was to show us how blind bats use their hearing to move.
The darkness was overwhelming. I kept closing and opening my eyes, but it made no difference to what I saw.
There was just pitch blackness. Again something us urban people almost never experience.
But a few minutes later, when my senses adjusted, a whole other world illuminated.
You must ‘see’ it to believe it!
4) Watching Zagreb from Medvedgrad Castle
Medvedgrad Castle if one of Zagreb’s defining landmarks. You can see it even without climbing Medvednica.
Look from down in the city for a white dot among the green expanse – this is Medvedgrad Castle.
This medieval fort captures people’s imagination with its tumultuous past.
It was built around the time of the 1242 Tatar invasion as Zagreb’s line of defence.
But most intriguing is how it changed hands from one noble family to another. And mostly through marriage arrangements, sale as well as plotting.
Some lords are remembered for their cruelty towards nearby villagers. They pillaged and plundered to fill up their coffers and storehouses.
The most wicked of them all still inspires local legends. This is the 15th century countess Barbara of Celje, better known as the Black Queen.
She used terrible methods to torture her servants and villagers. Sometimes denying them water from the well knowing they would die of thirst. Or sending her ravens to pluck their eyes out.
Chilling stories aside, Medvedgrad’s strategic position is what attracts people today.
The views from the castle are amazing and they reach almost the entire Zagreb.
Throughout the summer there is a great program of film and music events inside the castle. And nothing can beat this one of a kind setting.
If you come in the last week of September, you’ll catch the impersonated Black Queen. It’s when the Medieval Days are on.
Don’t miss peeping inside the octagonal Chapel of St Philip and Jacob. It was built in the 13th century in the unique transitional Romanesque-Gothic style.
5) Visiting Sljeme Chapel
There are quite a few chapels on Medvednica. And one of the most remarkable ones is the Chapel of Our Lady of Sljeme, Queen of Croats. Sljeme Chapel for short.
At the altitude of 1001 m, this charming stone chapel is the highest parish church in Croatia.
It is also known as the only church without registered parishioners. Because, of course, no one lives inside the nature park.
Still, there is regular service in Sljeme Chapel. And it is particularly known for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The Chapel was built in 1932 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the Kingdom of Croatia. Its design is symbolic of that tribute.
The outside is made with indigenous Medvednica stone and wood. And the whole structure fuses with the surrounding nature.
If you step inside, you’ll find materials representing various Croatian regions. There is Slavonian oak, Brač stone and clay from Petrova Gora.
Many attractive details feature motives from the Croatian history. One of them is the impressive ceiling carved in wood.
6) Munching on home-cooked food
Home-cooked food doesn’t get better than in Medvednica mountain huts.
When I crave a strudel, I know where to find the real deal. The one which is kneaded and stretched from scratch.
Eating on Medvednica is all about simple hearty food. Every dish here is home-cooked.
Local ingredients dominate. So you can easily eat something that was picked that morning. Say mushrooms or berries.
One dish that regularly steals the show is bean soup. You can have it with or without a sausage.
Next is roast turkey with mlinci (traditional flatbread from Zagorje). And a classic must-try is strudel.
It comes with savoury cheese filling or with various types of seasonal fruit. Apples, berries of all kinds, apricots. It’s sweet, melt in the mouth, and just heavenly.
Most mountain huts have a similar menu. It’s a traditional hikers’ food to replenish the burnt out calories.
Some places do attract regulars because they stand out with that little something.
Grafičar is known for its lively atmosphere and frequent live music.
Puntijarka is the biggest hut on the mountain and open every day. It’s a hikers’ go-to place for roast turkey.
In Runolist you’ll find excellent homemade bread and the best panoramic view of Zagreb.
Vista from Vidikovac stretches in the opposite direction. Here you can enjoy your strudel while admiring the rolling hills of Zagorje.
If this food sounds too heavy, you can head to Tomislav Hotel. Their restaurant has a la carte menu where even vegetarians fair well.
The same goes for Kućica hut where traditional and modern cuisine go hand in hand. Try their germknedle – steamed dumplings filled with plum jam and topped with poppy seeds.
7) Learning about Zrinski Mine
Medvednica has diverse geological origin. We already mentioned Veternica Cave as a wonder of nature.
But people too created some pretty remarkable things. In this case because they were interested in precious ore.
Zrinski Mine opened in the 16th century when this noble family started extracting silver.
Little was known about how it all worked until the reconstructed Mine opened for visitors in 2004.
Today this underground museum tells a fascinating story about the miners’ lives.
They worked in harsh conditions using primitive tools and the faint flicker of candles as the only source of light. The 12 hour shifts meant they rarely saw any daylight.
When you walk inside those mines, you can imagine them hunched and short of breath.
Because they started out as boys, they developed stamina but most remained short.
You’ll learn that miners had various ways to charm luck and stay alive.
For example, instead of saying hello, they would say ‘good luck’. In Croatian – sretno.
They prayed to St Barbara on their way to and out of the mine.
And they also gave female names to canals and navigable levels inside the mine.
8) Climbing 500 Horvat’s Steps
When it comes to man-made wonders of Medvednica, nothing competes with the work of Vladimir Horvat.
This journalist and a heartfelt fan of Medvednica took 7 years to build a unique stone staircase.
There are 500 hundred steps altogether, now completely blended with the surrounding karst.
When you get to the top of the trail, only the sign tells you it is a work of a single man.
In all other ways, the workings of nature and this particular man have fused over the last 50 so years.
Hikers love the steps because they can peep inside pits and sinkholes otherwise out of reach.
There are also many beautiful vistas as you climb up.
And for all those tree lovers, this is the area where you can see the protected reservation of linden and yew trees.
9) Admiring Medvednica water world
One thing you can’t miss as you walk along Medvednica is the abundance of water.
There are streams and springs everywhere. Water murmuring and gurgling as you walk past.
Many of those brooks flow down to Zagreb.
For example, did you know that the popular Tkalčićeva street was once a stream lined with water mills? You can’t see it any more because the water runs underground.
The nicest water spectacle on Medvednica is Sopot Waterfall.
It’s hidden among thick lush trees creating its own special oasis.
The rumbling water flowing down a 9 meter rock, the dancing rays of sunshine… It’s as if you stepped inside an age-old virgin forest.
If you wait for the winter, you might see it double charming – frozen.
This damp and shady area is ideal for spotting one of Medvednica’s commonest animals – the fire salamander.
Children love this harmless little fellow because of its black and white colours.
Medvednica got its name after the Croatian word for bear – medvjed. Today there are no more bears living on the mountain, but you can spot other animals.
Deer, foxes, frogs, all kinds of birds, such as robins, tits and dippers.
Yet, the sky above Medvednica is ruled by the birds of prey.
If you look up, you can see buzzards, kestrels and sparrow hawks.
And if you’re like me, impressed with birds of prey, you must experience Medvednica falconry tour.
Spending a few hours with the falconer is like travelling back to the medieval times.
As you walk through the woods, the birds show you the ancient way of hunting. How the knights and the birds worked as a team.
There won’t be any real hunting involved. But you’ll see the synergy of man and bird. Not only as a show but as a true companionship.
You’ll also hear more legends about Medvedgrad Castle. Becasue, after all, this was home to medieval knights.
There is something special about seeing a familiar place from an unusual perspective. And nothing can beat the bird’s eye view.
Now you have everything you need for your Medvednica adventure.
Put on a good pair of walking or hiking shoes. Stock on water and layered clothes.
Follow the red-and-white marks along the trails and just enjoy.
Let me know your impressions in the comments.
And if you need more inspiration about what to do in Zagreb, check out my ultimate guide!
Useful Medvednica info
SLJEME HILLTOP by bus:
regular line Mihaljevac-Sljeme from Mihaljevac on the way up and from Tomislav Hotel on the way down.
Ticket: 11 KN one way, 20 KN return
GUIDED TOUR FROM ZAGREB:
If you don’t feel like doing a hike on your own, you can book Into the Forest tour by Zagreb’s great storyteller Iva Silla.
Getting there: bus no. 124 from Črnomerec to Gornji Stenjevec (about 15 minutes). Then walk by the Dubravica stream uphill to Veternica for about 20 minutes on hiking trail no. 3.
Opening hours (visits with a guide on site):
April-end of October: Sat, Sun and public holidays (except Easter), 10.00-16.00 (last tour 15.10 PM)
Entry: adults 40 KN, children 20 KN
note: wear warm clothes, temperature is around 10 degrees Celsius
Getting there: bus no. 102 from Britanski trg to the church in Šestine village, then walk about an hour on the hiking trail no. 12 (from Lagvić to Medvedgrad)
May-Sept: 11 AM-7 PM daily except Mon
Sept-Oct: 10 AM-6 PM daily except Mon
Oct-Nov: 8:30 AM-4 PM daily except Mon
Dec-March: closed except for scheduled groups
April-May: 11 AM-7 PM on weekends
Entry: 15 KN
Getting there: the same as for Medvedgrad, but continue to Grafičar mountain hut, the Mine is nearby
Opening hours (visits with a guide on site):
April-end of October: 11 AM-5 PM on Sat, Sun and public holidays (except Easter)
July-Aug: 11 AM-5 PM on Sun and public holidays
Entry: adults 23 KN, children 18 KN
note: wear warm clothes, temperature is around 10 degrees Celsius
My Medvednica adventure was made possible by the generous support from the Zagreb Tourist Board. Many thanks to the expert and friendly team of guides from Medvednica Nature Park.