When I first arrived in Zagreb, Croatia, I immediately felt as though I’d stumbled onto something entirely new: a medium-sized city that had been hidden behind the closed walls of Yugoslavia until its dissolution, and then the following war for independence. I took a deep breath of the fall air and found the aroma of paprika mixed with micro-roaster coffee, and it was enough to awaken all five senses. It turned out I was right: This really was something new.
Like a miniature Vienna or Prague, Zagreb is an Eastern European city with a rich history; beautiful, medieval buildings and monuments; and lots of fun things to do. Divided between Gornji grad, (Upper Town) and Donji grad (Lower Town), it’s a manageable city and a real pleasure to stroll, with things to see around every corner. Gornji grad is home to most of the city’s oldest architecture, and some of its top sights are the Old Town Gate, with its sacred painting of the Virgin Mary lit by hundreds of fluttering candle flames; St. Mark’s Church, which has one of the most unique roofs you’ll ever see; and Lotrscak Tower, which provides some of the best views of the city.
In Zagreb, all roads lead to the bustling Ban Jelacic Square, where the Zagreb tram glides past regal buildings, some of which date from the early 1800s. Here you can find wine stores selling Croatia’s excellent wines, the iconic Dubrovnik Hotel, and loads of shopping options. Just a few steps north is the Dolac market, with its colorful, fresh, produce. And, the smiling faces of the vendors leave no doubt that this is the heart of the city. It’s a great place to find the authentic flavors of Zagreb, and the cafes and bars serving rakia, a strong grappa-like spirit, shouldn’t be missed; nor should the nearby Zagreb Cathedral, the tallest building in Croatia.
For lunch, take a hop, skip, and a jump over to the pedestrian-only Tkalciceva Street, which is arguably the most beautiful street in the city. Once a rippling stream, the street is now the city’s nightlife center; and all day and night, cafes, microbreweries, and restaurants offer a great selection of traditional delicacies. Visit Agava Restaurant to feast on the flavors of the Croatian coast. The decidedly Mediterranean menu includes the crowning achievement of Croatian cuisine: pasticada. The dish involves stewed beef, often stuffed with Croatian prosciutto, served in a secret sauce that blends vegetables and stone fruit. The meaty dish is pure decadent comfort food! For something less formal, visit the nearby Pivnica Medvedgrad (Mali Medo) microbrewery and beer hall.
With only half a day left in Zagreb, it is time to grab some of the city’s best coffee at Eli’s Caffé, owned and operated by a three-time Croatian national barista champion. To get there, head back to Ban Jelacic Square and hop on one of the many trams heading west on Ilica Street. After a strong espresso, it’s time to decide whether to visit Jarun Lake, a relaxing recreational area ideal for strolling or lounging, or the Mirogoj cemetery, which has beautifully ornate tombs and vine-draped architecture combining porticos and onion-shaped domes. Both sights are accessible by public transportation (find maps with the latest tram routes at the Turisticki Informativni Centar (Trg bana Josipa Jelacica 11) in Ban Jelacic Square.
In the evening, it is time to taste the other side of Croatian cuisine: a continental style of cuisine similar to that found in Germany and Austria. Head over to Trilogiji restaurant, located at Kamenita 5 (you won’t have any difficulty finding it, as it’s right next to the Old City Gate). This intimate restaurant rarely features a written menu, and the English-speaking staff will provide a selection of dishes for you to choose from for each course. The dishes pop, thanks to fresh, seasonal Croatian produce, and don’t miss the wine pairing option, which typically highlights Croatian wines.
For a list of accommodation options in Zagreb, check out the EuropeUpClose.com article, Where to Stay in Zagreb, Croatia.
Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com