(Edited November 2018)
Zagreb is home to more than 800,000 people, thus Croatia’s largest city and the country’s capital. However, I assume tourism-wise it’s also the least known and visited place in all of Croatia.
However, it was a pleasant and inspiring starter to my bus road trip along the Adriatic coast.
I must admit, it started with a shock: Arriving at the bus station, I got some Croatian money at an ATM, bought a ticket to Poreč for the next day – which I had to pay in cash. Then I looked for my apartman located about ten minutes away.
After checking in, I took off to the Museum of Contemporary Art. I had read that this is one of the must-see things in otherwise rather dull Zagreb.
On the tram #6, I realized how little touristy Zagreb is: I had some questions regarding my final destination and the ticket I needed – and nobody seemed to speak one word English. There was a survey regarding language skills on the tram and they actually found a guy – crazy little world: an English teacher. Faith was kind.
So that was a little bit unsettling – I don’t want to brag here, but I’m simply not used to not being able to communicate.
What I then saw on my way to the gallery shocked me: Kilometers and kilometers of brutal concrete buildings of the worst socialist architecture you can imagine. Figure riding on a train for half an hour through project buildings – nothing but project buildings. In different heights and various widths – but all of them like concrete bunkers. Surreal. Not the pretty kind of surreal.
|View from the Museum of Contemporary Art. Behind the greenery begins the hell made of concrete.|
The venue is….okay. You don’t miss out on much when you don’t go there – unless you’re crazy ’bout concrete – then the ride there and back is your big chance.
Many of the exhibits are rather depressing – which matched quite well with the architecture outside.
|One of the more famous artists – but depressing just the same: Jan Fabre I spit on my own tomb, now if this doesn’t bring you in a buoyant mood, I don’t know what will.|
After taking the tram for another half an hour across the concrete hell, I got to off at the train station – and this is where my guide begins. Because unless you are driving, you will always arrive either at the bus station or the train station – even coming from the airport.
If you’re not as much into walking as I am or if the weather is not hike-friendly, the tram is your best option. It’s a really good system that covers basically the whole city and tickets are fairly cheap. Check – and download – a system map here.
You pay 4 HRK for a ticket that’s good for 30 minutes after validation. You have to buy this ticket – or several of them – at a kiosk. If you buy your ticket from the conductor, you pay 15 HRK – but then it’s also valid for 90 minutes (which you probably never need); this is what I’ve learned from the single English speaker on the tram towards the concrete jungle.
There are also day tickets for 30 HRK and three-day-tickets for 70 HRK, but I wonder when you intend to use them up as an ordinary tourist. However, if you get a Zagreb-Card, public transport within the city is included.
Zagreb has a U-shaped green belt in the city center which makes walking very pleasant. Across the street from the train station, Croatia’s first King, Tomislav, welcomes the visitors – and then you just keep on walking through the parks to the city center.
|King Tomislav, Croatia’s first king from 925 till 928; and no, I did not forget to put a thousand in front of that number.|
You’ll see the Umjetnički paviljon, the Art Pavilion housed in a beautiful yellow building from the 19th century.
|Art pour art – literally: Beautiful art presented in a beautiful building|
Since they operate as a gallery, i.e. there is no permanent collection, please check what is on if you’d like to visit
During exhibitions, the pavilion is open Tuesday to Sunday from 11 a. m. to 8 p. m. (Friday till 9 p. m.)
|The gentleman in white is August Senoa, a Croatian novelist and contemporary of J. J. Strossmayer whom you can see to his left. This part of the green belt is named after him. In the backdrop the Academy of Arts and Sciences.|
Before you continue your walk towards the center, it’s totally worth it checking out the buildings on the other side of the J. J. Strossmayera street – like the Palace Hotel Zagreb, located in a majestic Art Nouveau Palace – here Croatia is showing more of the Austro-Hungarian than the Italian influence.
|An elegant building for elegant guests.|
Even if you’re not a guest, you can enjoy a break in a splendid atmosphere full of old world charm.
At the next corner, a great art museum is awaiting visitors: The Modern Gallery introducing Croatian artists from the 19th to 21st century.
|Also on display are paintings by Vlaho Bukovac, one of Croatia’s most prominent painters of impressionism and symbolism.
(Photo: Vlaho Bukovac creator QS:P170,Q468219, Vlaho Bukovac – Divan, public domain, details on Wikimedia Commons)
The Gallery is open from Tuesday to Sunday 11 a. m. – 7 p. m. (Saturday and Sunday to 2 p. m.)
Back to the green belt, adjacent to the Strossmayer park is the Park Zrinjevac which you should not miss for the collection of busts of famous Croatian people. To be honest, I didn’t know any of these good men, but the artwork is beautiful just the same.
|A park full of celebrities.|
On the west side of the park is the Archeological Museum of Zagreb where many epochs of the country’s ever-changing history are covered.
|Yet another beautiful, deep yellow building: The Archeological Museum. In the front, you can see one of the trams that take you everywhere you need to go in the city of Zagreb.|
Archaeological Museum in Zagreb
Trg Nikole Šubića Zrinskog 19
Phone: + 385 – 1 – 4873 101
The Museum is open from Monday to Saturday from noon to 6 p. m. (Saturday to 3 p. m.)
One more block up the road and you reach the Trg Bana Josipa Jelačića which is Zagreb’s main square.
|Ban Josip Jelačić, the national hero – until today everything is revolving around him on the square that carries his name.|
This square is not only the center of all the shopping you can do, here you also find the tourist office where you can get information, a free map – and a Zagreb-Card for 98 HRK for 24 respectively for 135 HRK for 72 hours there.
At least if the weather is not that great and you use the public transport more and visit some of the museums, it’s worth the price. On a sunny day, I’m not really sure.
A great way to get more insight is to join one – or more – of the tours organized by Free Spirit Tours, a project by Wayoudo d.o.o. travel agency. They offer a free walking tour – of course, based on tips – and a range of themed tours. Even if you explore the city on your own, joining one of these tours adds some great background info from a local.
On little tip: On the square is also a small market taking place and if you have the impression that this is a bit of a tourist rip off, it only shows that you haven’t been to other places in Croatia. Take it from me, the closer you get to the coast, the more you pay for….literally everything. So if you have room in your luggage, stock up on souvenirs in Zagreb. I didn’t and I still regret it.
To get to Zagreb’s upper town where you find most of the iconic buildings like the Lotrščak Tower, from where every day mid-day is announced by a real cannon-shot, and St. Mark’s church with its colorful roof, walk the main shopping street Ilica westwards and turn right into Tomiceva ulica.
|The funicular goes up and down, up and down, up and….
(Photo: Zrce.eu Tours UG, Standseilbahn Zagreb,cropped to 4:3, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE)
This is said to be the world’s shortest funicular ride since it takes only four minutes – and since it’s part of the public transportation system, it’s included in the Zagreb-Card.
But I have to warn you: If you choose to ride over walking, you’ll miss one of Zagreb’s most charming little alleys Zakmardijeve Stube where street artist Boris Bare rolled out a red carpet for you. Walk it, work it, and then climb the stairs to the upper part of town.
|What a lovely – and creative – gesture of Mr. Bare.|
Walk the Zakmardijeve Stube all the way to the Lotrščak Tower, from where you’ve hopefully heard the cannon-shot at noon.
|The Lotrščak Tower where the daily midday magic happens.|
Yes, that’s right: At noon, there is a cannon shot from the Lotrščak Tower, announcing the mid-day in Zagreb. It is fired daily by a local cannon man – the fellows only job.
It’s said that this tradition derives from the time when it scared away the Ottoman troops. I find it a very charming quirk that they kept this tradition.
|A museum dealing with a topic everyone
can relate to.
(Photo: Prosopee, Zagreb ‘s Museum of
Broken Relationships second room, CC BY-SA 3.0)
So you get off at the Lotrščak Tower which – unless the cannon is booming – is pretty unspectacular – but across the street is another quirky attraction, the Museum of Broken Relationships.
Started by artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić as their relationship ended, it presents all kind of pieces and tokens from…broken relationships; all kind of relationships, not only between man and women.
While Vištica and Grubišić started the exhibition with their personal items, over the years, many people from all over the world donated their special pieces. They vary from hilarious to extremely disturbing.
After the exhibition, that started out in a container, toured different countries, since 2010, this award-winning collection is housed in Zagreb.
|These are visitors, not artifacts.|
My tip: They have a gift shop with very cool, of course, topic-related, gimmicks and souvenirs.
Opening hours: Daily from 9 a. m. to 9 p. m., from June to September till 10.30 p. m.
Only one block up on the other side of the street is another museum worth visiting, the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art. Naïve Art, often showing rural scenarios, has a long tradition in Croatia and this museum shows some real masterpieces.
|Eclipse of the Sun by Ivan Generalić (* 1914 – ✝ 1992), a pioneer of the Croatian Naïves|
Here, too, you can get some unusual souvenirs like e. g. prints of the paintings on exhibition.
Opening hours: Daily from 10 a. m. to 6 p. m., Sundays till 1 p. m.
One block further up you’ll finally get to the most iconic building of Zagreb, St. Mark’s church – a house of worship under an unusually colorful roof: The tiles are laid in a pattern representing the coat of arms of Zagreb as well as the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia.
|St. Mark’s church shines brightly in the government district.|
Probably built in the early 13th century, from 1866 to 1882, the church underwent a major reconstruction and this was also when the flashy roof was added.
It is certainly worth it strolling a bit around this neighborhood and paying attention to the wonderful architecture mainly from the 18th century.
Stop for a moment at the Katarinin Trg, named after the Saint Catherine of Alexandria Church which was built in the 16th century and is known for its opulent baroque interior.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
To the right is Gornjogradska Gimnazija Zagreb, the Upper Town High School of Zagreb, founded by the Jesuits in 1607 as the city’s first high school.
As you walk between these two buildings, you get to the panoramic viewpoint of Zagreb – from where you access the old town over a couple of stair flights.
|View across the old town on Zagreb’s highest building.|
If you’ve missed Bare’s carpet, now’s the chance to take a close look at this unique piece of street art.
Now that you’re back on Radićeva ulica, you’re in the liveliest part of Zagreb; come back at night for a couple of drinks and friendly company. But for now, walk up to the little street called Krvavi Most, the bloody bridge, named after the former bridge over the Medveščak creek, which gained its disturbing name from the fights between the citizens of the two parts of Zagreb.
Today, you can peacefully cross to ulica Ivana Tkalčića, another hip and trendy neighborhood with lots of bars and restaurants.
From here it’s just a very short walk to the Dolac, the market square. Every day from 7 a. m. to 2 p. m., you can watch the Zagrebians do their grocery shopping at the farmers market. Also, some of the most popular restaurants can be found around this square.
|The Cathedral – illuminated by the afternoon sun.|
From here, it’s just stone throw to the Zagreb’s imposing cathedral. It is not only the tallest building in all Croatia but also higher than Notre Dame. Finished in 1217 – which was also earlier than Notre Dame – it is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary; and also to kings Saint Stephen and Saint Ladislaus.
The Cathedral can be visited daily from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m. ( Sundays only from 1 p. m.)
This is the tour I would recommend. If you can squeeze it in, you should definitely pay the National Theater a visit. It’s said to be Zagreb’s most beautiful structure, built at the turn of the 19th century by Viennese architects Ferdinand Fellner and Hermann Helmer, hence it deems a bit like the miniature version of the opera house in Vienna. Obviously, the plays are in Croatian, but there are also ballets and operas, so it’s possible to enjoy its splendor even if you are not familiar with the language.
|Pride of the city: The National Theater.
(Photo: Diego Delso, Teatro Nacional, Zagreb, Croacia, 2014-04-13, DD 02, cropped to 7:5, CC BY-SA 3.0)
But the National Theater is also a great place for a coffee break: The BisTAČ@HNK is known for excellent coffee and friendly service – on their terrace if the weather is nice. They are open daily from 8 a. m. to midnight, weekends till 2 a. m.
Best place to sleep:
One of the most interesting and alluring Apartman is found in Zagreb, just a stone throw from the train station as well as the bus terminal – where also the airport shuttle goes. And if I tell you that the stop of tram #6 is just two minutes walk away you’ll understand that you can hardly stay in a better location.
|Graffiti by one of Irena’s artist friends, as she put it: a Croatian Banksy|
What makes this Apartman such an alluring place are the originals – paintings, prints, graffitis – on the walls; and, of course, the collector and host Irena who is friend with all these artists and generous to share her collection with her guests.
Art Rooms *
Trg Kralja Petra Kresimira IV no. 7
Phone: + 385 – 99 314 7354
Best place to eat:
There are two dishes you absolutely have to try while in Zagreb.
The first one is Zagorski Štrukli, a dish that in 2007 made it on the list of Croatia’s intangible cultural heritage by Croatia’s ministry of culture. So eating Štrukli, you’re basically on a cultural mission.
|The base is always dough and cottage cheese – and then the magic begins.|
The best thing is that they come in sweet and savory versions, so everybody finds its piece of heaven.
No matter whom you ask for the best Štrukli, they will either take you to there grandma or recommend
Skalinska ul. 5
Phone: + 385 – 1 – 4837 701
Open daily from 11 a. m. to 11 p. m. (Sunday to 10 p. m.)
The other dish is less regional – actually it’s a traditional in all of Croatia and even other Balkan countries: Ćevapi – preferably in a large flatbread, with fixings like Ajvar, Kajmak, and grilled pickled peppers.
|A butter glazed flatbread filled with hearty kebab; but they also have vegetarian options.|
Right below the Dolac square are two great options to sample this delicacy – I find they are equally good:
Bistro Na Dolcu
Ul. Pod zidom 1A
Phone: + 385 – 1 – 4827 758
PLAC Kitchen & Grill
Phone: + 385 – 1 – 4876 761
Do you want to read about all the other beautiful places I’ve visited in Croatia?
Then go to the main post and take your pick!
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