Zagreb Travel Guide
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
A Vibrant, Stylish City with Plenty of Good Places to Eat and Shop
by Siri Kay Jostad
This capital of Croatia is a great walking town! There's oodles to see all without a car. City-street-strolling on vacation gives me permission to eat local deliciousness to my heart's content.
True or not, it makes me feel a bit less guilty and more free to enjoy my indulgences.
I am embarrassed to say that prior to beginning this trip planning, I didn't know that Zagreb was the capital of Croatia. Honestly, I didn't know a single thing about Croatia, except that they filmed some of Game of Thrones in the walled city of Dubrovnik (see my Travel Guide for Dubrovnik here).
We stayed in Zagreb for 5 days and I could have stayed even longer.
That may be my mantra.
Is there ever really enough time in a place to feel like you've seen, done and eaten all that you want?. Zagreb exploring combines it all:
history, architecture, shopping, nice people, a serious coffee culture and more
Where We Stayed
This was a total score! I had originally booked us into a really nice room at the Hotel Jaegerhorn, an intimate, luxury property that is the oldest standing hotel in the city. The location is right at the passage between Upper Town and the City Center. Just 18 spectacular rooms. Then a friend decided to join us and we all wanted to stay together in a more communal place. She found this two-bedroom, modern City Center Design Apartment on airbnb. OMG! Wow. Airbnb can be a risk right? I may have been just slightly nervous but boy oh boy, this place hit it out of the ballpark and for literally 1/3 the cost we were paying for a single room in the hotel.
What We Did
Getting off the plane at dinnertime in Zagreb, we hit the ground running!
Checked into our accommodations then walked through Old Town which was lively with people on the streets and a bustling cafe and restaurant vibe very late in to the night.
Thus began our eating our way through Croatia.
(See my favorite food haunts below.)
Museum of Broken Relationships
Our first stop (after eating) was this crazy, depressing, quirky museum. Located in Upper Town, we were blessed with a beautiful night view of Zagreb Cathedral and the lights of town. Worth the nighttime walk. The museum is filled with the detritus of relationships of all kinds that fell apart, for all types of reasons...death, break up, moving far apart. There is a voyeuristic quality to pawing through notes and other sometimes heart-wrenching remnants from these things that was curious but left me a bit sad. I was uplifted by the humor in the museum store: journals labeled 'A Complete List of My Jealous Observations or My Superior Findings of Almost All of Life's Trickery or Stories More Exciting Than Yours. Curiously interesting, I'm glad we got it out of the way the first night.
Surely the centerpiece of the city and at 355 feet tall, the tallest building in Croatia. You pass by or can see the cathedral from pretty much everywhere in the city. Damaged by an earthquake in 1880 and then years of communist neglect means the cathedral is under almost constant reconstruction. I love this picture below that shows two spires pre-restoration and post, when you have the vision of what it looked like originally. Clearly their efforts are worth it. I was struck by the volume of cigarette butts in the facing square, reminding this American that she is in a country that smokes more than we do.
St. Marks Church and Square
This may be the most recognizable roof ever. The church as built in the 13th century but fires and earthquakes necessitated it be rebuilt multiple times. This colorful roof was added in 1876 and secured it from demolition. The motif represents the Kingdoms of Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia and the city of Zagreb. This is a highly photogenic spot so we found it swarming with Instagrammers waiting their turn for a clear shot and little self-timers and tripods set up. It was actually kind of fun to see what people did to get their perfect Instagrammable moment. Located adjacent to the parliament building, the court and the city council buildings. Admission is free and the church is open 24 hours. (This is the building in the photo at the top of this post)
This kind of place totally fascinates me because it comes with history and mystery. (pronounced Greech) There is an entire mythology about a bunch of underground tunnels running beneath Zagreb. Who knows. What we do know is that Gric Tunnel (Tunel Gric) was built in 1943/44 to serve as a shelter from Allied Bombing in WWII. Today it is a pedestrian short cut (The tunnel is accessible from Mesnička and Radićeva Street and 3 other entrances) that hosts the occasional public event. The first event was a rave in 1993 when the tunnel was reopened to the public. It's basically a concrete tube under the mountain. Free and open 9am to 9pm.
Dolac is the main farmer's market for the locals. It shows up on lists of Zagreb Tourist Attractions but unless you have the need to buy fruits, vegetables and fish, it's a quick stop by to see the mass of red umbrellas protecting merchants and maybe a stop to pick up a small Croatian wooden children's toy. I wasn't enamored. I'm sure I would be if I lived there and planned to cook! Open daily 7am to 1pm.
Ban Jelačić Square
This is a happening place and when I walked through it on my way to everywhere, I really felt like I was in the center of the hub of activity for the city. Perfectly located south of Dolac Market, right by bustling Ilica street, at the base of Radićeva Street. It's truly the heart of the city. When I was there, live music and folk dance filled a stage and the square was full of stalls of artisan foods and crafts, reminiscent of the 'peasant stalls' of the days of yore.
Lots of Airbnb apartments are sweetly located overlooking this square and while we stayed a little more outside the hustle, I can see it would be rewarding location.
My favorite street in Zagreb. No cars...just peeps. What long ago was a polluted river lined with brothels, has been filled in and cleaned up to make way for a pedestrian street lined with cafes, restaurants and trendy boutiques. it is a truly lovely stroll. At one end you can climb the stairs to Upper Town and come out near the Stone Gate Chapel.
Find Some Street Art
Street Art is becoming a 'thing' world over and Zagreb is leading the way. You can choose to just walk and come upon it like I did, or for a real treat, Google the street art scene and make your way to specific installations and murals. That said, we were excited at the prospect of seeing Zagreb's Art Park. It turns out to be a kind of unspectacular rundown park that feels like it's decorated with graffiti more than art. But there is plenty of other good stuff to be found around town.
The World's Shortest Funicular
So short you probably don't want to pay for a ride unless you're carrying a day's worth of shopping up the hill, but it's kinda fun to walk down the stairs next to it from Strossmeyer Park to Ilica Street.
Zagreb is blessed with so much green space and ample parks, and this little gem is one of my favorites. The panoramic views from here are insane. It runs along the remains of Zagreb's medieval defensive city walls, beginning at Lotrščak Tower (listen for the 12noon cannon shot). Today, it is the location for romantic strolls and for bench-sitting under the cool shade of mature chestnut trees. It is here that I discovered a very special artist: Irena Sophia, who has a stall just under the Strossmayer sign near the top of the funicular.
What I didn't get to do...but wish I had
Mirogoj Cemetery--Considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe, it has some lovely architecture and greenery. I chose not to venture out here because you need a car or good understanding of public transport.
Maksimir Park--I know I would have liked this enormous park, but again missed it due to its location outside of the Zagreb City Center.
Archeological Museum--Home to the Zagreb mummy, I decided to save my archeological adventures for my upcoming Greece trip.
Zagreb 360--Oh how I wish I'd known about this when I was there! For reasons unknown to man, I always want to climb to the highest point in a city and look out...even if it means 1000 steps up some medieval tower. Only $10-ish for a ticket and I think you get to ride the elevator 😉
Stone Gate Chapel--This would have been a treasure to see but unfortunately it was being rehabilitated while we were there. (insert sad face emoji). One of the gates surrounding the Old Town, it is today a passage to Upper Town. A portrait of Virgin Mary hangs in the chapel and daily people come light candles and send up their prayers.
Lotrščak Tower--Every day at noon for the last 150 years a canon fires from the tower to commemorate a legend of Zagreb history that prevented the Turks from attacking the city.
Biking the Green Horseshoe--All kinds of companies offer bike tours of Lenuci's U-shaped system of parks in Zagreb. Seven square miles of connected parks in Lower Town that house museums, the Zagreb botanical garden, fountains, concert hall and more. I passed by in a taxi but I think a more intimate, slower paced bike ride through would be spectacular. Next time....
Where We Ate
The biggest surprise about Croatia for me, beating out how affordable it is (Did I tell you I came home with $$$?!) and how friendly the people are, is how good the food is. For a California girl who grew up on Wolfgang Puck's Spago, fresh, healthy ingredients crafted artfully into elevated, interesting, unique plates of deliciousness is my standard. On this entire trip, I was rarely let down.
In general, I don't eat 3 full meals a day. I am happy as a nosher and my ideal day consists of 2 solid sit downs, one mid-morning and one-midafternoon.
My Zagreb fave places for this are:
Agava--So good, I ate there twice! I'm not sure why, but the Croatians do Roasted Tomato Soup very well and so does Agava. Tables cascade up a hilll overlooking and accesed by charming Tkalčićeva Street. Our waiters spoke perfect English and got fun, funny and friendly with us.
Check out what happened when we asked him to take a picture of US!
I loved my starter plate with sheep cheese from the Isle of Pag (after seeing the isle of Pag proudly touted on many a menu, we looked up what was so special. Apparently a strong salty wind blows across this island limiting the vegetation to just a select group of herbs which the sheep munch and therefore flavors their milk = cheese. And now you know too.) In addition to the Pag cheese, the wooden platter was loaded with ricotta with pumpkin seeds, black pig sausage that was slightly smokey, pancetta and prosciutto. It all melted, literally, in your mouth. The flavors were amazing. Accompanying it all was crispy, fresh focaccia and oil. We also tried the sea bass (incredible), burrata, and risotto with sheep cheese, pear and thyme.
Boban--First night hitting the town with zero knowledge of where to go or eat, we ended up walking up the promenade where all the action was just up the street from our apartment and picking a winner. Fresh, seasonal Mediterranean cuisines. We sat outside to enjoy the warm evening and people watching but the inside is stunning vaulted brick ceilings. Pumpkin Soup. Fresh Roasted Tomatoe Soup. Brucschetta. Fresh Fish. It was all yummy and highly recommended.
Oranz--Solid tapas and wine bar. We popped in for breakfast because Croatians don't eat a proper brekky like we do. Picked up spinach quiche. Nothing to write home about but the atmosphere is good and location on Ilica is right where you want to be. This is a good choice for any meal.
Amelie--Three locations. The one you want is at Vlaška ulica 6 just off Jelacic Square below the cathedral. We dropped in for coffee on a bunch of occasions because the cappuccinos were good and alternate milk is available. There is a covered outdoor patio for people watching and a small, but charming indoor seating area. Savory items like 3 different flavors of quiche are on the menu as well as amazing parties like carrot cakes, apple cake, poppy cake, chocolate mousse and so much more.
Cogito Coffee--This is GOOD coffee. The only pastries were croissants so these hungry Californians still had to grab food from a less-than-solid street vendor. But the coffee is worth it and alternate milk is available (Did you know I don't eat dairy? That's why I'm always looking for soy, coconut, almond or oat milk for my morning cuppa.) Parktook our morning brew here a couple of times, sometimes sitting in the sunny inside and sometimes enjoying coffee from the little outdoor patio. Found another Cogito location in the walled town of Dubrovnik. In those quarters, it is takeaway only...no place to sit.
Velvet--I had heard about Velvet so we hunted it down and found it at the end of the Gric Tunnel It is in a quiet part of town with the forest Tuškanac just a few steps away. On sunny days you can sit on the terrace, which we did. Inside the rooms are extravagant, artsy, quirky and charming. Incredible pastries! We shared a granola crust raspberry cream cake and a chocolate orange cake and a couple pots of tea, which is always served from one of the eclectic collection of silver tea pots they have and display on a wall inside.
Vinodol--This place was in a sunny atrium off Ilica and from online research looked promising, but none of us liked it much. Their tomato soup was like Campbells from a can. The wait staff was surly and unfriendly. Our entrees were ick. Sorry to say...just have to be honest. Perhaps we hit an off night. You can check it out if you want to give it a try.
A super fun discovery was this quirky revolving ice cream machine you can find in open store windows and on the street. It must be a Croatia thing because I came across others like in Dubrovnik.
Every September for 10 days, the Burger Fest takes over Strossmayer Square (a different place than the Strossmayer Promenade I mentioned above...the is more in the flats of the city south of Ilica Street but right in the hub of things). About 30 burger vendors put up stands and sell their version of the best hamburger. About 10 breweries pop up in between and in the middle of the square each night is live music. It is a festival in the truest sense of the word. At night the lighting wasn't great for photos and the best one I have is (check this out) a selection of different flavored buns!!! I had a spinach one that was fun because it was green, but didn't necessarily taste like spinach. My burger also wasn't the best I'd ever had, but you really go for the crush of the crowd and the atmosphere. Be ready...there is no place to sit.
Surprisingly, to me, Zagreb has an extremely vibrant shopping scene that goes well beyond all things touristica.
Wow! This was a first class designer shopping experience! A small boutique filled with high style. I bought a $300 dress with a fabulous, fun balloon skirt (that I have yet to wear!--turns out I don't have a super fancy every day lifestyle after all) and my friend came away with 3 outfits, 2 of which she wore for the rest of our trip and looked like a model walking down the streets of Croatia.
Well that was pretty long! 🙂
I hope it helps you if you are planning a trip to Zagreb.
For an overview of my Croatia trip that might help you with your own routing through the country, check out my Croatia Travel Guide.
Keep checking back as I will go live with my Travel Diaries for other Croatia cities (Split, Plitvice National Park and Dubrovnik/Cavtat) as soon as I can get them done. Once I do, I will link them here.