We had a really good city break for three days in Zagreb, Croatia (as part of a multi-destination week in October, with the week beginning in the nearby fairytale city of Ljubljana, Slovenia). Croatia definitely isn’t somewhere people associate with city breaks. It’s all about the party resorts, beaches and coastline. I know plenty of people who’ve been to Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik, but the capital of Zagreb was met with blank looks when I mentioned it to people. I don’t know why it’s so overshadowed because it made for a really interesting, hip and easy city break.
So here’s some highlights and things to do over three days in Zagreb, Croatia…
Where to start: the central square
Ban Jelacic central square is named after Zagreb’s 19th-century military hero, Josip Jelačić. Like all military heroes, he’s now straddling his horse for the rest of time in the city’s main square.
As with all main squares in European cities, this is where the shit goes down. Trams, newspaper kiosks, locals meeting and greeting. It’s the perfect place to sit with a drink and
watch the world go by stare creepily at people for hours. Oh and it’s pedestrianised, which is great.
It’s also where the Zagreb free tour meets…
The free walking tour of Zagreb
Is there any other way to start a city break than with a free walking tour? You’d think not, judging by our blog posts.
Zagreb’s free walking tour was a really good way to get our bearings in the city, to understand its layout and to get an overview of its history. It takes just under 2 hours and is obviously free, but of course you should give them a tip at the end.
The guide took us from the main square, through a chapel, around all the main sights and to the daily cannon fire from a tower over the city. The main thing we both took from it (apart from working out where everything was) was the history of Zagreb. Obviously we knew some of its history already, but there’s nothing like hearing it from a local face to face. It was surreal walking past the Banski dvori, the government building that was bombed, and listening to him give an overview of living through terrible times during the Croatian War of Independence.
On a more cheery note, the tour also gave us a good sense of the spirit of the city. It has a really hip but laid back vibe, with lots of café culture, which is right up our street. The tour also took us to Zagreb’s most iconic building…
Zagreb’s most iconic building: St Mark’s Church
Before our trip, I’d seen a photo of St Mark’s and its instantly recognisable tiled roof. But I’d not really thought much of it. That’s probably because photos don’t do it justice.
The tiles are very loud. Unlike anything else I’ve ever seen really. The coats of arms on them include some hilarious-looking lions.
I don’t know if you can go inside, but the big deal is the roof so it doesn’t really matter. It took us ages to get a shot without people walking through it so it’s worth wandering past a few times if you have time/patience/are as sad as us.
Shout out to the Chinese tourist who took this pic of us with it and made it look like the door was part of my already massive head.
The world’s shortest funicular ride and the Gradec area
I don’t know if that title is strictly true. But it’s certainly the shortest I’ve ever been on. A whole 55 seconds of pure unfiltered funicular action will take you up the hill to the old town of Gradec, which is where St Mark’s (as just mentioned) and all the beautiful old cobbled streets are.
If you get up to the top just before noon, you will be just in time to hear/see the cannon being fired from the 13th-century tower above you. You also get this on the free walking tour, but if you don’t do the tour then you should definitely seek it out for yourself. The man who does it waves out the tower window afterwards. What a job.
The views from up there are also brilliant. If you’ve already done the walking tour, you’ll have seen them in the day. But it’s worth walking through later on to see the orange rooftops at sunset.
Oh and as well as some street art, there’s a bench up there that you can’t miss. It’s a silvery sculpture of famous Croatian poet Antun Gustav Matos watching over the city. He’s well up for photos.
Eating and drinking in Zagreb: 3 places not to miss
There seems to be no logical order to this post, but at the time of writing I’m getting hungry so here comes the food bit.
Zagreb had some brilliant food and drink. I’ve picked my top 3 that I think you shouldn’t miss.
1. Heritage Croatian Food bar
Heritage was probably our favourite lunch of the whole holiday. We got there quite late and seemed to miss the rush. It’s tiny – only room for two or three couples – but worth waiting for a space. We had two bruschetta and a delicious fig salad. They have veggie options and it was all really reasonable. Everything is locally sourced and prepared on site. If we’d had longer, we’d probably have gone back again to try something else. An excellent introduction to Croatian food.
2. The Garden Brewery
For anyone who lives near Manchester in the UK, you’ll probably know the hoppy craft beer haven of Cloudwater Brewery. The Garden Brewery is Croatia’s version of this.
It’s out of town in a sort of retail park (think garden centres and car showrooms) so involves a slight effort to get to… or a lot of effort if you get lost and end up behind it with no way to get in. We got the tram and walked and something went awry. On the way home, we got a taxi. Should have done that in the first place because it only took <10 mins and cost about 25 kuna.
The brewery has a garden area with a covered seating area (fairylights galore) and an indoor warehouse-style bar area. As you might expect from a craft beer paradise, this is where very stylish beer-loving locals hang out so it’s great for a bit of people watching. There’s a burger bar on site where you can get veggie/vegan burgers and fries. This was much, much needed after several pints. And by several, I mean certain people have no memory of the afternoon at all.
Definitely start off with a float of little samples. My favourite (as ever) was the sour. One of the best sours I’ve ever had. We ended up buying loads to take home and it made a serious dent in our baggage allowance.
3. Vegehop for a vegan lunch
Vegehop was a real find. In the nicest possible way, it was like going round to a friend’s house for a home-cooked meal. Nothing pretentious or fancy, just lovely honest food that all happened to be vegan. It’s tucked away down a side street in an end of town we’d not been to, but is well worth the effort. It was SO cheap as well – something like 50 kuna for the set meal of the day, which was a hearty portion with two sides.
Zagreb’s unusual museums and galleries: the Croatian Museum of Naive Art and the Museum of Broken Relationships
These are both not to be missed.
The Croatian Museum of Naive Art will only take half an hour tops. It’s very small. It costs 25 kuna to get in. The artwork was unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s all done by artists who were not traditionally trained and has a simple, primitive feel to it. I’m not one for taking photos of paintings because it’s pointless, but I quickly took this one just because I knew it’d be hard to describe this breed of art in the blog post. It’s really worth going to.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is brilliant as well. It costs 30 kuna to enter and will take longer than the Naive Art because there’s a lot of captions to read on the pieces and you may have to spend time composing yourself from laughing and/or crying. Basically, the concept is that when a relationship breaks down, people from all over the world can send in an item from that broken relationship. They provide an anonymous caption to go with it, explaining its significance. Most of the relationships are romantic, but it also includes friendships and familial relationships.
I’ve never been in a museum that was such an emotional rollercoaster. One minute I was reading someone’s mum’s suicide note and welling up. The next minute, I was pissing myself over this: ‘Here’s a stupid Frisbee, bought in a thrift store. It was my ex-boyfriend’s brilliant idea – as a second anniversary gift. The moral was obviously that he should be smacked with it across the face’. It was all the highs and lows of life represented by everyday stuff that had no meaning on the surface. A completely unique and excellent idea – again, impossible to capture in a photo. So I’ve just included this one of the ‘toaster of vindication’ and its amusing caption to show you why I loved this museum so much. That WILL show him.
Street art around Zagreb
Wandering round the city, you’ll noticed some absolutely massive and unusual street art. Much like when we went to Porto, we hadn’t really read anything about the street art in Zagreb but ended up pleasantly surprised.
My favourite was some shells on the side of a building opposite Heritage Croatian Food. A quick google tells me it’s Xenophora by a local artist called Lonac. Other good spots were round Tkalčićeva Street (where a lot of the bars and restaurants are), Opatovina Park, and the terrace in Gradec (at the top of the funicular).
A quiet afternoon in Zagreb’s green spots
If like us, you tend to walk miles every day on a city break, you might want a rest on one of your days. After our day at the Garden Brewery, we had a slower morning for obvious reasons. Then it happened to be really sunny and warm so we went to Maksimir park.
I find parks really boring if they’re just a green space. But Maksimir had red squirrels and that always makes a place. I’m from somewhere that’s a red squirrel stronghold so they’re officially my (only) friends. Also, it seemed to be the place for dog walkers. So we sat in the sun with some nibbles and beers watching all these gorgeous doggies playing on the grass for a few hours. So many ‘good boys’. Get trams 11 or 12 from Jelačić square to get there.
On our way back into town, we had a quick stroll through Zrinjevac, Strossmayer Square and Tomislavac. These three little green spaces run from the train station to the main square, bordered by some beautiful buildings and boulevards. In the former, there’s a tree you can get inside. What more do you want in life?
Zagreb at night: views and craft beer bars
Zagreb at night is stunning. I think I preferred it in the twilight than in the strong sunlight of daytime. For the best view as the sun goes down, obviously the top of the funicular is the place to be.
Like many cities in mainland Europe, bars in Zagreb can be smoky. For some reason, it stood out much more than normal and a few places we had to walk out of before we’d even ordered a drink. We’re so used to the smoking ban in the UK that it’s now really noticeable abroad. The extra smokiness was pretty much the only thing we didn’t like about Zagreb and I have no idea why it was so much more prominent than other places.
We did manage to find some excellent smoke-free bars and bars that were quiet enough to sit away from the smokers. Our trip to the Garden Brewery, mentioned above, was our main ‘night out’ so we didn’t do too much boozing the other nights, but here are a few city centre bars we really liked:
- Beertija: this had a beer garden and went down into an underground warren of rooms. They had a good selection of craft beer, including my new favourite from the Garden Brewery.
- Craft Room: an antler-laden, very cosy and 100% smoke-free bar. I think this was our favourite.
- Ro & Do: just near Craft Room, this was another characterful little bar with a good selection.
Three days in Zagreb – a city break in Croatia: useful information
How to get there (and away)
The only downside to Zagreb is that you can’t fly to it direct from Manchester or Liverpool or anywhere useful any more. We were booked onto the now-dead Monarch airline’s last flight home to Manchester and it ended up being killed off while we were away so they flew us to stupid London instead. I think this is now the only place you can fly to/from Zagreb in the UK now, which is frankly ridiculous. It is well worth the horror of getting to London though – a necessary evil – and flying from there.
Where to stay
We stayed in Praska 8 Apartments. It was huge! All white and modern with a dream shower. It was just off the main square, so much more central than we’d usually stay but this actually worked out really well. Chris went out successfully to forage for pastries to bring back every morning while I straightened my hair. We don’t really do hotels much any more because it’s more relaxing being in your own little apartment (and you don’t have to get up for breakfast) but there seemed to be plenty of hotels nearby too.
How to get around
Most places are walkable but there’s a good tram system for trips further afield or if you’re tired and/or lazy. Zagreb has a well-connected train station, so is ideal for a multi-destination holiday – for example, we came after a few days in nearby Ljubljana.
When to go
I’d definitely recommend autumn. It was an ideal temperature for walking around in the day but cold enough at night to warrant buying several new cardigans for the trip. And who doesn’t have an urge to stockpile cardigans in October?
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