The Croatian capital, Zagreb, is very much Central Europe’s surprise package, a preconception-challenging city that combines the gritty urban culture of northern Europe with the laidback manners of the Mediterranean south. It has always been a somewhat more arty, quirky and creative place than its tourist-deluged cousins on Croatia’s coast – it’s just that Adriatic-bound travellers never paid it enough attention until now. Always home to a thriving scene of alternative music, edgy fashions and addictively eccentric bars, Zagreb is currently enjoying something of a moment, with a sudden increase in the number of things that make a city really purr, including more good places to eat and a festival-driven sense that things are happening in the arts. The relative absence of international franchises in the centre (and the ubiquity of small cafés serving good strong coffee) make Zagreb something of a collector’s item among connoisseurs of Central European authenticity, a city pursuing its own, idiosyncratic path.
Although capital of an independent Croatia only since 1991, Zagreb has served as the cultural and political focus of the nation since the Middle Ages. The city grew out of two medieval communities, Kaptol to the east and Gradec to the west, each sited on a hill and divided by a (long since dried up) river. Zagreb grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, and many of the city’s buildings are well-preserved, peach-coloured monuments to the self-esteem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nowadays, with a population reaching almost one million, the city is the boisterous capital of a turbulent, changing nation. A number of good museums and a varied nightlife ensure that a few days here will be well spent.
Just one word of advice: don’t expect too much excitement in August, when locals head for the coast and the whole city seems to indulge in a month-long siesta.
Despite evidence of Iron Age settlements on top of Gradec hill, the history of Zagreb doesn’t really start until 1094, when Ladislas I of Hungary established a bishopric here in order to bring the northern Croatian lands under tighter Hungarian control. A large ecclesiastical community grew up around the cathedral and its girdle of episcopal buildings on Kaptol (which roughly translates as “cathedral chapter”), while the Hungarian Crown retained a garrison opposite on Gradec. Following the Mongol incursions of 1240–42, King Bela IV declared Gradec a royal free town in order to attract settlers and regenerate urban life.
The communities of Kaptol and Gradec rarely got on – control of the watermills on the river dividing them was a constant source of enmity. The biggest outbreak of intercommunal fighting occurred in 1527, culminating in the sacking of Kaptol by the Habsburgs – who were now in control of Croatian lands. Henceforth the separate identities of Kaptol and Gradec began to disappear, and the name Zagreb (meaning, literally, “behind the hill” – a reference to the town’s position at the foot of Mount Medvednica) entered popular usage as a collective name for both.
By the end of the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire was in control of much of Croatia, reducing the country to a northern enclave with Zagreb at its centre. Despite hosting sessions of the (largely ceremonial) Croatian parliament, Zagreb increasingly became a provincial outpost of the Habsburg Empire, and the Croatian language was displaced by German, Hungarian and Latin. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the growth of a Croatian national consciousness confirmed Zagreb’s status as guardian of national culture. The establishment of an academy of arts and sciences (1866), a university (1874) and a national theatre (1890) gave the city a growing sense of cultural identity, although ironically it was a German, the architect Hermann Bollé (1845–1926), creator of the School of Arts and Crafts, Mirogoj Cemetery and Zagreb Cathedral, who contributed most to the city’s visual profile.
With the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918, political power shifted from Vienna to Belgrade – a city that most Croats considered an underdeveloped Balkan backwater. Things improved significantly after World War II, when Croatia was given the status of a socialist republic and Zagreb became the seat of its government. A major period of architectural change came in the 1950s and 1960s, when ambitious mayor Većeslav Holjevac presided over the city’s southward expansion, and the vast concrete residential complexes of Novi Zagreb were born. The city survived the collapse of Yugoslavia relatively unscathed, despite being hit by sporadic Serbian rocket attacks.
Zagreb has fared much better than many Croatian cities in the slump-boom-slump cycle that has characterized the post-independence economy. As well as being the commercial capital of the country it is also the undisputed centre of cultural life, boasting the kind of concert seasons, venues and arts festivals that most other Croatian municipalities would die for.
While Zagreb is well served with medium- and top-range hotels, budget choices are relatively thin on the ground and should be reserved well in advance. There is a growing number of backpacker hostels, many of which offer private double rooms as well as bunk beds in dorms. Zagreb tourist office has a list of locals offering private rooms or apartments in the city centre.
Once rather conservative in culinary terms, Zagreb is now brimming with bistros and restaurants that mix the best in Croatian grilled meats and fish with a growing enthusiasm for experimentation and fusion. Cafés are absolutely everywhere, and although most of them only serve drinks, an increasing number offer light meals, cakes and ice cream. For snacks, there are a good number of bakeries and sandwich bars in the central area, while picnic supplies can be purchased from the stalls of Dolac market, just above the main Trg bana Jelačića.
There’s a wealth of café-bars with outdoor seating in central Zagreb, especially in the pedestrianized section around Bogovićeva and Preradovićev trg. The other main strolling district is Tkalčićeva, just north of Trg bana Jelačića, which, with a watering hole every few metres, takes on the appearance of a vast outdoor bar on summer evenings. Saturday morning is the traditional time for meeting friends and lingering over a coffee, although downtown areas remain busy day and night, seven days a week, if the weather is good enough for alfresco drinking. Larger cafés may offer a range of pastries, ice creams and cakes, but the smaller establishments focus squarely on drinking – so don’t expect to find much in the way of food.
Zagreb offers the rich and varied diet of entertainment that you would expect from a metropolis of one million people. There’s a regular diet of classical music, theatre and club culture throughout the year, and top international performers are increasingly drawn to the city’s ever-expanding range of high-profile festivals. Note that arts events tend to thin out in July and August, when there’s more in the way of cultural activity on the coast. Extensive entertainment listings appear in the free monthly English-language pamphlet Events and Performances, available from the Zagreb tourist office.
Zagreb is one of Central Europe’s liveliest cities when it comes to DJ-driven club music and live alternative rock. Most activity takes place during the student year (roughly late Sept to late June), and most clubs take a summer break in July and August. Clubs are not necessarily open every night of the week, so check websites or ask around before heading out to the less central ones. Gig listings are available on last.fm and muzika.hr. Admission charges for clubs and gigs range between 30Kn and 80Kn – more for big events.
Zagreb’s impressive menu of cultural events includes a range of festivals that attract prestigious international participants. Most of these have their own websites; otherwise, advance information can be obtained from the Zagreb tourist office.
You can find international brands aplenty in the brash suburban shopping malls girdling the city, but the real pleasure of retail culture in Zagreb lies in trawling the markets, with fresh food at Dolac, bric-a-brac at Britanski trg and flea-junk at Hrelić. In addition, the alleys and courtyards around Ilica, Radićeva and Tkalčićeva harbour all manner of craft stores, jewellery shops and kooky designer boutiques.
A broad, flagstoned expanse flanked by cafés and hectic with the whizz of trams and hurrying pedestrians, Trg bana Jelačića (Governor Jelačić Square) is as good a place as any to start exploring the city, and is within easy walking distance of more or less everything you’ll want to see. It’s also the biggest tram stop in Zagreb, standing at the intersection of seven cross-town routes, and the place where half the city seems to meet in the evening – either beneath the ugly clock mounted on metal stilts on the western side of the square, or right on the corner of the square and Gajeva (a corner colloquially known as “Krleža” after the bookshop that once stood here).
At the square’s centre is the attention-hogging equestrian statue of the nineteenth-century Ban of Croatia, Josip Jelačić, completed in 1866 by the Viennese sculptor Fernkorn just as the Habsburg authorities were beginning to erode the semi-autonomy which Jelačić had won for the nation. The square was renamed Trg republike in 1945 and the statue – considered a potential rallying point for Croatian nationalism – was dismantled on the night of July 25, 1947. Its constituent parts were stored away in a basement until 1990, when it was restored to its rightful place – although the statue now faces in a different direction to that intended. Originally positioned with Jelačić’s drawn sabre pointing north (a gesture of defiance to the Austro-Hungarian imperial order), it now points southwards, as if to emphasize the historic rupture between Croatia and her Balkan neighbours.
Throbbing heart of Zagreb’s pavement-café culture, pedestrianized Preradovićev trg, is referred to by most locals as Cvjetni trg (Flower Square), after the flower market that used to be held here until the area was cleaned up in the 1980s – a few sanitized florists’ pavilions still survive. Watching over the scene is Ivan Rendić’s 1895 statue of Petar Preradović (1818–72), a general in the Austro-Hungarian army who wrote some of the Croatian language’s most evocative romantic poetry. Behind the statue rises the grey form of the Serbian Orthodox Church (Pravoslavna crkva), an unassuming nineteenth-century building whose candlelit, icon-filled interior, heavy with the smell of incense, is worth a quick peek. Cvijetni trg’s coffee-drinking culture extends eastwards along Bogovićeva, the animated pedestrianized street boasting an unbroken strip of café terraces.
Arguably the prettiest single street in the city, pedestrianized Tkalčićeva preserves a neat ensemble of the one- and two-storey, steep-roofed nineteenth-century houses that have largely disappeared elsewhere. Most of the street’s low-ceilinged mansions are now occupied by the youthful café-bars that have transformed Tkalčićeva into one of the city’s prime drinking areas. In the first half of the twentieth century the whole area had a somewhat darker reputation, when Kožarska, the alleyway which runs parallel to Tkalčićeva to the west, served as the city’s red-light district, “reeking of debauchery, adultery, crime, drunkenness, and promiscuity”, in the words of diarist and novelist Miroslav Krleža. It was so popular with Hitler’s soldiers in World War II that the city authorities had to put up signs in German banning military personnel from entering. Also leading off to the west of Tkalčićeva is Krvavi most (“Bloody Bridge” – a reminder of the often violent disputes between Gradec and Kaptol), a street that links up with Radićeva, offering a short cut up to Gradec.
Presiding mutely over the pavement cafés of Bogovićeva is the Grounded Sun (Prizemljeno sunce), a bronze sphere created by sculptor Ivan Kožarić in 1971 and placed here in 1994. Despite being tarnished by the elements and covered with graffiti, it remains one of Zagreb’s best-loved pieces of public art. In the mid-2000s conceptual artist Davor Preis decided to supply Kožarić’s sun with an accompanying installation entitled Nine Views, with metal spheres symbolizing the nine planets placed throughout Zagreb at distances that are in exact proportion to those of the real solar system. Thus Mercury appears as a tiny metal ball attached to the wall of a building at Margaretska 3, while Venus (Trg bana Jelačića 3), Earth (Varšavska 9) and Mars (Tkalčićeva 25) appear equally insignificant. The remaining planets are much further out in areas of Zagreb that you wouldn’t normally ever want to visit – culminating with Pluto, in a pedestrian underpass beneath the highway to Samobor. That said, tracing the solar system has become a highly popular form of urban safari – consult Zagreb tourist office or Preis’s own website (daworp.com) for further details.
Occupying a large terrace overlooking Trg bana Jelačića is Dolac, the city’s principal market. This feast of fruit, vegetables and meat is held every morning, but is at its liveliest on Thursdays and Fridays, when fresh Adriatic fish bring extra colour to the seafood pavilion. Indoor market halls lie underneath the main outdoor section, with stalls selling all manner of bread, sausages, cured hams and cheeses.
Northeast of Trg bana Jelačića, the filigree spires of Zagreb’s cathedral mark the edge of the district known as Kaptol, home to the city’s Catholic institutions and still patrolled by pious citizens and nuns of various orders. The area consists of little more than one long street – initially called Kaptol, later becoming Nova ves in its northern reaches – and the cathedral itself (katedrala), at its southern end, the district’s only arresting feature. Ringed by ivy-cloaked turrets, the cathedral is almost wholly neo-Gothic, having been rebuilt by Viennese architects Friedrich von Schmidt and Hermann Bollé after a catastrophic earthquake in 1880. Most of the money and creative endeavour were invested in the two spires, the big architectural statement it was felt a growing city like Zagreb needed.
Gradec (or more colloquially “Grič”) is the oldest and most atmospheric part of Zagreb, a leafy, tranquil area of tiny streets, small squares and Baroque palaces, whose mottled brown roofs peek out from the hill. The most leisurely approach is to take the funicular (uspinjača), which ascends from Tomićeva, an alleyway about 200m west of Trg bana Jelačića; alternatively, wander up the gentle gradient of Radićeva towards the Kamenita vrata, or “stone gate”, which originally formed the main eastern entrance to the town. Inside Kamenita vrata – actually more of a long curving tunnel than a gate – lies one of Zagreb’s most popular shrines, a simple sixteenth-century statue of the Virgin in a grille-covered niche. Miraculous powers have been attributed to the statue, largely on account of its surviving a fire in 1731 – a couple of benches inside the gate accommodate passing city folk eager to offer a quick prayer.
For a voyage into the more tumescent recesses of the human psyche then there are few better starting points than Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships (Muzej prekinutih veza), the celebrated art installation that became a permanently grounded museum in 2010. It started out as an exhibit at the Zagreb Salon of 2006, at which co-creators Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić (themselves a former item) displayed a collection of objects connected with all aspects of break-up, many of which were donated by friends with a story to tell. The exhibit struck an instant chord with the public, and became an international travelling exhibition, adding to its collection as more and more people donated meaningful mementoes.
Now located on the ground floor of Gradec’s Kulmer Palace, it’s a compelling and unique museum of wistful memory and raw emotion. Each exhibit is accompanied by a text explaining why it was significant to the donor – some are touching, others quite kinky, and a few belong to the obsessive world of a David Lynch movie. The broken relationships in question aren’t always what one expects; one member of the public donated the hands of his favourite mannequin, another an oil painting of a politician who failed to deliver. Among the most poignant exhibits is a comic book purchased after a particular break-up – because the ex-boyfriend in question had departed leaving nothing to be remembered by.
It is also one of the few Zagreb museums that has a genuinely cute café and a well-patronized shop: Bad Memory Eraser pencil rubbers are among the big sellers.
South of the Upper Town, the modern Lower Town (Donji grad) is a bit of a sprawl, with grey office blocks and apartment buildings surrounding the occasional example of imposing Habsburg-era architecture. Breaking the urban uniformity is a series of interconnected garden squares, laid out from the 1870s onwards, which gives the downtown area a U-shaped succession of promenading areas and parks. Known as Lenuci’s Horseshoe (Lenucijeva podkova) after Milan Lenuci, the city planner responsible for its layout, this was a deliberate attempt to give Zagreb a distinctive urban identity, providing it with public spaces bordered by the set-piece institutions – galleries, museums and theatres – that it was thought every modern city should have. The horseshoe was never finished, though, and it’s unlikely you’ll follow the full U-shaped itinerary intended by Lenuci. The first of the horseshoe’s two main series of squares starts with Trg Nikole Šubića Zrinskog – usually referred to as Zrinjevac – which begins a block south of Trg bana Jelačića; to the west of Zrinjevac is the second line of squares, culminating with Trg maršala Tita. To the south are the Botanical Gardens, which were intended to provide the final green link between the two arms of the horseshoe, but didn’t quite manage it: several characterless downtown blocks prevent it from joining Tomislavov trg to the east.
Born the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest in the village of Smiljan, just outside Gospić, Nikola Tesla went on to become the Leonardo da Vinci of the electronic age. He studied in Graz and Prague before working for telephone companies in Budapest and Paris, and in 1884 emigrated to the US where he found work with Thomas Edison – the pair allegedly fell out when Edison promised to reward Tesla with a US$50,000 bonus for improving his electricity generators, then failed to pay up.
After working for a time as a manual labourer, Tesla set up his own company and dedicated himself to the development of alternating current – a system that is now standard throughout the world. With financial support from American company Westinghouse, Tesla demonstrated his innovations at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, becoming an international celebrity in the process.
In 1899 Tesla moved to Colorado Springs, where he built an enormous high-frequency generator (the “Tesla Coil”), with which he hoped to transmit electric energy in huge waves around the earth. Photographs of Tesla’s tall, wiry figure using the coil to produce vast electronic discharges helped turn the inventor into one of the iconic figures of modern science.
Tesla also pioneered the development of long-range radio-wave transmissions, but failed to demonstrate his innovations publicly and was scooped by Giuglielmo Marconi, who successfully sent wireless messages across the Atlantic in 1902. The US patent office credited Marconi as the inventor of radio – a decision overturned in Tesla’s favour in 1943.
Official recognition eluded Tesla throughout his career. In 1915 the Nobel committee considered awarding their science prize jointly to Tesla and Thomas Edison, but changed their minds on discovering that the pair were too vain to share it. Tesla’s failure to capitalize on his inventions owed a lot to his secretive nature. His habit of announcing discoveries without providing any supporting evidence led many to see him as a crank. He claimed to have received signals from outer space, and to be working on an “egeodynamic oscillator”, whose vibrations would be enough to destroy large buildings. On Tesla’s death in 1943, the FBI confiscated the scientist’s papers, prompting all kinds of speculation about the secret weapons that Tesla may or may not have been working on.
Tesla remains the subject of fascination for Croats and Serbs alike (he is one of the few historical figures whose legacy they share), and Tesla-related museum displays in Zagreb, Belgrade and his home village of Smiljan are becoming ever more popular.
Zagreb’s sightseeing potential is largely exhausted once you’ve covered the compact centre, although there are a few worthwhile trips into the suburbs – all of which are easily accessible by tram or bus. Maksimir, Jarun and Mirogoj cemetery are the park-like expanses to aim for if you want a break from the downtown streets, while the Sava river embankment presents the ideal excuse for a long afternoon stroll. South of the river, the residential high-rise sprawl of Novi Zagreb is home to the city’s coolest cultural attraction – the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Three kilometres east of the centre, Maksimir Park is Zagreb’s largest and lushest open space. Named after Archbishop Maximilian Vrhovac, who in 1774 established a small public garden in the southwestern corner of today’s park, Maksimir owes much to his successors Aleksandar Alagović and Juraj Haulik, who imported the idea of the landscaped country park from England. It’s perfect for aimless strolling, with the straight-as-an-arrow, tree-lined avenues at its southwestern end giving way to more densely forested areas in its northern reaches. As well as five lakes, the park is dotted with follies, including a mock Swiss chalet (Švicarska kuća) and a spruced-up belvedere (vidikovac), housing a café which gets mobbed on fine Sunday afternoons. One of Zagreb’s best-equipped children’s play parks can be found here, about five minutes’ walk from the main entrance, just off the main avenue to the left.
Cloaked in a sheath of matt black on the outside, and boasting a wealth of wrought iron and exposed brickwork within, the expensively restored former cavalry stable and textile factory that is the Lauba House (Kuća Lauba), 4km west of the centre, is Zagreb’s leading private art collection. It’s the brainchild of Tomislav Kličko (the name “lauba” is local dialect in Kličko’s home village for a circle of tree branches), who systematically bought up the works of Croatia’s leading artists at a time when few other individuals were making acquisitions. Unsurprisingly, Kličko ended up with the cream. Occupying centre stage in a regularly rotated collection are the figurative paintings of Lovro Artuković, light installations by Ivana Franke and the glitzy but disturbing sculptures and photographs of Kristian Kožul.
On sunny days, city folk head out to Jarun, a 2km-long artificial lake encircled by footpaths and cycling tracks 6km southwest of the centre. Created to coincide with Zagreb’s hosting of the 1987 World Student Games, it’s an important venue for rowing competitions, with a large spectator stand at the western end, although most people come here simply to stroll or sunbathe. The best spot for the latter is Malo jarunsko jezero at Jarun’s eastern end, a bay sheltered from the rest of the lake by a long thin island. Here you’ll find a shingle beach backed by outdoor cafés, several of which remain open until the early hours. This is a good place from which to clamber up onto the dyke that runs along the banks of the River Sava, providing a good vantage point from which to survey the cityscape of Novi Zagreb beyond.
Spread over the plain on the southern side of the River Sava, Novi Zagreb (New Zagreb) is a vast gridiron of housing projects and multilane highways, conceived by ambitious urban planners in the 1960s. The central part of the district is not that bad a place to live: swaths of park help to break up the architectural monotony, and each residential block has a clutch of bars and pizzerias in which to hang out. Outlying areas have far fewer facilities, however, and possess the aura of half-forgotten dormitory settlements on which the rest of Zagreb has turned its back.
Opened to the public in 2009, the Museum of Contemporary Art (Muzej suvremene umjetnosti) has established itself as the leading art institution in the region. Taking the form of an angular wave on concrete stilts, the Igor Franić-designed building is a deliberate reference to the meandering motif developed by Croatian abstract artist Julije Knifer (1924–2004) and repeated – with minor variations – in almost all of his paintings. The interior is a bit of a meander too, with open-plan exhibition halls and a frequently rotated permanent collection that highlights home-grown movements without presenting them in chronological order. The whole thing demonstrates just how far at the front of the contemporary pack Croatian art always was, although it’s a difficult story for first-time visitors to unravel.
Things you should look out for include the jazzy abstract paintings produced by Exat 51 (a group comprising Vlado Kristl, Ivan Picelj and Aleksandar Srnec) in the 1950s, which show how postwar Croatian artists escaped early from communist cultural dictates and established themselves firmly at the forefront of the avant-garde. Look out too for photos of it’s-all-in-the-name-of-art streakers such as Tomislav Gotovac (1937–2010) and Vlasta Delimar (1956–), who either ran or rode naked through the centre of Zagreb on various occasions, putting Croatia on the international performance-art map in the process. Works by understated iconoclasts Goran Trbuljak, Sanja Iveković and Mladen Stilinović reinforce Croatia’s reputation for the art of the witty, ironic statement. The museum’s international collection takes in Mirosław Bałka’s Eyes of Purification (a mysterious concrete shed outside the front entrance), as well as Carsten Höller’s interactive toboggan tubes. A cinema, concert space and café provide additional reasons to visit.
Novi Zagreb has its own venue for outdoor recreation in the shape of the Bundek, a kidney-shaped lake surrounded by woodland and riverside meadow. Attractively landscaped and bestowed with foot- and cycle-paths, it’s an increasingly popular strolling and picnicking venue. Indeed Bundek is one of the best bets for keeping children entertained, with large, well-equipped children's play parks at either side of the lake. The area is also enormously popular with picnickers at weekends, thanks to the generous supply of light-your-own-fire barbecue stations spread out beneath the trees.
The wooded slopes of Mount Medvednica, or “Bear Mountain”, offer the easiest escape from the city, with the range’s highest peak, Sljeme (1033m), easily accessible on foot or by road. The summit is densely forested and the views from the top are not as impressive as you might expect, but the walking is good and there’s a limited amount of skiing in winter, when you can rent gear from shacks near the top.
Commanding a spur of the mountain southwest of the Sljeme summit is the fortress of Medvedgrad. It was built in the mid-thirteenth century at the instigation of Pope Innocent IV in the wake of Tatar attacks, although its defensive capabilities were never really tested and it was abandoned in 1571. Partially reconstructed, the fortress has since the 1990s been home to the Altar of the Homeland (Oltar domovine), an eternal flame surrounded by stone blocks. You can roam the castle’s ramparts, which enjoy panoramic views of Zagreb and the plain beyond.
However you arrive on Sljeme, its main point of reference is the TV transmission tower, built on the summit in 1980. The tower’s top floor originally housed a restaurant and viewing terrace, but the lifts broke down after three months and it’s been closed to the public ever since. A north-facing terrace near the foot of the tower provides good views of the low hills of the Zagorje, a rippling green landscape broken by red-roofed villages. Just west of here is the Tomislavov Dom hotel, home to a couple of cafés and a restaurant, below which you can pick up a trail to the medieval fortress of Medvedgrad (2hr). Alternatively you can follow signs southwest from Tomislavov Dom to the Grafičar mountain hut, some twenty minutes away, where there’s a café serving basic snacks.
Paths continue east along the ridge, emerging after about twenty minutes at the Puntijarka mountain refuge, one of many popular refreshment stops serving the traditional hiker’s fare, grah (bean soup).
Top image: St. Mark's Church in Zagreb © 9MOT/Shutterstock