Sometimes the best vacations are in places you haven’t planned on ever visiting. This happened to us not too long ago. After a wonderful multi-destination European tour, we ended up in Croatia. We really wanted to see Dubrovnik, but since there were no flights to Toronto from there, Zagreb was the next best thing. What did we know about the things to do in Zagreb? Absolutely nothing. Frankly, we didn’t really know much about the capital city of Croatia, other than it was the capital.
Now, this could have gone really badly, but since we had no expectations, there was nothing to lose. We arrived in Zagreb with open minds, ready for adventure.
I don’t think Zagreb is necessarily a place that ranks high on the destination lists for European cities. It’s definitely overshadowed by Croatia’s other popular destination like Dubrovnik and Split. While those are great places to visit, there are so many great things to do in Zagreb that we didn’t know we wanted to do.
Arriving in a place without prior knowledge of the place is not something we normally do. Usually I like to have an idea of what awaits, but it was different with Zagreb.
Since we were only planning on staying for few days, we figured we would figure it out once we got there. This allowed us to discover a very cool and interesting city that we wouldn’t have visited otherwise. It definitely turned out a lot better than we expected.
Taste of real Zagreb
While Zagreb is a very affordable city, we opted to stay in an Airbnb. After all, this seemed like a great way to learn more about the locals and the city they call home. We weren’t disappointed.
We stayed in a one of those old buildings that was covered in decades of grime and soot. Despite the shabby grey outside, it had good bones, gorgeous wooden floors and locks that could rival a vault. Our host told us it used to belong to a long-gone bank. Back in those days, apparently many of the bankers lived in this building. Judging by the size of the apartment, and the fact that his living space and ours were generously separated, they lived well.
From the moment we arrived, everything about Zagreb drew us in. It is an old city, with its roots going back to medieval times. There is a wide range of architectural styles all the way from Gothic to the Austro-Hungarian style of the 18th- and 19th-centuries and everything in between. As most of other cities from the former Communist bloc, many of these wonderful buildings have fallen into disrepair from decades of neglect. It’s not hard to imagine how Zagreb looked like in better times. I loved the mix of styles, some in better shape than others. They definitely got my imagination going.
Things to do in Zagreb - Upper Town
Zagreb is full of charm no matter where you go, so there are plenty of things to do in Zagreb for everyone. It is a very walkable city and has lots of pedestrian areas. All lined with shops and patios. Did I mention patios? They’re everywhere. There are streets literally filled with them, and all are packed with people. We felt like we hit the jackpot.
Ban Jelačić Square
The city’s commercial heart for centuries, the square served as Zagreb’s main market square. It was originally called “Harmica”- after the tax that was levied on the good sold. The name was changed in 1848 to Ban Jelačić Square to honour Ban (governor) Josip Jelačić, Croatia’s national hero. After WWII, the statue was removed and the square renamed to Republic Square. It changed back to current name in 1990.
Not far from the statue of Jelačić in the square is the Manduševac Fountain that sits on top of a natural spring. So, what makes this fountain so special? Well, according to the legend, a thirsty and tired soldier was passing by and asked a beautiful woman named Manda to scoop up some water for him. The Manduševac Fountain was thus named after the woman Manda, while Zagreb got its name from the Croatian word “zagrabiti” meaning to scoop up water.
It’s a cute story, but there are so many unanswered questions. Was Manda just hanging out by the spring waiting for some guy to pass by so she can give him water?
Very unlikely. Or was she a witch waiting for her fellow witches? You see, apparently the spring was also a witch meetup. So many questions. I digress.
An open air food market is a staple of any European town. Strolling through rows of vendors is definitely one of those things to do in Zagreb that you should not miss out on. We bought some honey and fruit here all the while wishing we had more time to shop.
The market is a fairly “new” addition to the city, dating back to the early 20th century. The officials tore down houses on Dolac to make room for the new market. Judging by its size, that must have been a lot of houses.
For a taste of Medieval Zagreb, make sure to head to the Lotrščak Tower, built in 1266. The tower also acted as an alarm, summoning residents with bells at sunset before the city gates closed for the night.
Today you can enjoy picturesque views of the city and witness the canon-firing tradition every day at noon. Keep in mind that it gets really loud when the canons fire. Especially if you’re in very close proximity to the tower.
There is a short funicular that brings passengers between Lower and Upper Towns. When it opened in 1890, it was the first mode of public transport in the city. Today, the journey takes about 55 seconds.
St. Mark’s Church
Upper Town is also where you’ll also find the iconic St. Mark’s Church with its pretty tiled roof in red, blue and white. What makes the roof unique is the coat of arms, one for the Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, the other for the city of Zagreb.
The church dates back to the 13th century and it’s one of the oldest structures in the city. Inside you’ll find Gothic arches along with 14th and 15th century art made by masters of the day. We didn’t get a chance to check out the inside, but I’m hoping to do so next time.
Also known as “Tkalča,” this is the perfect street for a stroll. In fact, you can probably spend a lot of time here. When it comes to all the things to do in Zagreb that involve food and beverage, this is the place to be.
This pedestrian-friendly street is lined with restaurants, coffee shops, bars and shops. The street follows the path of what was a creek and a natural boundary between the church-controlled Kaptol and the secular Gradec.
Fun fact, this also used to be Zagreb’s Red Light district between 1899 to 1941. Today it’s a lot more family friendly. Ponder that over a pint or two.
The Stone Gate
The Stone Gate is an interesting spot. It’s the only gate that remains intact, providing entrance to the Upper Town. Original build in the Middle Ages, it was rebuilt in the 18th century. Here you’ll find seemingly out of place chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Its main feature is a painting of Mary that was rescued from a fire in 1731.
Apparently, the Cathedral with its slender towers is the tallest structure in Croatia and one of Zagreb’s most defining symbols. The original dating back to the 11th century was damaged over the centuries. What you see today was restored after the 1880 earthquake. This Neo-Gothic church with Baroque altars is surrounded by Renaissance defensive walls, dating back to early 16th century. Talk about a historical tapestry.
Things to do in Zagreb – Lower Town
Built in 1925 near the main rail station, Hotel Esplanade catered to the passengers of the Orient Express. Zagreb was a stop for the luxurious train service between Paris and Istanbul. Even then there were many things to do in Zagreb for visitors. The rich and famous stayed at the hotel, making it the centre for society events. It still looks impressive today.
Nicola Tesla statue
We stumbled upon the statue dedicated to the famous innovator quite by chance. Tesla, born and raised in Croatia, was honoured with the statue on the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Petar Preradović Square
The square, named after Croatian general with a fondness for poetry, is a lively place for people watching. Also known as Flower Square, after the many flower stalls that have been a staple here for centuries. Lined with cafes and restaurants, it’s another great place to hang out and socialize. You can also check out the nearby Oktogon shopping area. The pre-WWI building’s central area is shaped like an octagon, under a glass-stained dome.
The Art Pavilion
Zagreb’s Art Pavilion is another beautiful yellow building. It also has an interesting story. It was built for the Budapest Millennial Exhibition of 1896, using the latest metal framing techniques. After the exhibition, the pavilion was disassembled and transported to Zagreb by train where it was re-assembled. It became the city’s first designated space for art shows and exhibitions.
The Croatian National Theatre
The Croatian National Theatre building is enchanting. Built in a rich Neo-Baroque style and designed by famous Viennese architects, the theatre opened in 1895. The building is a dark yellow and it draws you the moment you walk by it. I really hope to return to Zagreb and check it out inside.
The Main Railway Station
Zagreb’s railway station was built in 1892, connecting the city to other cultural centres of Vienna and Budapest. The building is a mixture of Renaissance and Neo-classical elements and was designed by Hungarian architect Ferenc Pfaff. Not only is the station itself picture worthy, so are the views of Zagreb for visitors coming out of the station.
Vlaška is another interesting street to visit when you’re looking for things to do in Zagreb. It’s characterized by one-storey houses and traditional workshops. In the past, it was settled by Italian traders, referred to as Vlasi in Croatian, giving the street its name. You can always stop for a coffee in a nearby café and people watch as they pass by.
Final thoughts on things to do in Zagreb
The most unique place we have visited was the Museum of Broken Relationships. Dedicated to failed love stories, it’s filled with many items donated by average people who wanted to share their pain. Some are funny, some sad while others are really heart wrenching. It’s definitely a must go.
One of the evenings, we stumbled upon Wine Bar Bornstein, a cool wine cellar with a wide selection of Croatian wines. With arched ceilings, brick finishing and small windows covered with bars, it felt like we were in some sort of a speak easy. Since I don’t drink wine, I opted for a local beer. According to Alex, the wine was outstanding. After all, how often do you get to drink wine in a 200 year old cellar?
There are so many great things to do in Zagreb. We didn’t have enough time to check out all the amazing museums the city has to offer, nor to admire all the wonderful architecture. The visit gave us an amazing insight into the city and we’ll definitely go back.
What was the most surprising place you have ever visited? What made you love it? Let me know!