With red-tiled roofs, cobblestone streets, impressive church spires, as well as Neo-Baroque and art deco architecture, Zagreb has a lot to offer. It is the perfect destination for culture, art and history lovers. With so many things to do in Zagreb, there is something here for everyone.
While it may not be as popular as other cities in Croatia, Zagreb is one place you will fall in love with. Between the ubiquitous patios, museums and friendly people, Croatia’s capital should be on your list. For us, discovering Zagreb was an unexpected adventure.
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Zagreb Travel Guide for Beginners
When it comes to European travel, Zagreb might not be the first destination on many travellers’ itineraries. It tends to linger in the shadows, often eclipsed by Croatia’s more renowned destinations, like Dubrovnik or Split. However, unbeknownst to many, it holds a treasure trove of experiences waiting to be uncovered.
I must admit, we hadn’t initially anticipated the wealth of engaging activities that Zagreb had to offer. Stepping into this vibrant city with little prior knowledge was a departure from our usual travel approach. Typically, we would have arrived with a meticulously planned itinerary, complete with a list of must-see attractions. This time, we embraced spontaneity and let Zagreb reveal its secrets.
We only had a few days, so we decided to explore the city’s winding streets and hidden alleys without a plan. This approach led us to uncover a mesmerizing city full of life, culture and history. Not to mention the many patios lining the streets, which definitely appealed to us. As we delved deeper into Zagreb’s heart, each corner unfurled a new surprise, surpassing our wildest expectations and leaving us utterly captivated.
Ultimately, our whirlwind adventure in Zagreb proved to be a delightful journey of discovery, forever etching itself in our memories as a city that truly exceeded all expectations.
Immersing ourselves in local history
For this visit, we opted to stay in one of those old buildings covered in decades of grime and soot. Despite that, you could see the architectural splendour wanting to be uncovered. Inside, we discovered surprisingly sturdy bones, gorgeous wooden floors, and vault-like locks that hinted at its storied past.
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Our host told us that the building once belonged to a now-defunct bank, and many of its bankers had apartments here. Judging by the spaciousness of the apartment and the generous separation between our living quarters and our host’s suggested that these bankers had once lived quite comfortably.
Everything about Zagreb drew us in from the moment we arrived. It’s an old city with its roots going back to medieval times. There is a wide range of architectural styles, from Gothic to the Austro-Hungarian style of the 18th- and 19th centuries and everything in between.
Much like other former Communist cities, many of Zagreb’s architectural marvels bear the scars of long-standing neglect. It’s not hard to imagine what Zagreb looked like in better times. I loved the mix of styles, each with its own unique story. They all captivated my imagination and left me longing to uncover the secrets concealed within their walls.
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 filled with them, and all are packed with people. We felt like we had hit the jackpot.
Ban Jelacic 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 goods sold. The name was changed in 1848 to Ban Jelacic Square to honour Ban (governor) Josip Jelacic, Croatia’s national hero. After WWII, the statue was removed, and the square was renamed Republic Square. It changed back to its current name in 1990.
Not far from the statue of Jelacic in the square is the Manduševac Fountain, which 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 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 could 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.
Recommended tours of Zagreb:
An open-air food market is a staple of any European town. Strolling through rows of vendors is one thing 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.
If you enjoy reading about Zagreb, you might like to check out Dubrovnik!
For a taste of Medieval Zagreb, make sure to head to the LotrscakTower, 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 deafening 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 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.
Tkalciceva 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 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. Originally built in the Middle Ages, it was rebuilt in the 18th century. Here you’ll find a 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 the early 16th century. Talk about a historical tapestry.
Things to do in Zagreb – Lower Town
When you think you had seen all of the things to do in Zagreb, you will discover another part of town to explore. The Lower Town offers just as many opportunities for exploration as the Upper Town.
Built in 1925 near the main rail station, Hotel Esplanade catered to Orient Express passengers. 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 social events. It still looks impressive today.
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 Preradovic Square
The square, named after a 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 reassembled. 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 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 Vienna, Budapest and other cultural centres. 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, but 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-story houses and traditional workshops. 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 visited was the Museum of Broken Relationships. Dedicated to failed love stories, it’s filled with many items donated by ordinary 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 speakeasy. 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.
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