Born of two distinct medieval towns—Gradec and Kaptol—Zagreb still feels like different places, merged together. Add to this, the city’s complicated Balkan heritage: Ottoman wars, annexure by the Habsburgs, and the creation of an independent Croatia from Yugoslavia. The upside of this strife is cultural diversity. I was awestruck by the majestic Austro-Hungarian pavilions, intimidating Gothic fortifications, and tall tales of Zagrebians defeating the fierce Ottomans. But Zagreb also has a youthful core. I guzzled Ožujsko beer at bars overlooking heritage buildings, took a Segway tour on cobblestone alleys, and attended a rock concert in a 19th-century garden. Unlike most urban centres, Zagreb has preserved a love for nature, evident in its many botanical gardens and lakes. Even though it is part of Europe, it remains relatively affordable. Its currency is the kuna (1 kuna = 100 lipa). Economic benefits aside, the best part about Zagreb is that it isn’t trying hard to dress up for tourists. It is just effortlessly unique.
Zagreb’s airport is 11 km/20 min from the city centre (taxi into town HRK150-200/₹1,400-1,700). Airport shuttle buses go to Zagreb’s main bus station, near the centre (HRK30/₹288; 7 a.m.-8 p.m.).
Zagreb’s compact city centre, where most attractions lie, is best explored on foot. Walk like a local and take the medieval Capuchin Stairs that connect the two main areas—Upper Town (Old Town) and Lower Town. Alternatively, take the more modern Splavnica stairs or ride the world’s shortest funicular, which runs for 64 seconds one way (HRK4/₹38 one way).
Blue-liveried trams crisscross the city. Some, not all, sell tickets on board; a small sticker by the driver’s window will alert you to this. It’s best to buy tickets from a nearby newspaper kiosk and validate it on board (HRK10/₹96 for unlimited rides for 90 minutes). If you intend to make full use of the transport systems, invest in a ZET (Zagreb Transport System) card, which allows unlimited travel on the funicular, buses, and trams only in the city centre for 3 days (zagrebcard.com; HRK90/₹850).
The Esplanade, in the heart of Lower Town, opened its doors in 1925, exclusively for passengers of the Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul. During WWII it morphed into the headquarters of the Gestapo. Today it offers luxury amidst legends of spies in an art nouveau setting. Politicians, film stars, and musicians have been known to check in (esplanade.hr; doubles from HRK820/₹7,900). A stone’s throw away is the oldest hotel in the city, the 4-star Palace Hotel, standing tall since 1907. Here, antique furnishings come with modern amenities (www.palace.hr/home; doubles from HRK600/₹5,762). For budget accommodation, head to the Taban Bar & Hostel, tucked away in a pedestrian-only zone in Upper Town. Its bar is packed even at noon, for the love of the Balkan brandy rakija runs deep. Rooms are clean, painted in happy colours with wooden floors, and have modern furnishings (tabanzagreb.com; en-suite doubles HRK300/₹2,881).
As European cities go, Zagreb is relatively inexpensive to holiday in. We’ve taken a more expensive hotel into consideration in our calculations, but you can get much cheaper lodges and gueshouses for ₹2,000 per night and save several thousand rupees of your budget.
Zagreb’s medieval nucleus is Upper Town. Spending the day there is like taking a plunge into the city’s history book. If you’re staying in Lower Town, walk to the Ban Jelačić Square, named after the 19th-century viceroy (ban means viceroy) of Zagreb. I recognised the square, without ever having laid eyes on it before, since it’s the face of Zagreb on postcards. The statue of the ban, under the clock, is where friends and lovers arrange to meet. I dropped a coin in the Manduševac fountain because everyone knows it brings good luck.
Step into Upper Town via the Splavnica stairwell, adjoining the square, and enter the Dolac market to watch local life unfold. Known as the “belly of Zagreb,” this open-air farmers’ market spans several acres, and dates back to 1926. From under red umbrellas emerge a variety of aromas, colours, and flavours. Fill a picnic basket with juicy berries, fruit preserves, home-made breads, pungent cheese and sweet cream (weekdays 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sat until 2 p.m., Sun until 1 p.m.; HRK100/₹960 for two).
A short walk from Dolac leads to Kaptol, one of two 11th-century hilltop settlements that make up Zagreb. Look up at the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Mary, dating back to 1024. Surprisingly, it’s a neo-Gothic structure with intimidating spires that were rebuilt over the centuries. The cathedral also has defensive walls, which were built to protect the town against invading Ottomans.
Still in Kaptol, a ten-minute walk from the cathedral, Nova Ves Street is a great place to enjoy a local meal and local wines. At Vinska Klet, a cellar restaurant located in a heritage structure, the Kurtalj family serves up a sumptuous feast. It’s prepared by Grandma K while you sip, swirl, and learn about four different types of wines from their vineyard (vinska-klet.hr; HRK160/₹1,533 lunch for two, including wine tasting).
Another short walk south, leads to Tkalčićeva, the most vibrant street in Upper Town. Filled with cafés, themed restaurants, and quirky boutiques, this is where cool kids come to play. Head to Ivica i Marica (Hansel and Gretel), a pastry shop that looks like the fairy-tale gingerbread house but is inedible. Costumed servers provide sweet treats, prepared with brown sugar without artificial preservatives (HRK40/₹386 for two). On the far end of the Tkalčićeva, I posed next to a statue of Marija Jurić Zagorka, Croatia’s first female journalist.
Walk for five minutes in the direction of St. Mark’s Square. En route, look out for the stone gate, the oldest entrance to Gradec. The 13th-century St. Mark’s Church sits smack in the middle of the square. Its tiled roof bears Zagreb’s coat of arms as well as that of the former Kingdom of Croatia under the Habsburg Empire. Next to the church is the Museum of Broken Relationships, a heart-warming, sometimes funny, collection of mementos from lost loves (brokenships.com; open 9 a.m-10.30 p.m. from 1 June-30 Sep; 9 a.m-9 p.m. from 1 Oct-31 May; entry HRK25/₹237). Head to the funicular, minutes away, and plunge into Lower Town for a few hours of rest at your hotel.
Night brings new character to Upper Town. I recommend one of two tours: the Secrets of Grič tour (Grič is another name for the medieval town of Gradec) is a nocturnal theatrical tour of the old town, where a troupe of actors re-enact secrets only a local would know (Sat 9 p.m. May-Sep; www.tajnegrica.hr; HRK150/₹1,445 for a 1.5-hr tour). Or sign up for the night-time Segway tour of the city, which starts in Lower Town. It is challenging and fascinating to ride on paths built before the Segway was even conceived (zagreb.segwaycitytour.hr/; July-Sept; HRK450/₹4,335 for a 1.5-hr tour).
An action-packed day must end with a big meal. Head to Pizzeria 2 in Kaptol, a three-decade-old family-run eatery. Its brick walls are decorated with abstract art and other random trinkets. Choose from one of 30 different types of pizzas, or tuck into a plate of pasta or lasagna, and leave room for dessert (HRK125/ ₹1,200 for two).
Milan Lenuci, a 19th-century urban planner, designed Lower Town to resemble a horseshoe of promenades and parks. Lenuci’s horseshoe never managed the full “U” but gave the metropolis green lungs. I envied Zagrebians as they donned suits and sprinted across gardens to work. As a tourist, you can lose your way in the emerald squares and chance upon statues and age-old fountains from which birds take a sip.
Zrinski Square is a serene park that was once a meadow-market for cattle trading. Today, you can sit under the shade of 100-year-old plane trees imported from Trieste, Italy. Just south of this you’ll spot another equestrian statue, that of King Tomislav. I recognised him from the HRK1,000-note. He was Croatia’s first king in 925 (before the Habsburgs made an entry). He seems to be looking at the most fascinating building in Zagreb, the Art Pavilion a structure with a metal frame that has been assembled and pulled-apart like Lego. It was carried in a million pieces across the border to the Croatian Pavilion in the Budapest Millennial Art Exhibition of 1896. Brought back shortly after, it sits here permanently (www.umjetnicki-paviljon.hr/en/; no permanent exhibits; entry approximately HRK50/₹481).
Snack on corn on the cob or roasted peanuts from street carts as you stroll over to the Botanical Gardens in Marulic Square (7 minutes from Tomislav). The gated park cuts out the city with over 10,000 species of plants from native Croatian to exotic imports. Don’t worry if you don’t know your bald cypress from your Persian ironwood. Find a quiet corner by a water body (there are plenty) to be blown away by nature (Open Apr-Oct; Mon-Tue 9 a.m.-2.30 p.m.; Wed-Sun 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; entry free).
Just beyond the gardens is Marshal Tito Square. A chance encounter with a chatty local shed light on the link between Tito and Nehru, who along with Nasser of Egypt, headed the Non-aligned Movement of the 1950s to thwart the Cold War. This historic square marks the end of the horseshoe, and overlooks the neo-baroque Croatian National Theatre and Zagreb University, one of Europe’s oldest educational institutes.
The many al fresco café-bars of Preradović Square are good for some downtime with coffee (kava) and sweet treats. En route from Tito Square, you will see a large statue of the original geek, Nikola Tesla, who introduced the world to radio waves. Thanks to his vision, we have the Internet (cafés about HRK40/₹284 for two).
For souvenir ties and scarves step into Croata at the Oktogon, a shopping arcade inside a pre-WWI building nearby. In the 17th century, Croatian soldiers used to tie scarves around their necks; a style statement that was later adopted by the French and became the French cravat (ties from HRK165/₹1,587).
Next, take the funicular to Kaptol, followed by a 25-minute bus ride to Mirogoj Cemetery to find monumental pavilions and arcades that come with finely sculpted graves. Mirogoj was designed by noted architect Herman Bolle, who also restored St. Mark’s Church to the version seen today. With Mirogoj, his vision was to create a space that would inspire awe and sorrow at the same time. Many Croatian heroes rest here, irrespective of religion; there are Christian crosses, Jewish candle-stones, and other religious symbols side by side. The grave of poet Petar Preradović (of Preradović Square) is among the most visited.
Back at Kaptol, head to Pod Gričkim Topom. This is a garden restaurant with a menu carefully prepared by generations of culinary experts who run the family business. It blends classic Croatian and international specialities with an emphasis on local produce from Dolac market: Juicy steaks, seafood, and peka dishes (baked slowly in a traditional round pot) are hot favourites (meal for two HRK350/₹3,366).
Start early. Pack your Dolac market goodies and head to Zagreb’s main station to catch a bus to Plitvice Lakes, 2.5 hours away. Although outside Zagreb, it is an easy day trip.
Plitvice Lakes is Croatia’s largest national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979. Its 16 turquoise lakes seem to sit placidly in limestone basins. Go deeper into the woods though and their avatar changes as they merge in a series of roaring waterfalls and cascades. The scene is set against the backdrop of verdant woods where animals like deer, bear, wolf, and boar roam. As the water finds its way through the limestone, it erodes its way as it goes, changing the pattern of the falls.
The lakes are divided into Upper Lakes and Lower Lakes. Paths are well marked and it takes about eight hours to explore the park on foot. Although the hiking is easy, visitors can use an available bus service or boats (included in ticket price). There are also several rest benches en route, and many offer superb views of the water. I recommend taking a bus to the Upper Lakes and then walking down (6.5 hours) stopping along the way for your picnic lunch. Don’t miss the little plaques with names and legends of the lakes and falls. Ciginovac is literally Gypsy’s Lake and legend has it that a gypsy drowned in these waters. Gavanovac is named after an explorer named Gavan who allegedly stashed his treasure here. Some of the falls have historic names like Milka Ternina, named after the Croatian opera singer who also has a chocolate to her name.
Take time out to admire the largest of the falls, Veliki Slap or large falls. They resemble a series of braids as they crisscross and cascade downward. The sound is deafening and instantly shuts out any thoughts running through your mind. A light mist fills the air, which is especially refreshing after hiking in the summer. And if you’re lucky, like I was, you get to spot a rainbow in the distance.
Although it is known for its lakes and falls, Plitvice is only one per cent water. The rest is forest, including virgin forests that have remained free of human influence for over a century. (np-plitvicka-jezera.hr; open 7 a.m.-8 p.m.; entry HRK55-180/₹527-1,726 depending on the season. Buses from Zagreb are more frequent in summer and run between 5.45 a.m. and 5.40 p.m.; from HRK81/₹760 one-way; for tickets, visit voznired.akz.hr/voznired.aspx?lang=en and enter Plitvicka Jezera as the destination.)
Back in Zagreb, enjoy Croatian fare at Purger in Lower Town, not far from The Esplanade. Binge on Balkan grills like the flavourful Adriatic fish, and peka made of meat and cheese (HRK350/₹3,356 for two).
Appeared in the July 2015 issue as “Cracking Croatia”.
National Geographic Traveller India‘s handy guide to Zagreb, Croatia includes hotel stays, historic exploits and a bit of nature. This itinerary for a three-day holiday in Zagreb, for a couple, costs under ₹54,000 without airfare. It can be covered for cheaper based on the accommodation/activities you choose.
is a travel writer who calls Mumbai home, but is never in the city for long. She has taught English in Spain, eaten questionable dishes off stalls in Thailand, tried her hand at extreme sports in Australia; all to bring you back a story. She recounts her adventures in publications such as National Geographic Traveller India, Hindustan Times and The Hindu. She tweets as @kiranmehta17.
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