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Zagreb is Europe’s rare affordable tech center with a high quality of life

(Editor’s note: This post is part of a continuing series looking at emerging tech centers across Europe. You can see the intro post here and our post on Germany here.)

I worked in the Balkans – Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo and Croatia – for years covering SFOR and IFOR peacekeeping missions starting in 1999, in the aftermath of the Yugoslav Civil War and the overthrow of Slobodan Miloševič. Even though I’d never been, I thought I knew what to expect on a recent business trip to Zagreb … a tense, broken-down place 10 years behind Western Europe and still riven by ethnic hatred.

Wrong. Soooo wrong.

What I found instead was a thriving city that is in ways more modern than Eindhoven, the affluent Dutch tech hub where Dispatches is headquartered. Well, I think I did. It is the Balkans, and I was only on the ground for four days, hosted by Lauren Simmonds at Total Croatia News.

Here are my takeaways.

Croatia, where attractions are distractions

As I’ve said so many times, expats travel with a different mindset, always appraising cities from the perspective of, “could I live and work here?”

This trip was beyond that … it was about assessing Zagreb and Croatia as the next Estonia, where talented techies could find a creative haven and investors would have the amenities they seek. Of course, Croatia has a lot of attractions Estonia lacks, including beaches, though you can argue those attractions are also distractions.

Zagreb is one of Europe’s capital cities, as Jackie Harding pointed out last year in her travel post. In the past few years, it and much of Croatia has emerged as a tech center in its own right.

So, this is another hybrid travel/biz post looking beyond the museums and café at details entrepreneurs consider essential.

An inflluencer put Zagreb on the map in Korea. Then this happened. (All photos by Terry Boyd for Dispatches unless noted)

A little context

I’m driving along with my Uber driver Rik and he’s giving me in rapid-fire English a comprehensive briefing in the 20 minutes it takes to drive to Franjo Tuđman Airport from the center of Zagreb where I stayed. I ask why there are so many Korean tourists. Turns out a Korean influencer and Tik Toker toured Croatia and started posting, Rik said. Suddenly, thousands of Korean tourists started showing up: “The guy had like a million followers. Tourism just took off.”

There are lots of tourists from Asia and lots of people here on business. You hear a surprising amount of American English on the streets of Zagreb, and I met both tourists as well as American engineers here on projects. It’s a little bit surreal considering the Balkans of civil wars, mass graves and burned out buildings is my context.

Photo courtesy of Rimac

Undisputed tech hub of the Balkans

The reason I’m in Zagreb is that I want to see for myself what sort of city (and country) is able to transform itself into an innovation hub with venture builders and tech accelerators after having been plagued by civil war and communism.

Bugatti, the world’s most expensive car brand, isn’t owned by Ferrari or Porsche. It’s part of Mate Rimac’s auto empire in Croatia. In just the past few years, Croatia has produced several Unicorns, including Infobip, Photomath and Gideon Robotics. This is without the early stage venture capital that The Valley has or a Stanford-level university. And I’m here because it’s better to be at the beginning of something than the end.

Housing

Rik told me that as Croatia’s business scene and tourism have grown, the cost of housing has started to get painful. But being the hustler that he is, he’d bought a small apartment for 130,000 euros, which he figures he could sell for 300k now. He did this not too long after losing his job as an engineer in Germany due to the pandemic. So I got a first-hand look at the entrepreneurial spirit.

I saw two-bedroom rental apartments posted for 650 euros to 850 euros per month. But this is a dangerous generalization.

One, you’re a foreigner, so expect to pay more than locals.

Two, I couldn’t take time to look at places. BUT, the takeaway is that there isn’t the same hopeless housing crisis here as in Eindhoven or in Berlin or Paris. There actually are apartments to rent. Just don’t try to find a place yourself.

Our expats advised us to pay a local for help and don’t get involved until it’s a done deal.

English

Most younger people – and a fair percentage of older people – speak English, so that’s not really an issue. BUT, this ain’t the Netherlands, where English is the business language and TV shows and most signage are in English.

Cro.K

Amenities

Restaurants and café are top notch. I had some of the best Korean food ever at Cro.K in Zagreb, and lunch was less than 20 euros. Bibimbap in Zagreb was way better than I’ve had in the Netherlands. Go figure.

On the retail side, I’ve never seen so many fancy-schmancy luxury retail shops. I was most taken with Maria, which carried high-end apparel and accessories. So if you’ve come to Zagreb to make a lot of money, then spend a lot of money, this is the place.

While there are no dedicated Hermès, Armani or Zegna stores, Maria on Masarykova carries brands such as Bottega Veneta, Ballenciaga, Gucci and Burberry. That’s just one of dozens and dozens of high-end stores in the Old City.

Arts

You’re in the Balkans, so arts are lively. Zagreb has a national theatre, which I passed by. Plays and operas rival Paris, including “La Bohème.”

Papa’s American Bar, where they serve bourbons such as Willett that are impossible to find elsewhere.

The feel

Zagreb shocked me with all of its lovely Austro-Hungarian-era buildings as well as Gothic cathedrals and even some Byzantine architecture. This is not Preština, with its Brutalist buildings, though there are a fair number of those outside the Old City.

Overall, Zagreb reminds me of Vienna.

There are so many Paris passage-style corridors in the Old City as well as hidden restaurants and shops back in quiet courtyards. But the earthquake in March 2020 damaged nearly every building in the city, and many remain under reconstruction, including the Zagreb Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. The cathedral lost several spires and is closed for the foreseeable future.

I also saw a preview of the feature we don’t even have in Eindhoven … virtual reality cafés, with kids wearing VR headsets. So, it’s that kind of unexpected experience that really defines Zagreb for me.

When it comes to hanging out, my favorite place is Papa’s American Bar at Tuškanac 1 on the edge of the leafy Tuškanak neighborhood. They have a collection of bourbon that’s crazy great, including brands its nearly impossible to get in Kentucky, where I’m from, and the Netherlands, where I live.

They include Blanton’s, Willett and lots of Beam products, including our fave, Knob Creek. Don’t miss it.

Zrinjevac Park

Neighborhoods

There are too many inviting neighborhoods to name, which is nice coming from Eindhoven, where there are just a handful of great neighborhoods with something better than worker housing built by Philips. The parks are also impressive, such as Zrinjevac in the middle of the Old City.

But there are also endless gray non-descript Communist-era concrete apartment buildings encircling the city, though we hear that you can’t judge a book by its cover, and some have luxury digs.

Conclusion

I really like what I saw. So much that I need to go back to Zagreb and do more, ah, research, especially at Papa’s American Bar.

Long story short: If I were a young engineer or entrepreneur, I’d be more excited about getting involved in a startup in Zagreb than, say, Berlin, where the cost of living is higher and there are no beaches.

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Read more about Croatia here in Dispatches archives.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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