Zagreb, capital of Croatia, has a more recent status as capital (1995) than many European cities such as Paris and London, and it has seen its share of conflict and disruption including the Croatian War of Independence.
Today, Zagreb is a city that is rebuilding once again following an earthquake in 2020 and the skyline is laced with cranes. As a European city destination, it is grittier than some, but has a wonderful Old Town with cobbled streets to stroll and feels underrated as a place to visit. It has a sense of being a city that is mostly populated with locals and not just tourists.
Although Zagreb is not a major tourism spot, there are plenty of things to do here, both in the city and farther afield.
The Museum of Broken Relationships doesn’t sound like a fun place to visit … my husband had reservations about going, believe me. But it is so worth your time. This museum is small and full of items with a background story, donated from people around the world.
Started by a Zagreb couple who broke up and joked that they should make a museum of their shared personal items, they reached out to friends and the collection went on a world tour gathering items as it went. It’s a fascinating museum exploring human relationships and their ending, be it a teenage first love, a divorce, the death of a parent or partner or even the loss of pizza after discovering you had an allergy to wheat.
There are other museums worth a look if it’s a cold day, such as:
• the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art.
Shopping in the old town of Zagreb is a collection of little individual stores set along cobbled streets and larger modern malls.
•Take Me Home is a store full of Croatian designed gifts.
Radićeva is another winding street has lots of local stores to browse. Centar Cvjetni is a modern mall with most of the chains you see around Europe, and they can also be found along one of the larger streets, Ilica.
Ride the Zagreb Funicular as apparently it is one of the shortest is the world. Personally, I found walking up the stairs and watching it pass more enjoyable, but try and time it with the firing of the noon cannon.
When you get to the top you are in the “Upper Town” which is the seat of government. The area has a couple of great museums, plus the cathedral (which is the tallest building in Croatia), Sadly the cathedral was closed due to renovations when we were there.
Walking tours are popular here and a good way to get to know the city. They range from street art, landmarks around the city to tours about communism and the war. It’s also an easy area to walk on your own with a guidebook and the winding streets make for great photos.
Here’s a link to TripAdvisor’s list of the best walking tours.
• Plitvice Lakes National Park is a day trip (2.5 hours) with a car or on a tour. The park is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is the oldest and largest park in Croatia. Comprised of 16 lakes, waterfalls and travertine terraces, these lakes are stunning.
Expect crowds if you go in the summer. Tickets cost 23.50 euros for the day.
• Samobor is a little town less than an hour from Zagreb and doable by bus or car. It is home to the best kremšnita (a cream slice) in Croatia. The historic town has a castle, is renowned for its crafts and artisans and has another national park close by, Zumberak-Samobor Highlands Nature Park where you can cycle, go paragliding and climbing.
To Eat & Drink
Zagreb is a university city and that means a great selection of vegan/veggie restaurants alongside the Croatian style restaurants. The highlight for me was finding a totally gluten-free lactose-free patisserie on one of the smaller streets.
• Vis à Vis by Vincek is a delight for those of us who usually stare in the windows of patisseries longingly, knowing we can’t eat anything in there! The store is a spin-off of it’s big brother Vincek (offering regular pastries) and the selection of fancy pastries in Vis à Vis made me so happy … not just carrot cake either.
The young lady serving must get used to the exclamations of joy from diet restricted customers, but she graciously allowed me to have my moment.
• Vallis Aurea was another great find. Croatian food with a less traditional touch. The inside restaurant is very stylish and outside there is a small terrace.
When hunting for a place to stay, focus on Zagreb’s Lower Town, as this is a good base for exploration. Here you’ll find big names such as Best Western and Hilton plus some smaller quality hotels and apartments.
If you are young at heart, check out the small, quirky, slightly disheveled Time Out Heritage Hotel. There’s a roof top bar/club and a ground floor bar/event space, so if it’s sleep you are hankering after, this is not the place for you.
Zagreb is an interesting capital city to explore, before heading to the coast of Croatia, and one that has a story to tell.
Photographer/writer Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a long-time expat, she lived in Boston for 12 years and in the Netherlands for the past 10 years.
Trained as a nurse in the U.K., she worked for nine years in the United States as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and photography.
Contributing to Dispatches since 2016, Jackie has written about her travels around Europe as well as about expat life and issues.
She also covered the Women’s March Amsterdam.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.