In their rush to get to the shimmering seas of Dalmatia or the food and drink in Istria tourists often overlook the Croatian capital of Zagreb. This is a real shame as this compact European city has much to offer the inquisitive visitor.
Like Croatian people in general, their capital can take a while to reveal all the charms as eighteenth century Austro-Hungarian influence compete with the twentieth century socialism.
The city can be neatly divided into the upper town (Gornji Grad) and the lower town. As the name suggests, the upper town is perched above the city and offers wonderful views. Within the old town you can find the distinctive tiled roof of St Marks Church dating to the thirteenth century and the gothic majesty of Zagreb Cathedral, its twin spires piercing the sky. Take the shortest funicular railway in the world to reach the upper town.
A walk back down to the lower town will take you through the Stone Gate, now a place of pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary as it miraculously escaped the great fire of 1731. It is a reverent, quiet part of this otherwise bustling city and even has a small chapel inside to offer a prayer.
Take a break in one of the many bars and restaurants that line the pedestrianized Tkalciceva Street on your way to the new town.
Like most European cities, Zagreb life revolves around its main square, Trg Bana Jelacica, whose name comes from the Croatian hero who defeated the Hungarians in 1848. He can be seen on horseback in the centre of the square, now facing away from Hungary (before being re-erected in 1990 he faced towards Hungary). The square is lined with coffee shops and bars that allow you to watch the world go by or indulge in some Spica (see below).
Zagreb is best explored on foot but the tram system is cheap, clean and efficient for getting to some of the sites further afield. As an added bonus the tram system is child friendly and I have never had any problems getting on with a pram.
Getting the funicular train is half the fun in visiting the upper town (Gornji Grad) since it is the shortest such cable car in the world. The bottom station can be found on Tomićeva Street, a few minutes’ walk from the main square, and will cost you 4.00 Kuna. The train departs every ten minutes or so. Despite the steepness, rest assured it is extremely safe, in fact based on its 128 year statistics it is the safest form of public transport not just in Croatia but the world.
The focal point of the upper town is St Marks Church, striking for its red and white tiled roof. The church itself dates back to the 13th century. Since the upper town is more or less traffic free it is a great place to walk around and enjoy the somewhat quiet atmosphere away from downtown Zagreb.
From up here you also get wonderful views down to the city and across to the surrounding hills.
Rather than taking the funicular back to the lower town it is worth walking through the Stone Gate which was one of four original gates to the medieval town. When a great fire engulfed this part of town in 1731, legend has it that the only thing to survive unscathed in the Stone Gate was the painting of the Virgin and Child. Nowadays the Stone Gate doubles as a small chapel and a place of pilgrimage to worship the icon. Even if you are not religious, there is no denying that inside the Stone Gate there is a quiet and somber atmosphere despite the rush of the city below.
No European city is complete without its main square and life in Zagreb revolves around Jalacic Square. Enjoy a coffee in one of the many bars lining the square and watch the bustle of Zagreb unfold.
On the walk down from the upper town you will find yourself on Tkalciceva Street and it is a great place to stop for some food and drink within one of the many bars.
Museum of Broken Relationships
The Museum of Broken Relationships doesn’t sound like an ideal way to pass time but this museum is certainly unique (apart from its new sister museum in LA) and taps into a universal experience. Each exhibit is symbol of a real broken relationship with a description to match – some heartfelt and some gloriously vindictive.
The Technical Museum is a great place if you have an interest in all things engineering and a great place for kids. The technology on show has a decidedly socialist aesthetic which makes it even more interesting. Great on a blisteringly hot day in Zagreb for getting out of the sun.
Off the Beaten Track
This tunnel is found under the neighbourhood of Gric hence the name of the tunnel. It was originally a bomb shelter built by the Ustase during World War Two but was then left to rot. It was once again used as a bomb shelter in the 1990’s during the Croatian War of Independence.
Today it is open to the public during the day for free and typically houses art exhibits. It makes for a pleasant walk between the old town and the main shopping street in Zagreb, particularly if it is raining.
It was also home to one of the first ever raves in Croatia.
The cemeteries of Père Lachaise and La Recoleta to name but two show that, although slightly macabre, cemeteries can also be beautifully ornate and steeped in atmosphere. Mirogoj in Zagreb definitely falls into this category.
Designed by the same hand that designed Zagreb Cathedral, the cloisters and arcades are wonderfully ornate and the sheer size of the cemetery is a sea of tranquility in the middle of Zagreb.
As you would expect, the cemetery holds the remains of many famous Croatians with memorial to basketball legend Dražen Petrović one of the most visited.