Browse any tourism brochure for Croatia and you would be forgiven for thinking that Dubrovnik, with its UNESCO Old City, Game of Thrones locations, and huge numbers of cruise passengers is the country’s capital.
But in fact, Croatia’s capital and largest city, Zagreb, lies 400 km away in the northwest of the country. Its rich history, impressive architecture, multiple cultural spaces, and excellent connectivity means it deserves to be one of Europe’s favourite destinations for a great value city break.
Here are my top 10 must-see suggestions:
Dolac has been Zagreb’s largest farmers’ market for the best part of 100 years. It’s on the edge of Ban Jelačić Square in the Old City and is built in two layers: there is a covered market below and an open-air market above. Upstairs, vendors protect themselves and their produce from the sun with bright red umbrellas.
Many of the women who sell fruit and vegetables in Dolac – the kumica – come from nearby villages. Look out for the fresh mandarins and lemons, buy yourself handfuls of cherries and olives, and if you are planning to have a picnic in Zagreb, come here to buy freshly baked cornbread and a pot of Zagorje cottage cheese.
Don’t leave without trying Gingerbread Hearts
The licitarsko srce – a gingerbread heart decorated with red and white icing – is Zagreb’s best known souvenir, a sweet treat with a long history. Traditionally these biscuits were baked as tokens of love and friendship.
They are made from honey dough and were sold at fairs at festival times. Now you can buy them in Zagreb year-round, though the biggest quantities are made and sold around Valentine’s Day. These gingerbread hearts are considered to be such an important aspect of Croatia’s culture that UNESCO has given them Intangible Cultural Heritage status.
Grounded Solar System
In 1994, Croatian sculptor Ivan Kostaric installed a giant golden orb in the centre of Zagreb. He called it the Grounded Sun because it looks as if our own sun has fallen to Earth. Fellow artist Davor Preis then developed the art installation further, making and placing nine planets around the city, all with the same dimensions and distances as those within our solar system. It took art and astronomy fans two years to locate them all!
Medvednica Nature Park
Medvedgrad is Zagreb’s ancient fortress and the centrepiece of the Medvednica Nature Park, an oasis of green on the edge of the city. The park covers a vast area with thick forest, caves, waterfalls, and sites of cultural interest, which can be explored on more than 70 hiking trails. Aim to spend a full day at Medvenica, starting at the Medvegrad Visitor Centre which is within the fort itself. On weekends you can take a guided tour of the 15th to 16th-century gold and silver mines; Sopot Waterfall is the perfect picnic spot in a picturesque glade of trees; and from various points along the Horvat’s 500 Stairs you get fabulous views.
Nikola Tesla Technical Museum
These days the name “Tesla” normally makes people think of electric cars, but their namesake, the Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla, was born in Smiljan in what is now Croatia. Zagreb celebrates his life and work at the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum, which was founded in the city in 1954. There are more than 3,000 items on display, including Tesla’s recently renovated demonstration cabinet.
St. Mark’s Square
St Mark’s Church with its distinctive red, white, and blue roof, decorated with coats of arms, is an immediately recognisable symbol of Zagreb.
Dating from the 13th century, it is one of the city’s oldest surviving buildings and has a fabulous interior with sculptures by Ivan Mestrovic and paintings by Jozo Kljakovic. In addition to the church, you’ll find plenty of other important buildings around St. Mark’s Square, including the Croatian Parliament and the Old City Hall. The square and facades were all renovated in 2006, and it’s a particularly photogenic spot.
Zagreb is a huge outdoor canvas for Croatian and international artists. The city’s street art scene has become increasingly vibrant in recent years, and graffiti artist Kresimir Golubic (AKA Leon GSK) leads street art tours for Zagreb Tourist Board. He has also written street art guides.
The student centre on Savska Street and the ACC Medika building on Pierotti Street are famed for their murals, and there is new artwork at Art Park every year. A project called “Pimp my pump” encourages artists to paint water pumps across Zagreb, so keep your eyes open for those artworks, too.
Strossmayer Promenade (or Zagreb Stross) runs along the top of what is left of Zagreb’s mediaeval city walls.
Start your walk beneath the Lotrščak Tower, which was built in the 13th century to guard Zagreb’s southern gate from a Turkish invasion. Following the promenade gives you great views over the city, and a chance to soak up some of the atmosphere of the city. In the summer it’s the location of Summer on Stross, with live music, street performers, artists, and street food stalls, and in the run-up to Christmas, it’s a major venue for Zagreb Advent, Zagreb’s multi-site Christmas market and festival.
Zagreb Wine Tour
Zagreb native Stanka has worked in tourism since 2003 and leads ToursByLocal’s Gems of Zagreb Tour. In three hours you can discover the highlights of Zagreb on foot, but – and here’s the important bit – stopping along the way to taste some of Croatia’s finest wines. Jastrebarsko, a short drive outside Zagreb, is known as “Croatia’s Champagne” and the road is lined with vineyards. Stanka will introduce you to wines from different regions, accompanied by local snacks, and explain about Croatia’s long winemaking traditions.
Zinfandel’s – Zagreb’s best restaurant
Without doubt, Zinfandel’s is Zagreb’s best restaurant. It is located within the extraordinary Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, which was built in 1925 to accommodate passengers travelling on the Orient Express.
Today, Executive Chef Ana Grgic – who has cooked for everyone from Prince Charles to Hilary Clinton – leads the kitchen, creating imaginative menus which showcase the very best Croatian ingredients.
In the summertime, it is possible to sit out on the elegant Oleander Terrace, but whatever the time of year you can expect an unforgettable meal and service fit for a queen.
FLY: RyanAir flies direct from London Stansted to Zagreb from £30 return.
STAY: Esplanade Hotel, the luxurious home to Zinfandel restaurant
TOUR: Group walking tour of Zagreb : 2 hours and 30 minutes from £17 per person.
For official tourist information see Visit Zagreb.