The capital of Croatia, Zagreb, is more than a little different from much of the rest of the country. A country known for seaside towns, medieval walled towns, and hilltop towns, Zagreb is much more of a European capital city with a cosmopolitan, culturally diverse, university town feeling than the seaside towns steeped in tradition. That’s not to say Zagreb doesn’t have fascinating history, it surely does. But rather than fishing boats, expect trolleys and bikes, and you’ll be closer to the mark, or should I say St. Marks? Get it?
No matter the type of European adventure you’re looking for, Zagreb has got it thanks to the mixing of cultures in this international city. Love the sidewalk people watching and coffee of Paris? Check out Tkalciceva street, a pedestrian only stretch of cafes and bars that comes alive at night. Zagreb has a hipster coffee culture to match Brooklyn even. Love the breweries and beer gardens of Germany? Zagreb has several large outdoor gardens that serve craft beer, not just the watery lager you might expect in a Mediterranean country. Croatia has wine to rival Italy or France as well with full bodied reds from the hill country and crisp whites from the islands. For history buffs, there are tons of landmarks to explore and learn about the tumultuous history of this young yet ancient land. The city may be small enough to see in a day, but to fully immerse yourself in the experience, you’ll need a bit longer. Here’s how to enjoy the city during a visit.
Tourist things to see and do in Zagreb
St Mark’s Church – If you make it to only one landmark in Zagreb, it has to be this church. Featuring a checkered pattern in the style of the Croatian flag, this church represents the ecclesiastical side of life in Croatia. Sitting in a square that also houses the president’s house and government offices, it was bombed during the Balkan war. If you can make it there for the changing of the guard, it’s quite the experience. A man with a mustache to rival Mario barks guttural commands from horseback and a company of traditionally dressed soldiers. It’s more fun than it sounds.
Zagreb Cathedral – Zagreb’s other, larger religious building, this cathedral is newer, larger, and more cathedraly. This massive edifice is worth a peak in for the grandeur of the massive structure and the area is worth exploring for the other landmarks like the huge statue and fountain and a small section of old city wall and tower.
Dolac Market – The Dolac Market; where else can you find fresh flowers, fish, and cheese all in the same place? Maybe the perfect place to get everything you need for either a romantic dinner or make up for something stupid you did. While visiting, we even stumbled upon the guard of St. Mark’s practicing their sword work. They could use the practice.
Strossmayer Promenade – A walk along the Strossmayer Promenade is a must at any time in Zagreb. It’s especially enchanting at night or sunset with the lights coming on over the city from this overlook. There’s even a small bar that opens up at night that sometimes has live music in the summer. It’s a great place to either inspire poetry or just enjoy some bottled lagery beer and veg out.
Lotrscak Tower – The tower on the edge of the upper town that marks the end of the promenade and leads to St. Marks is perhaps most well known for the canon that fires twice daily to mark the time. I guess it’s easier than a bell? There’s also an awesome view from here of the lower city.
Stone Gate – The Stone Gate, besides being a gate made from stone, marks the entry between the old city with St. Mark’s and the newer upper town with the cathedral. There’s a small chapel inside which is fairly smoky and atmospheric if you’re into that kind of thing.
Ways to stay active in Zagreb
Run past the landmarks in Strossmayer Park – Zagreb doesn’t have a ton of great space for running within the city, so the best place to get a moderate run without having to stop at every intersection may be a few laps around the green spaces in Strossmayer Park. You’ll take in the train station and art museum as well as plenty of examples of the colorful baroque house style.
Take a walk in the Botanical Gardens – Perhaps the best place in Zagreb to escape the city without actually leaving is the Botanical Gardens. Right near the landmarks of the lower town, the Botanical Gardens allow you to step into wooded greenery with only a step from the busy streets. They aren’t huge, but a moderate walk with a few laps is restorative for the soul.
Where to get the best food in Zagreb
Pizza and Beer at Pivnica Mali Medo – Zagreb’s hottest pizzaria and microbrewery is Mali Medo. With a few locations around the city including one with a huge outdoor space on the sidewalk of the cafe laden Tkalciceva street, it’s a good place to stop for a few drinks and some good food. The pizza isn’t life changing, but when paired with the excellent beer, especially in a large stein, it gets the job done. You’re going to want to sit and enjoy the outdoors here.
The perfect Croatian meal at Vinodol – If southern Croatia lays claim to the perfect seafood – which it surely can – northern Croatia can certainly claim the perfect hearty land based food. At Vinodol, you can experience this second category. With two sections, a covered courtyard that feels like sitting outside in a rainforest in a way, and the other inside in what feels like a wine vault or cellar in an atmospheric way, the experience can change a bit on repeat visits. The menu favors well seasoned earthy food like an incredible baked goat cheese and some of the most tender and succulent veal in the world. For romance or to celebrate, Vinodol is the perfect spot.
Cool down with some ice cream from Millennium – After a hot summer day exploring the city, you need to cool down. Croatia knows its ice cream and gelato, another example of appropriating other European culture well. At Millennium, a huge selection of choices greets you from the fruity to the decadent chocolate and nuts. Go nuts and get some banana for a really refreshing treat.
Where to get the best drinks in Zagreb
Discover Brooklyn in Zagreb at Eli’s Cafe – At this tiny coffee shop down the main shopping street in town, you’ll find coffee and espresso that has won more awards than a prized farm hog. When even the lights are made from coffee mugs and an industrial bean grinder sits next to the tables, the coffee had better be good. It’s no wonder Eli’s is critically acclaimed internationally.
Sip like a local at Kavana Procafe – It’s less about the coffee and more about the people watching and fresh air at this outdoor cafe with seating on the sidewalk on the awesome Tkalciceva street. It is obvious yet how much I love this street? A coffee here, oddly served in zebra striped mugs, lets you sit and watch the world hustle by.
More outside drinks at Bulldog pub – There’s nothing in life quite like a cold beer outside on a hot day. Zagreb gets plenty of hot days in the summer, and at Bulldog, you can find the latter. The inside of this bar is pretty cool with a historic feeling wood floor and walls that exude history. But the real action is outside at the covered tables and chairs under a large awning in the middle of the street. Here, you might see random unattended dogs running by, random unattended children running by, or even things that are attended and not running by. It could be anything! Or, you can simply sit and enjoy a huge, cold, refreshing beer with the sun shining down and a cool breeze on you. It doesn’t get much better.
Anywhere on Ul. Ivaninka Tkalcica street – It’s been a whole two places since I mentioned my favorite street. Something about this incredible pedestrian only street is just perfection to me. It’s packed with cafes, restaurants, and bars, most with nice outdoor seating. You can get ramen, seafood, pizza, and microbrewed beer along here and just hop up the street. Make some time to sit and relax here.
Where to stay in Zagreb
Confuse yourself on your travel itinerary at Hotel Dubrovnik – Right smack in the middle of Zagreb you’ll find the modern and comfortable Hotel Dubrovnik. Confused yet? The rooms aren’t huge but are modern, comfy, and come with good views. There’s even breakfast included. It isn’t a boutique atmosphere, more of a business hotel, but it’s super convenient for exploring town.
Zagreb is an incredible international city that one doesn’t often include in the running with other European capitals, but it might be time to change that. With great food, beer, wine, and coffee, it’s an epicurean destination in its own right. There’s plenty to see during an exploratory walk, and while you might not find a lot of green space to really sweat, there are some good places to get a nice walk in. It doesn’t share the incredible seafood with the Croatian coast, but you’ll find delicious meals regardless in the city’s restaurants. It’s time to add Zagreb to your bucket list.