Part 1 of 2
I see them for the first time almost as soon as I begin walking around the city — bright, shiny, plump, deep red hearts. They are everywhere in multiple sizes, hanging on strings, decorated with white trimmings and delectable. I quickly realize why Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is called the city with a million hearts. Called licitars, akin to gingerbread, they are an integral part of Croatian culture and a symbol of Zagreb and are gifted during times of celebration, be it weddings, birthdays or Christmas.
While Croatia is best known for its coastline, its landlocked capital is less recognised by visitors. It’s time to put Zagreb in the spotlight so if you love offbeat places, pretty lanes and stunning architecture, then you must visit Zagreb. The Croatian capital has a number of beautiful Austro-Hungarian buildings scattered about here and there while its delightful medieval old town is a great place to wander around.
You might be wondering how long you should spend in Zagreb, and that’s what this article is all about. Generally speaking, first-time visitors can get a good grasp of the city in two days. Spending 48 hours in Zagreb is enough time to explore its Upper Town, aka the city’s historic core, the Lower Town with the city’s greatest square, and the green parks in the south, which offer a refuge from the hustle and bustle of downtown Zagreb.
However, if you decide to spend three full days in Zagreb, as I did, you could use it as a base in order to head off on at least one day trip from Zagreb — to places like Plitvice Lakes National Park or even to Slovenia’s nearby capital of Ljublijana.
With plenty to do for a few days, countless cafes and restaurants, and parks spread throughout the city, Zagreb is more of a relaxing city break than a hectic one. The locals are friendly, the food is good and relatively inexpensive, and the architecture is rich with history and stories. The café culture here can be seen all over the city, with locals on every corner stopping for a coffee.
There are two distinct areas in Zagreb city, the Lower Town and the Upper Town. Both areas have a good range of things to see and do, as well as, restaurants, shops etc. The main train station is located in the Lower Town, so if you require easy access to this then it might be best to stay in this area, otherwise you will generally be fine staying in either area.
For the best experience, try to base yourself near Ban Josipa Jelačića square as, this is not only one of the major squares in the city, but also well-placed between the Lower and Upper Towns for access to everything including public transport. In any case, you should definitely not base yourself further south than the railway station.
The mix of the Lower and Upper towns offer variety and an insight into a real working city, which is a breath of fresh air for well-travelled tourists. Whether it’s your choice for a long weekend, or your starting point for jumping off into Croatia, either way, it’s a city that shouldn’t be missed.
Luckily, Zagreb is a very walkable city, so you may not see the need for public transport but, if you do, then there are plenty of options available. There are trams covering most of the Lower Town and further into the larger Zagreb area. They run frequently, are cheap and many stop at either the main train station or the main square. The easiest way to purchase a ticket is from a nearby Tisak (newspaper stand). Remember to validate your ticket once you get on the tram in the machines near the first and last doors.
Buses also run all over the city and use the same ticketing system as the tram network. Taxis are available all over the city for reasonable prices while one can also opt for Bolt or Uber, also available all over the city and cheaper (and more convenient) than standard taxis.
What is really great about the city is that Zagreb can be visited over a weekend, and every aspect of the city can be evenly experienced. The Museums, the exhibitions and the beauty of everyday life of the Croatian people can be seen forehand without any adjustments to your schedule because the compact nature of the city takes you on a long walk, where everything can be seen on foot. You can eat at small restaurants and enjoy the native cuisine for a reasonable price, and hostels are a great option, as they are situated nearby the main square.
In my case, I booked a small but comfortable apartment in the Lower Town, pretty close to the train station. This was the perfect location, not only because I wanted to be within walking distance of all the main sights in the city but also because I wanted to visit a few other places within driving distance too.
And if you, like me, decide to hire a car, then I strongly recommend staying in the Lower Town and parking your car in the Paromlinska – Glavni Kolodvoras car park for just 10 kunas a day as parking in the streets of Zagreb is practically impossible and even if you did manage to grab a spot, you can expect to pay through the nose!
And now, let’s talk about what to see in Zagreb! You will really be surprised how many attractions in Zagreb you can find! Here are the best things to do in Zagreb, in no particular order.
Admire the beautiful architecture of the Lower Town
The Lower Town is the heart of Zagreb and the most beautiful area of the city that you simply can’t miss. It was created at the end of the 19th century below the more famous Upper Town. I personally prefer the Lower Town with its rows of wide streets that are lined with the grand townhouses and palaces from the time when Zagreb was part of the Habsburg Empire.
The most beautiful part of the Lower Town is between the main train station and Trg bana Josipa Jelačića, where you can find some lovely green spaces too (they were part of the smart urban planning back in the times). And the Lower Town is such a perfect area to wander and admire all the beauty around – some of the houses are so rich in art-nouveau details it’s hard to take your eyes off them.
The Lower Town is also the business, shopping, and cultural hub of Zagreb and you will find plenty of shops, cafes, or museums there. However, the biggest highlight of this area is the architecture. This is one of the places to visit in Zagreb you simply can’t miss!
Explore the Upper Town
The Upper Town is where you will find the majority of attractions in Zagreb. This is the oldest part of the city, dating back to the 11th century and is so much different than the Lower Town. Instead of grand townhouses, you will find here smaller houses, cobbled streets, and winding lanes.
If you want to feel and see the old part of the city, this is the place to start. You can reach the Upper Town either by stairs or funicular. Either way, the trip up the hill is worth your while. From street to street you can sightsee the best places of the Upper Town, including St Mark’s Church, whose beauty is seen from afar thanks to its distinctive roof.
Wandering aimlessly around here is a pure pleasure – it’s so easy to fall in love with this area and you might randomly find here so many charming corners. You can easily forget here that you are in a busy capital – the traffic is limited, the place is rarely overcrowded (although it is popular among tourists) and life seems to go by slowly.
Gaze at St Mark’s Church
The 13th-century St Mark’s Church is one of Zagreb’s most emblematic buildings. Its colourful tiled roof, constructed in 1880, has the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia on the left side, and the emblem of Zagreb on the right. The Gothic portal, composed of 15 figures in shallow niches, was sculpted in the 14th century. The interior contains sculptures by Ivan Meštrović, though the church is open only at Mass times.
Ride one of the shortest funiculars in the world
The funicular, one of Zagreb highlights, connects the Upper and Lower Town and is among the shortest ones in the world – it covers a distance of only 66 metres and the ride takes just a bit more than 1 minute! This is actually the oldest mode of public transport in Zagreb as the funicular was opened in 1890, a year before the horse-drawn tram.
The funicular is open every day between 6:30 am and 10 pm and runs every 10 minutes. The ticket is 5 kunas but other public transport tickets can be used too. If you don’t want to ride the funicular there are stairs next to it so you can still see its original construction.
Visit the Cathedral
Formally known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the cathedral is probably the most popular of Zagreb landmarks and one of the must things to see in Zagreb as its twin towers can be seen from numerous locations all over the city (after all this is the tallest building in Croatia). Originally, the cathedral dates back to the early 13th century but the 1880 earthquake damaged the structure so badly it had to be rebuilt in the current, neo-Gothic style.
See the architecture in Jelacic Square (Trg bana Josipa Jelačića)
Located in the heart of the city, Jelacic Square is a bustling place, full of life and energy. As such, it is definitely worth passing by when you’re in Zagreb. The constant flow of people passing through the area makes it a great place for people watching. Named after Count Josip Jelacic, his statue stands proudly in the center of the square amidst all the lovely facades that display such a diverse range of architectural styles.
Jelacic Square is the most architecturally rich part of Zagreb. It is the main square and is a lively spot surrounded by the colourful buildings that date back to the 19th century. You’ll find many different styles of architecture from Art Nouveau to post-modernism, and Biedermaier here.
Spend some time on Tkalciceva Street
Bustling with life, Tkalciceva Street is the place where both locals and tourists go to have a good time – it is a must-see when in Zagreb. Named after a Croatian historian, it is a long winding street lined with charming little houses and balconies, which makes it the perfect place for a romantic stroll.
With bars, cafes, restaurants, and clubs lining the streets, there is lots to see and do. You can enjoy some of the best local cuisines here before heading on to one of the nearby bars. Numerous venues offer live music and, with the best nightlife in Zagreb, Tkalciceva Street has something for everyone to enjoy.
Stop at the Stone Gate
When walking between the Upper and Lower Town via Kamienita ul. you will pass the Stone Gate – part of the city walls from medieval times. Stop there for a second since it’s one of the most important sacred places for locals. In fact, you might find there some people praying in silence or lighting a candle; that’s because you can find there the painting of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.
The legend says that during the 1731 fire, the Stone Gate and the surroundings were badly damaged. Only one thing remained untouched – the painting. However, the fire peculiarly left a painting that was hanging inside the gate, “The Virgin and Child”, completely intact. The painting in now enshrined inside the Stone Gate and people come to pray and give thanks to the Virgin Mary by lighting candles, leaving flowers and mounting engraved plaques on the walls.
Swing by the Dolac Market (Tržnica Dolac)
If you want to experience local life, this central open-air market in Zagreb is the place to visit. It’s a great spot not only to buy locally grown produce but also to feel like a local. Located just behind the main square and visited by hundreds of people every day, this market is an inseparable part of the city. Farmers from all around the Zagreb area come here to offer their wares such as fruits, vegetables and meat.
The Dolac market has been part of the city’s scenery since 1930 and over the years it has become the major trading point in Zagreb where farmers from the surrounding villages came to sell their products.
In the upper, open-air part you can find fruits, vegetables or flowers and in the lower one, there’s meat, fish, or dairy products. Even if you are not planning to do any shopping it’s worth to walking through the market to feel its vibrant atmosphere and enjoy all the colors and smells.
See the beauty of Mirogoj Cemetery
It sounds odd to mention a cemetery as something to do in Zagreb but this cemetery is really quite beautiful as it was designed more as a park than a cemetery. It was built in 1876 and has stunning architecture for a cemetery. The most beautiful part is that it isn’t dedicated to just one religion so will spot crosses and the Star of David side by side on gravestones.
Mirogoj Cemetery is one of the most beautiful cemeteries you will find in Europe and the most important cemetery in the country, the resting place for many famous Croatians. The cemetery was established at the end of the 19th century and designed by one of the most popular architects in Austria-Hungary – Hermann Bollé (he is buried there too). Its impressive architecture that encompasses a dome, arches and arcades certainly lets you know that you are visiting a grand and dignified place.
The most impressive part is right at the entrance – along the wall you will see long, beautiful and picturesque arcades where the most notable people were buried – some of the graves are very rich in details. You will definitely spend here a bit, wandering around, admiring beautiful ornaments on the graves, and reminiscing about Zagreb’s past. It’s located a bit away from the centre but it’s easily accessible by bus or tram. It’s definitely worth a visit as it’s a beautiful cemetery to amble around peacefully.
Look at Zagreb from above
At the edge of the Upper Town, you can find nice views from the Strossmayer Promenade, on both sides of the funicular. The Strossmayer Promenade is a walkway built on top of the city walls. It’s tree-lined and there is a statue of the Croatian writer and poet, Antun Matos along the way.
You will also find excellent views of the magnificent Cathedral and skyline of Zagreb from here. Without a doubt one of the most romantic promenades in Zagreb and one of the best places for panoramic views of Zagreb.
Another popular photo/selfie spot with a great view of the city is behind St Catherine’s Church (Crkva sv. Katarina), a few steps above Strossmayer Promenade and the love locks at the Zakmardi stairs.
Enjoy the culinary scene
As you can expect from the capital, Zagreb is a great destination for all food lovers. I recommend trying here some of the delicious Croatian dishes but there are also plenty of international restaurants if you feel like eating well-known food. If you opt for the local cuisine the best restaurants serving Croatian dishes are Stari Fijaker, Vinodol, La Štruk or Pod Zidom Bistro. In my case, my research somehow led me to the Stari Fijaker in Mesnička Ulica (just below the Gric Tunnel). The restaurant offers a full menu of authentic traditional culinary delicacies representing the Zagreb-Zagorje region of Croatia.
I definitely did not regret having lunch at this restaurant as the food was delicious and the service outstanding. In fact, the positive aspect of this place is that the staff are so efficient. If you want to enjoy spectacular service, you should go to this spot.
In my case, I opted for a Slavonski Čobanac. Čobanac is a slow-cooked stew traditionally prepared in the eastern part of Croatia, especially in Slavonija and Baranja. The name comes from the shepherds as they are called “Čoban” or “Pastir.” It’s prepared with 2-3 different types of meat such as wild game, pork, or beef. It’s initially made in a big kettle over a campfire. As Baranja is famous for the extensive fields of red paprika, either sweet or hot ones, this dish is the best representation of how tasty that spice can be.
Find street art
The local street art scene in Zagreb is pretty amazing and you will find so many great works there. Besides the random graffiti or tags, you can find in all the cities, there are some really fine murals too.
And if you want to see a relatively large collection of murals in one place, then you should head to Park Ribnjak. The park is situated in the old part of the city, in the Old Town. Simplified, the park is situated between the Cathedral and the Sports Recreative Center Šalata (SRC Šalata). It is directly behind the walls of the Cathedral and between the street of the same name – Ulica Ribnjak.
Walk through the Grič Tunnel
Built during World War II as a bomb shelter, the Gric (Gradec) Tunnel runs through the hill beneath the Upper Town. With a length of 1,150 feet, the tunnel has six exits. Shortly after the tunnel was completed, it fell into disuse – until 1993 when it hosted Croatia’s first rave, but further plans for the tunnel were stalled. In 2015, renovation of the Gric Tunnel finally commenced and reopened to the public in 2016 as a Zagreb tourist attraction. The tunnel is open every day for pedestrians to travel from one side of Gradec to the other without having to hike over the hill.
Hear the blast of cannon fire from the Lotrščak Tower
Located in Zagreb’s Upper Town, Lotrscak Tower dates all the way back to the 13th century and is one of the main landmarks in the city. Distinctive to behold, the tower was constructed to help protect the southern gate to the town and it offers commanding views over the city.
Looming over the funicular railway next to it, Lotrscak actually means ‘thieves bell.’ For the last hundred years, a cannon shot has rung out at midday to help mark the passing of the hour and allow churches around the city to synchronize their bells. When in Zagreb, it is almost inevitable that you will pass by Lotrscak Tower while making your way around the city.
Relax in the pleasant parks
The central part of Zagreb offers some very pleasant green spaces, perfect for relaxing after sightseeing.The most popular parks are King Tomislav Park, Josip Jurji Strossmayer Park, and Zrinjevac Park, located next to each other between the train station and Ban Josip Jelačić Square – all of them are really lovely and worth stopping by.
In particular, the largest city square named after the first Croatian king will definitely catch your eye. It’s in front of the Central Train Station, so for those who come to Zagreb by train, it’s the first sight you’ll see. The spectacular statue of King Tomislav and the Art Pavilion are the square’s most striking features. This picturesque square is a great place to relax in and people often come here to sit and enjoy a moment.
Visit the National Theatre
The Croatian National Theatre, located at Trg Republike Hrvatske, is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, constructed at the end of the 19th century in the neo-Baroque style. It is spectacular not only from the outside but also inside, with rich decorations and an interior that can surely take your breath away. Opened in 1895, seating 750 people, the theatre boasts its rich facade, its iron curtain and seven painted curtains which are displayed on different occasions. It unifies drama, opera and ballet.
Opposite the entrance to the theatre, you can enjoy the view of the whole square sitting on the marmor bench, part of the Mestrovic’s work ‘Well of life’. A little bit lowered from the square surface, a beautiful sculpture by one of the best known and best sculptors of Croatia, Ivan Mestrovic. Women and men, young and old, struggling through their lives in a circle of love and pain around water.
Stroll around the Christmas Markets (if visiting in December)
Visit in December! It’s the perfect combination – visiting the beautiful city of Zagreb while strolling around the Christmas Markets. While once one of the best kept secrets of the European Christmas Market scene, the festive Zagreb Christmas Market (AKA Advent in Zagreb) has soared to popular heights in the past few years, quickly becoming known as one of the best Christmas markets on the continent.
Advent for Christmas in Zagreb is a spectacular city-wide experience which transforms the capital into a winter wonderland. Various Christmas Markets are spread throughout the city’s main squares and promenades, each with its own unique theme and atmosphere, yet blending together to give the feeling of one all-encompassing market. Charming stalls offer artisan products and handicrafts as well as hearty regional cuisine and aromatic mulled wine. Glistening lights, colorful ornaments, and seasonal decorations complement a daily programme of open-air entertainment and cultural performances, imbuing the atmosphere with holiday magic.
Take a day trip
When planning your trip be sure to allocate more time in your Croatia itinerary to also go for some day trips from Zagreb. There are some really great places you can visit as side trips from the capital and you can reach them by car, public transport or with a tour!
You can also easily go up to the Medvednica mountain or the Medvedgrad Castle, both just a few kilometres to the north of Zagreb or you can go further afield to the spectacular Plitvice Lakes, one of the highlights of Croatia. The numerous lakes and waterfalls are really impressive and worth seeing! Or you might even hop across the border and visit Slovenia; it’s not too far away!
Is Zagreb worth visiting?
The answer is a resounding YES! Zagreb is absolutely worth visiting and should be part of your next trip to Croatia. You will be able to see a different side to this wonderful country, avoid tourists, try new food, and have a more authentic travel experience. Zagreb is definitely a beautiful attraction not to be missed as it’s ‘a real city, without all the tour buses and restaurants with menus in four languages’. Even when you set out to explore its sights, you’ll be spared the corporate tourist aftertaste: a feeling that you’re in a theme park.
As you can see, Zagreb really has a lot to offer and is such an interesting city to visit. This can be a perfect start or end point of your Balkan trip, a great place to learn more about Croatia and the region, which is what I am going to feature in Part 2 of this article.