Zagreb is an intriguing holiday destination which maybe suffers from some sort of unjust curse. So, in the interests of research, go and ask 10 people what the capital of Croatia is and see if they answer correctly. My money is that they’ll look blankly, scratch their heads for a while and say it’s Split, it’s by the sea or “god, I dunno, I’m not wonderwoman” and storm off into the night. It’s a bit like trying to differentiate between Slovakia and Slovenia’s capitals, but fear not as I’ve a handy way of knowing the difference between the two. Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava is boring and Slovenia’s, Ljubljana is really pretty but you can’t spell it.
To put Zagreb’s tourism draw into perspective, Zagreb had 2.3 million passengers in 2013 for a city of 700,000 people. Dubrovnik airport had 1.4 passengers in 2013 for a city of under 50,000 people. And yet, Zagreb is a real delight of a city to visit. It might lack the stunning city walls of Dubrovnik or the beautiful (though when I was there, smelly) waterfront of Split but it has a spirit and vibrancy I found lacking elsewhere, though surely this is because real people live there, people who inhabit the city and aren’t all Brits abroad. It was in Zagreb that I found a bar with a great terrace, The Beertija, that sold a huge variety of beers, but sadly not the Bosniak beer I was after which was even advertised outside. In my head, when the waiter suggested I try a “really nice Croatian beer” I archly replied, “if you can find a nice Croatian beer, I’ll happily have it”. My internal chuckles turned sour when he returned with a really nice Croatian beer. To finish our evening, we had a drink at the bar of Kino Europa, something akin to a Picturehouse in the UK. Definitely worth a trip to see if any decent arthouse films are playing.
Zagreb feels different to the rest of Croatia in that a number of trendy London-style places appear to be popping up all over the place. Inevitably, they’re full of the cool kids and we found ourselves roaming the city for a suitable place for dinner. Lari and Penati was completely booked up and the crowd was, in Lonely Planetese, a bunch of 20-something hipsters looking for the coolest spot in town. It was a shame it was full as it did look excellent. After a while, we happened upon Mundoaka Streetfood which succeeded in being warm, welcoming and on the right side of hipster. I opted for the pork, heavily doused in soy sauce and bursting with flavour while my fellow traveler Ryan opted for the chicken with a harissa sauce. His meal won hands down and if I mentioned that Croatian food hadn’t made much of a mark before, this time it really impressed. Olive oil in test tubes is a cute touch, as well as being practical.
Zagreb is a city for walking, with a series of parks dotted around the streets making it a green and open place to be. The outdoor cafe culture is superb, and even if you’ve just had your 15th coffee of the day and the caffeine in your system could power a village, every cafe seems inviting…it would be far too easy and pleasant to while the day away going from sight to cafe to sight to park. The botanical gardens are free and offer shade from the sun and a place to snooze. An excellent breakfast is to be had at KavaTava on Britanski trg (the most Zagrebian of all Zagreb sqaures, apparently) where I had weiner, fried eggs and salad. The pancakes and puddings looked awesome but I had to save myself for ice-cream later on. We found good ice cream at Vincek where I had a peculiar mixture of Snickers and rum punch scoops.
In the upper town, there’s a Museum of Broken relationships which is as funny as it is poignant; all the items on display are sent in by members of the public and while some are petty – a toaster being taken so the guilty lover can’t make toast – some are heartbreaking like a mother’s suicide letter. A walk around this area brings you to St Mark’s Church with the best roof in all the country; the coat of arms of Zagreb and other national symbols.
For a couple of days in a relaxed and buzzing city, Zagreb’s got it all. As a bonus, it’s not far by coach from Plitvice Lakes. Next time someone tells you that Dubrovnik is “simply a must”, think about heading to the north of Croatia where there’s plenty of fun to be had.