Every year Zagreb, Croatia, grows in popularity. And, with each year, it further secures it’s spot on the must-see travel stops in Central Europe. As you exit the train station through a series of double doors and see the statue of King Tomislav, the county’s first king, and the Cathedral steeples standing tall in the distance, prepare to take this tour to the places every newbie needs to know to enjoy this burgeoning capital.
Photo: Charlie, CC-BY
1. Historic Botanical Gardens
King Tomislav’s statue stands just before the crossing in front of the train station where a left turn onto Ulica Grgura Ninskog curves to Botanicki Vrt , one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe founded in 1889. Through the painted wrought iron gate, veer right toward Arboretum Polje twenty-six where a bed of fuchsia roses border the green space lined by peonies. Wander the winding paths under old growth Persian ironwood tree canopies that arch, drape and scatter along the ground. Fresh air and the scent of roses is enough to restore any travel-worn visitor.
2. Coffee at Toster
For a caffeine kick, head back toward the train station and up the horseshoe park on Petrinjska ulica. Toster, a toast shop, is burrowed between retail stores just up the greenway and one block to the right. This mod shop delivers a full coffee menu accompanied by a variety of light breakfast or brunch options (hence the toast reference). The owners of the six-month-old establishment expanded the storefront to include a second smoking room in what was once a storage closet. If you are sensitive to smoke, enjoy the first tidy and open enclave. To really dig into the life of a Purger (as Zagreb citizens are called), follow the narrow hallway to a doorway lit by an overhanging yellow taxi sign and get lost in conversation while puffing cigarettes with the other young professionals and artsy types.
3. Coffee at Velvet
To experience a more traditional Croatian coffee break, take a seat in one of the chairs lining the street in front of Velvet Café. Nestled on Dezmanova, Velvet caps the row of shops with a quiet green space. Croatian café culture is not about a shot of caffeine, but rather the idea of spending time in the company of others, friends and strangers alike. Spica, the act of sipping coffee on a terrace while people-watching each Saturday morning, is an essential Balkan experience. Get to the heart of Zagreb and participate in this tradition.
Photo: Pablo Torres, CC-BY
Catch a 106 bus from Kaptol to Mirogoj Cemetery. Here, continue the morning’s walk in the Medvednica foothills through tree-lined paths. As one of Zagreb’s architectural highlights, the cemetery was created and built between 1876 and 1929 on a plot of land owned by linguist Ljudevit Gaj. The ivy-covered mausoleum inters presidents, writers and other intellectuals of all religious beliefs. Arcades studded with cupolas dwarf the 173-acre plot of sprawling headstones. With birds chirping, life-like sculptures and breathtaking architecture, the serene ambiance will instill a sense of peace in any visitor.
”Photo: Malcolm Williams, CC-BY
5. Restaurant Kerempuh
The stroll towards the central square is marked with the noon cannon signaling the meal of the day. In Zagreb, lunch is the main fare and often spans hours. Restaurant Kerempuh is located in the northeast corner of Dolac, the city’s main market. Red umbrellas open over the fresh produce, breads, cheeses, meats and fish that supply the ingredients to all of the entrées at Kerempuh. Try the pasta with truffle cream sauce for a rich dish that will not disappoint the tastebuds or drain your wallet. To the left of Kerempuh is a single row of stalls selling handcrafted traditional Croatian products such as lace, licitars—heart-shaped ornaments—and umbrellas.
6. Museum of Naïve Art
Through Ban Jelacic Square on Ilica, past the Cathedral of Zagreb and just below St. Mark’s square, the Museum of Naïve Art is located through an airy hallway lined by white doors ending at a staircase. Upon entering the gallery, a self-portrait of Ivan Generalic greets guests with a bowed head. Every artist within this collection is self-taught. The pieces begin with oil on glass, increasingly vibrant works with layers of paint from foreground to background. Sculptures, pointillism and other art forms can also be found throughout the gallery’s rooms.
Photo: Jorge Lascar, CC-BY
7. Wine at Pod Topom
Round out the evening at the restaurant Pod Grickim Topom while taking in Croatia’s colorful history as seen through the national and city coat of arms on the tile roof of St. Mark’s Church in the center of Upper Town. Watch as a lamplighter greets the night by igniting each gas lantern in St. Mark’s square—a daily occurrence at dusk. Continue down the road toward Strossmayer, which overlooks lower town. The end of the ulica, or road, will open up to a panoramic view of Lower Town. Just below the lookout point, Pod Topom is pressed into the 32-foot hill. Past the geraniums along the brick walkway, the ceiling-to-floor glass door opens onto the terrace. This 22-year-old establishment offers the best view of lower town and an ideal setting for welcoming the evening with a glass of wine. Ivan, a waiter of 12 years, recommends the house merlot. This red is an astute choice for recounting the longest day of the year.
With the intel of a Purger, step forth into a city of both tradition and modernity. Be present and absorb Zagreb through its sights, sounds and tastes. Just under the surface is a culturally rich setting to appreciate with each returning visit.
Molly Harris is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.