The tram weaves through the streets like a robotic snake living in harmony with its historic habitat. Elements of Vienna shine through the Austro-Hungarian architecture, coupled with modern monuments and engulfing green spaces. I found comfort in an easy-going offbeat culture, where no one looks twice if you’re wearing high heels or pajamas. It exudes an essence that left me spellbound, envisioning a day I could make it my home.
Croatia’s inland capital is a striking contrast to the Adriatic Coast, as if one has crossed the border into new territory. The cosmopolitan, orderly, and avant-garde characteristics can’t be found anywhere else in the Balkans. Make way Europe, because Zagreb is coming out of the shadows of Prague and Vienna with an eclectic identity of its own.
The Vibrant Vibe
I’ve been to Zagreb twice, each time becoming more infatuated. My most recent trip was last month, when Zagreb was my last stop of my solo travel trip. Expecting to be drained and fatigued, the spirit of Zagreb immediately gave me life.
Roaming the streets of Zagreb is like walking through a living museum. Its well-kept and organized streets, paved walkways, and bike lanes blend effortlessly into the historic foundation. The Austro-Hungarian Architecture is mixed with cold-cut communist designs from Yugoslavia.
Zagreb may look nothing like Dubrovnik or Split, but it still takes on the coastal mindset. Nothing in Zagreb is rushed. You won’t find people running to work, or worrying too much about the next step. Locals live frugally, but make it a priority to enjoy and relax. At times I strangely felt like I was back in Chicago’s Gold Coast, yet time was frozen in slow motion.
Somehow the expressive and colorful physical characteristics transcend into Zagreb’s culture. You’ll never run out of things to do in Zagreb, even if you don’t step foot in a museum or tourist trap. For every historical attraction, there is modern attraction to match it.
First, central Zagreb is divided into upper and lower town each with their own personality. Upper Town is filled with cathedrals, markets, and museums, where café bars, parks, and theatres take over the lower town.
you’ll find every color of the rainbow walking through the central square and streets of upper town.
St. Mark’s Church
As the most popular Church in Zagreb, St. Mark’s displays the Croatian, Dalmatian, and Slavic coats of arms along with the Zagreb’s city emblem. If you arrive here around noon you can see the changing of the guards.Zagreb Cathedral
This gothic structure towers over Upper Town, and is just as beautiful inside as outside. Entrance is free and you are allowed to take pictures if you remain respectful.
Wake up early to get the region’s freshest produce and handmade souvenirs!
On the way upper side of town is one of my favorite Zagreb Attractions: Mirogoj Cemetery. Here you’ll find columns cloaked in emerald vines with checkered cobblestones. This enchanting hidden garden is worth the commute by foot or by taking the tram from central Zagreb.
Zagreb’s quirky culture shines through this fascinating and moving concept. The Museum of Broken Relationships displays several artifacts and symbols of past relationships from all over the world. Each with a unique and expressive story, some tales will make you laugh out loud, while others may hit a somber chord in your heart. Even if you’re not a museum person, this is a must if you’re visiting Zagreb.
This place is for all the in-the-know hipsters in town. First you have to go through an underground tunnel, which leads to a secluded park mixed with people painting and playing in the park.
Walking through Lower town you can’t miss the bright bold yellow national Theatre. This area truly looks like a neighborhood in Vienna.
If you’re looking to get even further down to earth, the outdoor Botanical Gardens are a serene setting for nature lovers, myself included.
Music in the Park
You can also find several other parks located in central lower town, often with live jazz music or other festivities.
Zagreb’s Design District
On the cusp of lower town is right where Croatia’s progressive designs come to life. Croatian Design Superstore is a personal favorite, taking on a contemporary interpretation on Croatia’s culture.
The Coffee Culture
For an authentic way to experience Zagreb, simply sit down at one of the numerous coffee café bars. At every street corner you’ll find a packed coffee shop, each taking pride in its custom funky décor. You’ll learn more about the laid-back lifestyle surrounding yourself with locals sipping lattes than you would from any guided walking tour.
Here are a few of my favorite coffee bars:
Divas Cafe Bar
A Most Unusual Garden
Caffe Bar Finjak
Vegetarian and Gluten-Free Eat
I recently stopped eating meat, which is not always welcomed in Croatia’s carnivore diet. However, Zagreb welcomes vegetarians, vegans, and Celiacs with open arms. I was happy to find more than enough gluten-free and vegetarian options during my trip, and I didn’t have to settle for a plain salad or rice this time.
Here are a few of my favorite restaurants:
Mundoaka Street Food
Other Zagreb traveler tips
How long to stay: As you can see, there are plenty of things to do in Zagreb, and simply spending a short day in the city would not do it justice. I would recommend staying at least three days.
Transport: You can easily fly into Zagreb from other parts of Europe. If traveling around Croatia it is the best place to start or end your trip here. You can easily get around the city by foot, and travel to the outskirts by tram. Take cabs or Uber here, but don’t let cabs overcharge you. For example, a trip from the airport to central Zagreb should only be around 100 Kunas (I once talked to a lady who said she was charged 225 kunas, which is unreal.)
Cost: Zagreb is extremely cheap compared to the rest of Croatia. Accommodations and found will only cost a fraction of what you’ll pay elsewhere in Europe. I stayed somewhere for 180 Kunas a night, and had large meals for 60 Kunas.
Currency: Croatia still uses the Kuna, but euros are still often accepted. Instead of exchanging money, I would recommend taking money out of an ATM for a better exchange rate.
When to go: Though I haven’t been myself, most Croatians will tell you to visit Zagreb in the winter for the beautiful winter festivities. There’s less people in the summer and actually more in the winter, but is an outdoor city year-round
Zagreb is by far one of Europe’s most livable cities, with an appeal that I still can’t shake. With the combination upbeat, modern city life and the added laid-back Croatian mentality, I found myself again in Zagreb.