Croatia is popular for its islands and beaches, so the inland capital of Zagreb doesn’t get as much consideration from European holidaymakers. After all, it’s just another European city. I first visited Zagreb in 2012, and I remarked on that trip that Zagreb was an underrated city.
After nine years since my last visit, I found that Zagreb still holds up as good as I remember it. On my last trip, I was passing through on a Eurail trip. This time I would be spending about 2 weeks here, so I had time to wander the streets and enjoy European city life.
Places in Zagreb that are mentioned in this article.
[Map of Zagreb.]
I arrived on a warm and sunny summer day, and the combination of blue skies and blue trams put a spring in my step.
There is a city park opposite the train station, which is in the city centre. This is the most civilised way to introduce a visitor to a city – by depositing them in front of a park.
Zagreb has a population of just over 800,000 people (and Croatia just over 4 million) so it’s not a big city. The inner city is sort of gridded out and the streets are lined with great old buildings, making walking around a pleasurable experience.
Thankfully the Croatian Weather Gods gave me this glorious reintroduction to the capital. When I think of Croatia, I think of boating in the Adriatic Sea with an agreeable Mediterranean climate. I was not prepared for the oncoming 18c days in August. I know, it’s not that cold, but after two years in the tropics, it was a shock to the system.
There was a cold and rainy day that shook the dead leaves out of the trees, giving me a sneak preview of Autumn.
To the north of Zagreb is Mt Medvednica, where you can going skiing at Sljeme ski resort.
The city is so easily walkable that I didn’t need to ride the tram system. I just liked knowing they were there.
The is also a short funicular that rides to the upper old town. Again, not something I needed but it was good to see such transport infrastructure in operation.
Smart people drive Smart Cars in small European streets.
The hilly part of the old town.
A view of St. Mark’s Church.
Zagreb in the pandemic
I came to Croatia as the coronavirus pandemic was out of control in Vietnam, and my home country of Australia was still going through lockdowns. The delta variant wasn’t raging out of control here, and I am able to get my second vaccination while I’m here.
Most shops were still open here, though there were restrictions on indoor dining/cafes, and limits of people inside. Maks are mandatory indoors and while riding public transport.
[Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb.]
Apart from the grand buildings that give Zagreb that classical European capital feel, there are many unique buildings to be found here. For some reason, this apartment block with wooden trimming really spoke to me, and when I looked it up I found it’s known as the wooden skyscraper.
When looking up information about the wooden skyscraper I found a blog with a list of buildings to visit. One of the buildings included the Napredak Skyskraper from 1936.
I think that most buildings can be greatly improved with tiles, and I wonder why more buildings don’t have them. Kallina House is a good example of a tiled apartment building.
I like the owls that look out over the Croatian State Archives.
Croatian Society Of Fine Artists.
The University Of Zagreb Student Centre.
March 2020 was already a crazy enough month with Covid-19 going mainstream, and then Zagreb had to deal with an earthquake in the midst of social distancing regulations.
The rubble of that day has long been cleaned up, though I saw one place that still resembled the day after.
Life was normal on the streets, but everywhere around town, there were apartment blocks being renovated.
I saw many buildings with crumbling facades, which may or may not have been caused by the earthquake. Without familiarity with the city, I didn’t know if these cracks were from the earthquake or centuries of wear and tear.
I recalled on my first visit here that one of the spires of the cathedral was being restored. It was nearing completion when the earthquake hit, ruining years of restoration work.
Nikola Tesla was born in Smiljan in what was then the Austrian Empire, and now is in modern-day Croatia. Understandably, he is kind of a big deal here. There is a street named after him, and a statue of Tesla in thought.
I visited the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum, which has a section about his life and work.
The museum is dedicated to science and industry, with a selection of old aircraft in the buiding.
Walking down Vlaska Ulica I spotted another Tesla statue.
And yes, I saw Tesla vehicles around town.
Cafes in Zagreb
Before I arrive in a city I will mark out some recommended cafes on my Google Map, and those green flags become targets to walk to. Like other European capitals, Zagreb now has what we call Aussie-style cafes. I arrived with a few hours to spare before checking in to my hotel, so the first thing I did was walk from the bus station to Cogito Coffee. I had just come from six weeks of lockdown in Vietnam, and I hadn’t been to a cafe in all that time (and I didn’t go to a cafe at any airport I passed through), so this coffee was especially satisfying.
The most regular place I went to was Monocycle, which happened to be nearest to most of the places I stayed at. Bonus points for outdoor seating and views of trams.
The other best cafe I went to (for coffee) was Eli’s Caffe. These three places are where I went to get a “proper latte”, as Australian coffee snobs would say.
In most cafes, I would order coffee with milk, which varies in quality. The milk used is often long-life milk, and the coffee bitter. The appeal of European cafes is not the coffee but the people watching, and in summer it is sitting outside and soaking up the urban parade.
I particularly liked the outdoor cafe near the main train station, watching the trams go by and people coming and going from the station.
If you are used to large coffees you have to adjust to the small sizes (or as my Venti-quaffing American friend would call them – Euroweeniecups). I would order a coffee with milk (macchiato), which I more considered as a seating ticket for people watching. The average price was about 11 HRK ($1.75 USD).
For sitting outside I enjoyed Hemingway Bar.
Mr Fogg is also a good spot.
A thing about the cafes is that they aren’t conducive for working in. They are more of a social place than a place to grind out some work for an hour, and I would rarely see anyone else with a laptop.
Notable in its absence was Starbucks, or indeed any global cafe chain. There was speculation that Starbucks were coming in 2019, but that was later denied. You can get Starbucks-branded coffee in supermarkets.
I also saw this local brand of coffee which seemed like a more lively version of the Green Mermaid brand.
Being back in Europe reminded me that I am not much of a foodie. In Asia, I will eat anything and seek out all kinds of food. In Europe, I don’t care to go to restaurants to eat – especially by myself. I am happy to subsist on €4 kebabs and self-catering from supermarkets. My biggest weakness is bakeries, of which there are many here. I would start the day with this apple burek from Mlinar for 8 HRK ($1.25 USD).
A cheap salami and cheese roll can be found for 15 HRK ($2.37 USD).
The most ridiculously evil pricing is the chocolate bars. 100-gram blocks of chocolate at the supermarket are 10 HRK ($1.60 USD). I don’t have an off switch for chocolate, so if I buy a big bar it is gone in one sitting. I ended up buying a block of “Jimmy Fantastic” because as a fellow Jim I felt I should. Talk about the flimsiest excuse to buy a bar of chocolate ever.
My Samsung Galaxy S10 phone stopped charging before I arrived in Croatia, so I was using an old phone. Without shopping around I just walked into the first shop I found and they were able to repair it overnight for 300 HRK ($47.45 USD).
I also got a haircut while I was here. I’ve been going to the same barber in Saigon for about eight years, so it felt weird to shop around for a new hairdresser. I didn’t know where to start, but one day I walked by a shop where the hairdresser was standing outside. I thought “she knows how to cut hair”, so I went in. It was one of the fastest and efficient haircuts I can remember, and I told her that it was a fast and professional cut. She said, “I have been cutting hair for over 30 years”. That would be when Croatia was still in Yugoslavia! The haircut was 40 HRK ($6.30 USD).
[Iris Men Hairdresser – Draškovićeva Ul.]
After the experience with the phone repair guy and the hairdresser, I thought about how widely English is spoken here. These were two places not in tourist locations, yet I went in not even asking if they spoke English.
Accommodation in Zagreb
I stayed in a few different locations, mainly because this was such a last-minute trip and I didn’t have time to book something in advance. I was staying in private apartment accommodation for about €35-40 per night. The first place I stayed at was in the area known as the Design District. This turned out to be a cool area. See more hotels in Zagreb.
If money was no object then I would stay at the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel near the train station.
Getting to Zagreb
I arrived via a flight from Munich, where I connected from my Singapore Airlines flight. Most flights to Zagreb are from European destinations, though there are services from Turkish Airlines, Qatar, flydubai, and seasonal flights with Korean Air and El Al. The airport bus cost 35 HRK ($5.50 USD).
The train station is centrally located and has direct international connections to Ljubljana, Belgrade, Vienna, Zurich, Munich, Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague. Even though I wasn’t planning to travel internationally from here, I would still wander into the train station if I was nearby to have a look at the departure board. Being back in Europe has sure woken up my travel bug.
On my first visit here I got the train from Zagreb to Split, which is the most useful train for tourists in Croatia. On this trip, I got the train from Zagreb to Rijeka – my next stop.