The capital of Croatia is full of undiscovered wonders. Safe to say that this one is a hidden gem: heck, I bet most tourists don’t even know that Zagreb is the capital.
But here is the thing:
Dubrovnik may get all the hype, but you would be crazy to skip Zagreb!
This is your full and comprehensive guide to all things Zagreb, including:
Let’s jump right into the Zagreb experience.
What is the capital of Croatia?
Well, as one blogger described it:
Zagreb, is very much Central Europe’s surprise package, a preconception-challenging city that combines the gritty urban culture of northern Europe with the laidback manners of the Mediterranean south.
And I’m jealous that I couldn’t say it better.
Indeed, Zagreb’s key feature is that it gives you the best of both worlds. If you are a budget traveller, the city is a great place to get the full European experience without breaking the bank.
Zagreb is a city of wonder. It’s a place that has not yet been polluted by hordes of tourists. At the same time, it’s not so far off the beaten track to be completely inaccessible to visitors. As a traveller, you will find yourself in a very sweet spot. You will feel like a discoverer but won’t end up completely lost!
Just to help you orient yourself:
Croatia is at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe. It borders Hungary to the northeast, Serbia to the east, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the southeast, Montenegro to the southeast, the Adriatic Sea to the southwest and Slovenia to the northwest.
The territory of Croatia is 56,594 square kilometres (21,851 square miles). To put that into perspective, one of the smaller US states, West Virginia covers an area of 24,229.76 square miles (62,754.8 square kilometres).
Yup, Croatia isn’t very big. But that is exactly what makes it perfect for travellers!
Getting around the country is easy and day trips could practically bring you to the other side of Croatia.
The capital of Croatia, Zagreb is in the northeast of the country. This is a mountainous region, Zagreb is at the slopes of the Medvednica mountain. If you get bored of city life, the mountain offers a refreshing alternative. Hiking is the local’s favourite pass time and there are options for all levels.
Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana is, in fact, much closer to Zagreb than Dubrovnik. At just 87 miles away, it could also be a good day trip or weekend getaway from Zagreb.
Finally, cheap flights are a European special and Zagreb makes no exception. Depending on the time of year, you could get tickets to other European capitals for as little as 10 euros. This makes the capital of Croatia not only a vibrant and exciting place to visit but also a great starting point to explore the country, as well as the rest of the continent.
The Zagreb International Airport is 17 km (12 miles) from the city centre. It receives daily arrivals from London (through British Airways), Dubai (Emirates), Istanbul (Turkish Airlines), German cities (both Lufthansa and the low-cost carrier German Wings), Vienna (Austrian), and much more.
You could also get in on a tighter budget. Wizz Air operates a London Luton to Zagreb flight (in some periods of the year, it is available daily). EasyJet has flights from Dortmund and London Gatwick. Norwegian flies to Stockholm-Arlanda year-round and Copenhagen just during the summer.
Another budget alternative would be the close-by airports. Ryan Air flies into Pula, Zadar, Graz and Klagenfurt, all of which are well connected to Zagreb. Easy Jet does use the Zagreb International Airport but it has much more flights to the Rijeka airport in Ljubljana.
Travelling the 12 miles between Zagreb International Airport and the centre is surprisingly cheap and fuss-free.
There are two buses between the Zračna luka (main building of the airport) and the city. The easiest is the one operated by Croatia Airlines. It reaches the main bus station (Autobusni kolodvor) of Zagreb in about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on traffic.
You can buy a ticket on board the bus. It costs 30HRK each way.
To find the buses, exit the main terminal, turn right, and walk down, past the taxis. You will see the “Public Transportation” signs soon.
There is a bus every thirty minutes between 7 AM and 8 PM. At night, there are buses when a Croatia Airlines plane lands so it’s worth checking their schedule. Even if you are not flying Croatian, the coach is one of the most convenient ways to reach the city (not to mention safe and affordable).
Your second bus option is the ZET bus line 290 will. However:
The stop for line 290 is NOT where it says “Public Transportation,” you will find it on the main road by the airport. This might not be the most tourist-friendly way but it’s definitely the cheapest.
The airport is in a different fare zone than the city. You would have to get two tickets at 4 HRK each. You can buy both at the TISAK newsstand in the arrivals hall. Validate the first when you get on the bus and the second once you cross over the Sava river. If you are staying for longer, it’s smart to get a rechargeable card. You can get those at the TISAK stand as well.
As soon as you enter the city, you will notice the distinct medieval vibes. And you know what that means:
Time to learn some (just a little bit, I promise) history!
No, but seriously, some historical background would really help you understand the city and the people better!
The first settlement in the area was Andautonia which was a Roman town. But that wasn’t the city itself – in fact, it still exists as a separate town named Šćitarjevo (a great day trip for history nerds).
Zagreb didn’t appear until the late 11th century. In medieval times, there were actually two different city centres: the eastern Kaptol with the Zagreb Cathedral where the clergy lived and the western Gradec on the neighbouring hill. The Gradec was a fortified settlement where trade was booming and it kept growing over the centuries.
Today, Gradec is Zagreb’s Upper Town (Gornji Grad) and historic core.
There were both economic and political connections between the Gradec and the Kapitol. However, even as the city grew in significance and ended up becoming the political centre of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia, the two were still separate. They did not unite until 1851.
During the 19th century, Zagreb was the centre of the Croatian National Revival. Following a devastating earthquake, the city needed a major remodelling. This is when the contemporary city layout was first created. Trams started running and railway lines were constructed, which merged old suburbs to the city.
The Lotrščak Tower became an important landmark. There has been a cannon at midday from the tower ever since January 1st 1877. Listen around for it!
During World War II, Zagreb was the capital of independent Croatia. Sadly, Croatia chose the wrong side of the war. They were backed by Nazi Germany and the Italians but resistance was strong. The regimen had thousands executed during the war for participating in guerilla and resistance movements.
But what came after was somewhat not better. The partisans, backed but the Red Army entered the city at the end of the war. Croatia lost it’s independence and instead it became on of the six Yugoslavian republics.
The Novi Zagreb, along the Sava river, was constructed in Yugoslavian times. The city expanded a lot. And then came the separation of Yugoslavia.
The 1991–1995 Croatian War of Independence is still a major traumatic event for most of Zagreb (and the rest of Croatia).
The War of Independence, as you might have noticed, didn’t happen all that long ago.
The government of Croatia declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and local Serb forces attacked the newly independent country.
But here is the thing:
Croatia wasn’t ethnically homogenous.
There were Serbs living in these territories and they didn’t want to be independent. What seems like a two-sided conflict from the outside was, in many ways, also a Civil War. Serbs ended up aiming to conquer as much of Croatia as possible to create their own national state.
At first, Serbs tried to occupy Croatia. That plan soon failed and a ceasefire was declared in 1992. However, the conflict remained. During the following three years there was sporadic fighting, including in Zagreb.
In May 1995, the capital of Croatia was targeted by rocket artirelly. Seven civilians died in the attacks.
Today, the war is known as the “Homeland War” (Domovinski rat) and also as the “Greater-Serbian Aggression” (Velikosrpska agresia).
With a total death toll of 20,000, the war affected Croatia much more than it did Serbia. Over 12,000 of these deaths were Croatian. There are still nearly 2000 people missing since the war. The refugees and the displaced people were around 500,000. 1/4 of Croatia’s economy was destroyed.
And it gets worse. There were numerous crimes of war committed during the four years. The Dalj killings, the Lovas massacre, the Široka Kula massacre, the Baćin massacre, the Saborsko massacre, the Škabrnja massacre, the Voćin massacre etc. Hospitals and civilians were also targeted by Serb rockets.
It all leads to a single bottom line:
Croatia has not forgiven.
With an event so close and so dramatic, it’s only natural that people can’t forget. But, funnily enough, Serbian music is a local favourite. I’ll give you some nightlife ideas in the following paragraphs. Don’t be surprised at all the Serbian tunes.
Zagreb is rich in history but it’s also an artistic and technological hub. Whether you are the high culture type, or you prefer beers with locals on cobblestone plazas, the capital of Croatia will have something for you.
The Zagreb Cathedral is an obvious place to start. Though heavily damaged during the earthquake of 1880, the building remains one of the symbols of this city. It preserves much of its medieval charm plus it’s also a great vantage point to enjoy the city panorama.
The best strategy is to come first thing in the morning. The cathedral opens daily from 10 AM to 5 PM. There is a service on Sundays and everyone is free to attend. Still, if you plan on taking a lot of pictures and walking around, admiring the architecture, it is best to do that outside of mass hours.
Remember Zagreb’s history? Then it might make sense why most tourist attractions are in the Upper Town, while cool and artsy hangouts plus nightlife hotspots are in the Lower Town or in New Zagreb.
But there is a lot more to the Upper Town than just the cathedral. Take a long stroll around and admire the medieval beauty. Here are some key points to check off your bucket list:
The Old Town Gate is now a shrine to The Virgin Mary. The locals believe if you light a candle, say a little prayer, your wish will come true. The portrait of Mary was, they say, the only object that survived the great fire of 1731.
The Zagreb Crkva Sv. Marka (St. Mark’s Church) is one of Zagreb’s oldest building. It might seem small and unassuming compared to the cathedral but take a peek anyway. You will be surprised at what you find!
The Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of the Transfiguration of Our Lord is on Petar Preradović Square. While not as old as other temples in the city, this one is iconic for its’ exquisitely ornate XIX-century iconostasis. The building is a prime example of Orthodox Church architecture and it is also a curious space of peace in a country where Serbs are still frowned upon.
The Strossmayer šetalište (Strossmayer’s Promenade) is the centre of Zagreb’s summer art scene. You will see tons of painters, musicians and performers plus infinite street food options and live performances almost every night. Not to mention the great view over the Lower Town!
The Capital of Croatia is full of exciting dining options, regardless of budget, cuisine, or dietary restrictions. Of course, if you are only staying for a little while, try to stick to local food. Croatian cuisine is delectable!
One of the first places that come to mind when it comes to typical food is Stari Fijaker. They stick to local, northern Croatian specialities, served along with an excellent selection of Croatian wines. Even better, Stari Fijaker might have a lengthy menu full of mouth-watering options, but it is surprisingly easy on your budget. It’s really a 10 out of 10 kind of place!
Baltazar, located in the Upper Town, is another favourite among travellers and locals alike. Their rustic style cuisine gets you feeling like you’re in a Croatian grandma’s kitchen, and the international dish options will keep pickier eaters happy!
La Štruk is a whole restaurant dedicated to a single Croatian delicacy! The much-beloved doughy, cheesy štrukli deserve it. Whether you pass by to grab a quick bite or sit down for a full meal, La Štruk makes the best štrukli in town!
Read Next: Croatian Olive Oil Guide
Now, for the fun part. Not only is Zagreb one of, if not the nightlife capital of Croatia, it’s also surprisingly foreigner-friendly. Even if it’s just a couple of you, you are guaranteed to have the night of your life.
The Gallery Club is a must-visit for all lovers of alcohol and fun music. It’s in an area full of nightlife options so you can grab some pre-drinks at a nearby bar and then head over to the club. Their music is usually a mix of commerical favourites (refer to the current top 40 list) and the occasional Serbian tunes. The Gallery usually has a younger crowd and dancing is almost mandatory!
On the other end of the spectrum, the Bacchus Jazz Bar attracts an older, more refined public. They have what I personally consider the best cocktails in town and live music on most nights. The Bacchus has a summer garden but, as locals would tell you, the season starts in September. It’s a cosy place with delicious drinks and great music. Who wouldn’t want to spend their entire fall season here?
Finally, my personal favourite, The Old Pharmacy is a quirky pub in downtown Zagreb. Tucked away from the crowds, this pub offers an enormous selection of beers and ciders and you will spend most of your time with friendly locals, not loud bachelor party groups. Their décor is another cool touch!
Did I convince you to book your tickets already? If so, you will need a place to stay. In the case of Zagreb, there are tons of cool accommodation options for all budgets and travel preferences.
The Youth Hostel Zagreb is your best low-cost option. They have all the amenities, a perfect location, and a price that will leave plenty of budget for Croatian beer (or wine).
The Esplanade Zagreb Hotel is the complete opposite. It is the ultimate luxury stay! Enjoy a 5-star meal at a meal at the restaurant’s terrace, head over to the spa for a relaxing end of the day, or sip on one of their award-winning cocktails. The art-nouveau building is a landmark in itself. Opened in 1925, the Esplanade Hotel has always been the go-to accommodation for lovers of fine living and it never disappoints!
For your mid-range option, go for Hotel Central, which, as the name suggests, has the perfect location. It is a wonderful choice for families and solo travellers alike. They have high-speed WiFi throughout the property if you are looking to get some work done. Their rooms are spacious and well-decorated. Overall, the hotel is the epitome of a decent price for an excellent service.
When it comes to shopping, the capital of Croatia doesn’t disappoint.
By the way, the thing about neckties… They were invented in Croatia. In the 17th century, Croatian soldiers would wear neck scarves. They fought a war with the French who happened to really love their enemies’ choice of accessory. And pretty soon, the tie was born!
Of course, one article is never enough to tell you all.
If you’re interested in learning more about the city, start with the tourist board page. At infozagreb.hr you can learn about on-going events, consult the opening hours of major sights, and learn all about getting around, choosing a place to stay, and building your tour around the city! It’s also your one-stop destination for any news that might concern you – closed streets, museum hours changed for maintenance, etc.
Finally, if you have any of your own travel tips, share them in the comments below! Let’s make the comment section a place to meet fellow travellers and learn all the insider secrets!