Zagreb, capital of Croatia, might be the ex-Yugoslav city that is most reminiscent of capitals further north, like Vienna or Prague. Its aesthetic leaves little doubt that this is a Catholic country where Catholic emperors ruled for centuries, and the Ottoman or eastern element is much less pronounced. Now that Croatia reached the final in this year’s FIFA World Cup, even more people have been exploring this small impressive and cosmopolitan city.
Zagreb has the same vibrant, joyous spirit that’s prevalent throughout the Western Balkans. Despite the divergence in religion, Croatians are South Slavs after all – and you can expect to see plenty of the same food, music, traditions and language here. Zagreb brings together the best of the Balkan spirit with a more European, regal air, perfect for some urban exploration. With these local tips from Zagreb residents, you will get to discover more facets of life in Croatia’s largest city.
Exploring the starry sky right here on Earth
Photo by Mirna Marić
One of the best local tips for Zagreb which will give your exploration a unique twist is the (almost) complete, to-scale model of the Solar System conceived in 2004. The centrepiece, the sun, is a spherical sculpture which locals have been constantly interacting with since it was first created in the ‘70s. It has suffered through vandalism and several moves around the city, but now resides in a dead-central location on Bogovićeva ulica. Around it you can find every planet, from cherry-sized Mercury to Earth, all the way to Pluto, which was stolen in 2006 – presumably because of the model’s small size and Pluto’s downgrade from member of the Solar System pantheon to dwarf planet. Despite that, the plaque remains. Spotting every celestial body promises a fulfilling day of exploration.
Zagreb’s most beloved local bar & brewery
Photo by Medvedgrad
Even though it has existed since “only” 1994, Medvedgrad’s beer hall and brewery on Ilica street, probably the whole city’s most central shopping street, has become in the almost-quarter century of its existence an absolute local favorite. All six of the beer sorts served there are unfiltered, and they have seasonal as well as bottled brews. As for the obligatory beer snacks, don’t forget to try out the čvarkuše” (savory pastries made with pork rinds) and cheese rolls, especially if you’re with a large group of friends – the perfect company for this sort of place!
A local favorite winter cafe
Photo by Mirna Maric
Velvet Cafe has the most extravagant and lush ambience for enjoying a delicious drink or snack. Τhis cult haunt reopened in 2009 after having disappeared for a few years. Famous artist, florist and designer Saša Šekoranja who is also a co-owner, was responsible for the decoration, and while it might look a bit random and chaotic, everything here is placed with meticulous care and intention. A charming detail is that on every table there’s an antique book which contains the menu. The dim star-shaped lights complete the picture. “If I can take my guests to just one cafe, it’s always Velvet”, admits Zagreb local Mirna.
Fast food from the Adriatic
Photo by Nevena Mikec
Triton, located conveniently next to the fish market, is a modern remnant of the Dalmatian and Mediterranean tradition of having small fried fish like smelts (gavuni), sprats (papline) or sardines for fast food. Now, more people reject meat for including more fish in their diets, so fish is making a comeback, and even though frying fish might not be the healthiest, option in moderation it’s a great source of essential proteins, minerals and fatty acids like Omega 3. At this simple street food stand you can get your fresh-fried fish or calamari with potato salad or fries. Eat with your hands and travel to the Adriatic Coast with your senses of smell and taste.
Alternatively, you may also want to try burek – and compare it to the versions you’ve already tried in other Balkan countries!
Shortest funicular in the world
Photo by Mister No under Creative Commons 3.0
Uspinjača holds the amusing record of being the shortest funicular ride in the world – it takes 64 seconds and a 66-meter-long journey to get from one end to the other. It’s also the city’s oldest means of public transport, dating back to the late 19th century. It’s kind of fun, cheap, offers great views and gets you in front of Lotrščak Tower and a beautiful city viewpoint. It actually serves to connect the Lower town (Donji grad) with the Upper town (Gornji grad), which is important, as the latter is really where you want to be when you’re visiting Zagreb. From there, go to Strossmayerovo šetalište for the city’s ultimate romantic promenade.
A temple, a museum, a mosque, a gallery?
Photo by Mirna Marić
The circular Meštrović Pavilion was originally constructed as an art exhibition venue shortly before WWII. During the war, it was converted into a mosque by the Fascist regime, and after the end of the war it served as the Museum of the Revolution. Only in the beginning of the ‘90s was it restored to its original function, though it’s still known locally as džamija, which means mosque. It’s quite impressive from the outside, but is exceptionally striking from the inside. The powerful architectural setting combined with the monumentalism and modern asceticism make every enjoying exhibition here a unique experience.
For more local favourites across Europe, check out Spotted by Locals.
How to get there
It’s easy to visit Zagreb as part of your adventures with a Eurail Global Pass. There are direct lines into Croatia from Austria, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary and Slovenia. If you’re after scenery, the train from Budapest to Zagreb runs along the shores of Lake Balaton, Hungary’s largest lake.
Croatia’s rail network connects Zagreb to all major Croatian cities, and most routes do not require a reservation, so take the time to explore while you’re there. The only city which can’t be reached by rail is Dubrovnik – you can take the train to Split, then travel by bus to Dubrovnik.
Header image by Mirna Marić
Get inspired by more local tips from our friends at Spotted by Locals:
For the full story click here!