Are you planning to visit Croatia? You should not skip Zagreb. The country’s capital is a simple and magnificent city, full of stories, fun, and full of life, as Croatian official slogan suggests – Croatia Full of Life.
This article is a kind of beginner’s guide and is very special to me, as Zagreb is one of my cities, a city where I spent 3 years of my life, and I decided to make this guide for all these curious heritage and culture travelers who want to make a Central European Tour or simply visit Croatia.
With about 800,000 inhabitants, Zagreb makes more or less one-fifth of the country’s population. In the time when Croatia was a part of the large Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Zagreb was a regional metropolis, so it got beautiful classical architecture and facades, lovely parks, and some lavish palaces. However, the historical center of Zagreb is not too large, and it’s easily explorable by walking, except one place I will be talking about in this article that is situated in a specific zone outside the historical center.
1.The origins of everything
There is a green heart of Zagreb, locally called potkova (meaning: horseshoe – the name was derived from the form this area makes on the city’s map). Basically, it was a late XIX century urban improvement planned to create more comfortable green spaces in an increasingly busy urban environment. The potkova is divided into a number of sections with parks and monumental institutional buildings between them.
My favorite part of potkova is the zone called Zrinjevac. This beautiful green promenade, with a diversity of fountains, and a beautiful French-style pavilion in the middle, is a place to have a walk, sit down on a bench or even have a picnic. When I studied in Zagreb, I used to come here with my friends, place the blanket, and we would stay sitting in the middle of the green for hours.
The Archaeological Museum of Zagreb is located precisely at Zrinjevac, on its Western side. This is a nice and not so large museum, easy to visit within 1 hour. Apart from fantastic stories from the prehistoric, ancient, and medieval times in the regions of contemporary Croatia, there is a rich collection of Egyptian art, and most importantly – the Etruscan mummy which was wrapped in a sort of parchment that turned out to be one of the rarest examples of never deciphered Etruscan language. I’m letting you learn more details when you visit the museum.
Pictures: Courtesy of the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb
So if you love the mysterious, don’t miss to visit the Archaeological Museum of Zagreb and meet the original partridge of Vučedol, the incredible work of prehistoric art coming from then highly developed Vučedol Culture.
Try also: If you are planning a longer Croatian tour, go to the far East of Croatia, and visit the Vučedol Culture Museum.
The Zagreb’s Archaeological Museum has a nice garden with a bar. This is not any kind of garden – it’s something authentic, one of many courtyards of central Zagreb.
2.Darker sides of our history
To feel the lively day scene, particularly when it’s summer (or in December during the time of the Zagreb Advent), Zrinjevac is a right starting point. From Zrinjevac to the main Trg bana Jelačića Square, it’s just a few minutes walk. This is a real main square, the place where everything starts, where we all meet “below the clock”, although the clock is not that high or monumental.
There is a place to go next – the Dolac market. People who love old, vintage, and traditional markets will love the place, while early risers may experience how it looks like before most of the locals come here to buy the fruits and vegetables. The Tkalčićeva Street (commonly called Tkalča) is a lively, cool place full of nice bars and restaurants, popular in the morning, in the afternoon, and when the night comes.
Don’t be afraid of darkness.
Pictures: Courtesy of the Tortureum – Museum of Tortures, Zagreb
Darkness can be safely observed in a museum located on that street. The Museum of Torture. This small museum tells stories about the history of torture instruments around the world. I heard that similar museums exist across Central Europe, but if you haven’t seen any yet, you may want to visit the Zagreb’s edition. Terrible sides of our history are something scary and eerie, but at the same time, fun to discover, and be happy about these imperfect times we live today.
Want to have a snack or a lunch? Try Strukli
Did you find your place to try something tasty from Croatian traditional cuisine? Maybe yes, maybe not, I can recommend you a place called La Štruk, located in the Skalinska street, between the Dolac Market and the Tkalča. Enjoy the gorgeous courtyard and try tasty štrukli (full name: zagorski štrukli, also štruklji – named after the nearby region of Zagorje) – a kind of cheese pie, available in salty and sweet variations. One portion may be a full meal for one person or a kind of snack for two people. This restaurant’s price level is – budget.
3.Don’t get broken hearted
Zagreb has a mountain above, the Medvednica, and a part of the city is located on the mountain’s lower slopes, making the whole urban and suburban area a bit hilly, and surrounded by the forest. The oldest area of Zagreb is a pair of historical towns that used to be two separated medieval towns – Gradec on the West, and Kaptol on the East. Not much of the original urban structure has been preserved to the contemporary times, as the past was turbulent, and there was an earthquake that hit the city in the late XIX century.
Fun fact, there is something called Bloody Bridge (Krvavi most) in Zagreb. Don’t be scared, it is just a short street (better said, a passage), but it used to be a real bridge because there was a network of little rivers on the site. The extensive XIX century public works, that resulted in the creation of Zagreb we see today, made the little rivers disappear below the concrete…
The Bloody Bridge connects Tkalča with the street going up to the hill. While walking up, you will easily find some of the most emblematic monuments such as Kamenita vrata (“The Stone Door”), the Saint Mark Church, the Parliament, the Klovićevi Dvori Art Gallery (this gallery sometimes has exhibitions of famous artists’ work, I remember Mark Chagall, Gustav Klimt, Picasso, Van Gogh, along with many projects revealing Croatian regional heritage.
After passing by the gallery, turn left, and find a beautiful viewing point overlooking the Cathedral and the beautiful rooftops of Zagreb. Then turn back and notice a gorgeous medieval tower right in the beginning of the Strossmayer Promenade. The ample and romantic viewing point of the Strossmayer Promenade conquers the travelers’ hearts.
Zagreb heals broken hearts, because right here, in the zone of the upper Zagreb, there is a unique therapy center from broken hearts – the Museum of Broken Relationships, located in this zone, close to the lovely promenade. The Museum is a crowdsources project which means that anyone can donate an object and a story of it. For instance, you can donate your engagement ring and tell your story why it never “evolved” into a wedding ring. Their cafeteria offers tasty cakes and a really good tea, and you can buy a bad memories eraser in the shop. How does it sound?
In the summer, the terrace of Museum of Broken Relationships Bar is the best place to sit down and observe the beautiful atmosphere of Zagreb’s old districts.
4.The Zagreb’s Palace
There are a few different ways to get back to the Zagreb’s Downtown – you may opt to try the funicular, located right by the Strossmayer Promenade. Even though it’s a short ride, it’s attractive and most travelers like it (Have you been to Lisbon and Prague? If yes, you probably know what it is about.)
Another way is to go down from the first viewing point and get back to the main square. This way has its own charm and is a popular place to take pictures. If you are interested in visiting the Cathedral – once you are at the main square you just need to walk the whole square and turn left, and you’ll be there within a few minutes. The entrance to the cathedral is free!
Now, let’s start our way to the museum I call the Zagreb’s Palace though the museum’s name is the Museum of Arts and Crafts. Once you are on the main square, you will easily find the beginning of the Zagreb’s longest street – Ilica. With the tram lines in the middle and many shops, this street is usually very busy. On the street’s left side, there is a monumental gate leading to an indoors passage, commonly called Oktogon. By crossing this passage, you will come to another, smaller square, commonly called Cvjetni.
Wander around, enjoy the atmosphere, and continue your way to the Croatian National Theater. Remember Zrinjevac, from the section 1 of this guide, and the story of so-called “horseshoe”? This is another start-end of the horseshoe. The place where the Theater is.
The Zagreb’s Palace is located next to the Theater. This Museum was built to be a museum, so it wasn’t any other kind of palace. But, it’s simply a beautiful example of architecture and design of that time, an example of craftsmanship, planning, cultural development… everything that made Zagreb the city it was in the early XX century. With more than 100,000 items in its collections, this is the Croatia’s largest and richest museum, and its collections are divided into many specific groups – furniture, ceramics, glass, clocks, metal, clothes, design, photography, etc. each of them carefully curated by the museum’s curators and selected to be on display. Although most of the items are stored away from the museum’s exhibitions for most of the time, there are occasional thematic exhibitions, in the Museum and in other museums-partners, so curious visitors may see exclusive pieces of history.
In the time when I worked in the museum, we once had a special visitor, the actor Viggo Mortensen. He loved the Museum, and he bought a few items in the Museum’s shop.
The Museum’s restaurant has a great offer of quality, healthy, and authentic choices, and it becomes particularly beautiful in the summer when the outdoor terrace is opened in the beautiful courtyard, around a fountain. This restaurant’s price level is medium.
There is another museum around the Theater – the Croatian Schooling Museum. This is a small museum and is mostly oriented on Croatian public, but their cool interpretations of the history of schooling in Croatian and ex-Yugoslavia are pretty cool.
5.Who is curious about Nikola Tesla?
Let’s continue walking. The long and wide street of Savska takes you to a museum most of the technicians and engineers will love. The museum is called after Nikola Tesla – how could we ever resist visiting such a place?
Yes, this is the Technical Museum Nikola Tesla of Zagreb is just one of many places called after this man. To learn about his early life and discoveries, you may like to visit his home village of Smiljan, in the Croatian region of Lika, not far away from the Plitvice National Park.
As I’m more into art, history, heritage, and a bit less into engineering, this kind of museums are not much likely to be my first choice. However, I visit the ones that have some very special vibe, like the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, for instance. This museum is one of them. With a large collection of cars, trams, firefighting equipment, electrical machines, and a section where you can join a session of experiments of what Nikola Tesla discovered to be possible.
There is a planetarium in the museum, and also a mine. The whole museum will please people who come from technical fields of expertise. With a range of areas covered by the collections, and many items on display, the Museum will give a lot of work to curious people who will want to discover it.
6.A Modernist Zagreb
I started writing this guide by highlighting the times of Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the urban development of historical Zagreb. Zagreb has also a whole different world within the city’s boundaries, the world of modernism, a set of urbanistic patterns and architectural designs that remarked the times of the socialist ex-Yugoslavia.
I mentioned the former little rivers, the ones that are still flowing below the concrete, but there is an actual river, and it’s called the Sava. Unlike many other European cities with rivers, river mouths, or nets of channels crossing the historical centers, the Sava river is located outside historical Zagreb. The reasons for that are simple, the river used to flood the valley and the last great flood occurred in the sixties, destroying homes of then suburban areas which were closer to the river. Today the river has safe embankment and the whole new area was built on the other side of the river shortly after the flood.
The area is called Novi Zagreb. It was designed to be a residential area with huge apartment buildings, and the Zagreb’s fair and expo area was also installed here. There were no many new things in the district until, about 10-15 years ago, there started to be built the new Museum of Contemporary Art. In the middle of the large vacant field, a new, unusual building showed up, designed as a combination of Modernism and newer architectural trends, making this place an attraction for travelers curious to see the Modernist side of Zagreb.
You can easily reach the area by taking a tram, number 7 or 14.
As some people absolutely love contemporary arts, others say they don’t understand it at all, I need to say – the Zagreb’s Museum Contemporary Art is not any usual museum of that kind. It tells a story about a time and a place, about rich art movements going on during the 50s, 60s, and 70s in the communist Yugoslavia, a country that had no democracy, but had artists who were as innovative as their American or Western European counterparts. But, it’s not all. The Museum is in touch with the current trends in arts, with their events and exhibitions having an amazing vibe, colorful light shows, and new interesting items to buy in the museum’s shop.
There is a restaurant in the museum, and all the healthy eaters and vegans will absolutely love it! On the picture before you can see a tasty pasta green Mediterranean herbs, while the choice is quite large. This restaurant’s price level is – budget.
7.This is not an Illusion
The last but not the least of my recommendations for the first visit to Zagreb is a fun place called Museum of Illusions. This museum could be particularly interesting to families, and I’m not an expert on the topic, I will let family travelers tell me their opinions. I just noticed that children have a lot of fun at this place.
Basically, the Museum of Illusion is a small museum diverse scientific phenomena of optical illusions, from simple pictures to entire rooms. Visitors can go from a place to a place and try how certain illusions occur and why.
Where to Stay?
A cool place to feel a real Croatian hospitality and be in the very center of Zagreb is a BnB called 4CityWindows. Each of these newly furbished rooms tells one story about Zagreb, the property is located on a few minutes walk from Zrinjevac, and the great breakfast is served to you by Tanja, the owner, who will wish you a pleasant and enjoyable time in Zagreb. The property is particularly popular among travelers from USA and Canada.
The Rooms 17 is another small property, located in the Upper Zagreb, on the Radićeva. By arriving at this place, you will pass by an authentic courtyard and the rooms have lovely views over the Tkalča. There is no breakfast here, but there is a plenty of breakfast bars around, with tasty sandwiches, fruit juices, and everything else you may like.
I have more properties to recommend you, so don’t hesitate to contact me for questions.