Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb is one of those pleasantly surprising destinations.
My previous experience of a Croatian city was a single-day visit to Dubrovnik on my first ever international trip back in 2006. Even though it had only been 11 years since the end of the Croatian War of Independence, I remember Dubrovnik being totally gorgeous but also very crowded with tourists… and this is was before the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series shoved it further into the public eye.
As Zagreb is over 2 hours drive from the Adriatic coast, many tourists will skip it to cruise, sail, or drive along the seaside towns instead. The people that do venture inland to the northwest of the country may be surprised to find a spacious, pedestrian-friendly city. Zagreb doesn’t have that same competition for space that Dubrovnik has, where visitors are contained to explore within the historic fortified walls.
Zagreb may not have the spectacular coastal scenery that Dubrovnik boasts, but it does have a unique quality that I’ve found in only a handful of cities during my travels – the perfect combination of eastern Europe and central Europe. This makes it cheap and just a little bit edgy (hello, street art!) without feeling uncomfortably foreign.
Rob and I finished up our recent Croatia and Slovenia road trip in Zagreb. We only had one day available to explore, but that was just enough to see all the best spots in the old town. Here’s my suggestions on how to spend one day in Zagreb!
Where we stayed:
Our stay in Zagreb was based in the Palace Hotel, located just across the road from Ledeni Park and only 5 minutes walk to Zagreb’s old town. The rooms were basic and tidy – fairly typical of a business hotel.
Despite the fact that the hallways had a pungent smell that only comes from decades of allowing indoor smoking (unfortunately most of the establishments in Croatia are like this), we loved the glam decor throughout the lobby. Heading downstairs each morning for the buffet breakfast in the on-site cafe gave me the feeling of playing out my ‘Grand Budapest’ dreams!
1 – Art Pavilion
2 – Ban Jelačić Square
3 – Zagreb Cathedral
4 – Dolac Market
5 – Marija Jurić Zagorka statue
6 – Panoramic viewpoint
7 – St. Mark’s Church and Square
8 – Museum of Broken Relationships
9 – Lotrščak Tower
10 – Uspinjača Funicular
11 – Tunel Grič
Zagreb’s Art Pavillion, with its grand yellow facade, is one of the most stunning buildings in the city. It was moved here from Budapest in 1898 and is considered one of Europe’s first pre-fab buildings (it has an IKEA-like iron skeleton!). Inside, there are no permanent exhibitions – the art is constantly changing so you never know what will be on display when you arrive.
Unfortunately our visit was poorly timed (a common theme during our mid-January trip) as the front of the Art Pavilion was surrounded by temporary fences, blocking our access. The Christmas markets and ice skating rink that are set up in Ledeni Park each December were being disassembled by a team of workers. We had to peek through the wire fence and grab a photo of the building beyond the trees!
Ban Jelačić Square
Ban Jelačić Square is considered the heart of Zagreb, situated right in the middle of the old town pedestrian zone. The square has been used as a location for trading fairs since the 17th century, and is now a place where locals congregate. It’s surrounded on all sides by a range of historic buildings with different architectural styles.
A statue of Josip Jelačić, a military man who was the Governor or Croatia from 1848-1859, stands tall in the middle of the square. This is also the meeting point for the Zagreb walking tour, which is a great way to see the sights while learning about the history of the city.
Zagreb Cathedral has stood above the city skyline since the 11th century, though what you’ll see today is a Neo-Gothic cathedral that was constructed after the original was damaged in the 1880 earthquake. The towers of the cathedral are 108 metres (354 ft) tall, which amazingly makes it the tallest building in Croatia!
I found the inside of the cathedral to be quite interesting. It had all the usual religious extravagance, plus some nativity scenes that were still set up during our January visit. I was most impressed by the rumour that the chandeliers inside were sourced from a Las Vegas casino!
Dolac Market, which consists of an open-air farmer’s market and a covered butcher’s market, is the most popular market in Zagreb. I found it to be a great place to watch the locals going about their daily business.
At the back of the upper level, there’s a row of clothing stalls where I found a neat photo op with the cathedral perfectly positioned behind. If you’re interested in trying some of the local specialties, get Sir i vrhnje (cottage cheese mixed with sour cream) from the old Croatian ladies downstairs, or do a Dolac Market tour and cooking class to make the traditional Croatian Strukli (pastry filled with cheese).
Marija Jurić Zagorka statue
Marija Jurić Zagorka was the first female journalist in Croatia, a popular writer of novels, and an activist for women’s rights. She lived in Zagreb for much of her life and died in the city in 1957. Her home next to Dolac Market is now a museum (though I don’t think it caters for English-speaking tourists), and this memorial statue around the corner was installed in 1991.
Most of the statues in Zagreb were wearing the pictured red neckties while we were in the city. After a little online research, I discovered that this was because of the national Cravat Day events (yep, this is a real celebration that happens every October!) which is to celebrate the Croatian invention of the cravat.
This was my favourite spot in Zagreb! You’ll have to climb a few stairs to get up here, but it’s worth it – the viewpoint has a fab vista over the rooftops of the old town and a direct view towards the cathedral. It’s a great spot to snap a few photos.
Next to the panoramic viewpoint is the massive Gradec Whale mural by french artist Etien. When we were there, the entire building was covered in scaffolding. I was pretty bummed about missing out on the mural as the photos I’ve seen look awesome! I’m not sure whether they are painting over the mural or whether they are just fixing up the building, but I sure hope that the mural stays.
St Mark’s Church and Square
St. Mark’s Church is one of the oldest and prettiest buildings in the city. This 13th century church has colourful roof tiles that were installed in 1880 and are arranged to display the coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia (a kingdom lasting from 1868-1918) and the emblem of Zagreb. You can’t actually go inside this church unless you attend the daily mass in the evenings, though I was happy just to walk around the outside and admire the exterior.
The church sits in the middle of St. Mark’s Square, which is surrounded on all sides by Zagreb’s most important government buildings. These include the seat of the Croatian Government, the Croatian Parliament, the Constitutional Court of Croatia, and the Old City Hall. We arrived just before midday to see the press setting up for something important, so of course, we got nosey and hung around for a bit… 20 minutes later, the Prime Minister of Croatia actually walked out the front door of the Croatian Government building to welcome some other important person to Zagreb! How crazy is that!?
Museum of Broken Relationships
The Museum of Broken Relationships was recommended by my cousin who visited Zagreb a few years ago. It’s definitely worth putting aside an hour for this museum (which also has an on-site cafe if you’re craving lunch or a coffee!).
The museum is fairly small but super interesting. Inside is a collection of items that have been donated by the public along with short descriptions or stories, representing various relationships (between lovers, family members, and friends) and how they fell apart or ended. The stories ranged from sweet and funny to devastating and covered a timeframe from the current day back to the wartime period.
Originally built as a guard tower to defend a gate through the town wall, Lotrščak Tower is now a tourist attraction. For 20 Kuna (around 3USD), you can go inside to climb a set of narrow stairs and be rewarded with views over the city from the top.
Another interesting thing about Lotrščak Tower is the Grič cannon, which has been fired every day at exactly noon since 1877. If you’re in the tower when the clock strikes 12:00, prepare for a bang!
Zagreb’s funicular is so tiny that it’s kind of hilarious that it even exists… it’s actually one of the shortest funiculars in the world! The historic set of cable cars have been in operation since 1890 and their journey is only 64 seconds long, travelling a short distance of 66 metres (217 ft).
The tickets are only 5 Kuna (less than a dollar) and the funicular departs every 10 minutes throughout the day, so it’s both a quirky and cheap activity. We travelled from the upper station to go downhill (a weird choice, I know!) but actually it meant that the funicular was pretty much empty as everyone else wants to go in the other direction.
Grič Tunnel is an underground passageway that was built as a bomb shelter during WWII. It was used for raves in the 90s (so cool!) and transformed into a public space hosting events and exhibitions in 2016.
The Tomićeva entrance is at the lower funicular station, down the alley past Chillout Hostel. Unfortunately the tunnel was closed when we were there (no idea why – I suspect they were dismantling the Advent exhibition which finished up a few days before we arrived) but apparently this free activity is pretty neat.
I’d suggest finishing up your day in Zagreb with dinner at Green Point vegetarian restaurant. We ordered some fried cheese burgers at this casual and colourful joint and left feeling very satisfied!