Zagreb is Croatia’s capital and largest city, marking the intersection between Eastern and Central Europe for more than a thousand years.
For a modern capital Zagreb has a kind of small-town charm, with an expansive old hilltop district of cobblestone streets and squares lit to this day by gas lamps.
Down the slope you’ll see Zagreb’s Viennese influence in the Lower Town, an area with 19th-century pavilions and manicured gardens that resemble the best of Prague or Budapest.
By day you can amble the pedestrian streets and park yourself at one of the many cafes, and by night you can paint the town red and see why those in the know make such a fuss of Zagreb’s nightlife.
Let’s explore the best things to do in in Zagreb:
One of Zagreb’s many curiosities is the way the old town developed as two separate hilltop settlements side-by-side. And their relationship wasn’t always friendly either! Kaptol and Gradec did not integrate for many hundreds of years.
Kaptol is where the clergy was based, the diocese of Zagreb being founded here back in 1094. The main landmark in Kaptol is Zagreb Cathedral, which dates to the city’s earliest year but was razed by the Mongols in the 1200s and then was damaged in a 19th-century earthquake.
Take a look at what remains of the cathedral’s fortifications, which were built when the building was used as an observation tower during the Ottoman wars.
This was the secular part of Zagreb’s medieval core, populated by artisans and tradesmen. Today it’s a quaint old district, ideal for walks as the cobblestone streets have been pedestrianised in recent years.
Culturally and politically the headline is St. Mark’s Square, where the Croatian Parliament and Constitutional Court are found. St. Mark’s Church gave the square its name and retains plenty of its original romanesque architecture, blended with later gothic additions in the 1300s.
At the top of Radićeva Street is Gradec’s last remaining town gate, which became a shrine to the Virgin Mary after an 18th-century fire destroyed the entire structure save for a painting of the Virgin (or so they say!).
3. Lower Town
Zagreb’s refined Lower Town was laid out in the 1800s and unlike the twisting alleys of the medieval core it’s all wide avenues and grand neo-classical buildings.
Lower Town is where the city’s more prestigious hotels are located, as well as much of its green space and several high-profile museums that we’ll come to in due course.
You could come for lunch at a cafe or for a spot of upmarket shopping and then take an easy walk through this leafy part of town.
4. Jelačić Square
Road traffic is also prohibited on this square, which is a gathering point for the modern city and is served by no fewer than seven of the city’s tram lines.
Here you’ll get the sense of Zagreb as a bustling place of business, full of office workers and shoppers, and you can people-watch from the table of a sidewalk cafe.
The square is named after 19th-century ruler, Count Josip Jelačić who was considered an expert military strategist.
His statue was erected in the square in the 1800s, but because Jelačić came to symbolise Croatian nationalism it was removed during communist times before being reinstated in 1990.
5. Go out in Tkalčićeva Street
Whether you’re in need of some live music at a bar or a good sit-down meal, Tkalčićeva should be your first port of call. It’s where Zagrebians go to enjoy themselves.
By day Tkalčićeva is a charming street of low-rise painted houses with balconies and awnings that you can appreciate on a romantic amble.
When the sun goes down you’ll have your pick of Zagreb’s best cafes, restaurants and nightspots.
If you want to pick up something to go, or have an elegant meal with a loved one, you’ll find what you’re looking for Tkalca.
6. Dolac Market
If you’re going self-catered then a visit to Zagreb’s daily farmers market is essential.
Open in the mornings, Dolac Market draws on regional farms, and is great place to buy meat, dairy products, vegetables and Croatian artisanal items, but it also brings in a fine array of fresh seafood from the coast.
Some locals describe Dolac as the “Belly of Zagreb”, and as much as anything it’s a great way to see how Zagrebians go about their day.
The stairway that leads off the marketplace will carry you to Optovina, which is the city’s main flower market.
7. Statue of Marija Jurić Zagorka
One of Croatia’s most celebrated modern cultural icons, Zagorka was the country’s first female journalist and a beloved author, born in 1873.
Her statue can be found on Tkalčićeva and she’s dressed in modest Edwardian garb, which clashes a little with the relaxed and trendy bars and cafes on this street.
Zagorka’s nineteen novels are still widely read to this day and many are set in Old Zagreb, for which she had an affinity.
At the height of her career she also founded Women’s Papers, a pioneering women’s magazine that was distributed throughout Austria-Hungary.
8. Mimara Museum
This Lower Town museum is named after the 20th-century art collector Ante Topić Mimara, who can best be described as a colourful character.
The permanent exhibits at the museum were donated by Miramar who was linked with art theft during the Second World War and also forgery after that.
Some critics claim that there are a number of fakes in the museum’s collection but it is still a good way to spend a couple of hours.
Works by Canaletto, Rubens, Holbein, Velazquez, Goya, Monet, Renoir and Degas are all on display here.
9. Archaeological Museum
Zagreb’s location at the historical meeting point between west and east has brought a host of civilisations to its door. So you can guess that a visit to the city’s archaeological museum is an intriguing trip through all kinds of eras and cultures.
One of the best pieces here is the Vučedol Dove, a ritual vessel that dates back to at least 2500 BC. There’s also Liber Linteus, an Etruscan mummy from the 3rd century BC, which was wrapped with bandages that contain the longest Etruscan text in the world.
Most of the text hasn’t even been translated as so little is known about the language.
10. Pick up a Licitar
Out and about in Zagreb you may notice that the city is fond of its red hearts. They’ll appear on leaflets, shop signs and almost anywhere else you care to look.
These refer to Licitars, a traditional symbol of Zagreb. They are a kind of honey dough cookie that take several weeks to prepare.
After the heart-shaped cookies are finally baked and cooled they are painted with a glossy and edible red enamel, and intricately decorated with piped patterns and messages.
So deeply rooted is the craft that Licitars are recognised by UNESCO as being representative of northern Croatian culture. So that’s your souvenir sorted!
11. Lenuci Horseshoe
If you needed a reminder that you’re in the former Austro-Hungarian empire, this handsome series of squares, fountains and grand buildings will make it clear enough.
The Horseshoe wouldn’t look out of place in Vienna or Budapest, and more than merits a saunter at any time of year.
The project takes its name from its 19th-century designer Milan Lenuci and forms a u-shape in Zagreb’s Lower Town.
Two attractions in the Horseshoe include the Botanical Garden, collecting 10,000 plant species from around the world, and the elaborate Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb’s premier venue for ballet, opera and drama.
12. Jarun Lake
Zagreb is quite a long way inland, so when things get hot in summer Jarun Lake picks up the slack.
It welcomes a huge range of leisure activities, from competitive rowing and kayaking to skateboarding and cycling, but is also fine if you just want to take it easy and cool off at the lake’s pebble beaches.
Zagreb also comes to Jarun for some nightlife, and there are a number of bars and nightclubs on the lakeshore. If you plan ahead and are in town in late-June then the INmusic festival takes place here.
13. Museum of Broken Relationships
This museum is devoted to break-ups. If that doesn’t seem like everyone’s idea of a good time you can rest assured that this attraction is as amusing as it is poignant.
There’s a kind of therapeutic purpose to the exhibits, which have been donated to the museum by lovelorn people from around the world.
So what you’ll find is a large collection of seemingly random items, each accompanied by a panel explaining their significance to a relationship that didn’t work out or ended in a tragic way.
The effect is often humorous but you may come away a bit weepy and certain that you won’t have seen anything like it before.
Between Zagreb and the Slovenian border is a delightful medieval town that has been a tourist destination for almost 200 years.
A lot of the architecture in Samobor is from the baroque era, and if you visit the town’s museum you’ll enter a building where the composer Franz Liszt spent a night in 1846.
Samobor is ringed by wooded hills and in no more than ten minutes you can make your way up Tepec Hill to see the ruins of Samobor Castle.
Much of this fortress remains in place and you can easily trace its moat, outer walls and gatehouse.
Around 45 minutes southwest of Zagreb is a splendid little town that was built from nothing in the 16th century to stand as an Austrian outpost against the Ottoman advance.
Karlovac represented state-of-the-art military planning, as you’ll be able to see in the Old Town. The citadel, where much of the town’s heritage remains, still bears the outline of its innovative six-pointed star defensive system, even though the original walls are long gone.
In Croatia Karlovac is known as the “City of Parks”, and this is partly because the trenches and moats that once surrounded the city walls have never been developed, so you can stretch your legs in the pasture, forest and gardens left behind.