Croatia is one of the countries in Europe that I have visited year after year. Starting from road trips in Croatia to backpacking to even traveling with our baby – I have done many kinds of trips in this country.
Nestled between the southern slopes of the Medvednica mountain and the banks of the Sava River, Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is often overshadowed by its more glamorous coastal counterparts. It has been a part of some of the road trips that we did in the Balkans.
One of the main reasons I visited Croatia time and time again was because of a music festival which I like to attend every summer. As a result, I have visited Zagreb often for just a day or sometimes even two. After spending many “one day”s in Zagreb year after year, I have finally decided to write down a post.
If you are visiting Zagreb, then most likely you are going to travel to other places in Croatia too. In that case, I highly recommend you rent a car like we did.
So, is Zagreb worth visiting? Or is it better to just arrive here, rent a car, and get out ASAP to do a road trip in Croatia and beyond? Here is my experience:
Mountains in the Background
The loveliest aspect about Zagreb for me was the background of mountains. The Samobor mountain range and Žumberak are visible from many parts of Zagreb.
These aren’t very high mountains like in Austria but they add to a lovely cityscape of this already scenic city. If you have a little time on your hands, then you can drive out of the city and explore the hilly landscape in your rented car.
Historic City Center
Zagreb’s city center is a captivating blend of historic charm, vibrant culture, and modern amenities, and you can spend almost an entire day just in the city center because everything is here and is a short walk away.
Wander through the historic Upper Town (Gornji Grad) to explore centuries-old architecture, including the iconic St. Mark’s Church and Lotrščak Tower. The blend of Gothic, Baroque, and Austro-Hungarian influences creates a visually stunning cityscape.
Here’s what to see in Zagreb City Center:
The Zagreb Cathedral, officially known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a stunning Gothic masterpiece. Its twin spires dominate the city skyline.
The cathedral holds cultural and religious significance, and its interior is adorned with intricate details and religious artifacts.
Ban Jelačić Square is the central square and the beating heart of Zagreb. It is the focal point for social, cultural, and political events. Landmark Statue: Dominating the square is a statue of Ban Josip Jelačić, a Croatian military leader. The statue is a popular meeting point and a symbol of Zagreb.
The Upper Town (Gornji Grad) is the historic core of Zagreb, characterized by narrow streets, cobblestone alleys, and medieval architecture.
A highlight of the Upper Town is St. Mark’s Church with its colorful tiled roof depicting the coats of arms of Zagreb and Croatia.
Tkalciceva Street is a bustling pedestrian zone lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops. It’s a popular spot for locals and tourists to unwind and enjoy the lively atmosphere.
The street often hosts street performers and artists, adding to the creative and bohemian ambiance.
Lotrščak Tower, perched on the hill in Upper Town, offers panoramic views of the city. Visitors can climb to the top and experience breathtaking vistas of Zagreb. It is also called the “Zagreb 360° observation deck”.
The tower is also known for its traditional cannon firing, a practice that dates back to the 19th century.
Lively Street Markets
One of Zagreb’s hidden delights is its bustling street markets. Dolac Market, situated in the heart of the city, is a kaleidoscope of colors, offering fresh produce, local delicacies, and handmade crafts. Immerse yourself in the vibrant atmosphere, interact with locals, and savor the authenticity of Zagreb’s gastronomic scene.
Dolac is renowned for its high-quality, locally sourced fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers from the surrounding regions come to the market to sell their fresh produce, giving visitors the opportunity to buy seasonal and locally grown items.
In addition to fresh produce, Dolac Market is a great place to find traditional Croatian products such as homemade cheeses, olive oils, honey, corn bread, and various local delicacies.
Quaint Cafés and Cosy Atmosphere
Zagreb’s café culture is an integral part of its charm. Sidewalk cafés, tucked-away bistros, and historic coffee houses line the city streets.
Enjoy a leisurely cup of kava (coffee) as you soak in the relaxed atmosphere. The city’s commitment to preserving its heritage is evident in the preservation of these timeless establishments. Here are 5 cafes in Zagreb that I recommend:
Located in the city center, Vinodol is known for its historic setting, combining traditional charm with a relaxed atmosphere.
Situated near the Botanical Garden, Botaničar offers a cozy green oasis, perfect for enjoying coffee and pastries.
3) Velvet Cafe
Known for its vintage décor and artistic ambiance, Velvet Cafe provides a unique and eclectic setting for coffee enthusiasts.
4) Mali Medo
Tucked away in the Upper Town, Mali Medo is a small café with a rustic charm, known for its warm atmosphere and friendly service.
With a reputation for excellent coffee, Eliscaffe offers a welcoming space in the heart of Zagreb for those seeking a cozy café experience.
Green Oasis and Outdoor Escapes
If you are like me then you like to escape the urban hustle by stepping into green spaces from time to time. Let me tell you about Zagreb’s green spaces.
Maksimir Park, the city’s oldest public park, offers a serene retreat for nature lovers. Stroll through well-maintained pathways, encounter local wildlife, and unwind amid lush landscapes.
Another green space that you need to keep in mind is Zagreb’s Botanical Garden. It is known as the Botanički vrt Prirodoslovno-matematički fakultet Sveučilišta u Zagrebu in Croatian, is a serene oasis in the heart of the city.
The garden is located near the city center, within walking distance from many popular attractions. It’s situated on Marulić Square, making it easily accessible for both locals and tourists.
Established in 1889 as part of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Science, the Botanical Garden has a rich history. It was created for educational and scientific purposes, and over the years, it has evolved into a peaceful retreat for nature enthusiasts.
Another green space worth mentioning is the Mirogoj cemetery. It is one of the most renowned and picturesque cemeteries in Zagreb, Croatia. It is not just a burial ground but also a significant cultural and historical site.
Mirogoj is renowned for its impressive Avenue of Cypresses, a long path flanked by tall trees that create a solemn and serene atmosphere.
The Cemetery is open to visitors, and many people come to explore its architectural beauty, pay respects to their loved ones, or appreciate the cultural and historical significance of the site.
Lenuci’s Green Horseshoe (Lower Town) is downtown Zagreb’s U-shaped system of city squares with parks. It is a vibrant and meticulously designed urban space, named after its architect, Milan Lenuci. Stretching from the Main Railway Station to the King Tomislav Square, this horseshoe-shaped ensemble encompasses a series of parks, squares, and cultural institutions.
Adorned with fountains, sculptures, and lush greenery, the area showcases architectural styles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The oldest part of the horseshoe is Nikola Šubić Zrinski Square.
Lenuci horseshoe is a picturesque blend of nature and history, hosting landmarks like the Art Pavilion, Croatian National Theatre, and the Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Cultural Events and Festivals
Zagreb’s calendar is adorned with cultural events and festivals throughout the year. Most people visit Croatia in summer, which is the high season but if you visit in winter, you can experience Zagreb’s amazing Christmas markets. Here are a few festivals and cultural events in Zagreb that are worth noting:
One of the most famous festivals in Zagreb is INmusic Festival. Croatia’s largest open-air music festival is held on Lake Jarun island. Featuring a diverse lineup of international and local artists, INmusic attracts music lovers for a memorable experience.
Zagreb Film Festival is an annual film festival showcasing independent and international films. It provides a platform for emerging filmmakers and attracts cinema enthusiasts from around the world.
Another festival worth noting is Animafest Zagreb. It is one of the world’s oldest animated film festivals that celebrates the art of animation with screenings, exhibitions, and workshops. It gathers animators and enthusiasts to explore the evolving world of animated cinema.
A few more festivals and cultural events held in Zagreb are ZagrebDox (An international documentary film festival), Cest is d’Best (a street festival), Zagreb Book Festival, Advent in Zagreb, Floraart (garden exhibition held in spring) Zagreb World Theatre Festival, and Zagreb Pride.
Plan your visit around one of these events to experience the vibrant spirit of Zagreb.
Museum of Broken Relationships
There are numerous museums all over the world, but I’m sure you wouldn’t have ever heard of one that pays homage to broken relationships. It is in Zagreb and is worth a visit.
The Museum of Broken Relationships originated from the personal experience of two artists, Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, who had recently ended their romantic relationship.
The concept was born from the idea of creating a space where people could share stories and symbolic artifacts from their past romantic relationships.
It is a unique and emotionally powerful museum that explores the various facets of failed relationships through personal objects and stories.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is situated in the Upper Town (Gornji Grad) of Zagreb, not far from St. Mark’s Church and other historical landmarks. Its central location makes it easily accessible to both locals and tourists.
If you are into museums, then also check out the Museum of Illusions which features a variety of optical illusions and interactive exhibits designed to challenge visitors’ perception of reality.
Zagreb Has Simple Public Transportation
No matter how pretty a city is, for a nice experience there, one needs to be able to move around without stress. In that case, Zagreb wins.
Zagreb’s public transportation system is efficient, connecting the city seamlessly. Operated by ZET (Zagrebački električni tramvaj), it comprises buses and an extensive tram network.
The trams, an iconic part of the city’s landscape, offer convenient and reliable transportation to key areas. Buses cover routes extending beyond the tram lines, ensuring comprehensive city coverage.
The integrated ticket system allows passengers to use both modes of transport with a single ticket. With frequent services and well-marked stops, Zagreb’s public transportation system is a cost-effective and eco-friendly way for locals and visitors to explore the Croatian capital.
Moreover, if you aren’t solo and are with your family here, you will be happy to know that it is easy to get app-based taxis like Uber and Bolt at affordable prices in Zagreb.
Good Starting Point for Exploring Croatia & Slovenia
Zagreb is an excellent base for visiting the nearby destinations that Croatia has to offer. Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park is just 2 hours by road. I highly recommend that you don’t limit yourself to a day trip because this national park is worth so much more.
But if you still want to do a day trip to the Plitvice Lakes, here’s the one I recommend. If you go to Croatia, don’t miss this stunning national park that’s also a UNESCO world heritage site.
Additionally, you can also take a bus from Zagreb to visit Croatia’s coastal cities on the Dalmatian coast or the Adriatic coast. The Dalmatian coast is the larger body of water that separates the Italian peninsula from the Balkans. The most famous cities of Dubrovnik and Split are on the Dalmatian coast.
Two out of the four times we were in Croatia, we had a van or a rented car to go to the Dalmatian Coast. During the backpacking days, I hopped on a bus to visit Pula, which is a historical beach destination in Croatia’s Istrian peninsula.
The above-mentioned day trip makes total sense because it is cheaper to stay in Croatia than in Slovenia, and you can explore the magical Lake Bled in the nearby country while you are in Zagreb.
Where to Stay in Zagreb
For Zagreb, I will recommend two hotels where I have personally stayed with my toddler (she was three at that time).
Hotel Orient Express
We booked a suite in Hotel Orient with an attached room for our toddler. It was a very comfortable stay with nice beds, a TV, and a balcony. We even had an AC. In 2022, we paid EUR 72 for a night here.
The location of Hotel Orient is perfect because there’s a decent parking place so it is perfect for road trips. Also, the main train station was 500 meters away and the bus station was 1.5 KM away.
Hotel Europa is also a mid-budget hotel in Zagreb and I paid the same as Orient Express hotel for it for our family of three – EUR 72.
In my experience, Hotel Orient was much better because we had an entire suite. But at Hotel Europa we had a massive bedroom with an extra single bed for our little girl. There was a shopping mall that was less than a kilometer away from the hotel where we went for lunch.
Is Zagreb Worth Visiting? Final Thoughts
If you are short on time and would prefer to spend your vacation time in Croatia’s other destinations such as Plitvice Lakes, Pula, Krka National Park, Dubrovnik, or Rastoke – then I suggest you don’t waste your time in Zagreb.
However, if you can spare some time then take a day to explore Zagreb because it offers a unique blend of history, culture, and modernity, making it a worthy destination like most of the European capitals. Whether you’re captivated by its historic landmarks, enchanted by its local markets, or simply seeking a relaxed European getaway, Zagreb has something to offer.
As you contemplate your travel choices, consider the allure of Zagreb – a city that invites you to explore its hidden corners and create lasting memories.