Our final stop in Croatia was Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. Arriving early morning around 7am, it felt completely different from Dubrovnik. There were no sea views, no old city walls and barely any tourists. It felt so quiet! The architecture was also very different with Austro-Hungarian buildings that reminded us of Vienna or Budapest.
Zagreb’s city centre is quite small and divided into two parts, the lower town (Doni Grad) and the upper town (Gornji Grad). Those are the main areas to visit while in Zagreb. Gornji Grad is more of a medieval town while Doni Grad dates from the 19th Century. The rest of the city has a completely different style with its communist era high rise buildings and is not really on the tourist map.
We had booked three nights in Zagreb, but with day tours planned for the following two days, we only had 24 hours to visit Zagreb itself.
Morning: Zagreb’s Gornji Grad or upper town
With such an early start, we couldn’t function without a hit of caffeine! Zagreb is a bit like our home town Melbourne with its very strong coffee culture. Zagrebians love to spend hours sipping coffee in the many cafes scattered around town. We stopped at Cafe de Paris on Petar Preradovic Square, also known as Flower Square. The square is lined with cafes and is a great place to feel the “coffee culture” of Zagreb.
After our espresso shot, we were ready for a day of exploring. Our first stop was the Dolac market. The Dolac market has three levels and it is Zagreb’s most famous open-air farmers’ market. With stalls of flowers, fresh vegetables, cheeses, fruits, meats and many other Croatian products, it is well worth a stroll. It gets very popular amongst tourist and locals alike. It’s open every morning but you should try and visit early for the best experience.
A couple of minutes walk from the market, you will find the Kaptol Square with the imposing Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The cathedral is the tallest building not only in Zagreb but also in the whole of Croatia. The two spires can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the city and it is one of the most visited attractions. It has been under renovation for quite some time and is currently partially scaffolded. But its entrance, its Neo-Gothic towers, and its very impressive interior are worth checking out. Walk around the side of the cathedral to check out the Renaissance walls which surround it. They were built to defend the cathedral from the Ottoman Turks and are some of the best preserved renaissance walls in Europe.
Stone Gate and St Mark’s Square
Walking West on pedestrian streets will lead you to the Stone Gate. The Stone Gate used to be the entrance to the Medieval upper town and it has now become a place of pilgrimage since a painting of the Virgin Mary was miraculously saved from a fire in 1731. Many people come every day to light candles and pray for love, health and happiness.
Around the corner from the Stone Gate is St Mark’s Square. St Mark’s Church in the middle of the square is an iconic church with its unique roof decorated with the coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia and the city of Zagreb. It also has a beautiful entrance portal and some beautiful carved wooden doors. Unfortunately, the church was not open to the public at the time we went but I spent a lot of time admiring the outside of this stunning building. It was by far my favourite building in Zagreb!
Also on St Mark’s Square, you will find the Croatian Sabor or Parliament building, and the Banksi Dvori “Governor’s Palace” which houses the offices of the prime minister.
St Catherine Square and the Lotrscak Tower
South of St Mark’s Square, walking down Cirilometodska Street with its many Baroque palaces, you will reach St Catherine Square. St Catherine Square also has a beautiful Church, St Catherine Church which is Zagreb’s most beautiful Baroque church. Behind the church, you will get a great view over the lower town.
For the best view in Zagreb however, check out the Lotrscak Tower, a 13th-century medieval tower. The Lotrscak Tower is famous for its cannon which fires every day without fail at noon. For 20 HRK you can go up the tower and get a 360 degrees view of the city.
After a morning spent exploring the upper town, it was time to get back down to the lower town for a well-deserved lunch. You can either walk down the steps or take the sixty-six meter long funicular which connects the upper and lower town. The Zagreb funicular is the shortest passenger cable railway in the world. It only takes fifty-five seconds to go up or down. To be honest, we could have easily walked down the steps, but for 4 HRK we thought we might as well ride the famous funicular!
Time for lunch!
After a recommendation from the Lonely Planet, we stopped for lunch at Vallis Aurea situated at the bottom of the funicular. It serves traditional lunches called Gableci and it was a great find. We both enjoyed our meal and of course the lovely Croatian wine we ordered! Situated right next to the funicular it was great for people watching, and we also had a little surprise when the midday cannon boomed above us as we sipped our wine!
Afternoon: Zagreb’s Donji Grad or lower town
After a delicious Croatian lunch, it was time to go and burn off those calories. So we moved on to Donji Grad or the lower town. Since the lower town dates from the 19th century, it is a nice contrast to the upper town.
Bana Jelacica Square
The centre of the lower town is the Bana Jelacica Square. With its colourful buildings, fountain and the Equestrian Statue of Ban Josip Jelacic, the square is always busy. It is the centre of Zagreb’s social life and where most people decide to meet up.
Parks and gardens
The lower town of Zagreb is very green and you will find many parks and gardens there. Nikola Subic Zrinjski Square is a nice park to just sit in and relax, enjoying its many fountains and flowers. Another favourite was the Botanic Gardens with its ten thousand species of plants.
The lower town’s many impressive buildings
Walking around the lower town you will find many colourful buildings with beautiful Austro-Hungarian style architecture. The buildings not to miss are the Art Pavilion, the main railway station, the Croatian State Archives and the impressive Croatian National Theatre.
After a few hours of walking, it was time for a drink! If like us you love Croatian wines, check out the Basement Wine Bar. Also situated right next to the base of the funicular, it serves a huge selection of Croatian wines. The hardest part is to choose one but the lovely owner will be more than happy to make a recommendation! If you’re hungry then try one of their Croatian cheese and cold meat platters. They’re delicious.
Evening: Dinner and nightlife
For a great meal in Zagreb try Boban if you feel like Italian or Vinodol if you’d rather stick to Croatian fare. Both have great food and a great wine list with many awesome Croatian wines.
If you are not exhausted and you fancy a bit of Zagreb’s nightlife and a couple more drinks head to the buzzing Tkalciceva Street for some alfresco cocktails or Croatian beers. Once a river, Tkalciceva is now the heart of Zagreb’s nightlife. It’s full of cafes, bars and restaurants and is a great place to go for a good night out, to interact with the locals or to meet fellow travellers.
We stayed at the Hotel Dubrovnik right in the city centre. The location couldn’t have been better as we were so close to everything, five minutes from the upper town and just around the corner from Bana Jelacica Square, the Dolac market and Tkalciceva Street.
We both enjoyed our time in Zagreb. Yes, it is very different to the coastal cities of Croatia, but it sure had enough to keep us busy and entertained. With its cafe culture, nightlife, and the upper and lower town’s stunning architecture there is so much to do and see in Zagreb; in fact way more than we could manage in just 24 hours. Finally, if you are a big fan of Christmas markets, Zagreb’s Christmas market is increasingly becoming more popular. So if you don’t have Zagreb on your list of places to visit you should definitely consider adding it. You won’t regret it!
Have you been to Zagreb? Tell us what you thought of it.
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