Zagreb has it all – sites dating to the Middle Ages, cultural highlights, green areas and a bustling restaurant scene

The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Zagreb
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Six nights in Zagreb was barely enough time to enjoy all that the city has to offer – a bustling restaurant scene, cultural and historical highlights dating to the Middle Ages, the green squares that seemingly abound on every street corner of the lower town. Zagreb exceeded my expectations. What a great start to my month in the captivating and beautiful country of Croatia.

After almost five weeks in Morocco and a couple of weeks, off and on, in Spain, I finally made it to Croatia last Wednesday. The flight from Seville into Zagreb was pretty uneventful on Vueling Airlines – a regional airline that operates out of Spain. I had never heard of the company before sitting on my Ryanair flight last month when I was heading to Marrakech and I looked out the window and saw these planes waiting at the terminal, in Seville, with the word Vueling on the side of them. I remember thinking “what’s a Vueling”. I’m not sure what their gimmick is. They’re not a low cost airline but they kind of seem to act like it.

I spent six nights in Zagreb, the capital and largest city of Croatia. It will be one of only two inland Croatian cities that I will visit. The other is not really a city. It’s Plitvice (PLEET-veet-say) National Park. An incredibly awesome park from what I understand. The rest of the time will be spent on the Croatian coast (Rovinj, Pula, Split, Dubrovnik and Zadar). I’m hoping to take day trips to some of the islands while I am in Split and Dubrovnik. In all, I will be in Croatia about five weeks – just enough time to get a good feel for the country.

Croatia has been on my travel radar for some time now. Many of the countries that were in the Eastern Europe Communist bloc hold a lot of intrigue to me. I found Hungary and the Czech Republic very interesting when I visited back in 2005. Croatia has a very interesting historical and political background (most recently earning their independence in the early 1990s from the old Yugoslavia) and also many beautiful locations because of the waterfront on the Adriatic – directly across from Italy. I knew there were some islands; however, I had no idea there were over a thousand of them.

After a week here, the country is exceeding my expectations. Many of the people speak English, which makes it easy to navigate with transportation, meals, etc. The cost is more affordable than I thought. The one thing that’s hitting my budget a little more than I hoped is the cost of lodging – no wonder – I picked the height of the tourist season – DUH! Even still, I am finding good locations to stay at $100 to $150 per night. I would love to come back during the shoulder periods (the time between slow and high seasons). Croatia is a member of the European Union (as of July, 2013); however, it still uses its own currency – the Croatian Kuna (designated as HRK) – which I think makes it more affordable for Americans to travel here than if they were on the Euro. In addition, they are not part of the Schengen Agreement, which includes 26 European countries that eliminates border checks between any member countries. This means you can travel freely within this area without having to go through passport control, customs, etc. As a result, get your passport out when entering and exiting Croatia. It’s probably only a matter of time before they become a part of the agreement.

What I’ve loved about the country is the friendliness of the people, the sites (which have typical European architecture), the culture, the food offerings are plentiful – both the variety and the number of locations. I’ve not seen a place where there are so many outdoor cafes. Most of all it just seems like an incredibly beautiful country. The tourist offices seem to be making a big push to develop tourism. At the L.A. Times Travel Show last January in downtown Los Angeles, the Croatia Tourist Board and the Zagreb Tourist Board had a large presence.

The design of the Best Western Astoria Hotel in Zagreb dates back to the 1930s

The design of the Best Western Astoria Hotel dates back to the 1930s

I enjoyed my six nights in Zagreb. I stayed at the Best Western Astoria – one of the older hotels in the city. The inside design reminded me of my days at the Queen Mary – my first year with Disney. After checking in and walking to my room, I had flashbacks to being on the ship. It was that 1930s design of wood banisters, tables and chairs with rounded edges and doors with a circular wooden design in the middle of them. It was old; however, it was well maintained. The rooms contained all of the modern conveniences that I needed. The service was very friendly and spot on – laundry cleaned and returned within three hours, a maintenance issue fixed within five minutes, the breakfast buffet replenished quickly. The hotel’s location was great – right in the middle of what’s called the “lower town”. It was just an easy ten to fifteen-minute walk to the old town (aka the “upper town”) where there are many historical sites and a plethora of eating establishments.

Zagreb has many green squares in the lower town

Zagreb has many green squares with beautiful trees, flowers and park benches for people to relax

The lower town, near my hotel, has a number of green squares with park benches throughout, trees that provide a tunnel to stroll through, classic fountains. Anytime of day, you will find people sitting and chatting or just reading a book. I felt comfortable walking home at ten or eleven at night after finishing dinner. I never had security concerns – of course a block and a half from my hotel was a police station. That always helps.

A Friday evening "concert in the park" in Nikola Subic Zrinski Square in Zagreb

A Friday evening “concert in the park” in Nikola Subic Zrinski Square

On Friday evening, I was returning to my hotel after dinner about 10 pm. I heard some music coming from the local park that I had strolled through earlier in the day. I decided to check it out. The local community was having a concert in the park – 60s and 70s music played by a four member band. People, young and old, were dancing around the raised bandstand that’s the centerpiece of the rectangular park. It was especially enjoyable to sit and watch some of the older couples as they ballroom-danced a number of different moves.

One thing I notice when visiting different cities is whether pedestrians cross the street against a red light. Many places, people don’t even care whether the light is green or red – not in Zagreb. It’s against the law and you will get a ticket with a hefty fine for crossing against the red. I noticed on two occasions people being stopped by the police. I asked at my hotel. The desk staff confirmed the police will stop you if they see it. One of the desk ladies even said they sometimes hide in the bushes and come out just when you think no one’s around.

The upper or old town, which dates back to the Middle Ages, has a lot to offer. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the focal point. Its 100+ meter towers can be seen from miles around. Started in the 13th century, sections of the cathedral have been added or modified over time. It’s the only church, I’ve seen, that has defensive walls built around it – constructed in the early 1500s, at a time when the threat from the Ottoman Turks was at its height.

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In addition to the Cathedral, the old town has the following highlights that are a must see –

  • St. Mark’s Church (13th century) – has one of the most beautiful roofs I have ever seen on a church – multi-colored tiles decorated with the coats of arms of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia and the city of Zagreb were added in the 19th century.
  • The Stone Gate (built in the Middle Ages) – under the arch of the gateway is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (the patron saint of Zagreb). This area is very unique. It’s a covered pedestrian-only road with a small chapel off to the side. People literally stand and kneel in the roadway as they pray to Our Lady.
  • Ban Jelacic Square – this large rectangular square has served as the city’s commercial heart ever since 1641. Most of the buildings surrounding the square date from the 19th century.
  • Dolac Market – probably the most popular open-air food market. People sell fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish every day of the week. It’s affectionately known as the “belly of Zagreb”.
  • Tkalciceva – one of Zagreb’s most colorful downtown streets. People come to this street for its small boutiques, traditional shops, restaurants and cafes. It’s a pedestrian-only street that has more outdoor cafes than any street I have ever seen.

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Just above the old town is the Mirogoj Cemetery. It’s only a 10-minute ride on the local bus from the Cathedral. The tourist office suggested I visit it based on comments from other tourists. Created in 1876, it’s called an open-air art gallery and is one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen. The monumental arcades, pavilions and domes were designed by a prominent architect.

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Highlighting the local culture there are museums throughout Zagreb. There are many places that provide a great view of the city – none better than the view from Gradec, which is directly behind St. Catherine’s Church. Looking out over the old town, you get a great view of the cathedral and the roofs of the old buildings.

The cuisine options were plentiful from which I really enjoyed dining at the following locations –

Enjoying the view at Agava Bistro in the old town of Zagreb

Enjoying the view at Agava Bistro in the old town

Agava Bistro – located on a pedestrian-only street in the old town, this bistro had several outside terraces, each one rising slightly above the other and wrapped by neatly trimmed shrubs creating a rather cozy atmosphere with just enough room to see those strolling on the street below.

  • I had two different white wines from the Zagreb region – Sauvignon Bolfan and Grasevina (Vina Belje label) from the Welschriesling region. For a starter, I had zagorski strukli (dough stuffed with fresh cheese and gratinated with cream and then baked). This dish is from the Zagreb region. My server indicated families, at home, will either have this dish as a starter or add a little sugar to the top and have it for dessert. For the entrée, I had chicken filet with sautéed tomatoes, olives and Mediterranean herbs (this was a sauce poured over the chicken) and potatoe confit. The server provided a small glass of a liqueur called Rogac (which is made from carob) to top off the delicious meal.

Mundoaka – Street Food – located on a side street just before the main square – Ban Jelacic

  • I had a bottle of Spanish beer – a lager called Balate. At .75L, it was the largest bottle of beer I think I’ve ever had. I mentioned to the server, afterwards, that I thought the beer was a nice complement to the meal. For dinner, I had the glazed pork ribs (which literally melted in my mouth; they were fabulous) and a baby potato salad with aioli. The server indicated the ribs are marinated for a couple of days and then slow-cooked the day they’re served. It was one of the best meals I’ve had lately. When I got there, it was busy. They had a very small, low-to-the-ground table, under an umbrella outside, with low wooden chairs. The server asked if that was ok with me. I said it was fine. It worked out well. I had good interaction with the server discussing the restaurant and the menu. This place was crowded every evening that I walked by.
Sitting on the terrace of Kulinarijat Restaurant in the old town section of Zagreb

Sitting on the terrace of Kulinarijat Restaurant in the old town

Kulinarijat is located in the old town on one of the less-crowded side streets directly behind the very popular Dolac outdoor market.

  • I stopped by on a Sunday afternoon about 3 pm and asked if I could get a reservation for that night or Monday night – my only opportunities since I was leaving the city on Tuesday. Unfortunately, the kitchen was closing at 4 pm that day and the restaurant was closed on Mondays. So I asked “can I get in right now”. “Absolutely”, they said. I decided to eat on the terrace on the upper level, which has a great view of the old town roofs across the skyline.
  • I had spinach cream soup prepared with chicken broth and cream enriched with wine and Noilly Prat (dry French vermouth) served with pieces of trout fillet. For an entrée I had filled lamb rolls served with potatoes (rolls prepared of lamb leg stuffed with bread, parsley, onion and nutmeg topped with vegetables and red wine sauce). On the side were potato dumplings. I thought the soup with the trout fillet was rather unique and very tasty. The lamb rolls were tender and blended well with the potatoes.

Papa’s True American Bar – they serve burgers, wraps, fries, wings, salads, sandwiches; prices are very reasonable; alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks; a whole selection of beers. I had lunch here on two occasions. I guess I was really missing a big American burger.

On Tuesday morning, I headed for the bus station and was off to the Croatian coast – the city of Rovinj. I’ll blog about that next.

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