Croatia’s sun-kissed Adriatic coast, with 1,185 islands, steals the spotlight from its urban centre. But the capital of the European Union’s youngest member state (as of July 2013) is on the upswing with a creative art boom and a culinary awakening. Those who visit find a fresh mix of old and new Europe. “Zagreb is a traditional Mitteleuropa city packed with well-worn charm,” says Lana Cavar, one of Croatia’s prominent graphic designers, who splits her time between Zagreb and the United States. “Locals won’t compromise their ease of life by giving up a long espresso break on a sunny sidewalk.” Dig a little deeper, and alongside Zagreb’s traditional delights you’ll find a clutch of enthusiasts restoring the city’s unsung streetscapes with new projects. It’s these people who give Zagreb a palpable zing.
Zagreb’s heart and soul is Trg bana Jelačića in the Lower Town, an expansive square lined with Habsburg-era buildings and a bronze statue of the 19th-century ruler who symbolises Croatia’s struggle for independence. The square is the major streetcar intersection and the city’s social centre, where locals meet up and lounge in sidewalk cafés. Wind through its flower stands and climb the stairs to Dolac in Upper Town, the daily market where farmers have hawked their home-grown wares—from fresh produce to artisanal honey—since 1930. Meander the stalls and sample local dishes such as sir i vrhnje (cottage cheese with cream). From there, head up more stairs to the adjoining hilltop, home to Lotrščak Tower. Climb the spiral staircase to the wooden deck of this 13th-century tower built as protection from the Turks; today it offers a 360-degree view of the red-tiled rooftops below. At noon, brace yourself for a cannon blast, by which locals have set their watches since 1877. Steps away, the Museum of Broken Relationships, founded by a former romantic couple, pays homage to failed relationships with a poignant collection of quirky mementos—from handcuffs to rubber shoes—donated from around the globe. Pick up the best-selling bad memories eraser at the museum shop. Dine at nearby Didov San, a rustic tavern with hearty fare (like prosciutto-wrapped grilled frogs) prepared in the style of the Neretva River delta in Dalmatia’s hinterland.
Back in the Lower Town, stroll west along one of Zagreb’s longest streets, Ilica, lined with unique shops, bakeries, and restaurants. Have a peek at Prostor in a courtyard off Mesnička, with handcrafted designs—from 3D-printed jewellery to lampshades made of colourful, eco-friendly cardboard—by upcoming Croatian artists. Venture into Dežmanov Prolaz to ogle the I-gle boutique, with cool couture, including sculptural dresses and asymmetrical skirts by local designers Nataša Mihaljčišin and Martina Vrdoljak-Ranilović. Fuel up with a shot of coffee at Eliscaffe, where 100 percent Arabica beans are roasted and brewed by Zagreb’s award-winning barista Nik Orosi.
Pay respects to Croatia’s central European roots at Vinodol, an old-time eatery abuzz with locals and drop-ins. Sit outdoors on the ivy-covered patio to see lamb, veal, and golden potatoes baked in a peka (domed oven), or have a seat inside the cosy, vaulted dining room. The meat-focused menu features traditional dishes that span the region; vegetarian options include house-made noodles, cheese croquettes, and creamy broccoli soup. Save room for the strudel, a flaky, layered pastry filled with plums, apricots, or strawberries. Mingle with a convivial crowd at VIP Club, with a jazz club ambience and live beats ranging from blues to Balkan.
Check out Galerija Nova, a city-owned gallery run by What, How & for Whom, a collective renowned for addressing delicate sociopolitical issues. Hop on the streetcar or take a short walk toward the main bus station to see the graffiti-lined wall that sparked Museum Street Art, which “has no operating hours, dedicated curators, or pompous openings,” says founder Ivana Vukšić. The collective gathered 80 artists who turned a nondescript wall lining busy Branimirova into one of Zagreb’s most photographed sights. Catch a cab across the Sava River to the Museum of Contemporary Art, the largest art museum in Croatia, in a serpentine building by architect Igor Franić. With its collection of 12,000 works, it revived Novi Zagreb, a formerly dormant area of socialist-style apartments. Its showpiece is the “Double Slide” by Belgian artist Carsten Höller, a thrilling ride in a pair of metal tubes that twist down from the top floor. “In this moment at Croatia’s crossroads, wonderful artists are emerging, ready to burst on the global art circuit,” says Vanja Žanko, curator of Lauba, a private space displaying Croatian contemporary art in a former Austro-Hungarian military riding arena. This black monolith in an industrial area of western Zagreb lies at the forefront of the city’s urban renewal. The historic building stays fresh with rotating exhibitions, such as Ivana Franke’s “latency,” an ephemeral light installation inside a pitch-black nook.
Wander through Zagreb’s Botanical Garden, created in 1889, with some 10,000 plant species arranged in several sections, including an English-style arboretum, a French-style flower parterre, and a rock garden with indigenous flora. For lunch, hit the city’s famed sidewalk cafés along Tkalčićeva Street. Grab a terrace seat at Cica, a miniscule bar in a storefront, known for its 25 varieties of rakija (similar to brandy), from honey to fig. Next, go on a solar system hunt, one of Zagreb’s most peculiar attractions—an installation called “nine views” by artist Davor Preis, who placed models of nine planets (including Pluto) around the city in 2004. Spot mars on Tkalčićeva and Venus in Trg bana Jelačića.
Amble east of the square to Zagreb’s foodie hot spot, tucked away in an alleyway off Vlaška. Culinary cognoscenti flock to Mali Bar owned by noted chef and food writer Ana Ugarković, with warm earth-toned interiors and fusion tapas: Smoked tuna with saffron sauce is a favourite. Next door is Karijola, Zagreb’s beloved pizza joint, popular for thin crusts topped with market-fresh ingredients such as mushrooms and mozzarella. Stroll back to the centre for a drink at Kino Europa inside a 1920s cinema, which houses a café/bar and hosts regular screenings of art-house flicks. Wrap up the evening with a walk around Stross, an al fresco hangout with a makeshift bar (during summer) on leafy Strossmayer promenade, live music (from jazz to hip hop), and the twinkle of city lights below.
Appeared in the November 2013 issue as “Zagreb’s New Zing”.
This story has been updated in January 2016.