The Essential Guide to an Amazing City Break in Zagreb!
Historically, Zagreb has been a city that was literally divided in two! Through the Middle-Ages and right up until the spread of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into the region, the city comprised of two separate settlements known collectively as Zagreb. Gradec was dominated by the wealthy merchants and the royalty while Kaptol was governed by the Church. They often fought with each other for superiority.
By the time the Austro-Hungarian Empire arrived, Gradec and Kaptol had pretty much fused into one. This became the Upper Town and their newly built area formed the Lower Town. Come on and explore these areas and embrace your notions!
Gradec is the best area of the city for historical sights. The best part is that it’s exceptionally walkable! I started off my visit to Zagreb by talking a free walking tour that departs from the large statue of Ban Jelacic on horseback in Zagreb’s main square, Trg Bana Jelacica (Ban Jelacic Square), at 11:00 am and 5:00 pm. It brings you up to Gradec, over to Kaptol and back to the main square and takes no more than two hours. It’s a whistle stop tour and it’ll give you a good idea of what you might like to revisit and devote more time to.
Here are my highlights for Gradec:
If you take the narrow street, Zakmardijeve Stube, from Trg Bana Jelacica and the climb the steps, you will reach the top at Katarinin Trg (St. Katherine’s Square). Although not especially remarkable in itself, it gives you the best views in the city. It stretches right across, pretty much uninterrupted, to the East of Gradec. The view is dominated by Zagreb Cathedral and the red tiled rooves of Kaptol and the greater city as you can see above.
The building to your left as you survey the view is St. Katherine’s Church. It’s known as the “Barbie” church due to the pastel pink and white decoration on the walls. It’s also a really popular spot for weddings (no prizes for guessing why!). It isn’t generally open to the public. BUT… if you arrive here just after 6:30 pm, the church is usually opened for worship and you can step inside. If you’re discrete, you can pop in and have a look at this wonderful building. Be aware that if you are deemed to be disrespectful, you will be asked to leave. So take photos, but don’t speak at any level above a quiet whisper.
St. Mark’s Square
St. Mark’s Square is dominated by the exquisitely tiled roof of St. Mark’s Church at its centre. The square is also home to the offices and official residence of the Croatian President on the left as you face St. Mark’s Church, and the Croatian Houses of Parliament to the right. Unusually for a tourist attraction, if you want photos unspoilt by too many cars or people, go in the evenings or at weekends when the government offices and the Parliament are closed. The square can be busy when they’re open as it is a working thoroughfare. Saying that, most of this type of activity happens behind the church, but it isn’t unusual for it to spill over into the front area too.
The Stone Gate is the only remaining gate fortification for the old city of Gradec. It is also one of the most fascinating buildings in Zagreb! This 13th Century building houses a small chapel with a painting of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus that is sacred to the people of Zagreb. Why, I hear you ask? Well, in 1731 when a fire ripped through the city, the Stone Gate was very badly damaged, with the exception of the painting which remained totally unscathed. Even its frame was burned in the fire! In the following years the shrine as it now stands was constructed. The plaques you’ll see on the walls are from the people of Zagreb thanking God for answering the prayers they have said before the shrine.
If you take a look at the above photo you’ll see a spiky metal ball mounted on the roof. These were installed all over the city, believe it or not, in an attempt to catch witches! In the bottom left, the chain you can see is actually from Nelson’s famous ship, the HMS Victory! Out of shot on the right is a pharmacy that has been in constant operation since 1355. It was actually opened by Niccolo, the pharmacist grandson of the famous poet Dante Alighieri who wrote “The Divine Comedy”!
This 13th Century tower once formed part of the defences for Gradec. It’s best known for its cannon that fires to mark midday. This has been a tradition since 1877. The story goes that the city was under siege from the Ottoman (Turkish) Army and that the soldiers fired a cannon from the fourth floor of the tower and it killed the leader of the Ottoman Army! History may dictate otherwise, but it’s still quite novel and also totally free!
It’s well worth gathering at the foot of it at noon to witness this unique of traditions. The best view of it is from the walkway to the East of the tower. If you’re taking a video of it, hold onto your camera/phone tightly. The bang is much louder than you’d expect!
On first glance, the Gric Tunnel is little more than a quick way to pass underneath Gradec. Originally constructed during World War II to act as an air raid shelter, this 350m long tunnel has been home to food stores and even a massive rave party. Having largely fallen into disrepair after WWII, it again served its original purpose during Croatia’s Homeland War in the 1990s. The citizens of Zagreb used it to shelter from the bombs and missiles hurled at the city by the JNA forces. Although not in itself scenic, it’s an interesting piece of living history that is at least worth a walk through.
Museum of Broken Relationships
This has to be one of THE most entertaining museums I’ve ever been to. The concept is simple, it features lots of donated objects and each of them has an accompanying personal story about the relationship that involved the object. It’s possibly the only museum where I’ve read every single piece of information on display!
The exhibits vary from sex toys with funny stories, to items loved by one half of the couple and hated by the other. The most moving item for me was a wedding dress that didn’t get worn by the bride due to the untimely death of the groom before the wedding.
Old Zagreb Tour
If you want a notion-y way to tour Gradec (or indeed other areas of Zagreb, depending on which tour you choose), then you can’t get better than the Old Zagreb Tour! It’s a very personal tour that caters to up to four people at a time. The best part? It’s done in a replica Ford Model T that runs on electricity! The guides are local and will bring you to all the highlights of the area and even point out different indoor attractions and other places that might be worth popping back to if you have time. I absolutely loved the personal service and the sheer novelty of touring Gradec in this wonderfully notiony way!
Trg Bana Jelacica
I was fortunate enough to be staying literally on this square which could be described as the centre of Zagreb. My hotel was the wonderfully appointed Hotel Dubrovnik. I would recommend staying here for several reasons including the standard of the rooms and facilities, not to mention the extensive and rather tasty breakfasts! It is also a wonderful place to stay for some top notch tourist-ing. To say it’s central is an understatement! It is literally no more than 10-15 minutes stroll to everywhere a tourist could want to visit!
The statue of Ban Josif Jelacica on horseback dominates Trg Bana Jelacica. This important figure in Croatian history was a noble elected by the Croatian parliament in the 1800s and later appointed by Emperor Ferdinand I as Ban (leader) of the Kingdom of Croatia which formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He both campaigned and fought for Croatia’s right to self determination and is still considered, to this day, as a Croatian National Hero.
The square itself is beautiful, the buildings give a wonderful sense of welcome and warmth to the square. Most of them date from the mid 1800s when they were built following the destruction of their predecessors in a large earthquake. There is often a small market in the square too selling various bits and pieces from honey to cheese to the odd souvenir. The main Christmas Markets in Zagreb take place here too. Zagreb is constantly being touted as one of the top Christmas Market destinations in Europe!
Speaking of markets… Dolac Market is practically beside Trg Bana Jelacica. This is Zagreb’s main market and it’s absolutely massive! It mainly consists of food. The main square is filled with various different fruit and vegetable stalls that sell a wide range of the freshest produce. Locals frequent the cafes that line the square. They’re a great place to soak up the atmosphere! There is also a smaller indoor market with a massive selection of fresh fish.
At one end of the square there are two sets of stairs leading to a level underneath the main market. Here there are rows and rows of fixed stalls selling meats, cheese, tinned foods, pastas, rice and pretty much every other type of food you could imagine! With the variety and freshness of the food available, it’s clear to see why the citizens of Zagreb frequent this market. If you wish to visit it in all its glory, it operates from 7am to 3pm daily.
The Tortureum is quite an unusual museum. (It seems Zagreb has a habit of having fascinating and quite unusual museums actually, especially when you think of the aforementioned Museum of Broken Relationships too!) This particular museum focuses on the various methods twisted people have used on other human beings for the purposes of punishment, extracting information or even for their own horrible reasons. It concentrates on the torture devices used in the middle ages and right up until the early to mid 1800s. It has everything from the rack to the garotte to these rather grotesque masks used to punish liars, idle gossipers and thieves.
This really is an exceptionally interesting place to visit! Top tip: follow the signs and then go up the stairs in the courtyard when you’re looking for the entrance. It might feel like you’re in the wrong place. Don’t worry, you’re not!
Zagreb Cathedral is the twin spired church that dominates the Zagreb skyline. It was first declared as a cathedral in 1093 and has been one ever since! It was extensively damaged during the major earthquake in 1880. The refurbishment lead to the twin spires that exist today! However, they were made with inferior stone to save money and the rain has slowly dissolved the ornate decoration. There has been extensive restoration and replacement with suitable masonry going on for the last few years. It is slow work as the whole project is funded entirely by donations!
In the streets to the West of Zagreb Cathedral you will find a large selection of restaurants. Many are designed to attract tourists and some are much more understated (and reasonably priced). These often serve better food and are often frequented by the locals. My top tip would always be to eat at a restaurant that is busy and has a good proportion of locals. Let’s face it, in general, the locals wouldn’t eat there if the food was overpriced or overrated. Given that Croatia is a country that enjoys fine weather, it comes as no surprise that most restaurants and bars have extensive outdoor seating areas. Who doesn’t love eating outdoors when they’re on their holidays!?!
The lower town consists primarily of the Green Horseshoe, a series of opulent buildings built by the Habsburg dynasty when the city was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The highlights and the prettiest ones, in my opinion, are in the area known as the Green Horseshoe.
The Green Horseshoe consists of four main buildings and a number of smaller ones. They are all quite recognisable as being the Austrian Imperial style of architecture. Most of them can be visited by the public. The parks and gardens (including the Zagreb Botanical Garden) that make up the rest of the Green Horseshoe are also worth visiting in themselves.
Zagreb Opera House/Croatian National Theatre
Obviously, it’s possible to visit the Zagreb Opera House during a performance, although they are usually (understandably enough) in Croatian. So not ideal for most tourists! Hahaha! Still, the grounds around it are beautiful and there are plenty of places to watch the world go by and to get a good photo for the ‘Gram.
Croatian State Archives
The Croatian State Archives building was, once upon a time, the library for Zagreb University. Following the formation of the Croatian state as we know it, they became the State Archives. The best way to see inside is by guided tour that takes place at 1pm and 2pm daily. It only costs 20 Kuna (approx. € 3). The interior of the building is an Art Deco Masterpiece. You will be able to view the main reading room that spans almost the whole building, the catalogue room as well as reading rooms used by the former Professors and students alike. Definitely worth the very reasonable entry fee.
Zagreb Train Station
The main train station of Zagreb might seem like an unlikely place to visit, but when you look at the exterior it screams opulence and excess. This can be attributed to the fact that the famous Orient Express train, famed for its elegance, used to stop here.
The final main building on the Green Horseshoe is the Art Pavilion. As the name suggests, this is an art gallery. For me, the exterior of this building was an absolute highlight. Combined with Ledeni Park on its Southern side, the Art Pavilion is the perfect spot to relax, unwind and get your new profile photo! With the blue skies and sun, the yellow building looks exquisite from every angle.
Zagreb, Croatia’s Secret City Break
As you can gather I’m a big fan of Zagreb! The best thing for me was how unexpected its beauty, architecture and history was! It’s a relatively unknown city break destination, but one that is set to grow in popularity. It’s such great value. Food and accommodation are really reasonably priced. Zagreb is a place where you can totally embrace your Notions without having to empty your bank account! For top tips on how to make the most of your trip, click here!