If you like destinations that are a little overshadowed by their neighbors, you’ll love Zagreb. This city of about 770,000 people is Croatia’s capital and a seriously underrated European destination in my opinion!
While Croatia’s main tourist trails tempt visitors to explore coastal areas like Split and Dubrovnik (thanks, game of Thrones), Zagreb is often overlooked by travelers who don’t know what they’re missing out on. The city is full of charm, has a long list of unique attractions and is affordable to boot. Zagreb frequently features on lists of Europe’s cheapest capitals and is equally popular in rankings of the continent’s best travel destinations thanks to its cheap crime rates, pollution levels and visitor facilities.
Located in northeastern Croatia, the city is just a few hours from Vienna, Sarajevo and Venice, and transport links are easy. There are daily trains from Zagreb to Split (and from there you can catch buses to Dubrovnik or the Adriatic islands). If you’re taking a day trip, Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, is just a short, scenic train ride away. Zagreb is also connected to Munich and Zurich by night sleeper trains. Croatia Airlines, Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, Iberia and more fly into Zagreb Airport.
There are tons of reasons to visit Zagreb, Croatia and I’m happy to share them. But first…
In my experience, the city is very walkable and easy to navigate, but it’s never a bad idea to get an overview of the main neighborhoods where you’ll be spending most of your time.
Zagreb’s Old Town developed as two separate hilltop communities. Kaptol was the seat of the clergy and appropriately houses Zagreb Cathedral. Its neighbor and rival Gradec was home to artists and tradespeople. It still has the feel of a very public space with lots of shops and galleries. Gradec also includes the Croatian Parliament, the Constitutional Court and the only surviving old town gate. Finally, Lowertown is much more modern, home to chic shops, modern hotels, and well-reviewed restaurants and museums.
And now, without further ado, the reasons why you should put this beautiful city on your travel list.
1. There are few crowds (especially in the shoulder season)
It was my first time in Zagreb in the middle of summer. Europe in summer – must mean I had to endure crazy crowds right? Not at all! Sure, there were a lot of people out and about in the big public squares and the most popular shopping streets like Tkalčićeva, but it certainly wasn’t oppressive. It felt exactly what one would expect from a bustling city on a sunny summer afternoon when locals and visitors alike are shopping and sightseeing. It was busy but not crowded. If you think that all European capitals like Rome and Paris are overcrowded, you will be pleasantly surprised by Zagreb.
During the off-season (late spring and early fall), there are even fewer people in the city. I personally think that Zagreb is a bit studenty – there are a lot of college-age people reading in cafes and walking with backpacks. It’s a cosy, relaxed atmosphere and the mild weather is wonderful.
2. The architecture is amazing
Zagreb is at this proverbial crossroads, being influenced by both the West and the East at the same time. As such, the city’s buildings show centuries of influence from competing forces and global neighbors. The result is that Zagreb has a look all of its own. Those with a keen eye will spot Belle Époque influences from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as Art Nouveau design and modernist minimalism. The Tourist Board has a helpful pocket guide on local architecture available for download.
3. The city is full of flowers
Zagreb seems to come alive in springtime when the whole city is blanketed in blooms and blossoms, but garden lovers will appreciate that there is a lot going on here all year round. The Zagreb Botanical Garden, dating from 1889, is home to 10,000 species of plants. Visitors will particularly appreciate the Botanical Gardens’ arboretum, which is modeled after English gardens and is particularly pretty.
The Zagreb Botanical Garden offers free entry and is open from April 1st to November 1st. If you would like a guided tour in English, you can call the administration office at least 5 days in advance to make an appointment. These tours cost around €5 per person (a real bargain if you ask me).
4. At Maksimir Park, you can join the locals for sports and more
Another beautiful public square is Maksimir Park, Zagreb’s oldest public park. Opened in 1794, it was once primarily a wooded area and many mature trees remain. But now the park also includes the Zagreb Zoo, five lakes, meadows and various species of plants and animals. There are more than 100 species of birds visiting Maksimir Park and you can even join a bird watching tour!
Visitors to Maksimir Park can also take part in Nordic walking, sport fishing and yoga classes (as well as go hiking, jogging and cycling on their own). If you’d rather learn a little about all aspects of the park, there are guided tours of the area that provide information on history, culture, and ecology.
5. Zagreb Gourmet offers delicious food tours
Zagreb’s food scene doesn’t get the press it deserves. The city is full of delicious options, and Zagreb gourmet food tours are one of the best ways to find your new favorite flavors. Your classic Zagreb food tour lasts up to 4 hours and includes stops for cheese, charcuterie, wine, cakes, coffee, a tasting of pumpkin seed oil (a regional delicacy) and a visit to the city’s oldest bakery.
For those with a little less time, there’s a 2.5-hour brunch and wine tour that includes a visit to Dolac Market. Brunch is a very big thing in Zagreb, and this tour offers valuable insight into one of the city’s most popular pastimes.
The same company also offers cooking classes that allow participants to explore different aspects of Croatian cuisine (e.g. dishes that are popular on the coast and those that reflect traditional Zagreb cuisine). There are also themed courses for Advent and Christmas.
6. The Dolac market is amazing
Even if you’re not taking a culinary tour or cooking class, Dolac Market should be on your travel list. Sometimes referred to as the ‘Belly of Zagreb’, this is the place to shop for local produce, meat, dairy and even seafood from the Croatian coast (and to watch the locals gossip!). Nearby is the Opatovina Flower Market – a great spot for people watching and photography.
7. It is rich in folklore
My favorite thing in Zagreb is a tour with a twist. Secret Zagreb’s Ghosts and Dragons Tour is an absolute delight. From May to October, it reveals a side of the city’s Old Town that you probably wouldn’t discover on your own. It covers everything from folklore and mythology to ghosts and spooky stories.
Although there are some moderate hills, stone steps and rough roads, this is generally an easy walk and proceeds at a gentle pace. And you never know what you’ll see. At the end of my tour, a spooky white cat crossed my paths. Was that a visitor from the afterlife, or just one of the town’s many feline residents? I would like to imagine that the ghosts of Zagreb were especially happy to see me!
More secret Zagreb tours
Secret Zagreb also offers a Christmas tour from late November to early January and a Badass Women tour from May to August. They describe the latter tour as follows: “Opera singers, car drivers, models, scientists, soldiers… Get to know uncompromising, tough, courageous, pioneering Croatian women who lived or worked in Zagreb during their lifetime.”
8. It’s home to a fun, wacky museum: The Museum of Broken Relationships
The Museum of Broken Relationships is a charming, offbeat, and rather bittersweet look at failed love affairs. But this is not a stupid stop. In 2011 it received the Kenneth Hudson Award as Europe’s most innovative museum.
So what can you expect when you are there? It’s so much more than torn photos and discarded wedding rings! There’s an iron that was used to neatly iron a wedding suit, a caricature of a couple drawn by a stranger on a train, and even an ax (don’t worry – it was used to cut a former lover’s furniture in turn a neat pile of firewood, nothing else). It’s hard to imagine anyone strolling through the museum without seeing something that touches their heart. The visit is both a cathartic and fun experience.