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Zagreb may be Croatia’s capital but it’s sat in the shadow of the country’s better-known coastline cities, Split and Dubrovnik. That’s all changing. Zagreb’s laid-back charm, beautiful architecture, cosmopolitan dining and nightlife are putting it at the top of our destination list for the summer.
The Esplanade is Zagreb’s most iconic hotel. Situated moments away from the main railway station, it used to be the stopover point for the rich and glamorous making their way across the continent on the Orient Express. These days its lost none of its opulence, but paired it with a range of modern amenities and two excellent restaurants, keeping it firmly in its position as the place to stay in the city.
If you’re on a budget, this design-led hostel has won awards thanks to urban-cool interiors of exposed brickwork, raw concrete and up-cycled furniture, and a buzzy outdoor terrace (which often hosts DJs) providing ample opportunity to mingle with travellers and locals alike. Dorms from £11, private rooms from £39.
Zagreb Cathedral (or the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in full) dominates the skyline with its striking limestone towers. The 19th-century Neo-Gothic Cathedral is visually stunning, with its carefully-crafted elegant stonework in pale white and grey. Inside, the Cathedral is resplendent with baroque furnishings and decor, and also houses the tomb of the important Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac.
Croatia has a longstanding, slightly unusual tradition of art. In years past, many farmers who had grown too old for the toil of day to day farm life took to art as a way of charting the natural rhythms and seasons of country life. Other naïve artists came from different backgrounds, but they were all united in that they were not classically trained and developed singular and unique artistic styles. Virtually unknown until the 1960s, the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art showcases a collection of the most famous of these artists, including Ivan Rabuzin and Mijo Kovačić.
Wild and a little unkempt, the informal nature of Zagreb’s Botanical Gardens is, in fact, a large part of their charm. Spend a summer afternoon wandering around the gardens. Each section has been created to emulate a distinct natural habitat found in the country, with the flora to match.
Lortsčak Tower offers one of the best viewpoints over the city – reason enough to climb the numerous steps up to the top of this 13th-century structure. The tower also hosts one of Zagreb’s quirkiest and longstanding traditions: the daily firing of the cannon. Every day at 12PM sharp, the tower’s custodian fires a cannon (authentic in all respects apart from it doesn’t contain a cannon ball, but instead a combination of non-damaging materials) from the top of the tower. The sound can be heard from all across the city. The tradition dates all the way back to 1877 – time your visit to coincide with the firing, just remember to cover your ears.
St Mark’s Church
Situated at the heart of Zagreb’s traditional upper town, St Mark’s church is most famous for its colourfully tiled roof, dating back to the 13th century and featuring the coats of arms of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, as well as the city itself. The best views of the church are from the Lotrsčak Tower, where you can also see the ceremonial changing of the guard outside the church.
Ban Jelačić Square
The largest square in Zagreb also happens to be the beating heart of the city. Lined with stately buildings of differing architectural styles, the square features an imposing statue of its namesake, the Governor Jelačić, sitting atop a horse. Take a seat at one of the many cafes and bars surrounding the square and watch as seemingly the whole population of Zagreb passes by.
Quirky and unexpected, The Museum of Broken Relationships exhibits items from relationships past, along with a short story of each piece’s history. Love letters, Manga cartoons, a pair of shoes, you name it – the museum reveals the personalised attachments that give everyday items a life of their own.
This small bistro in the lower town is one of the coolest spots in Zagreb to grab your lunch or dinner. The menu focuses on contemporary Croatian cuisine, such as marinated sea bass, prawns wrapped in lardo and barbecue ribs with potato salad. They also have an excellent (both in terms of range and price) wine list to explore. Book in advance to bag one of the tables on the outdoor terrace.
Tucked away on a pretty street around the corner from St Mark’s Church, Vještica is the kind of neighbourhood restaurant that everyone wishes they had at home. Hearty Croat dishes bursting with flavour are the mainstay of the restaurant with dishes such as homemade smoked cow’s cheese or traditional semi-cured sausages with pan fried potatoes in a tomato sauce making star appearances on the menu. Vještica is the perfect place to sate your appetite and rest your feet after a long day sightseeing in the Upper Town.
Meandering along the path of an old river, Tkalčićeva Street has transformed itself from Zagreb’s red light district to the place to see and be seen from evening to night. Drinking hotspots include Bar 45 and Melin, each boasting a large outdoors seating area for lounging while you sip your tipple of choice.
Newly opened Galerie Ana is the place to go when it comes to picking up Croat fine foods, wines and accessories to bring home. Billing itself as an exhibition centre and shop, they’ve scoured the country for the finest products and pieces to fill their boutique. The eclectic range spans from truffles sourced from the Istria region, Paśki Sir cheese, Croat wines and the UNESCO-protected Lepoglava Lace, which is carefully crafted into intricate (and costly) designs.
Koza’s range of handmade leather bags, wallets and accessories showcase the rare combination of excellent quality, consummate style and affordable prices. The jewel-bright, baby-soft collection is achingly cool and nigh on irresistible to resist a purchase or two.
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