First mentioned in historical documents in 1181, Varaždin briefly served as the capital of Croatia from 1756 until a devastating fire in 1776. Today, this charming baroque city of about 47,000 people, ambitiously billed as “Little Vienna,” retains a well-preserved historic core and plenty of confections to appeal to your eyes. As I walked along the cobblestone streets and the smooth stone pavers in the squares, I understood why The New York Times included Varaždin in its list of “52 Places to Visit in 2014,” thanks in large part to its wonderful pastel-colored palaces, churches, and stylish public buildings. These are my favorites.
#1 Town Hall (Gradska Vijećnica)
A short walk from the train station brought me to the center of Varaždin. I meandered through the thriving food and flower market before entering one of the city’s main squares, King Tomislav Square, a low-key, airy space framed by low-rise buildings with shops and restaurants. At the head of the square stands Town Hall, which surprisingly holds a noteworthy title — it’s the oldest continually serving town hall in Europe. Built in 1523, this small building has been altered over the course of several centuries, combining various styles — Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Classicist — into one cohesive, understated edifice. It received its most defining element, a central clock tower, in 1791, breaking up the uniformity of the orange fish-scale–tile roof. The clock bears a wonderfully ornate hand, and, underneath, you’ll spy a moon phase indicator. Under the louver windows, the city’s coat of arms (one of Europe’s oldest, going back to 1464) hangs at the base of the tower. On the second story of the façade, six pilasters separate the four windows and the central glass doors that open up to a small balconet that rests atop two pairs of columns flanking the front portal. In December, lights outline the roof edges and the tower to celebrate Christmas as small Christmas trees huddle near the entrance. In fairer weather, the Varaždin Civil Guards, clad in bright-blue period uniforms and large bear-fur hats, march in front of the building in a ceremonial exchange.
#2 Sermage Palace (Palača Sermage)
In another square, the Miljenka Stančića Square, I found what has to be the most striking façade in Varaždin. Although it was built in the 1600s, the Sermage Palace acquired its rococo style during renovations in 1759, when it passed via several marriage contracts to the Sermages, a French noble family. Cinnamon-colored geometric medallions framed in black adorn both the façade on the left side of the building as well as the asymmetrical front façade, with the entrance off-center to the left and an unmatched double column of this design to the right further throwing off the balance. A wrought-iron balcony resting on brackets hangs over the front doors. Since 1947, the palace has been the home of the Gallery of Old and Contemporary Masters, located on the second floor after you pass through the acraded courtyard. The collection includes paintings from the 15th century through the 20th, many of which found their way here from nearby castles after World War II. Even if you don’t visit the museum, the palace itself is not to be missed.
#3 Varaždin Fortress (Stari Grad)
At the opposite end of Miljenka Stančića Square, I crossed over a tiny drawbridge and passed through the barbican to enter the grounds of Varaždin Fortress, a complex of interconnected buildings with whitewashed walls and orange roofs. Construction of these medieval defensive buildings began in the 1300s as an aristocratic estate developed and owned by individual families, legally separate from the then Free and Royal City of Varaždin. The fortress was expanded and extended over the centuries through the 1800s, including the 16th-century construction of rounded towers, surrounding defensive walls, bulwarks, and moats to discomfit the growing Ottoman Empire. In 1923, the city purchased the fortress from the family owners and adapted it as a city museum, which you can access through a courtyard with an arcade, loggia, and an old well. The museum’s collection includes portraits and paintings, furniture, weapons, clocks, porcelain, glass, and other objects common to the Varaždin nobility and wealthy citizens, laid out in more than 40 rooms, including 10 that are furnished in period style, meant to be followed chronologically from renaissance to art deco. Outside, paths and staircases lace their way around the grounds, and lampposts light your way. The old bulwarks make for a leisurely stroll. Grass now covers the drained moats, offering a pleasant respite to lie out in the sun and enjoy the tranquil surroundings that were never the fortress’ original purpose.
#4 Croatian National Theater (Hrvatsko Narodno Kazalište)
One of the most substantial buildings in Varaždin, the Croatian National Theater went up as part of the public building program in the 19th century. Completed in 1873 to the designs of a 21-year-old Austrian architect (this was his first commission), the building was to house the theater as well as a concert hall, restaurant and café, several apartments, and a reading room — and that plan still largely exists. The soft-yellow neo-Renaissance façade facing the cobblestone square, fountain, and park is fairly unpretentious, with some ocular windows, unfilled niches, and a lack of frilly ornamentation. As I walked along the south side, however, things became more interesting. Different quoins define the corners of each of the building’s three stories: rusticated stone on the ground level, flat stone on the middle, and a flat pilaster on the top. A row of garland swags separates the top and middle stories, while each of the second-story windows rests above a balustrade of five balusters. In the center, a portico supported by four columns protects the two-step porch at the center leading to a trio of doors. Above, four identical caryatids support an entablature with “National Theater” etched in Croatian. Around the corner, the building achieves its most elaborate show, with a rusticated base, a couple of balconets, two pairs of statues on pedestals, and panels of carved pelicans in shallow arches. Despite its size and progressively more complicated architecture, the National Theater retains a pleasant cohesion that you’ll enjoy even if you’re not attending a performance here.
#5 Church of St. Florian (Crkva sv. Florijana)
Of the one dozen churches in Varaždin, the Church of St. Florian appealed to me the most. This baroque church, with walls of yellow brighter than those of the National Theater, honors the patron saint of firefighters — very appropriate for a city that had been ravaged by fires. Originally built in 1669, flames claimed it during the massive 1776 conflagration. This structure dates from 1777, and, so far, St. Florian has been successfully looking after it. A staircase between two angels atop tall, simple plinths leads to the entrance of the church, rising up to a bell tower with a clock. If you prefer telling time in a more archaic way, check out the sundial on the left side of the church. Midway up the tower, a statue of St. Florian stands in a niche, clad in red and holding a bucket of water above the burning building at his feet. Step inside to see the six medallions frescoed on the ceiling, where such saints as Lucy and Apollonia are joined by Florian, surrounded by cherubs and effortlessly dousing flames with a pail of water. Although St. Florian, a Roman soldier who was also responsible for organizing and leading fire brigades, died in 304, he’s still quite relevant today: The St. Florian cross is the widely used symbol of firefighting companies, particularly in the United States.
- Keglević Palace (Palača Keglević, 1775)
- Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Varaždinska Katedrala, 1656)
- Ursuline Church of the Birth of Christ (Uršulinska Crkva Rođenja Kristova, 1726)
- Franciscan Church (Crkva sv. Ivana Krstitelja, 1657)
- Parish Church of St. Nicholas (Crkva sv. Nikole, 1761)