After I had spent a week soaking in the sights and sun of Dubrovnik and Split on Croatia’s spectacular Adriatic littorals, I turned inland for something completely different. As I emerged from the main rail station in the heart of Zagreb, everything changed like a shot. The Mediterranean vibe instantly vanished, replaced by a pronounced Central European aura and a proliferation of Baroque architecture. Tourists became scarce, and just about all foreign languages dropped off the Croatian menus. I couldn’t understand why this mini-Vienna wasn’t more popular, but I was also glad that I had apparently discovered a place most people overlook. As I reveled in the city’s uncrowded sites, these emerged as my favorite things to see and do.
#1 Join the Living in the Public Squares
The popularity of public squares in Zagreb is made evident by their sheer numbers, and it wouldn’t be long before I was spending many hours in them, deliberately walking through them on their inviting paths on my way elsewhere or simply relaxing in them between meals and other sites. Each square, or trg, is an opportunity to enjoy some well-kept outdoor space and mingle with the locals. King Tomislav Square, guarded by a statue of Croatia’s first king on horseback and flanked by gorgeous baroque palaces and rows of trees, welcomes you with a wide, open grassy area. Next to it, Dr. Ante Starčević Square is a perfect place to wait for your train at the city’s main railway station and enjoy the beauty of the stately Regent Esplanade Hotel before you. Some squares, such as Strassmayerov Square and Zrinjevac Square, are more park-like, with fountains, statues, and a couple of museums, while treeless Ban Jelačić Square — a transportation hub and favorite meeting place for locals — teems with activity, from political rallies to open-air markets. The gorgeous Croatian National Theatre crowns Marshal Tito Square, and St. Mark’s Square is a historic hotspot, with the old city hall, the Croatian Parliament building, and St. Mark’s itself, and the terrific Croatian Museum of Naïve Art just a block away. No matter which squares you visit, you will inevitably find a lively scene and wonderful surroundings that constitute an important aspect of the city as well as its citizens’ daily lives.
#2 Visit the Dead at Mirogoj Cemetery
A 15-minute bus ride from Ban Jelačić Square brought me directly to the main entrance of Mirogoj Cemetery — and it’s an impressive one at that. Although the cemetery was created in 1876, the entrance wasn’t completed until the 1920s and features a long high wall, capped with more than a dozen cupolas and hosting creeping greenery. Inside, past the large central dome, a long arcade extends in both directions along the wall. Unless you’re fluent in Croatian history, the names of the interred won’t mean much, even though they probably should: Mirogoj is the final resting place for some of the country’s most important figures, regardless of religious affiliation, ranging from astronomers to architects, poets to the country’s first president. Often ranked among the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe, Mirogoj resonates not only with its gorgeous grounds and buildings (including a wonderful chapel and elegant mortuary), but also with a profound sense of mournfulness, with sorrowful angels leaning on crosses or stuck in permanently doleful poses as they stand or rest at the tombstones of the dearly departed. Fresh flowers on nearly every grave indicated that the dead here have never been forgotten — except perhaps for the section devoted to German soldiers who died in Croatia during the Second World War, which, although well-maintained, was devoid of flowers, unvisited by locals and seemingly forgotten by their descendants in their homeland.
#3 Unload Some Kunas at the Market at Ban Jelačić Square
I was on my way to board the funicular to Upper Town when I stumbled upon the busy market at Ban Jelačić Square, Zagreb’s beautiful, bustling, and rather large central square in Lower Town. Amid the booths selling traditional Croatian foods and typical souvenirs emblazoned with the red, white, and blue of the country’s flag, you’ll be able to watch some talented craftsmen and women display their skills. Often clad in medieval garb, the vendors and artisans create their wares in front of you with handheld manual tools that require the precision and patience that is rapidly disappearing in a world of mass-produced merchandise. It’s a terrific place to open your wallet and shed some Croatian kunas on a purchase of hand-crafted wooden sculptures, metalwork, fine lace, or leather.
#4 Visit Zagreb Cathedral
The tallest building in all of Croatia is neither of the usual suspects for most countries today — an office tower or a hotel. Rather, it’s the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, originally dedicated to the Hungarian king St. Stephen and now more handily referred to as Zagreb Cathedral. One of the highlights in the Upper Town, Croatia’s largest house of worship was built in the mid-1200s. Throughout the centuries, it survived fires and Ottoman attacks, but it was the devastating earthquake in 1880 that almost put an end to it. An expansion project and repairs took a quarter century to complete, but in 1906 the cathedral emerged with its current neo-Gothic appearance and two spires that top out at 354 feet and can be seen from countless spots throughout the city. Inside, you’ll find some finely sculpted statues, elaborate chandeliers, a baroque marble altar, a 13th-century cycle of frescoes, and an inscription of the Ten Commandments in 12th-century Glagolitic script, the oldest known Slavic alphabet and unique to Croatia.
#5 Appreciate Some Art at the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters
Begun with a generous donation by Bishop Strossmayer in 1884, today’s Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters is housed in the lovely neo-Renaissance Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences building, ideally situated at the edge of one of the three adjacent parks in the heart of Zagreb. The collection falls into three groups — Italian, French, and Northern European painters from the 14th through the 19th century, with a little bonus smattering of Croatian artists. Nearly 300 works are on display to marvel at, including irreplaceable works by Fra Angelico, El Greco, Van Dyck, and Giovanni Bellini. The art is impressive, but on your way out on the ground floor, don’t forget to take a look at the Baška Tablet, a stone slab from the 1200s engraved in Glagolitic.
- Soak in the view from the 13th-century Lotrščak Tower
- Marvel at works by untrained artists at the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art
- Absorb a couple of millennia of history at the Croatian History Museum
- Enjoy the flora at the Zagreb Botanical Garden
- Wander around the free exhibits at the Croatian Museum of Architecture