Zagreb. For me, the name evokes images of depressingly grey Russian-style apartment blocks and big guys named Igor. Our first impressions arriving in Zagreb didn’t dissuade from those preconceptions. We waited an hour at the bus station for our Airbnb host (in what ended up being a miscommunication about meeting points). Bus stations in most places are grimy places where all the down-and-out hang out. Zagreb’s bus station is no exception. After waiting an hour we decided to take a taxi to the apartment. The driver took us on a tour and made what (we later found out) was a 5 minute ride into a 15 minute ride through graffiti-filled neighborhoods. I don’t think I’ve seen any place with as much graffiti as we saw in Zagreb. By the time we arrived at the apartment we weren’t loving the city. We didn’t like our Aibnb host either (more on that in the next post). Zagreb was not getting off to a good start.
We did a lot of walking over the next 2 days and slowly gained an appreciation for the city. While certain places look a bit rough (I think at some point I remarked that it is a poor man’s Prague) the city has a lot of green spaces full of fountains and statues. The inhabitants all seemed to be out; there were magic shows and children’s theatre in the park, as well as a lot of young couples making out on benches. Outdoor bars were busy. There was a vibrant, lively mood to Zagreb.
Most of the highlights stretch from the train station, through the green parks and squares of the lower town, up to the upper town. There you’ll find most of the city’s historical buildings, churches, and museums. Highlights include the church and buildings on St. Mark’s Square and Zagreb Cathedral (which is easily the most impressive church we’ve seen on this trip through the Balkans). We visited the Museum of Broken Relationships (which we were curious about) and toured the city on the hop on/hop off bus when it got too hot. But mostly we walked around the old town enjoying the architecture and views over the city. After seeing the Ivan Meštrović Gallery in Split we wanted to see the Meštrović Atelier in Zagreb but ran out of time. I’m told it is worth visiting.
Recommended: This 2.5 hour walking Tour. Zagreb’s little streets can be confusing.
Overall, we found Zagreb a pleasant and comfortable city. The downtown core is small and easy to walk. But the city stretches out and includes many parks as well as beaches along the Sava River. It’s not a spectacular city. But it struck both of us as a nice place to live, with a lot of green spaces for its residents. And despite it being ‘scruffy’, we’re told it is a safe place. We probably won’t ever be back to Zagreb but are happy to have seen it.
Other observations/impressions: Zagreb feels like a whole different country than the Croatia we know along the coast. Geographically you are back in Central Europe. People are not as friendly and there’s a ‘big city’ attitude. Locals ride their bikes on the sidewalk and can be aggressive: don’t make sudden movements when walking because you risk getting hit. I’ve mentioned how much we’ve loved our 2 months in Croatia – we felt a bit of sadness in Zagreb. Not only was Zagreb our final stop in Croatia, it felt a world away from our ‘home’ in Split.
Accommodation. Since writing the above, we’ve been in Zagreb many times (due to logistics between Croatia and the Schengen zone). We only stay in one place: The Palace Hotel. Right between the train station and the main square and facing the park. Perfect for a day or two.
Must-do Tour: If you’re in Zagreb, the one place you have to visit is Plitvice national Park. I recommend an overnight stay but if you can’t manage that then I really recommend this day tour.
Airport. Franjo Tuđman Airport (code: ZAG) is about 30 minutes from downtown Zagreb. We usually take Uber to get there.
Below: Because I love trams…
,Related: Comparing and rating our favorite Balkan capitals
Related: Our 11 Favorite Places in Croatia (that you should visit)
Have you been to Zagreb? What did you think of it?
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As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time in Zagreb and will soon be living there, I happen to agree with some of your observations. Zagreb has a sentimental significance to me because my family is from there, but the ˝poor man’s Prague˝ statement was spot on! The graffiti is repulsive and quite literally a stain on the city. I hope the local goverment gets its act together and implements programmes to clean it up…perhaps high schools should set aside volunteer days in which students are made to paint over the mess (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that it’s not 30-somethings doing this damage). On a side-note, that postcard at the Museum of Broken Relationships was heartbreaking 🙁
I think that idea of getting students to clean up is a fantastic idea, also a great lesson on civic responsibility.
Thanks for you comment Kathryn.
What I noticed while traveling through the Balkans is that the capital cities are much less attractive than the little towns full of medieval charm – Dubrovnik, Split, Gjirokaster, Ohrid, etc… The capitals seem to be heavy, concrete and lacking “the soul”. I have been to Belgrade, Ljubljana, Tirana and Sarajevo and they all were just so so. An exception to this maybe the crazy capital of Macedonia – Skopje which looks like a mix of at least 5 different cities – I have never seen so many various styles so close to each other in any other place. Nevertheless, Zagreb looks quite OK but comparing to other Croatian cities is not that great I suppose.
Funny you mention the above- we’ll be in Skopje at the end of the month!
I would probably give Zagreb another chance but I think you are generally right. Even Ljubljana which so many travellers seem to rave about is just ok (pretty, but honestly a couple of days is enough). Zagreb is nice but never a place that I would make a detour for…
Best things about Zagreb are its laid back attitude and a great walkable character. The sightseeing stuff is nowhere near as exciting as is staying a bit longer and letting the city’s atmosphere unravel by itself. But for this to happen, you’d have to know a few locals and become part of their daily routine. I think Zagreb is not a touristy city, which, if you love slow travel, is a huge plus. I am sure if you had more luck with your Airbnb host, your experience would be different. If you ever change your mind about coming back to Zagreb, swing by my blog where I write about the nonobvious Zagreb delights 🙂
Agree with everything you say Andrea. The ‘local experience’ is what made Split so exceptional for us and it’s true wherever you go.
If ever we come back to Zagreb (and we might pass through again as a transit point) I’ll make sure to check you out.
It’s true about Zagreb, for the 1000 years it has been a part of Central Europe, and till 18th ct. it was a capital of Kaikavian kingdom of Slavonia, afterwards capital of Croatia – without a coastal side, since 1940es it’s getting increasingly balkanized. Today a mix between Central-European Kaikavians and outgoing Mediterranean life-style. 99% of its architectural heritage is Central Europe. Current city government does not understand the city’s history or cultural contest so they try to pull it out even more from Central Europe and position it on Balkans, where it does not really belong.
There are many unknown beautiful and romantic spots in Kaikavian region around Zagreb that you can find on our ethno&eco site.
Thanks Marek for all this information. I really didn’t know all this history. Very interesting. But you are very right that it doesn’t feel like the Balkans – the geography is different from anywhere in Croatia and the people seem different as well (although we can only judge based on 3 days there).
I will look at your website. Thanks again.
Hey guys! Great pictures, I didn’t an equipment list anywhere? If you ever get the chance I would like to know what kind of Cameras,lens’s editing/processing software used? You also might be able to snag a few sponsors or at least some freebies for mentioning what you already use!
Appreciate the comments. I use an old Nikon, nothing fancy, but has been very dependable. But we just bought a Canon Powershot SX 60 for Lissette and I can see the improvement as far as field of vision. Especially takes good video (we’ve start incorporating a bit more video in our posts in the near future).
We’ve got a lot to learn and if we ever settle down somewhere I’d like to take a photography course, learn about using manual options. Really, what you see right now is us putting it in auto and clicking.
Editing: Use photoshop to crop, edit shadows and lighting conditions, and to put in our watermark.
Thanks for mentioning sponsors. Who knows, maybe in the near future 🙂
Thanks again Ron.
Big guys named Igor! :-). That is the sort of picture the name evokes.. Zagreb is not on my list, so while l’m glad to read about it, l wouldn’t ever plan on visiting. There are so many other places. A poor man’s Prague sounds from what you describe. That post from the museum of broken relationships is so sad. The poor woman, l bet she never married after that. I bet she wonders all the time what life might have been like if the poor guy hadn’t killed himself. So sad… Great pictures as usual 🙂
Poor woman? I’m thinking about the poor guy who drove over the cliff…she probably found some other guy to marry her 🙂
Paul at "No Pension Will Travel"
We didn’t leave much time for Zagreb, just using it as a transit point or stopover three times during our three weeks in the area. However, we enjoyed our mini visits all three times. In our two-and-a-half half-days (sic!) we saw pretty much everything you report on, and enjoyed it all. We said we’d go back for a longer visit, and just “sink in” to the low-key lively atmosphere.
Hey Paul – I think most people use Zagreb for exactly that (ie. a transit point). Honestly, I think there’s so many beautiful places in Croatia that I don’t think we’d ever come back to Zagreb. Happy to have seen it but I’d skip through on the way to the coast next time.