Make the most of a short break in Croatia’s capital with this guide to the architecture, cafés, restaurants, sights and places to stay
Zagreb is an ideal two day city break destination. It is easy to get around, has wonderful baroque buildings, fabulous restaurants and an enticing café scene.
A train journey from Munich to Zagreb through Alpine gorgeousness provided me with plenty of time to learn some Croatian so that I could dazzle the hotel reception staff.
When my big moment came I proudly announced: “Dobar dan. Imam rezervaciju. Moje ime je Baird.”
“Ah, you have been practicing,” the man on reception replied, not talking back to me in Croatian. Why wasn’t our conversation like the language CD? I should have known better really; this was the Sheraton Zagreb Hotel and populated by multilingual staff. English was understood everywhere in the city, but the little Croatian that I did use was met with appreciative smiles and pleasant interactions with the locals.
The 1892 railway station is the grandest entrance to Zagreb. Feast your eyes upon the Corinthian columns, arched windows and classical statues.
Heading straight ahead through the series of parks and exploring surrounding streets will expose you to magnificent baroque buildings, my favourite architectural period. What makes it so good? For me it is the remarkable detail on the facades: huge figures of Atlantes with pained expressions, six packs and muscled legs holding up doorways; elegant women draped on top of window arches, usually with little in the way of clothing.
Soon you will find yourself in Ban Jelačić Square with its massive adventurer on horseback statue. The square is busy with human activity and if your mind is working like mine you will identify this as a prime people watching spot. Luckily someone else got here first and put up cafés with outdoor terraces. Café-hopping is a vital part of life here and if such an activity made it to the next Olympics Croatia would be on the medal podium. It only makes sense to join in!
Nearby is the Cathedral where the afternoon summer light really shows off the angelic faces of the statues surrounding the door. The fountain in front is a thing of great beauty with the shiniest gold plated statues of the Virgin Mary and four angels.
For dinner head to Tkalčićeva Street, the centre of all evening activity. Promenading up and down, dressed in the finest and latest garments and eyeing up potential mates is what this is all about for many. Ivica i Marica (www.ivicaimarica.com), at number 70, has a Hansel and Gretel theme and an outdoor terrace with crisp table linen and candles. An appetizer of bread with tuna pate is served during your perusal of the menu. A starter of štrukle, baked pastry filled with cheese and spinach, was tasty and filling. A main course of Adriatic risotto with shrimp and squid was fresh and delicious. This cost about 170 Kn, including a bottle of Ožujsko, Croatian lager beer.
A classy way to round off the evening is a cocktail at The Regent Esplanade Zagreb. Orson Welles, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong all stayed in this hotel. I have a vivid memory of the scent of fresh flowers as I passed through each of the beautifully decorated public rooms, before retiring to the outside terrace to sip my martini in refined elegance.
Dolac Market is a treasure trove of fruit, vegetables, cheese, herbs, fish, meat and everything in between. It’s just north of Ban Jelačić square. This place made me dream of renting a self-catering apartment, so that I could have an excuse for shopping here, but for now I settled on takeaway breakfast.
I took my breakfast on the Strossmayer Promenade in the Upper Town. Benches, bird song, trees and peace; you know the kind of thing. You can use the shortest funicular railway in the world to get here. Nearby is the thirteenth century Lotrščak Tower where the noon day gun is fired and you can take the stairs to the top for rather good views.
The most colourful and shiny building in Zagreb is a short walk ahead. St Mark’s Church has roof tiles decorated with the coat of arms of Croatia and Zagreb. It is so striking that every time I tried to walk away I found myself continually turning back to have another look.
The Zagreb City Museum (www.mgz.hr/en) is located a short walk north of St Mark's. This is the best place to get informed about the city’s history, architecture and politics.
I decided to devote the next few hours to more café culture. This is, after all, what the locals do and I very much believe that true travellers follow the locals. It may also have something to do with me not being able to resist the lure of the cake display at Vincek (www.vincek.com.hr/en/home) on Illica Street. Forty kinds of ice cream and about the same in cakes had my mouth watering. Have a look at the attached video and you will surely be tempted.
It feels strange recommending a visit to a cemetery, but Mirogoj Cemetery is a beautiful and impressive place. The entrance is like something you would expect to see in Rome with a huge domed chapel. The tall outer wall is draped with ivy and has gorgeous green copulas at regular intervals. Inside is a well kept park of sweeping drives and pretty floral displays. Bus 106 from the cathedral is the easiest way to get there.
For this evening's meal I tried Pod Grickim Topom (Zakmardijeve stube 5), located near the funicular railway station on a terrace overlooking the rooftops. I don't normally do this, but I asked for the waiter’s recommendation. It just seemed like the right thing to do in a place like this. I ended up with a divine risotto starter, simply cooked with shrimps, prosciutto, cheese and garlic. The main course of grilled calamari and salad was equally straightforward, but as is often the way dishes with the fewest ingredients and minimal fuss it tasted most delicious. With drinks expect to pay 225 Kn.
I finished my evening with the quintessential Zagreb experience; sitting with an espresso and watching the locals parade up and down Tkalčićeva.
Where to stay
Sheraton Zagreb Hotel
What you would expect from this hotel chain; swimming pool, glitzy lobby and “Sweet Sleeper” beds. These beds have a reputation for providing the best sleep of your life and I certainly risked an unscheduled long lie in! Ten to fifteen minute walk from the centre. It is possible to get a double for around 100 Euros per night with the hotel’s special offers.
This art deco hotel was originally a rest stop for the Orient Express, so unsurprisingly it is next to the train station. Enter the black and white marble lobby and be checked in at a mahogany desk. Bedrooms are spacious and beautiful. Deluxe rooms have six-foot long bathtubs and double sinks. Prices for a double can be had for around 115 Euros per night in the off season.
Rail links with Split, Belgrade, Budapest, Ljubljana, Munich and Vienna (www.hznet.hr).
Air routes include Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Lisbon, London, Stockholm and Rome (www.zagreb-airport.hr).