I consider myself fortunate that whilst I was working for an airline, I got to visit a bunch of places that perhaps I would have otherwise overlooked as holiday destinations…such as Zagreb.
I’d been to Dubrovnik before and I liked it, so when the new flying route to Zagreb was announced I thought ‘hey, why not? let’s give this little city a visit’.
I admit, I didn’t really know much about Zagreb. I knew it had an unusual sounding museum, ‘The Museum of Broken Relationships’ which sounded intriguing, a large open-air market and a main city square, Ban Jelačić, - which my hotel overlooked. I discovered that the Hotel Dubrovnik where I was staying was one of the oldest in the city. In my mind this, meant it would be quite an old traditional hotel, but it was quite the opposite, I found the hotel modern, and the location was spot-on. It was right on the square and a people-watching hotspot. It’s where people come to sit and take a coffee outside, even in winter when the streets are covered with snow.
I don’t usually butt into other people’s conversations on my travels – I guess this relates back to my previous post about travelling solo and doing things I wouldn’t normally do. But, I overheard a young girl talking to some Croatian people about airport taxis just before we were about to board our flight. I butted into the conversation – which is so unlike me – and asked her if she wanted to share a taxi. We exchanged names and seat numbers super quick before boarding, and then on arrival hailed a taxi. A bus would have taken a good while to reach the city and it was fairly pricey, so sharing a taxi benefitted us both. A conversation well butted into!
So, Zagreb…it’s a funny little city. It tends to get overlooked by visitors who are after Croatia’s sunny beaches, Adriatic waters, party islands and more recently Game of Thrones. Zagreb has none of these. And, whilst the city isn’t crawling with attractions, there are a few noteworthy sites to see during a long weekend. It’s an easily walkable city, has a decent share of cafés, bars, open spaces and museums.
My best advice for anyone thinking of visiting Zagreb would be to plan ahead – yup, I know I just said that. It’s not really a ‘me’ thing to do, unless I know I want to see certain sights or visit something in particular, or I’ve limited time. But, despite its growing city break popularity, there’s not a huge amount of sights in Zagreb. By all means take a walk and discover the city for yourself, especially the Upper Town and market, but I think you’ll be better off figuring out beforehand the places you’d like to go, for how long you want to visit and what time of year is best to visit too, otherwise you might find yourself with more time than you need.
June was extremely hot, even for me and I love the heat. I think a couple of days the temperature hit mid 40 degrees, so it was fairly sticky. I also know that Zagreb is well-known for having the best Christmas market in the whole of Europe. That’s quite an impressive statement, so it must be good. And, I can actually picture Zagreb’s streets with a wintery feel. Some cities lend well to wintery, foggy, melancholy days and I think Zagreb is one of those magic wintery cities. Apparently, Zagreb’s Zrinjevac park is where the most iconic part of the market is held. The whole park – which is a large space – gets covered in lights making it feel wintery and romantic. Having walked through the park in the sweltering heat, that’s a sight I’d love to see.
As soon as I arrived, I set out onto Ban Jelačić Square. It’s a popular meeting place from morning right through to evening when the square really bustles with locals. I found it a great spot to return to throughout the day. I saw early morning workers jumping on trams, elderly shoppers heading off to buy their fruit and veg in the market, street entertainers, tourists milling about taking photos and then in the evening young lovers and friends meeting up to chat and socialise, whilst older folk sat passing the time away.
I’m not going list all of the of places I visited, but I’m going to tell you about my favourites…
I’m going to start with ‘The Museum of Broken Relationships’. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect here, it sounded like a strange concept to me, and it’s quite an emotional place, and yes, I did shed a few tears – be warned, it’s hard not to get blurry eyed. Hands down, this is the most unique and quirky museum, and the best that I’ve ever been to. It’s the only museum where I’ve stopped to admire and read every single display. Showcasing relics and mementoes from relationships that have been lost for one reason or another. The idea was born out of two artists from Zagreb who broke off their four-year relationship. In the process of returning each other’s belongings, they joked about how they should start a museum for all the items they were getting rid of. Fast forward a few years later and they went through with the idea encouraging other lost loves to donate their stories. The stories are from around the world range from bitter to hilarious, from heart breaking to some that are just plain crazy. I also stopped to read the visitors book of real life stories scribbled down by people like you and me. I added my own little entry that maybe someday, someone will stop to read and relate to.
As I walked around the market and city streets, I couldn’t help but wonder what life was like in Zagreb before. In Croatia. In Yugoslavia. The mentality and attitude of the people must have been formed through their experiences. I’m a curious person, and Zagreb piqued my Eastern European interest.
The Croats are generally reserved and rule abiding, but once you get to know them, they warm up. I noticed that people in general don’t really interact with strangers or strike up conversations. It’s not that they are rude, it’s just their culture.
Aside from Zagreb being small and compact, I liked that the people of Zagreb – like any European destination – adore the whole outdoor café culture. It’s a known thing that travellers dream about sitting sipping espressos in Milan, or day dreaming dwelling at a typically French café in Paris, but it’s a lesser known fact that the Croatians are also masters of an excellent cup of coffee. The best place to experience this is on Tkalčiceva Street. Kava Tava bar was one of my favourite pitstop for tea and a chill stop.
Most importantly, you won’t feel like a lost tourist in Zagreb. There have been times when I’ve been exhausted by just how touristy a city can be. In the majority of cities, there’s a clear dichotomy of tourists vs locals. This isn’t so in Zagreb. It’s fairly laid back, so you don’t feel out of place. I just stood in the middle of Dolac market one morning – I was pretty much in everyone’s way – but no one said a word, they just hustled and bustled about me. They didn’t seem to notice a strange English girl observing local life and snapping away with her camera – I found that quite refreshing. I never found any sight or street overcrowded. I pretty much had the Observation deck - the best spot to get a panoramic view of the city – all to myself! It was the same Illica street - the main shopping street – it never felt overly busy. It’s a good place to do some high street shopping, if that’s your goal, have some breakfast and watch the city trams chug along.
Most of my evenings were spent taking a stroll down Illica street to Britanac Square, camera in hand street snapping - and then back to Ban Jelačić where I stood for a good couple of hours watching people getting on and off the trams. I found this was where I took most of my photos, and where I felt most inspired shooting. The trams have that melancholy old-time feel, the people always seemed lost in their daily thoughts, maybe, it was that end-of-day feeling, and I was content just standing there watching them.
So, my opinion on Zagreb...it can easily be covered in two days. It’s a good short city break if you’re looking to tick off another city, visit a few museums and experience some café culture in a not too touristy city – it’s not a mind-blowing city – I wonder if I would think differently if I’d visited in winter.