Meet the vibrant capital of Croatia: welcome to Zagreb! Where to stay, eat, drink, sightsee & party. Getting around, Advent, festivals and more!

Welcome to Zagreb, a tourist city transformed

Of all the tourism transformation stories in Croatia since I arrived here in 2002, none comes remotely close to that of Zagreb.

Not so long ago, the Croatian capital had the unenviable label as the most boring capital city in Europe. In truth, there was not that much going on. And even a visit to the Big Smoke from my rural hovel on Hvar failed to excite.

But how things have changed! A shiny new airport, EU entry, named Lonely Planet’s Best Destinations in 2017, and Europe’s best Christmas market three years in a row, Zagreb is officially IN.

The gourmet scene now boasts an exciting range of Croatian and international cuisine. The wine bar scene is vibrant. And if you are looking to delve into the emerging Croatian craft beer scene, you are in the right place.

Getting to Zagreb, and getting around

Getting to the city

The 300 million euro Franjo Tudjman airport is a huge upgrade on the previous terminal, and airlines are noticing. Whereas a decade ago there were no intercontinental flights to Zagreb, today there are daily connections from Doha with Qatar Airways. Emirates and Flydubai are also connecting the Middle East, with Korean Air servicing the explosion of tourism interest from Seoul. Air Transat became the first schedules connection from North America, subsequently followed by Air Canada from Toronto. All you ever needed to know about the new airport terminal in this Total Croatia guide.

Zagreb is also very well-connected by train to Belgrade, Budapest, Ljubljana, Austria, Germany and Switzerland. It is also the national rail hub, with the most popular lines being to Split as well as to Rijeka. Learn more about getting around Croatia by train.

Zagreb is also the bus hub of Croatia, and its 44 platforms are busy around the clock. For more information about Zagreb bus station, and the national and international connections, Total Zagreb has an excellent overview.

Getting around the city

Getting around the city by public transport is both affordable and easy. There is a very efficient tram system, which connects all the major parts of the city. This is also supplemented by an extensive bus network. Getting to grips with the tram is essential, however, and here is how you do it. You can also find an overview of how to get around the city by bus.

My track record with taxis in Croatia is poor, mostly because they are a total rip-off in general. I really would recommend using Uber which is now very well established on the Croatian market. It managed to get a large market share, and not just because it’s extremely well-priced compared to the taxi competition.

Driving around Zagreb? Here are a few things to ponder. And if you are looking for a parking spot, here is what you need to know.

Top 5 things to do in Zagreb

Every single visitor to Zagreb will most certainly end up going for a walk in the Upper Town. It’s easy to find it, just a bit up the hill from the main, Ban Jelačić square, and it offers a lot of amazing historical buildings, amazing look into Zagreb’s past. Top two attractions are, of course, Zagreb Cathedral and St. Mark’s Church, two quite different churches that are among the most photographed sites in Zagreb – with a reason.

Tkalčićeva Street

Tkalčićeva Street technically also belongs to the Upper Town, but the reason to go there is to have some fun. It’s full of bars, pubs, restaurants and clubs, and that’s probably where most people will choose to go during the night on the town. During the day it’s a popular place to sit down and have a cup of coffee (more on that later), and it’s a nice street to just walk up on during your walk through the city, and soak up the atmosphere.

Lenuzzi’s Horseshoe

Lenuzzi’s Horseshoe is a name often used for a series of parks, squares that have a lot of green areas and buildings located in the centre of Zagreb downtown, shaped like a horseshoe (which explains the name). Imagined in the 19th century by the architect Milan Lenuci, it’s a living testament to the urbanistic intervention in Zagreb’s past, and an amazing location for a relaxed walk. It starts just south of Ban Jelačić square with Zrinjevac, Strossmayer Square, Tomislav square, Ante Starčević Square, Zagreb Botanical Garden, Marko Marulić Square, Mažuranić Square and finally Republic of Croatia Square with Croatian National Theatre and University of Zagreb buildings.

Mirogoj cemetery

A cemetery is rarely among the must-see attractions of a city, but Zagreb’s main Mirogoj cemetery is one of those. Amazing central building (often called Arkade by the people of Zagreb, which might give you a completely wrong idea of what goes on there) was created by one of the most notable Central European architects of his time, Hermann Bollé and built in the late 19th century. There you can find the graves of many, or even most notable Croatians from the past 150 years, and if you find yourself in Zagreb on the All Saints Day (November 1st), then you just have to go to Mirogoj and feel that atmosphere.

Jarun Lake and Maksimir Park

Maksimir Park and Jarun Lake are not close to one another, but they’re listed here together as they are both places where you’d go to get out in nature, while still staying firmly within the city. Jarun is a lake with several islets, near the Sava river in the Western part of the city, very popular for all types of recreation for people of Zagreb, line-skating, bikes, rowing, jogging, volleyball, basketball, or just taking a nice walk, which always ends with a coffee in one of the bars (or even lunch in one of the several restaurants). Maksimir is a large park in the Eastern part of town, that also hosts the Zagreb Zoo, and is also an amazing spot for a leisurely afternoon walk.

Where to stay: hotels, hostels, and private accommodation

Accommodation options in the capital are improving all the time. With the city’s new reputation as a cool destination, more backpackers are putting the Croatian capital on their bucket lists.

As such, there has been an explosion of hostels in recent years, a nice budget selection. Hotels are also upping their game with an eye on quality. And the private rental market has never been busier.

If you plan to come to Zagreb for the Advent festivities, make sure to book well in advance. Prices for accommodation anywhere near the city centre will be higher in that period, as can be expected.

A gourmet capital: restaurants, wine, and craft beer

While it is true that there is a long tradition of good restaurants in Zagreb, as well as bars (known in Zagreb in the past as ‘kavane‘, which is a name some of the traditional ones still use), recent years have brought us many new, exciting, original and popular restaurants in the Zagreb city centre. You won’t have any problems finding more traditional Croatian cuisine, or restaurants offering more international dining options.

Croatians are proud of the wine they make, and in recent years the quality of wines has been drastically improving, so numerous wine-makers in Croatia have been winning medals at the best competitions worldwide. Many excellent wine bars in Zagreb, most of which are located in the city center offer the best of Croatian wines, but also increasingly impressive selection of imported wines. Bornstein is a popular Upper Town wine destination, Pod Zidom, Basement, Bastion 19 and Pupitres are among popular downtown locations, and we’re certain many more wine bars will be opening in Zagreb in years to come.

There was also another revolution taking place in Zagreb at the same time: the craft beer revolution. All beer in Croatia used to come from large breweries, which were acquired by international beer giants. Small craft beer producers started taking their share of the market in the past 5 years. Today, there are over 40 breweries producing a lot of really good craft beer in Croatia. The popularity and quality of those beers made many bars in the center offer them to their guests. Don’t miss the opportunity to try beers made by Zmajska pivovara, Nova runda, Varionica or Garden Brewery (although not really in the city center, their tap room might be worth a visit if you’re a true beer fan).

Museums and art galleries in Zagreb

Zagreb has long been recognized as a city of culture, with many valuable and important museums and art galleries. Mimara Museum in downtown Zagreb, close to the Croatian National Theatre holds one of the largest art collections in this part of Europe, gathered by one collector. Museum of Contemporary Art is located in Novi Zagreb, across the Sava river. You should consider visiting it, if time permits you to go exploring outside of the city center. Klovićevi Dvori gallery in the Upper town produces around 30 exhibitions each year. Other interesting, more niche museums include Nikola Tesla Technical Museum, Museum of Broken Relationships (which has achieved international acclaim and has a franchise in Los Angeles), Dražen Petrović Museum, Museum of Illusions etc.

Day trips from Zagreb

Being central to Croatia, Zagreb offers you many wonderful opportunities for day trips. A visit to Plitvice lakes will always be the first on everyone’s mind and for a good reason. The amazing scenery of the lakes and waterfalls just an hour away is something you shouldn’t miss. Rastoke are much smaller, more intimate, less wild and much less overcrowded. Medvednica mountain, situated just North of the city often gets overlooked, by tourists and Zagreb folk alike. It’s a shame, as it is a location for a great day hike and to cool off in the summer heat. A bit to the north of Medvednica is Hrvatsko Zagorje which has a lot to offer. There are many castles located there, with the most famous being Trakošćan Castle. But, it’s certainly not the only one worth the visit.

A look at the best Zagreb tours

As in any tourist-oriented city in the world, there are many tours you can take around Zagreb. The city center is quite compact, so it makes sense to take a guide to show you around the Upper town, for instance, and you will get to experience most of it quite fast with an experienced guide. Some of the tours will even allow you not to walk at all! You can try something different, and go on the Ghosts and Dragons Tour where you will learn a lot about the history of the city. You can take a tour that will teach you some Croatian, while also bringing you closer to the history and culture of the city. If you’re not that into walking, go for the Blue Line Tour, taking you to some of the most remarkable places in Zagreb using public transportation.

Advent in Zagreb

It started from nothing and just kept on growing. Not once, not twice but three times voted the Best Christmas Market in Europe, Advent in Zagreb is a shining example of how Croatia can extend its tourist season and move beyond the common stereotype of being merely a sea and sun destination. Check out the official Advent website.

Not everyone is happy with Advent, however. Take a look behind the scenes at the issues tourists never get to hear about.

Festivals in Zagreb

InMusic is probably the most recognizable of festivals and yearly events taking place in Zagreb to an international audience. It is taking place each year in June and is the largest Croatian open-air music festival. Its headliners each year include some of the world’s most popular bands, like Franz Ferdinand, Nick Cave, Moby etc.

Animafest is one of Europe’s oldest and biggest animated film festivals. Known internationally as “Animafest Zagreb”, Zagreb World Festival of Animated Film is Europe’s second oldest animation film festival. It takes place in early June, and attracts just about all relevant animated films of the year.

The International Folklore Festival and is a cultural presentation folklore traditional to Croatia, with international participation. You can see festival events all around the city in July, in locations in the Upper Town, Ban Jelačić square, and others.

ZagrebDox is an international documentary film festival taking place in early spring at Europa Cinema. It consists of two programs, regional and international, which present the best creative documentary films of the year.

5 things most people don’t know about Zagreb

Dolac market is often mentioned in the guide books for Zagreb. Still, you really need to go there to be able to fully appreciate all the wonderful fruits, vegetables, meat fish etc. it has to offer. And it will also make you think differently of the restaurants in Zagreb, which are able to (and many do!) buy the things they need at Dolac.

Grički top is something you’ll certainly notice on your first day in Zagreb, at 12 noon exactly. It’s a cannon, located in the Upper town, making a loud “BANG” every day, as it has been doing for the past 140 years. One thing to notice at noon is that people of Zagreb, as well as most pigeons on the main square, pay the cannon no attention, while the tourist will jump a bit.

Špica is a cultural phenomenon worth noticing. Every Saturday, somewhere around 10 am, people of Zagreb put their coolest clothes on and come to the center of the city to get their cup of coffee. They walk around a bit and then sit at one of the “fancy” places in the centre, and spend an unbelievable amount of time watching and commenting other people walking by.

Tunnel Grič has been around for decades, closed and neglected, 500 meters of the tunnel in the city center, connecting some of the most popular parts of it. Renovations were done in it in the past several years, and now many amazing events take place there. It has also become a part of Advent in Zagreb. But, even if you come to Zagreb during other seasons, the tunnel is worth exploring.

Street art often goes unnoticed in Zagreb, although there are numerous very active artists making the streets more beautiful. One of the amazing street art projects in Zagreb is Pimp My Pump, which turns water pumps into art installations. An important thing to note is that the water from the pumps is absolutely potable, so take a drink from any of them and enjoy the amazing art.

Expat life and moving to Zagreb

The expat scene has changed immensely in the last few years. EU entry in July 2013 brought a number of expats and their families. Add to that the very welcome explosion of international dining options, as well as digital nomads moving to the city, and Zagreb really does feel like a totally new city.

For more on moving and living Croatia and beyond, check out the Total Croatia introduction to life here. And the Total Zagreb portal has a useful section in its navbar for all you need to know about making the big move and settling in.

Useful contacts and for more information

The Zagreb Tourist Board has a comprehensive website, which covers all tourism aspects of the city.

You can also keep up with the latest from the capital via the TCN dedicated portal for Zagreb.

And for 25 things to know about the city, check out Andrea Pisac’s guide.