This is the most underrated capital city in Europe

Croatia’s capital, Zagreb deserves more limelight

Elegant stone-tiled mansions and newer apartments stand shoulder-to-shoulder in harmony along broad tree-lined avenues and inviting green spaces. Its understated elegance, relaxed pace and easy cafe culture grows on you unobtrusively. This is a lovely city recreating itself, carving out a new identity, while preserving the richness of its past. Zagreb may be underrated, but you will regret skipping it. Here are my firm recommendations on the two atmospheric neighbourhoods to concentrate your energies on, while visiting Croatia’s capital.

Donji Grad: Quintessential European grace

Viennese architect Hermann Bollé’s 19th-century creations are the eye-candy of the Lower Town (Donji Grad). Start with the grand Marshal Tito Square, where an imposing equestrian statue of King Tomislav, the first medieval Croatian king, graces the area. Feast on the sight of exquisite National Theater and the Art Pavilion, an art gallery housed in a fabulous long building with an inviting, sunny yellow façade, and a park surrounded by crunchy gravely paths. Don’t miss the beautiful neo-classical Zagreb railway station. A throwback to the times when it used to be a stopover for the intriguing Orient Express (king of trains and train of kings) that chugged from London to Istanbul. Then there’s ‘The Fountain of Life’ bronze fountain, a work of art by famed Croatian scupltor, Ivan Meštrović, Rodin’s favourite disciple. And countless fascinating neo-Classical and neo-Renaissance buildings converted into luxury hotels.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Museums at every corner, huge parks, wide avenues and carefully installed fountains and sculptures lead to the main square, Ban Josip Jelacic, within 20 minutes. With its central equestrian statue and the famous Manduševac fountain (an original spring), this heart of the city is accompanied by all the usual suspects…grand buildings converted into plush offices and luxury stores, pigeons flocking for seed, people moving about their daily business, locals chatting over coffee in the outdoor cafes and shoppers armed with goodies. Modern blue trams glide along Ilica, the crowded artery of the old town. A hum of pleasant tranquility!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Blend in. Sample your first Croatian street food off a tiny stall…fritule, small doughnut balls sprinkled with icing sugar or cinnamon, served on thin, long sticks…sweet, crunchy, with a hint of orange zest and brandy. Linger among the bustling crowds in the lively Cvjetni Square (Flower Square), where open-air cafes and modern shopping plazas contrast sharply with the sombre Serbian Orthodox Church looming large. Tune into all the Dalmatian small-talk around you…the bus stop, ticket counter, bank queues, roasted chestnut vendors and sunny cafés. This is one chitty-chatty nation!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Follow the human stream into Zagreb’s most well known party-place…the enchanting Tkalčićeva, a long street lined with pretty, old, tiny houses with pastel colored facades, slanting roofs, and chimneys, alternating with small galleries, shops selling bric-a-brac, lovely boutiques, cafes, bars, and more cafes, and more bars. Peek into the criss-cross streets. Explore the hidden nooks. And when your legs protest, sink into the couch of a street-facing café that beckons seductively. Time stands still as the world walks by.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Today’s Tkalčićeva is a charming street known for its night life, where locals and tourists mingle, but it was once the border between the two rival cities, separated by Zagreb’s two hills, Gradec and Kaptol and is said to have been witness to many bloody battle. Contemplate this evolution from blood baths to beer bars, and suddenly, an ordinary coffee break will be a moment to be treasured forever!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Close by, discover delights at the Dolac market, an 80-year old treasure trove for home-made foodstuffs, fresh fish and meat, cheese and cream, fruit and vegetables. Browse around in the stalls in the open space filled with rows, and rows of red umbrellas. Select pretty, handmade Croatian souvenirs or lay your hands on hot favourites like lavender and lace!

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And finally, head to the wide-open Kaptol square, where the twin-spired Gothic Zagreb Cathedral stands unrestricted, showered with its chosen place in the sun. A grand, somewhat unusual medieval fortress-cathedral, where delicacy of lacy ornamentation contrasts with sturdiness of a towered defensive wall. Inside, thin strips of windows accentuate the structure’s height, a rustic brown-yellow chequered tile floor creates an unusual cheerfulness, and a blue-grey star-spangled ceiling adds an element of grace. The city’s most important landmark is the perfect spot to end a fulfilling day.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Gornji Grad: Quaint and timeless

Travel in Zagreb’s oldest public transport carriage, the 100-year old funicular, from the 5.66 km long shopping street of Ilica to the old Upper Town (Gornji Grad). But not before stopping for fabulous ice cream and home-made pastries at the vintage confectionary, Vincek (circa 1977). Within minutes, you’re on the cobbled streets of Gornji Grad, facing the medieval Lotrščak Tower, where a resounding cannon is fired everyday at noon, followed by the adjusting of Zagreb’s clocks and ringing of church bells. A time-keeper tradition that goes back to ancient times, when the tower bell announced the closing of the city’s gates at night.

You will be irresistibly drawn to the beautifully serene, green Strossmayer Promenade on the left, which stretches all along the ramparts. Priceless views of the Lower Town below, canopies of towering chestnut trees, fiery red-gold carpets of autumn’s falling leaves, antique ornate lamps for after sun-down and inviting benches under these tall trees. Join the artists, students, joggers, lovers and locals taking a newspaper break. Another slice of Zagreb life.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Listen to your own footsteps as you walk the empty, spotless, cobbled streets. Hang on till dark to witness the gas oil street lamps being lit as a ritual. A random vehicle or two zips past, otherwise all is quiet among the pretty rows of small houses (they only look newly built). In the middle of the smallish, open square, is a remarkably styled centrepiece. The red-blue tiled St Marks Church, with the coats of arms of Zagreb and the Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia. Circle it and get a sense of how modestly sized the building is. Only the tall bell tower, with tiny slit windows at four levels gives away the secret. The baroque St. Catherine’s Church beside it…now that’s a different story.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Within a stone’s throw of the church are the Parliament and government buildings. Surprisingly thin security…so approachable! If it weren’t for the several ‘Men in Black’ poised outside and the one-off important-looking passenger stepping in and out of the shiny black car, it would be just another office building. No terrorist or paparazzi threat here, obviously.

If offbeat is your cup of tea, explore the Museum of Broken Relationships, for a quirky, even bizarre collection of personal objects donated by ex-lovers from all over the world, including articles of clothing, photos and reminders of unpleasant memories. Pick up fun souvenirs like memory erasers and plaster to mend broken hearts. For the more conventional at heart, there are other museums around, including the Natural History Museum, the Croatian Museum of Native Art and the Mestrovic Gallery (home and permanent gallery of the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic). A whole afternoon well taken care of. 

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And when you’ve soaked it all in, reach for the ramparts to indulge in spectacular views of the red-roof houses in the city below. The towering twin-steepled cathedral clearly hogs the limelight. Shades of orange, rust, ochre, brown sharpen the blueness of the cloudy blue sky. Classic. Eternal. Unforgettable. Zagreb. The most underrated capital city in Europe, isn’t it?

Zagreb 2

 

Pin this post for later!!

Zagreb: Europe's most underrated capital city

 

Advertisements