Visit This Overlooked European Capital Before Everyone Else Does
The main square of beautiful, chic Zabreb. (Photo: iStock)
In the year 2016, the Croatian capital of Zagreb is so many incredible things.
It is perfect, tony neighborhoods. It is chic cafes peppered with people so good-looking they may be robots from the future. The city is historic and homey and handsome.
And though Zagreb is working tirelessly to match its western neighbors’ flair for retrofitting its swell public squares with H&Ms and KFCs, what makes this town so much more interesting is its very recent break from communism.
Thankfully today Zagreb is a city of tranquility. But capturing the spirit of the Yugoslavian “shared society” of yesterday is still within reach for visitors.
Many Airbnb listings within the city limits feature postwar housing of the Soviet Khrushchyovka or Stambeni blok variety – large, plain, concrete-paneled, easy to construct and inexpensive to build neighborhood eyesores.
Today these shared-bathroom, collectivist remnants may still look horrifying from the sidewalk, but once inside are often fully updated and quite nice.
Of course there’s also a Sheraton, a Westin, and a Doubletree right in the heart of the city. And a few local stand-outs include the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, the Hotel Dubrovnik, and the Palace Hotel.
Now that you’re checked in and have consumed as many free, warm cookies as the concierge will tolerate, it’s time to begin your perfect day in this constantly changing city.
Noon, Fuel up
The croissant čokoláda at Dubravica tastes as good as it looks. (Photo: FoodSpotting)
On weekends no one really gets active before noon. But when that initial burst of inertia moves people into the streets, the city center’s cafes, bakeries, bars, restaurants, and clubs flood with well-appointed locals all with a shared a motivation for rising: to watch and be watched.
(In a former police state being watched is perfectly natural – and now no longer terrifying.)
But before joining in the staring contest, pick up more baked stuff at Dubravica (Fra Grge Martića 27-29). In a city whose name translate* exactly to “Bakery” there are thousands from which to choose. Dubravica is one of the best.
With croissant čokoláda in hand, park yourself at Caffe Charlie a few meters down the square. Order coffee, light a cigarette (it’s Europe!), and eavesdrop on Croatia’s politicos. Current office-holders, former leaders, and journalists congregate, informally and with friends, every weekend to discuss the state of the nation, to gossip, and to predict what’s ahead. Charlie is truly a classic café that’s not to be missed.
Zagrebians stay close to their handful of preferred cafés throughout the day as they snack and drink their way into the evening. It’s an all day event for most locals as friends mingle from one group to the next. It’s also a fantastic immersion for visitors who can keep up.
(*This translation may not be entirely accurate.)
2:00 pm, Visit the Torture Museum
Browse all sorts of interesting and scary instruments at Zagreb’s torture museum. (Photo: Tortureum - Muzej torture/Facebook)
Freshly fueled and slightly buzzed, walk uphill toward Upper Town Zagreb. On your way make a quick stop at the Tortureum Museum (Radićeva 14, 1. kat ili). It’s not the first of its kind, but the self-guided digital tour is definitely well executed (ha!), creepy as hell, and can be completed efficiently.
And while the featured mechanical exhibits focus heavily on the medieval, the tortureum’s mere existence – and location in the heart of the city – may just serve as a reminder of the brutal religious and political persecution that existed in the early years of greater communist Yugoslavia. Of course it could just be a wonderful opportunity to take a zany photo of Mom’s head in a guillotine.
3:30 pm, Cleanse your soul
Zagreb’s Stone Gate leads you to Upper Town. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr)
Once you’ve had your share of depravity, persecution, and punishment, continue onward toward the upper town to witness a miracle.
Stop to light a candle and say a soul-cleansing prayer at the striking Majka Božja od Kamenitih vrata – Our Lady of the Stone Gate chapel. This shrine serves as the main entryway into the Upper Town.
Dating to the thirteenth century, the stone gate is part of the city walls that once stood around Zagreb’s old town. In May of 1731 a fire swept through and ravaged the old town. As legend goes, the gate displayed a painting of the mother of God. As the fire raged, the painting was miraculously undamaged and today stands on display at the gate.
4:30 pm, Mourn your sad love life
Feel better about your late night Tinder habits at the Museum of Broken Relationships. (Photo: Museum of Broken Relationships)
With your trek to the upper town’s summit complete, regain lung function at one of Zagreb’s most unique and compelling museums.
The Museum of Broken Relationships (Ćirilometodska 2, 10000) is fascinating, heartbreaking, and hilarious. What began as a traveling exhibition of collected items, each with a very personal story, has found a permanent home in Zagreb. Let’s put it this way: If learning more than you probably should about a complete stranger’s personal life fires your brain’s pleasure centers, this place is for you.
The bonus for making the journey to MBR becomes clear upon exit: The views.
At ground level take in sweeping views of the entire city. For an even better, 360’ look, climb the Kula Lotrščak – a large, scalable tower dating back to the thirteenth century built to guard the southern gate of the town wall. Amazingly, the keepers of this tower continue the tradition of signaling the exact midday hour to church bell-ringers throughout the city by firing a large cannon, housed within the tower, every day at noon.
6:00 pm, Take a shower
It’s now 6pm. That means you need to get back to the Doubletree. Clean up. Take a shower. Take a nap. You’ve got a big night ahead of you.
8:00 pm, Eat some more
Restoran Vinodol is a must while you’re in town. (Photo: Restoran Vinodol)
There are so many tremendous restaurants in Zagreb. Being so close to the Adriatic means the Italian influence is very real and incredible food can be had throughout the city. For wonderful fresh truffles, hand made pasta, and fresh locally sourced meats make a reservation at Luna Rossa (Preradovićeva ulica 12, 10000, Zagreb).
Also be sure to eat at least one meal at Restoran Vinodol (Teslina 10, Zagreb). Their daily selection of fantastic, farm-raised beef and their vast local wine list are second to none. Another dinner option worth every lipa sits perched on the top floor of a non-descript office building. Bon Appetit is high-end dining slightly off the beaten path, but visitors are rewarded with an outdoor terrace, terrific food, and sweeping city views.
10:00 pm – 6:00 am (Sunday), Enjoy Zagreb’s true hospitality
Party it up at Pepermint! (Photo: Pepermint Ilica 24/Facebook)
In Zagreb’s city center, every bar and club begins bouncing again around midnight. Pretty things – young and old – flood out onto terraces and belly up to bars. With so many social options it’s difficult to make a bad choice. Try as much of it all as you can without falling over.
However, for fun until the sun comes up one recommendation can be made with confidence: Club Pepermint (Ilica 24, Zagreb) keeps the music loud and the drinks strong well past the time that good decisions are made.
But play it cool and look around. This isn’t Seacrets. In Zagreb at 4am everyone is having a great time at the club because no one is throwing drinks, throwing fists, or throwing up.
Follow the lead of the locals and you may even learn the secret to peeling yourself out of bed in the morning and doing it all over again. Živeli!