I hate the term “hidden gem”. It’s often overrated and overused. However there are some places that fully deserve this name and I personally think Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is one of them. The country is famous for its breathtaking coast line with charming towns like Dubrovnik and crystal clear water. Each year thousands of people heading to the Adriatic Sea bypass the biggest town in the country. Big mistake! Visit Zagreb – a vibrant city with spectacular architecture and rich culture, the place it’s easy to fall in love with and enjoy every bit of it!
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Visit Zagreb – the underrated capital of Europe
I don’t know too many people who visited Zagreb. For me it was the second time there. The first one was over 10 years ago and I very vaguely remembered that it was a nice city but nothing more. As soon as I stepped back from the train station all the memories came back. I arrived to Zagreb on Saturday evening and the city was bustling with people, all in the cheerfull mood, heading for a crazy night out. My accommodation, Swanky Mint Hostel, was located some 20 minutes walking from the train station, close to the main square of Zagreb – Trg J.Jelacica. At first I planned to take the tram there (after all it was dark and I was in a fairly new place) but after seeing city being so lively I figured the walk will be much better idea. I had a very strong affection towards Zagreb from the very beginning and it was only getting better and better with time!
A perfect day in Zagreb
The next morning I set off to explore the city. I had only one day and even if I wrote down from Spotted by Locals few places I wanted to check, I still thought it’s more than enough time! Well, I couldn’t be more wrong! Zagreb turned out to be a great place to discover, with so many interesting spots! The weather was gorgeous, warm and sunny – more like beginning of September than mid-October, and the city center was bustling with people. There were mostly Zagrebians, lazily chatting with friends while sipping coffee in one of the numerous cafes, browsing through the antiques at the Sunday antique market or shopping at the farmers market. It was just a perfect day to be in Zagreb!
Visit Zagreb and its two towns
The center of Zagreb and the place where visitors mostly hang out consists of two parts – Upper Town and Lower Town. Even if they are located basically next to each other I felt they are so different! I started my day in the Upper Town, more spiritual and so much calmer area. It’s very easy to reach it – you either walk up the stairs (not too many of them) or for 4 kunas (~0.50€) the old fashioned funicular will take you up there. I opted for the first option and right after leaving empty and quiet stairs I found myself in a hive of tourists…
It could have been the bad timing as probably every tour that stayed in Zagreb at that time started their sightseeing in the Upper Town. But I must say I was really surprised how many people were there and that the majority was from Asia. I found the explanation later on, apparently there was a very popular reality show airing in South Korea that was filmed in Zagreb hence the city is flooded with tourists from there. Still, I didn’t think of the Croatian capital as the popular touristic destination. The street connecting the funicular with the beautiful St. Mark’s Church was full of souvenir sellers or street musicians – the typical view of many Old Towns all over the world.
The view from the upper station of the funicular is one of the best in the city, with beautiful houses and red rooftops of the Lower Town. But it gets even better on the viewing terrace of the Lotrscak Tower, also right next to the funicular station. The ticket costs 20 kunas (~2.50€) but hardly anyone goes there, even if all the tourists pass it. The view is pretty spectacular, you can admire not only rooftops and churches of Upper and Lower Town but also can see other parts of Zagreb and the mountains that surround the city! I always love looking at the cities from above and the Lotrscak Tower was for me definitely one of the highlights of Zagreb.
The map I took from the hostel had a walking route marked, both in the Upper and Lower Town, and I followed it with occasional detour to the backstreets. In more or less one hour I could see all the best spots that the Upper Town has to offer – St. Mark’s Church, Kamenita Vrata and eventually the Cathedral. Considering all of them are religious sites it’s no wonder I felt a really elevated, spiritual vibe there. Kamenita Vrata in particular was a special place. A gate, part of the old city walls, that hides a sacred image of the Mother of God is where people of Zagreb often come to light a candle and pray…
A normal face of Zagreb
At the border of Upper and Lower Town, few steps away from Trg J.Jelacica there’s a Dolac Market where locals buy their fresh fruits, vegetables and just about everything else and few lost independent tourists seem to be overwhelmed with the scene. A colourful spot is also a perfect place to get some delicious local goodies for a snack. I bought some grapes and they were the best ever, super sweet and yummy!! I love visiting local markets and Dolac Market was another highlight of Zagreb for me!
The very heart of the city is Trg J.Jelacica – a fairly big square surrounded by splendid houses, the finest example of Zagreb’s architecture from the times of Austria-Hungary. That’s where all the action in the city takes place, a meeting point for people, the very core point in the capital of Croatia (or maybe even in the whole country). Trg J.Jelacica is also a great starting point to discover the Lower Town, probably the most beautiful part of Zagreb.
Zagreb – a typical Central-European city
Again, when I was wandering around this part of Zagreb I kept wondering where exactly I am. This place could be as well in Brno, Graz, Sarajevo or any other big city that used to belong to Austria-Hungary Empire. The big park between the train station and Trg J.Jelacica was full of people, sitting on the grass and enjoying the beautiful weather. Suddenly there were hardly any tourists around and for a while I felt like I belonged there, that Zagreb is my kind of place. Just like Brno this was a great example of the Central European city and it could easily compete with Prague, Vienna or Budapest.
The Upper Town was where most of Zagrebians hang out. The cafes were full of people, so were parks and squares. It wasn’t as crazy as on Saturday evening but still I found Zagreb a vibrant capital with lots of great places to see, things to do, events to attend (when I was there the Zagreb Film Festival was about to start). And the fact that the city is kind of off the beaten path and still undiscovered made it even more special to me. I’m sure it’s a matter of months till Zagreb becomes another “must visit” destination in Europe and to be honest it totally deserves it!
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Another face of Zagreb
In the evening I went again for a walk around Upper and Lower Town. This time it was different, calm, quiet, peaceful. The city was slowly getting ready to sleep and that’s when I saw even more magic in it. It felt kind of surreal that after the busy morning I suddenly had the cobbled streets of the Upper Town all to myself. And that’s why it’s worth spending more than just few hours there, to see every face of Zagreb and to fall in love with it!
Have you ever been to Croatia? Would you like to visit Zagreb? Which place would you call “a hidden gem”?
In Zagreb I stayed in Swanky Mint Hostel that I can only recommend! One of the funkiest hostels I’ve ever been at! You can book it here!. If you’re not into hostels here’re other options of Zagreb accommodation.
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If you think of visiting Croatia or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it:
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