As you set out to take a tour round Zagreb, determined to see its highlights, you’ll find that you’ll end up rather enjoying it. Sitting at one of its Viennesestyle cafés, strolling leisurely around its streets and promenading through its parks, it’s like you’re starting out on a love affair with this city and its people. And pretty soon you’ll know that this is love in its early stage, the kind that only grows stronger in time.
Welcome to Zagreb
The cosmopolitan buzz of Zagreb will soon strike you. Everything is accessible on foot – from your hotel to the theatre, wandering around the old Upper Town or through the bustling streets of the more modern Lower Town, which has not lost an ounce of its charm despite the eternal march of time. Venture out and let the moment take hold. There is something special about the rustle of
leaves as you stroll through the autumn colours of downtown Zrinjevac Park. There is magic in the reflections of the gas lanterns in the Upper Town, as the songs of the street performers evoke their own emotions with their distinctive sound. As night falls, everything becomes soft and subdued; the twinkle of candles in the cathedral and at the
mystical Stone Gate; the cafés beckoning you in the twilight with their warm hues. Zagreb is special. It is a long-running tale that allows you room to write your own chapters with your own impressions, something for you to add to the story. Quite simply, Zagreb has a soul. And you… You have Zagreb...
The streets and monuments of Zagreb proudly testify to its thousands of years of history. But their greatest value is not measured by mere history alone, but by the special moments these historic attractions give us as we stand back to enjoy their beauty. While these sights await their next admirer, we in turn become richer for having befriended a place whose special features have put it on the roster of key European cities of art and culture, and whose character is earning a place in our heart.
If cities had hearts...
If cities had hearts – and some most certainly do – the beating heart of Zagreb would be Ban Josip Jelačić Square, one of the city’s symbols and the quintessential subject of its postcards. Zagreb’s central square is the first port of call and the archetypal meeting place. Imagine that you have just arranged to meet somebody but haven’t specified exactly where. Don’t worry, you’re bound to find them. When in Zagreb, do as any local would do – join the throng of people who also have a chance encounter,
without prior arrangement or fixed meeting point. Just bear in mind that all streets lead to Ban Josip Jelačić Square. The old clock has served as a beloved meeting point for generations of citizens. For many a year, people have been meeting under the clock to discuss politics, football and other issues of vital importance. With their hands full of groceries just bought at the main market nearby, they have stopped to have a coffee with
friends and catch up on gossip and talk over old times. A huge equestrian statue of Ban (or viceroy) Josip Jelačić dominates the square. Both the Ban and his monument hold important places in the stormy history of Croatia. At Manduševac Fountain, legend goes hand in hand with reality – a coin thrown into this wishing well might earn you happiness.
Zagreb’s time machine
You can almost hear the swish of a gentleman’s tailcoat or the rustle of a lady’s crinoline dress. Even though all is quiet, it seems like these sounds are all around you. You’re in the imaginary world of art and artists. You can feel yourself interacting – don’t you wish you could trade places , even if it’s just for a tiny moment? Just around the corner from the central square is one of the most romantic places in Zagreb, Zrinjevac Park. Your first impression will be of a green and floral promenade – this is where art lovers flock in droves.
Your attention is soon drawn to the pretty flowerbeds and water fountains, and to the appearance of a meteorological station. There are few towns where streets and greenery live as closely intertwined as they do in Zagreb. Zrinjevac, named after the Croatian viceroy, Nikola Šubić Zrinski, is the first in the string of eight green spaces, perhaps even the most beautiful. It is one of the most enjoyable lessons about the history of Zagreb you can take because of the art galleries that line it and the
busts of the great figures from the history of Croatia that adorn its pathways. This is where you can discover valuable works by artists of world renown or become immersed in the rich treasure trove of the Archeological Museum, which contains exceptional rarities and serves as a wonderful contrast to the daily rituals of urban life. In the heart of Zrinjevac there stands the Music Pavilion which has served as an open-air concert stage since the 19th century. History is brought to life as summer concerts continue to take place here, even up to the present day.
A must see
How many times must you have passed through this square without stopping, and how many more times could you still pass it and remain unaware of its beauty and everything it has to offer? Yet however beautiful its façades may be, however inviting the park, Strossmayer Square is much more than just a peaceful space of superficial beauty.
In the park, you are surrounded by the busts of eminent Croatian personalities, with pride of place going to Bishop Strossmayer’s monument, created by the equally famous Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meštrović. The palace housing the Gallery of Modern Arts, the temple of Croatian 19th and 20th century art, accommodates another precious collection in
the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts. The Strossmayer Gallery, housed in the building of the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts, holds the works of famous artists, mostly belonging to various Italian schools of painting, as well as masterpieces by the likes of El Greco, Goya and many others.
In your experience, it is quite possible that railway stations are rather gloomy and unattractive places – but Zagreb’s might just make you change your mind. Or at least concede that what you find here is an exception.
Another word for welcome
The building of the main railway station has born quiet witness to many human destinies, to departures and arrivals. Has it ever occurred to you how many people have passed through it since it was built at the end of the 19th century? For the many guests of Zagreb, the railway station building is their first encounter with the city, and the monument to King Tomislav, the
first medieval Croatian king, is something they will recognise from the tourist guides as one of the symbols of the city. As you look down the square, across from the equestrian monument, the park seems closed off by the Art Pavilion.
Another water fountain in the park that bears the name of the Croatian politician and writer, Ante Starčević, and a splendid building, the legendary landmark which is the epitome of Zagreb’s hospitality industry: the Esplanade Hotel.
A place to take a short break or make a final stop, a place to learn more about nature or find a shaded, seculed spot in which to take out your book and read – the Botanical Gardens are all of this and more. Despite their central location, they exude an atmosphere which is far removed from the hectic rhythm of city life.
Man and nature
The Botanical Gardens, with its refurbished Garden Pavilion, contains as many as ten thousand plants from all four corners of the globe, each of them special, beautiful and interesting in their own way. One section of the Botanical Gardens has been landscaped in the style of what Croatians
term an English park, that is to say with little winding paths and free-standing groups of trees and shrubs. Another section features the strict symmetrical forms and straight lines more in keeping with a park of French style. Having crossed the road from the Botanical Gardens, you find yourself on Marulić Square,
dominated by a monument to the Croatian writer who has given this spot his name. The area is also adorned by a masterpiece of artdeco architecture, the Former National and University Library, which is currently housing the State Archives of Croatia.
A gift to art lovers
At Roosevelt Square sit down for a moment and take in the beauty of a former lycée, with its floral patterns in the foreground, another element to add to your initial impressions of Zagreb. Venture a bit further and open the door of the treasury of art that is the Mimara Museum and find yourself face-toface with priceless exhibits which echo faraway worlds.
When you embark on the adventure to explore the treasures of the Mimara Museum, you will become familiar with one of the richest art collections in Europe. As many as 3,750 varied and valuable works of art cover many millennia, dating from the prehistoric period and running right up to the 20th century.
The exhibits in the Mimara Museum were donated to the nation and Zagreb by the collector, painter and restorer, Ante Topić Mimara. Having offered this invaluable collection to Croatia, his homeland, and in particular to Zagreb, Mimara allows Zagreb to share it all in turn with any visiting lover of art.
The Croatian National Theatre is another key symbol of Zagreb. When night falls upon the streets and squares of the city, another life is starting here – on stage. It has been this way since 1895, when the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef ceremoniously opened the theatre with a silver hammer as if saying: ‘Let the show go on’.
Let the show go on
The neo-Baroque building is the centrepiece and symbol of Marshal Tito Square, where the Well of Life by sculptor Ivan Meštrović is another striking feature. The atmosphere generated by the Croatian National Theatre is not only as a result of its memorable façade and outer beauty – it
derives from the illusion of worlds and destinies changing right before your eyes, created at the hands of inspired artists. This ambience surrounds the Well of Life monument and the nearby Zagreb University building which
always seems to be swarming with young people, and happens to be proudly guarded by another of Meštrović’s sculptures, the History of the Croats. Even the nearby Theatre Café exudes its own special atmosphere.
Lure of stage lights
The theatre stage is the place where reality gives over to the world of the imagination and where any number of human stories blend into one. You may not recall who first opened the door to this world for you, but you will remember how you entered, quietly and on tiptoes.
When the soft street lights start to diffuse the darkness, when the frenzy of urban life dies down, the curtain is lifted to reveal the magical world of theatre. The famed masters of the spoken word, sound and movement appearing either in classic masterpieces or avant-garde shows are ready to entertain packed houses with their marvellous performances.
Comedy or tragedy, one-act plays or long-running popular dramas, operas or musicals, classical ballet or modern dance, the contemporary scene or puppet shows for children – the choice is yours and sometimes hard to make. Every theatre has its repertoire, and combined they contribute to the wealth of Zagreb’s cultural life.
Ilica is the backbone of Zagreb. It can be measured either in simple kilometres or by the number of chance encounters that happen down it every day. You will never see it deserted – there is always traffic down it, whether it is just passers-by, young businessmen with their briefcases, flirty girls with their eyes cast on the glittering merchandise in the shop windows, or humming trams on the night shift.
Ilica – a street that never ends
The street was first mentioned more than five centuries ago. Ever since, Ilica has grown together with the city of Zagreb. Ilica is dynamic whatever the time of day or night. Just a few steps away from Ilica is the city’s funicular, forever shuttling up and down between just two stops, the shortest link between the Lower Town and Upper Town. At the upper terminus, you will find yourself at the foot of
Lotrščak, the 13th-century defence tower. This monument is pretty hard to miss, but even if you fail to see it, you will certainly hear it, however strange this might sound at first. For more than a century, the cannon mounted at the very top of the tower has been fired at noon every day. On Sundays, a leisurely stroll or a short tram ride down Ilica will bring you to an antique fair.
On display you will find little treasures from a grandmother’s chest of drawers, remnants of a bygone ages, keepsakes that will tell you stories of their owners and their destinies. Lined with shop windows and restaurants, cafés and pastry shops, Ilica is comprised of living elements that give the street its own special character.
Souvenirs and good-luck charms
Taking a walk through a city inevitably means coming face-to-face with its shop windows and its stores. Zagreb has a lot to offer where commerce is concerned. There are an impressive number of Croatian labels and hallmarks, products created in this country that are picked up by visitors to be enjoyed around the world.
These Croatian commodities range from the fashionable to the practical – they could be a cravat or a mechanical pen, the so-called penkala, both original Croatian inventions; the cravat is tied in with Croatia’s renown across Europe from medieval times. Zagreb’s luxuriously presented stores and galleries, gleaming shopping malls and quaint
boutiques display both domestic talent and international brand names in their windows for your perusal. Whatever it happens to be, you will be taking a piece of Zagreb home with you. Small family businesses, even in the city centre, are still prevalent – although you will also find all the glamorous international chains you would also see on the streets of London, Paris or Barcelona.
After all that browsing and shopping, you’ve earned yourself a break. Grab a seat somewhere, have a chat with a local or a fellow passer-by, stop to enjoy a decent cup of coffee and after a while, you can move on again. As you relax between errands, whether you’re waiting for a friend or just gazing at the people strolling by from the terrace of one of the many cafés around the pedestrianised zone right by the main square, you realise what they’re talking about when they call Zagreb a city with soul.
Step by step
When they are going window-shopping or moving in sync with the afternoon rhythm of the city, the citizens of Zagreb follow their instincts which take them to the heart of town, to Ban Josip Jelačić Square, Ilica and, around Flower
Square, to the streets of Gajeva or Bogovićeva. Here, without the bustle of city-centre traffic, locals stop at their favourite spots and meet people they have bumped into for years. These are the places where people treat themselves to an afternoon drink, meet with
friends and acquaintances or just sit and watch the endless stream of passers-by flowing through the streets of Zagreb. These daily rituals are part of this city’s personality and something that the first-time visitor picks up on pretty quickly.
Citizens of Zagreb give flowers for every occasion – not only birthdays, anniversaries and celebrations but for a theatre performance, as an unexpected gift or a show of affection. When Ilica, the longest and busiest street in Zagreb, casts away its professional and sober attire, and power suits are replaced by casual elegance, the name Flower Square comes to take on an added significance.
Flowers, flowers everywhere
Petar Preradović Square, as it is given to those looking at city maps or reading street signs, is Flower Square to those who call Zagreb home. This is the place where you have your afternoon cup of coffee, where you rest your feet during a shopping spree, where you can buy your flowers late at night or just delight in their scents and colours as you walk past. The whole square is a big terrace and it is
hard to know where one café starts and the other ends. Whichever you choose, you will be surrounded by bright flowers and the songs of passing street performers. Its permanent inhabitant, for more than a century now, is Petar Preradović, the great revival poet of the 19th century and an connoisseur of the human soul. If your intention is to keep a low profile and pass unnoticed through town
on a Saturday, you will be well advised to avoid Flower Square. If, on the other hand, you are eager to see somebody, anybody, this is precisely where you want to be headed for, your path lined with bright colours and wonderful scents. Petar Preradović is one of those squares where words are not needed to describe its charm and beauty.
They pass by us every day, all of them living in the same city, and each and every one of them is different. A gentleman in a hat sits in the same place every day, right on the stroke of noon, sipping coffee with his friends. There is no end to the discussions about who voted for who in the most recent elections, who won and who lost in the games of politics and football, whose numbers were drawn in the lottery – so many topics go on and on.
People come and go, cafés stay
Unlike those who seek company to fill their moments of leisure with entertainment and gossip, there are also the solitary types who find the daily papers to be their best coffee-break companions. Newspaper holders and fancy table lamps have always been symbols of the most romantic meeting spots in Zagreb.
New generations will come, but as youngsters they surely wonder how anybody in their right mind could ever look for better company than their computer or a more fulfilling world than the captivating one of the internet. And as they ponder on this, a very special virtual meeting happens online, e-mail addresses are exchanged
and then, a convenient time will be set for something more than just a virtual chance encounter – which is when the café comes into play. And this will be a new beginning, the beginning of a story of yet another coffeehouse.
If you want to get to the roots of the city, head to its biggest open-air market, the Dolac, conveniently located above the main square. The belly of Zagreb is a colourful site adorned with bright parasols; a wonderful choice of fruit, vegetables, flowers and souvenirs arranged on rows of stalls; and vendors in their different clothes typical of the region they come from.
Scents and flavours of nature
Here you can savour the sweet fragrances of fruit which grow in long-established rural orchards, and you can smell the sea at the fishmongers’ stalls around the recently renovated Ribarnica. Shopping for food at the Dolac is a ritual for many citizens of Zagreb and visitors in the know. The Dolac is not just a place where you go to buy
fresh goods, it is where friends and acquaintances meet, especially on Saturdays. The usual business, politics and other topics are replaced by lighter subjects, more appropriately suited to the leisurely weekend that lies ahead: that day’s best buys at the Dolac; the time-tested recipes which will supply the Sunday dinner table;
a recommendation for a good restaurant, or a destination for a day out which must not be missed. An integral part of the Saturday ritual is to sit over a coffee on the terrace overlooked by Kerempuh, the vagabond of lore in statue form, and talk over old times.
A flowing street
Only a few steps away from the main city square, the downtown bustle disappears as if by magic. If you want to experience Zagreb at its most relaxed, you should head to Tkalčićeva Street, lined with cafés, bars and restaurants, a beloved meeting place of the citizens of Zagreb and any visitor just passing through.
Here it is as if time has stood still. What used to be a stream called Medveščak was converted into a street; and these days a different kind of change is taking place in this locality. Glimpses of ramshackle old houses unchanged for decades peek through the colourful parasols of the many café terraces; brash new businesses and galleries stand beside age-old establishments. One thing hasn’t changed,
though: the statue of Marija Jurić Zagorka, the popular writer and faithful chronicler of Zagreb, who stands halfway down, still observing the constant to-and-fro of her fellow citizens. Whether it’s a run-of-the-mill modern-day business, or a specialist boutique displaying old customs and crafts, the overall array of restaurants, cafés, galleries and little shops gives Tkalčićeva a nostalgic atmosphere – it feels as if it has been here forever.