The middle of winter in Zagreb means that locals are becoming a little impatient for warmer times when they’ll be able to visit the well-loved Croatian coast.
But for a hedonist or for someone who stays in the moment, Zagreb remains one of my favorite places to experience, all year round. Here are a dozen reasons why.
A walking city
The size of the city makes it an ideal for using your personal transport – your legs. Locals say that Zagreb is “a city of walkers and coffee drinkers.” From the city center marked by Ban Josip Jelačić Square, you can walk to places of interest in the city within 20 minutes to a half hour. Light Chaser liked to walk up to Mirogoj from Gorni Grad or the Upper Town, a slightly hilly climb, in the autumn when the trees are in color, to take photos at the historical cemetery.
From the city center, you can walk to the parks within the city. Our favorites for relaxing meanders or intense skating are Jarun, Maksimir, and Bundek parks.
Jarun park surrounds Jarun Lake, which was formed from the Sava River flanking the southern edge of the park. Jarun has a sports center and in the park itself you can rollerblade or skate, bike or run. On the lake in warmer months, you can row, swim, or sail.
Maksimir Park is a historical park, opened in 1794 by Bishop Maksimilijan Vrhovac, for whom the park is named. The park is a beautiful mix of trees like oak and has meadows, creeks, five lakes, and if you’re lucky you can spot the Middle Spotted Woodpecker, considered endangered in Europe. (You might spot on his walk a friend of mine and his truffle-sniffing dog who finds a lot truffles during their daily walk, and as a result now has a small, very successful truffle business.) Zagreb Zoo is a part of Maksimir Park.
Bundek Park is another large park near the Sava River in the new Zagreb area. It is centered around two lakes, Big Lake and Small Lake. During the summer, it is an excellent place for picnics, Frisbee, jogging and if you have children, there are numerous play equipment including a giant climbing spider web structure made of rope and timber.
Croatians are like Italians in how it’s an essential to socialize over a cup of coffee. There are coffee bars all over the city, and in the city center on Nikola Tesla street is my favorite, QAHWAH, a place that roasts and grinds their coffee beans onsite.
Zagreb has won the Best Christmas Market in Europe for three years in a row. At the markets, which open in the evening and stay open late, you can sample some of the best street food like kobasice, homemade pork sausages, strukli, a flaky pastry with cottage cheese and cream in the center, and the sarma, a dish popular in the cold month consisting of meat wrapped in pickled cabbage and boiled in a soup with rice in it. Gabi’s favorite is the knedle, a sweet dumpling with cherry inside. Finally, try the fritule, basically small doughnut holes fried until they’re golden brown and sprinkled with sugar, sometimes served with Nutella or honey.
Plavac Mali wines
The plavac mali, which means “little blue” and describes the appearance of the grape in Croatian language, is a hybrid between Zinfandel and Dobričić grapes and is grown in the Dalmatian region of the country. Plavac mali often takes on the flavor of the soil or other crop adjacent to its home, so sometimes it can taste spicy if grown near peppers, fragrant if grown near lavender. A mid-range bottle of a wine made from plavac mali is often great accompaniment for a home cooked meal. Some of our favorites are from the Dingač and Postup locations in Dalmatia. Whether for a special occasion or as a table wine, there are plavac mali wines available at a range of prices, pretty much at any Spar or Konzum grocery stores.
One of the best things about food in Croatia is that you can always get organically grown produce that someone has tended in their personal garden. Dolac is a colorful and lively place to get microgreens (Gabi’s favorite), and duck (Antun’s favorite thing to cook with). In the warmer months, you can get cilantro, that fragrant herb popular in Asian cooking and makes a lot of difference in your tom yum if you are making it.
This park in the middle of the city has a fountain in its center and is a wonderful place take a break on one of its benches to watch people. In the winter, it’s one of the locations of the Christmas market and can be a nice place to wander in search of dinner and warm drink. In the warm months, it’s a great place for a picnic or as part of your walk. There are concerts that are hosted in its Music Pavilion in the summer months.
There are of course, ugly graffiti in Zagreb. But sometimes on a walk, I’ve found some great art on sides of buildings or walls in many parts of the city.
Zagreb folks love their dogs. If you love dogs, you’ll find a lot of friendly furries being walked, or hanging out the windows watching life in the streets below.
Beautiful historical buildings
Croatia was a kingdom that used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire and some of the buildings in the city date back to this period, built in the nineteenth century. One of them is the Archeological Museum, completed in 1880. During your walks, check out some of the historical residents of the city and explore the rich stories of the past. Another favorite is St. Mark’s Church in the Upper Town.
Robots in the park
During one of the walks down Ilica Street, a 6 kilometer long shopping street that runs from the Ban Josip Jelačić Square in the center of the city all the way to the more residential Vrapče district in the West side of the city, I chanced upon this exhibition in a park off of the main street. These robots from Transformers had taken over the park. It was great for the kids, and adults were entertained, too.
This is the main tourist street off the Ban Josip Jelačić Square. It is lined with restaurants and cafes. A walking street, you can stroll as you look for a good place to eat or have a drink, but watch out for bikes and skateboards. Our favorite is the pivnica or pub named Mali Medo (“Little Bear”), where you can enjoy a plate of Croatian style grilled cevapi or kobasice and the restaurant’s own beer produced by their parent company Pivovara Medvedgrad. (This is only one of two beers that Gabi will order in Croatia.)
Hrvatsko Narodno Kazalište u Zagrebu or the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb
HNK as the locals call it, is a theatre where you can enjoy ballet and opera. In the cold months, there is a season of events. Tickets can sell out pretty quickly as Croatians like their cultural performances, so if you are in Zagreb for a short time, book tickets as soon as you can at their website or, if you are in the city longer, buy a season pass.
Zagreb has many, many more things to do and places to see. If you are thinking of spending a week or so in the city, these favorites will get you started.
Many visitors to Croatia rush on to places outside of the capital without spending some time enjoying what this charming city has to offer. If you are into sensory experiences like me, slow down a little and experience Zagreb. The city has a slice of sensational just for you.