Newly swish and business-like, the Croatian capital still lacks the big-city vibe of Vienna or Budapest, its empire-era mate – but that’s where its charm lies. Set by Mount Medvednica, where the last foothills of the Alps meet the Pannonian plain, the city is closer in character to its Central-European cousins than Dalmatian resorts Split or Dubrovnik. It’s compact, too – you can walk to most appointments, and nearly all trams go via focal Jelačić trg.
Everything here has a time and place, an order common to German-speaking Europe but with a Balkan sense of fun and, after dark, hedonism. Tourist and business travellers have been encouraged by a crop of new hotels – the local authorities have set their sights on hosting conferences and conventions. Budget air links with the UK have increased visitor figures, as have a handful of music festivals in the summer.
Historically, Zagreb was comprised of two rival hilltop settlements, Gradec and Kaptol, the site of today’s Sabor, or Croatian Parliament, and the Cathedral, respectively.
Light sightseeing duties may involve a hike around the national institutions of the cobbled Upper Town before a stroll on the other side of the main square around the landscaped greenery and grid-patterned streets of the more business-like Lower Town.
These oldest and most tourist-friendly parts of the city are set north of the Sava and for the most part the river plays no role in the city’s urban dynamics. Across it, in the formerly neglected Novi Zagreb, now stands the new Museum of Contemporary Art, a major feature on the cultural landscape.
Nearly all of Zagreb’s main attractions stand a short walk from the main square, or involve a quick hop up the hill from Ilica to the Upper Town via the modest funicular. Most head first for the neo-Gothic twin towers of the Cathedral, which towers over the city’s landmark Dolac market. Further over on Gradec, is a cluster of sights around the main one of St Mark’s Church.
Around the Lower Town, grandiose sights such as the Mimara Museum, Strossmayer’s Gallery of Old Masters and the Museum of Arts & Crafts stand in pleasant, verdant surroundings as landscaped according to 19th-century city planning.
Serious sightseers should invest in a three-day Zagreb Card (www.zagrebcard.fivestars.hr, 90kn) from the main tourist office on Jelačić.
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Zagreb is changing with the times. As trendy, cosmopolitan fusion venues find a foothold, full-blown traditional restaurants still offer cheap, lunchtime deals. The bar scene, too, features fashionable spots for cocktails and age-old establishments little changed since Tito's day.
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Modernity has changed the local shopping experience. Among the many gleaming new malls are the Kaptol Centar and nearby Cascade, contrasting strongly with the Tito-era shopfronts along old-school Ilica, the main street running west from Jelačić trg, the traditional hub of Zagreb’s shopping scene. Nearby streets contain big-name shops and Croatian designs. Look out for I-GLE, Zagreb’s most inventive fashion store, and Prostor, part boutique, part gallery. Sheriff & Cherry stock revived, Yugo-era retro Startas trainers, the must-have local modish item. North of Jelačić, bar-lined Tkalčićeva is slowly filling with funky jewellery galleries and boutiques. On Sundays, don’t miss the bric-a-brac market on Britanski trg. The main Dolac produce market is a must even just to browse, while Natura Croatica and Bornstein stock top Croatian gourmet items.
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As Zagreb develops as a destination in its own right, hotel options continue to grow, especially where mid-range venues are concerned. At the high end, the Sheraton Zagreb and the Westin, with its state-of-the-art fitness centre, as well as the splendid Regent Esplanade, still reign supreme. A new crop of business hotels set near the airport is helping to push the city as an international conference and congress hub. The hostel scene, which was poor a few years ago, has a made a sharp turn upwards with the central Fulir and Buzzbackpackers leading the charge. Short-term rental can be organised through a link on the Zagreb Tourist Office website (www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr).
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For a city that feels small, you’ll find plenty of ways to have some fun and get into a little good-natured trouble until the wee hours of the morning. Within striking distance from the main square, you’ll find mid-sized venues for bands to play (KSET, Tvornica); decent jazz venues (BP Club, Jazz Club); and a mess of others in between. A scene set around Lake Jarun – quality DJ clubs with pedigree (Aquarius), glitzier ones (Best, Gallery) – is moving into town with the recent popularity of relative newbies Sirup and Shamballa. As well, Lemon opened (in 2009) directly in the centre. All this adds up to more convenience for those who’d rather not pay inflated taxi fares. Another disco corridor, along Ribnjak Park, is just a ten-minute waltz from the centre and includes the mainstays Purgeraj, Fanatik, and Gjuro II and the reincarnation of a longstanding pillar of the local night scene, Papagaj.
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