Located in the far east of Croatia, sharing borders with Hungary, Serbia and Bosnia, Osijek, the capital of Slavonia, is frequently overlooked by tourists. Arguably the home of Croatia’s friendliest hosts and some of the finest examples of Austro-Hungarian cuisine in the country (Osijek majors in grilled meats and game, and smoky, slow-cooked stews), the distinct delights of Croatia's fourth largest city can be enjoyed year-round. The trickle-down tourism from Croatia’s coastal resorts has yet to be properly be felt in Osijek – meaning that, for now, you will be drinking and dancing with the locals.
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The best things to do in Osijek
Osijek may not have the sea, but that doesn't mean you can't enjoy swimming. In summer months, the open air Copacabana complex is teeming with people. Pay ten kuna and stay for as long as you like, taking advantage of multiple pools (although they can be very busy). Some locals prefer to stay immediately outside, swimming in the cool and refreshing Drava river. Be aware, this river has strong currents, so this option is only for strong swimmers and they are advised to stay near the banks. With ten pools and more available at renowned nearby spa Bizovac Toplice, their free transfers should also be taken advantage of.
There are three bridges across the expanse of the river Drava in Osijek. The rail bridge and road bridge
are pretty unremarkable, but the pedestrian bridge is one of Osijek's most recognisable landmarks and is
much loved in the city. Opened in the 1980s, this beautiful suspension bridge is the most popular link
between the river's two sides and is used by walkers throughout the daytime and evening. At night it is
brilliantly lit in an ever changing spectrum of lights. Before you visit, read up about the fascinating seven
kilometre long Suleiman Bridge that once stood here.
Osijek's cathedral is the tallest building in Croatia outside of Zagreb and boasts fantastic neo-Gothic
ornamentation. Gargoyles grimace down at you as you enter, but it's worth doing so. On particularly hot
days, the church's thick walls can offer the best escape from the blistering sun. Damaged heavily during
the war in 1991, its restoration was a priority for the city and occurred at a speed that perhaps shames the
perpetual scaffolding visible on Zagreb's cathedral (or indeed the snail's pace of restoration at Osijek's
Tvrđa). If you're a fan of impressive churches, you also perhaps shouldn't miss the cathedral in Đakovo,
some 50km to the south west of Osijek. It's one of Croatia's largest.
Osijek's zoo is located on the opposite side of the Drava river from the bustle and noise of the city, making it the perfect place for its inhabitants and visitors to relax. They do so inside the largest open space dedicated to animals in all of Croatia's zoos, which aims to provide animals with as much of their natural habitat as possible. Bison, camels, wolves, antelope, goats, bears, monkeys, big cats, birds, giraffe and meerkats are just some of the 80 species you will find across the zoo, its aquarium and terrarium.
Mediterranean and Adriatic rivas are a town's most popular walking space, where you can sit in a cafe or bar and watch the world pass by. Though inland, Osijek does not miss out on having a riva. On the contrary, it has Croatia's best. Osijek's promenade stretches down both sides of the river Drava for several kilometres. On the city side, you'll see families and couples taking an early evening stroll, rollerbladers and bicyclists. The opposite side, which is closer to wild nature, is more commonly used by joggers or youths wishing to escape prying eyes. The city side is a particularly picturesque walk, taking in most of Osijek's best sights including the old city walls and pedestrian footbridge.
Osijek is nothing if not a city of intrigue. Previously ruled by Turkish, Austro-Hungarian and Roman authorities, its architecture is often a bewildering jumble collated over many eras. Rumours persist that a whole network of tunnels pass through the city, reaching well into Baranja county. Were these last utilised secretly by occupying Nazi forces, as local rumour goes? Partial evidence of Osijek's underground network can be found in Tvrđa. The catacombs on the opposite side of the river are another intriguing, forgotten space, providing a unique backdrop on some summer nights to music parties and festivals. Just up and to the left of these is a modern area of outdoor worship, which is well worth a look.
Restricted by the river, Osijek's expansion has been elongated. This has resulted in the city having three centres. The easterly Donji Grad, a marketplace and social hub, isn't notable for visitors. Central is the old town centre, Tvrđa and to the west, the city centre in Gornji Grad. Out of town shopping centres have sadly leeched a lot of the life from here, but it's worth a look. Kapucinska feels like a mini version of Zagreb's famous Ilica. It opens out onto trg Ante Starčevića which boasts, like the adjoining Županijska, some fine Austro-Hungarian architecture. Sadly, much of it in the square is blighted by gaudy, big brand advertising hoardings. Zagreb learned a few years ago not to tarnish the vista of its central square with such cheapness. Hopefully Osijek will be next.
Slavonia Baranja is Croatia's gastronomic centre, its produce famous throughout Europe. Taking influence from Hungary, Slavonia offers the best Kulen (a low fat, paprika and garlic pork sausage) plus much of the premium fruit and veg on plates at exclusive seaside restaurants. Eat the spicy fish paprikaš as a soup first, then take on the fish, as it has many bones. Perklet is a thick stew best made with strong beef or venison flavours. Arguably Croatia's best dish, Čobanac is a spicy stew that's best sampled with wild meats like boar and venison. Try them at Osijek's Slavonska Kuća, Kod Ruže, Vrata Baranje or Čarda kod Baranjca, in Bilje at Ugostiteljski Obrt Varga or out of town at Citadela or Darócz in Vardarac or Didin Konak in Kopačevo.
Pineapple on pizza may be scoffed at, but only a fool would complain about non traditional pizza toppings after trying Slavonska pizza (no, it doesn't have pineapple). This meat extravaganza is loved by those in the know all over Croatia, nowhere more so than its birthplace of Slavonia. With ham, bacon and paprika spiced sausage, like much continental Balkan food, this is a veritable festival of pig. Usually onions, mushrooms and a few chilli peppers also appear, sometimes sour cream too, but for a special treat ask for an egg on top. The three best in Osijek are made by Lipov Hlad, Pizzeria Novi Saloon and Rustika, the latter, a charming and popular restaurant, being the nicest place to eat it at (all three do home delivery).
The word is out about Croatian wine, but you're more likely to hear about their reds. You'll pay a minimum of 70kn, usually more like 100kn, for a really nice bottle of Croatian red. But, if you know what to look for, a fantastic bottle of Croatian white wine can cost as little as 30 or 35kn. These brilliant bargains are usually from Slavonia, places like Đakovo and Orahovica in particular. Get to grips with the best Croatian red and white wines in Osijek at the casual Vinska Mušica, with its simple outdoor area, the overtly posh Muzej Okusa or the simple Vinoteka Vinita. All have excellent wines available by the glass.
First produced in 1697, Osijek made Osječko is the first Croatian beer ever produced and their lager is the best of all standard beers in Croatia. Their black beer and lemon is also the country's best radler by a long, long way. Domestic and other craft beer options have exploded in Croatia compared to the same old menu of lagers available just 10 years ago. Many places now have their own small breweries and Osijek is no exception. Osijek's locally brewed Beckers is easily one of Croatia's best pale ales. General Von Beckers pub on Tvrđa is a great (and cheap) place to try it. Osijek's other best places to drink craft beer are Beertija, Gajba, Pivnica Runda, Podrumčić and the city's annual Craft Beer Festival, a major date in the city's calendar.
Some regard Osijek's music scene as tame compared to earlier years, but it still thrives, not least to service the city's sizeable university population. At the end of term, look out for free concerts around the campuses, or in the outdoor areas Vega and Kazamat at Tvrđa. Extreme sport event Pannonian Challenge and Osijek's Days Of Wine usually have good music programmes here. 14 year old UFO Festival does a great job, although some international guests wouldn't go amiss. You can hear local rock acts weekly at places like Cadillac, Hir and sometimes Exit and Slavonia's Tamburaška folk music at Fort Pub. Try and catch young Tamburaši Veritas there on a Thursday night, they're the best.
Start at Red Fićo, a small red car overcoming a tank at the intersection of Trpimira and Vukovarska. The nearby, conjoined parks of kings Držislav and Petar Krešimir hold the vivid 'Dying Soldier' by Robert Frangeš-Mihanović, plus the modern, mother and child and Miroslav Krleža statues. The first statue outside Spain depicting Pablo Picasso is near the riva. Statues of Croatian violinist Franjo Krežma, president Franjo Tuđman and writer Augusto Cesarcu occur on the walk between Kapucinska and the huge Monument to Croatian War Veterans at the end of trg Slobode. The main man stands imposing in Ante Starčević square, a modern seating sculpture just to his side. There are more besides, such as the Sakuntala and sphinx near the centre's cinema and Mother Of Cats too.
Much of Osijek's youth, like their clothes-shopping parents, prefer to go to out of town shopping centres where the multiplex cinema chain can be found. Such is the drain of life from the city centre by such attractions that Osijek's Cinema Europa no longer shows films, although the occasional concert is held there. But one city centre cinema remains and there's a real charm to visiting the art deco-like building of Cinema Urania. The cinema is comfortable, it's no problem to take your own food and drinks and they show all the recent blockbusters as well as boasting a well considered art house and foreign language selection.
Although not very large, Tvrđa is one of the most charming city centres in Croatia and a must see both by day and by night. The citadel is protected on three sides by green areas and bordered on the fourth by the river Drava. Tvrđa, Osijek's old town, is the best preserved and largest ensemble of Baroque buildings in Croatia. Highlights to see in the daytime include its museums and St. Michael's Church. Do its twin towers still carry a flavour of the Mosque on whose foundations it is built? In summer sit under one of the hundreds of sun shaded chairs in the central square, drinking coffee alongside locals. At night, Tvrđa becomes even more alive as it holds many of Osijek's best bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
At the far end of Tvrđa, alongside the river Drava, are the old city walls of Osijek. This Hapsburg fort, which was the largest and most advanced on the border with the Ottoman Empire, is an extremely impressive sight from the banks of the river. In summer evenings, friendly youths sit atop the walls drinking beer, so daytime visits are recommended if you want to walk soberly across the architecture yourself. Nightclub Outside is on one of the other walls, a superb location. The impressive Vodena vrata (water gate) is the only one which survives from the four that were originally built and leads now to a recently renovated area with a moat. The surrounding areas have also been promised a much needed renovation, although progress appears to be quite slow.
Osijek has a lot of great bars, many already mentioned. Lots stay open late at weekends. Dali stays open until 3am every night and is lovely in summer when the (great) service and seating move outside. Exit in Tvrđa is an alternative bar with loud DJs and a nice, young crowd who sometimes dance. Nightclubs Q-Club, Rockatiki and Kaos, all play turbofolk, the two latter venues to a younger, less flashy crowd. Tufna is the world's most frustrating club; you'll wonder how a club with three floors can have such bad music on each. It is very popular with young people. Epic is perhaps the most credible, holding specialist monthly nights of house, techno and hip hop although Oxygene is also good; their events range from live jazz to techno.
Slama Land Art, a multi purpose space, located at Kamila Firingera 3 in Tvrđa, offers a genuine reflection of the proletarian art and culture of Osijek. They host jazz evenings, art exhibitions, daytime art classes and art picnics, with grass sculptures made by in-house events curator Nikola Faller. It is to his credit and that of sympathetic members of the local council that this vibrant and unique arts space exists. Look out for the live music Slamanje events, curated by Osijek band Harvo Jay, which invites bands from all over Croatia and further still. The young crowd at these events is great and Harvo Jay, who regularly play, are certainly one of Croatia's current best alternative rock bands.
Osijek is a very green city, its air fresh and clean. You can navigate much of Osijek using tree lined footpaths and parks, barely spending time along a road. And the best way to do so is by bicycle. Osijek, like the rest of Slavonia, is almost completely flat, meaning cyclists of any ability can tackle the town. As well as the parks, there are clearly designated cycle paths over much of the city. Bicycle is also one of the best ways to cover the extended routes on either side of the river Drava
Osijek is almost equidistant to the borders of Serbia, Hungary and Bosnia. The former two are particularly close, making day trips more than viable. Spend the day in Novi Sad, Serbia's second largest city, taking in the Petrovaradin Fortress above the river Danube. The city has a similar Austro-Hungarian feel to Osijek, but is much larger. Alternatively, cross the border to Hungary and visit a hot spa, the city of Pécs or sample their different cuisine. Tenkes Csárda, north of Harkány, is a countryside Hungarian restaurant. Try the whole corn-fed goose liver (ethical foie gras) in a rich onion and paprika sauce with rustic bread for a meal you won't forget. If you're lucky, musicians playing traditional folk instruments such as the cimbalom will be present.