Varaždin Castle
© Ivan Borongić

20 great things to do in Varaždin

Discover the best things to do in Varaždin with our insider’s tips on sightseeing, dining and drinking


A Baroque jewel of fine palaces and churches, Varaždin was a fortress town, a Habsburg stronghold against the Ottomans. Croatian aristocrats who prospered from these border wars turned Varaždin into a lively centre of society and culture. Meetings of the Croatian parliament were held here, and the town may well have become the long-term capital of Croatia were it not for the great fire of 1776. Today, Varaždin hosts August’s Špancirfest, a ten-day-long series of parades, street performers, theatre, craftmanship and music concerts, but there’s more than enough going on any time of year to warrant the two-hour journey from Zagreb.

20 great things to do in Varaždin

  • Attractions
  • Cemeteries
  • Varazdin

Beautifully landscaped by Herman Haller, who had carefully studied the layout of Vienna’s Schönbrunn before following in his stepfather’s footsteps, Varaždin’s loveliest garden is the City Cemetery. Founded in 1773, the graveyard was a motely group of headstones interspersed with the occasional chestnut tree until Josip Matušin took charge then, most notably, his successor Stjepan Haller. The cemetery had already begun to take on a more recreational appearance by the time his stepson, Herman, was touring Habsburg Europe to gain inspiration. From the early 1900s onwards, Haller junior planted magnolia, ash and sundry well chosen greenery, and hired notable sculptors to design ornate family vaults. Statuary here includes pieces by Roberto Frangeš-Mihanović, an acquaintance of Rodin’s, and considered the father of modern Croatian sculpture – it’s his commanding likeness of King Tomislav that greets railway travellers arriving in Zagreb. His pupil Antun Augustinčić, whose Peace stands outside the United Nations in New York, is also featured here.

2. Sip craft beer in a historic palace

Hiring two renowned local creatives, designer Davor Pahić and painter Darwin Butković, to transform this atmospheric basement of the 17th-century Zakmardy Palace into a homely pub, co-owners Domogoj Marić (aka Medo) and Mark Škrinjarić (aka Škrinja) knew they were onto a winner with the Medina Škrinja. But it takes more than medieval weaponry and wrought-iron furniture to make a pub – sought-after domestic and global beers are provided on tap and by the bottle. And it takes more than craft ales to make a pub – it takes people. Medina Škrinja is a classic post-work favourite, with occasional pub quizzes, beer tastings, stand-up comedy and offbeat live entertainment keeping punters happily sat at this pretty spot set between parkland and Varaždin Cathedral.


3. Browse centuries of Croatian art

Part of the Varaždin City Museum, the Sermage Palace houses two major art collections under one roof. The first, the Gallery of Old Masters, covers the 15th to the 19th centuries, mainly focusing on the Baroque era, echoing the architectural style of the surroundings. Here Dutch and Italian works are interspersed with Croatian ones. In a separate area, Croatian 20th-Century Masters concentrates on some four dozen domestic artists, the most notable being Impressionist painter Vlaho Bukovac and renowned sculptor Ivan Meštrović, arguably the two biggest names in Croatian art. The permanent collection as a whole amounts to well over 5,000 works, and not all are show at any one time.

4. Dine amid bucolic vineyards

On the outskirts of Varaždin, Zlatne Gorica lives up to its name of Golden Hills. Within the panoramic Villa Donata, four dining rooms accommodate locals who have been making the trek here for years. Turkey, veal, steak and pork cutlet are the main dishes centrepiecing the set menus, but that’s not the only reason to visit. Alongside runs one of Croatia’s wine trails, where Graševina, Riesling and Pinot Gris, among others, are produced, and even if you’re with the car (there’s plenty of parking space), you can take in the prime views. The 130-seat terrace opens from mid-April to mid-September.


5. See how the nobility lived

Surrounded by two moats, a drawbridge and a guardhouse, sat atop a verdant hillock, the city’s iconic symbol, Varaždin Castle, was created to keep the Turks out. Referred to as Stari Grad, ‘Old Town’, it’s distinct from the more modern city centre it overlooks, although they’re adjacent to each other. Constructed from the 14th century onwards, this fortress gained its Gothic appearance when the rounded towers were created in the 16th century, when the threat of Ottoman invasion was at its height. For generations thereafter, this was the seat of the Erdödy dynasty, as can be seen by the elegant furniture and fearsome weaponry on display around what is now the City Museum. Based here since 1925, it comprises ten rooms, each in period style, with furnishing from the Baroque, Biedemeier and Art-Deco eras, among others. The City Museum also encompasses the art galleries at the Sermage Palace and the Museum of Entomology at the Herzer Palace.

6. Get alternative at Elephant

Every town needs its alternative bar and Elephant is Varaždin’s. Mash-up DJ nights, live alt/indie rock combos, Saturday sessions of electro and funk, acoustic jams, a trash film festival, a night of grunge, vinyl record fairs… Elephant also comes into its own during the week-long Špancirfest in August, with a different DJ or live act most nights, admission free. Much of the time, it’s the same crowd here but what tends to happen is that anyone even slightly edgy passing through town invariably finds their way here. Opening hours run until 2am at weekends, just before midnight the other five days of the week.


7. Admire ceramics from around the world

Free to enter, the Galerija K10 contains more than 200 contemporary ceramics – the K in K10 standing for Karameikon, the name of this extensive collection. It represents artists from some 45 countries, whose works formed part of various annual Ceramica Multiplex festivals that take place here. Artefacts come in all shapes and sizes, covering a multitude of themes – those from Mexico tend to be the brightest and most imaginative.

8. Devour divine steak

Steak is the reason many come to the Palatin, set in a pretty building on the edge of the city’s historic centre, close to the Erdödy Palace. Head chef Krešimir Novak prides himself on his meat dishes, grilled rump steak with spicy butter, T-bone steak with potatoes in foil and barbecue sauce, and grilled steak with baked potatoes. There’s veal too, with Dijon mustard and green-pepper sauce, pork medallions wrapped in bacon, and turkey with gorgonzola sauce. Pescatarians will find fillet of perch on horseradish cream, and fillet of sea bass on a fennel mousse. Home-made apple pie finishes the feast off nicely.


9. Cane the cocktails at Mai Tai

Around a sleek contemporary interior or sat on the sun-catching side terrace, guests at Mai Tai are there to get pleasantly squiffy. This can be achieved in several ways starting, of course, with the titular Mai Tai. Similarly bright, strong and affordable mixed drinks fill the menu and keep the clientele effervescent, flirty and significantly female. The other factor in the Mai Tai equation is the nargila, the hubbly bubbly pipe of Middle Eastern legend, here used for legal if multi-flavoured tobacco. For designated drivers or those attempting to go dry for the month, the fresh-fruit mixes – Dubai, Tropical Twist, Honolulu – make a healthy change from bottled juices.

10. Visit Varaždin’s oldest parish church

Between the Herzer Palace and the Croatian National Theatre, the Church of St Nicholas dates back the best part of 1,000 years – according to strong circumstantial evidence, at least. In 1756, a certain Antun Moković, parish priest at the time, asked for help in reconstructing the church here, church that was 584 years old. Furthermore, when St Nicholas was reconstructed between 1968 and 1970, Romanesque architectural elements were found, placing the original building some time in the 12th century. What you see today is partly a mid-18th century rebuild, the one Father Moković raised funds for – though much was lost in the fire that swept Varaždin in 1776. The church kept its Baroque style, and the 1,229-pipe organ was installed in the 1890s, filling the Baroque interior with soaring sounds for Sunday Mass.


11. Let two chefs cook you dinner

At Bedem, the motto is: ‘Two chefs, one restaurant’. Each award-winning in his own right, Anđelko Levanić and Zlatko Novak run the kitchen here, on the edge of the parkland surrounding Varaždin’s medieval fortress. As the restaurant’s sub-motto also says, this is a self-styled fortress of exquisite food. It’s also the pair’s first venture, their Varaždin roots and years of experience at the Hotel Turist shining through. Pork belly rolled in pumpkin seed on flash-fried green beans, and duck breast on smoked cheese and sweet Muškat wine risotto, give a hint at the imaginative concoctions on offer.

12. Delve into the world of insects

It was the noble Herzer dynasty who built this impressive palace of the same name in 1791 – but the humble Professor Franjo Košćec who was responsible for the collection now housed within it. In all, some 4,000-plus insects are on display at this Museum of Entomology, categorised according to habitat, woodland or water, meadow or below ground. Pride of place goes to the striking presentation of butterflies, but set time aside to see a replica of the professor’s study for an appreciation of how many painstaking hours it would have taken to analyse and catalogue this unique life’s work.


13. Catch the match or a live band at Barfly

A friendly fixture close to Varaždin’s historic fortress, Barfly is where regulars gather to see Croatia take on foreign opposition or watch a local act such as Marko Vukes, Vertigo or Tragovi. DJ parties are also organised, quiz nights and darts matches, not to mention drinks promotions, sangria parties and the like. Weekdays it serves coffee from 7am, at weekends, it’s cocktails until 4am.

14. Keep up with artistic trends

Every month or so, a new temporary exhibition opens at the Zlati Ajngel gallery near Varaždin’s main market. Established in the 1990s, installed in a former carpentry workshop in 1998, Zlati Ajngel focuses on providing a showcase for up-and-coming Croatian artists, in particular though not exclusively, photographers. Award-winning Marija Braut of the Zagreb School was one, the acclaimed Maja Strgar Kurečić was another. During 2018, the remit was broadened to encompass ceramics, calligraphy and painting, with names such as Lav Paripović and Sebastijan Dračić featured. Occasionally, the gallery hosts a one-off piece of performance art, such as the one staged by János Sugár in June 2018.


15. Gaze at early Baroque

Also known as the Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, Varaždin Cathedral was the first major Baroque construction in the city, built by the Jesuits in the 1640s. Bankrolled by the influential Drašković clan, architect Juraj Matota, himself a Jesuit, could fashion six chapels around a single nave, though it was the work by sculptors Ivan Walz, Filip Jakob Straub and Anton Joseph Quadrio nearly a century later on the gilded main altar and stucco ornamentation that provides that Baroque wow factor. The pulpit relief by Straub, in fact, is more Rococo than Baroque. All provides a fitting setting for the annual Baroque Evenings classical-music festival every autumn.

16. Shoot pool at the Rock Art Caffe

Close to the Drašković Palace, the Rock Art Caffe doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a place for after-dark fun. Open until midnight through the week and 3am at weekends, RAC is where drinks parties and karaoke nights dominate the agenda but most nights, you can order up a domestic beer on tap, head downstairs to the basement and spend an affordable evening shooting pool with your mates. Members of revived local football team NK Varaždin or handball players from Varteks may drop in, it’s that kind of place.


17. Sink your teeth into real Balkan meat

Super Ćevap is more than just a typical grill outlet you’ll find all over Croatia. Here you’re served hulking great portions of quality meat in sleek surroundings, the prices extremely reasonable despite the piles of food piled up on your plate. The platter for four is almost too heavy for any one waiter to carry. Ćevapi, minced-meat köfte-style kebabs, come in various sizes starting at 20kn, with lepinja flatbread and chips to accompany, and a small pile of diced onions. Cutlets, chicken and sausages also feature, and the wine is eminently drinkable.

18. See where the Croatian Parliament once sat

For a few short years until the great fire of 1776, the seat of the Croatian Parliament, the Sabor, was right here in Varaždin – at the Drašković Palace, where this noble dynasty had been based since 1616. The Croatia in question was a swathe of the north, around Zagreb and Slavonia – Dalmatia and Istria were yet to form part of the country. It was also subject to Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, who could ignore Parliament’s wishes if she so desired. Here in the historic heart of Varaždin, on the main square, the Drašković Palace still stands, with the gold-plated family coat of arms over the main entrance. The Croatian Parliament has since long been based in Zagreb.


19. Witness Varaždin’s own Changing of the Guard

Every Saturday morning at 11am between mid-May and mid-October, ranks of locally born guardsmen in blue grenadier uniforms and ceremonial hats perform an elaborate ceremony in front of Varaždin City Hall. The tradition dates back to the founding of the Varaždin City Guard itself, set up by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa in 1750. The date is displayed on the regimental flag. Using the same Austrian-made infantry rifles dating back to the 1800s, the guardsmen also take part in historic re-enactions and sundry ceremonial events.

20. Browse the local market

Every day including Sunday, from 7am to 1pm, Varaždin’s city market swings into action, a huge indoor space lined with little outlets for more specialist items, snacks and drinks. Varaždinski plac otherwise comprises row upon row of fresh fruit and vegetables, grown in farms and gardens an easy drive from town, with flowers, cottage cheeses, sour creams and sundry honeys, jams, preserves and oils also available. Look out for Varaždin cabbage, it's the town agriculture's most famous produce and is protected at a European level.  Much remains charmingly old-school, goods weighed on scales with a confusing array of little weights – don’t worry about haggling, prices for nearly all goods are the same per kilo.

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