King Tomislav Square
© gaparovi

A cultural guide to Zagreb in summer

Zagreb is fast becoming the outdoor capital of Central Europe. Just don’t forget to pack a picnic blanket, says Jonathan Bousfield

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Zagreb is a Central European city with a Mediterranean sense of the good life; especially when it comes to spending as much time as possible outdoors. Summers are long and dry, and the emergence of a whole new breed of al-fresco festivals and pop-up events have filled the calendar with things to do. For the visitor, the Croatian capital has become one of Europe’s best destinations for picnicking in parks, strolling through vibrant streets, and drifting from one social hub to the next. 

The move to bring culture out of doors and into the streets began five years ago and has been picking up speed ever since. Festivals have been reimagined as boutique pop-ups or niche garden parties rather than institutional events aimed at a traditional concert- or gallery-going audience. 

The regular, high-prestige diet of film and performing arts festivals is still on offer, but has now been joined by a more informal, inclusive menu of events like Museums Outside the Museums, with its interactive displays and vintage fashion shows in May; Design District, which turns the Martićeva area into a cluster of pop-up galleries in June, or The Courtyards, which opens up some of the Upper Town’s most beautiful backyards in July. Paced throughout the summer are outdoor food festivals covering everything from cake-baking to burgers; while Little Picnic spreads deli stalls across a small garden square in the Upper Town.

Ban Jelačić Square /© Davor Rostuhar

Hitherto underused spaces have been transformed into unlikely venues for summer-long street parties. A patch of waste ground behind the main shopping street has become the Art Park, an impromptu hillside garden café backed by mural-covered walls. A rectangular stretch of lawn in the Upper Town hosts the Gradec Summer Cinema, with cult classics screened to the picnic-blanket set on summer evenings. The Upper Town’s scenic promenade, the pedestrianized Strossmayerovo Šetalište, becomes “Strossmartre”, with arts-and-crafts stalls and a nightly selection of live music.  

The festival wave is spreading out to colonize more and more areas of the city, Early July’s Plac-Mljac brings gastronomy and street entertainment to Trešnjevka, site of one of Zagreb’s most popular suburban fruit & veg markets; while the Pop-Up Summer Garden (from June through to September) lures revellers to the leafy neighbourhood of Tuškanac – it’s right next to Zagreb’s huge, forest-shrouded open-air cinema, another beneficiary of the growing enthusiasm for entertainment under the stars.

Even traditional cultural flagships like Animafest (the big international celebration of the animated film) have adapted themselves to the outdoor trend, setting up screens in a central park to bring in family audiences that wouldn’t normally buy tickets for the shows. Massive attendances for the orchestral and opera events of Zagreb Classic, held on Tomislavov trg in July, demonstrating that high culture can work among the fountains and flowerbeds just as well as a street-food festival or a pop-up cocktail party.  

The Courtyards /© Marija Gašparović

The sudden boom in outdoor festivals has had a profound impact on a city which, not so many years ago, was considered a rather dull destination for high-summer travellers. Cultural life in Zagreb has traditionally taken a breather at this time of year; theatre and concert seasons wind up in June and don’t start again until October, while blockbuster art exhibitions are habitually reserved for the autumn and the spring. Popular wisdom always maintained that the city’s inhabitants deserted the city en masse for the delights of the Adriatic coast. When events like The Courtyards kicked off 5 years ago, taking the very risky step of organizing an event in the supposed dead period of July, organizers were surprised to discover that it brought local people out of hiding. Zagrebians who were assumed to be sunning themselves on some Adriatic rock was actually mooching around at home, waiting for an excuse to go out and socialize. 

With so many summer events now running concurrently at different locations, the whole city exudes a celebratory mood, as if the Riviera-town vivacity so familiar to visitors to the Adriatic coast has been imported lock stock and barrel to the landlocked capital city. 

Zagreb’s success in reinventing itself as Parklife central has an awful lot to do with its emergence as a winter destination, with the city’s quirky, boutique-style Advent season suddenly becoming a major European attraction. The Advent approach, with its gourmet street food, outdoor stages and a general air of merriment, has been repurposed as an all-year-round phenomenon.  

Masimir Park /© Borislav Marinić

And even when there isn’t an al-fresco festival going on, Zagreb folk are much more likely to treat public space as a summer chill-out zone than they ever used to be, flopping down on the lawns of Zrinjevac, or heading to Maksimir Park with its grassy open spaces and woodland trails.

Summer in Zagreb has turned into one long picnic. Just remember to take a blanket.

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