It’s all-change in the Croatian capital. While the urban fabric of the city might look the same as it was ten, 20 or maybe even 50 years ago, life on the streets is beginning to dance to a new set of tunes. To start with the most obvious sign of change; a new breed of cafés, bars and bistros are threading their way along the central thoroughfares, heralding a new going-out culture that is slowly stretching further and further into the suburbs. Elsewhere, the evidence is more subtle; a new fashion boutique here, a Croatian design store there, and an organic delicatessen shop opening up just around the corner.
When Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 people expected the country’s high streets to adopt a more globalised look. In fact, almost the opposite has happened, with Zagreb not so much preserving its unique identity as adding to it, with a well chosen selection of image-enhancing tweaks. The quality of the eating, drinking and shopping experience in Zagreb has gone up, not because the city is becoming more internationalised, but because there is more focus on what’s local – local wines, local ingredients, local products and a typically local emphasis on the good things in life.
By far the biggest change to overtake the city is the year-on-year increase in tourist numbers, turning Zagreb from Central Europe’s best-kept secret to a veritable regional tourism tiger. The booming popularity of Croatia’s Adriatic coast has certainly helped. Zagreb, despite being a couple of hours away from the sea, is an obvious entry point for beach-bound vacationers. But that is far from being the whole story. Global travellers increasingly want to visit cities with an authentic pulse – and Zagreb, with its relatively tourist trap-free landscape of street markets, pavement café terraces, quaint courtyards and gritty-but-not-too-grungey alternative nightlife, fits the bill admirably.
Above all, Zagreb has become a mecca for relaxed urban strollers rather than visitors with a must-do agenda. People come here in order to go with the local flow rather than adopt a show-me-the-way-to-the-National-Museum approach to doing the sights. And while we’re on the subject of national, everything-under-one-roof museums, it’s probably worth pointing out that Zagreb doesn’t currently have one. What it does have is a unique Museum of Broken Relationships, a revelatory Museum of Contemporary Art, and some of the best street murals in Europe.
One of the biggest surprises of recent years has been the huge increase in South Korean visitors, largely brought about by the use of Zagreb in the South-Korean reality TV show ‘Sisters Over Flowers’. The show involved a group of well known Korean mid-career actresses on a backpacking trip through Croatia – the idea being that these hitherto somewhat mollycoddled prima donnas have to survive the experience of travelling on a backpacker budget. Zagreb’s easy-going welcome charmed the socks off the show’s participants, and a tourist stampede ensued: just under 15,000 South Koreans visited Zagreb in 2013; 46,000 came in the first half of 2014 alone.
Zagreb’s increasingly cosmopolitan atmosphere also stretches to the food. While traditional restaurants are still going strong, conserving the best of Croatia’s grilled-meat and fresh-fish repertoire, there’s a new spirit of experimentation in culinary circles, and a growing awareness that quick lunches and quality fast-food are just as important to gourmet travellers as the traditional slap-up meals. Not only can you eat well but you can eat as slowly or quickly as you like, with a new breed of bistro eateries eminently capable of running on several gears at once.
What with all these new bars and bistros around, Zagreb’s central pedestrianised strips are busier than ever, with gaggles of al-fresco drinkers and promenading strollers. Even in winter, a combination of awnings and outdoor heaters keep this outdoor eating and drinking scene alive.
Indeed, Zagreb can increasingly claim to be a city for all seasons. Spring is like one long arts festival, with literature, dance, animation and design-related happenings overlapping each other to such an extent that the local culture crowd are continually scratching their heads over which event they should actually be attending. Winter has been totally turned upside down by the transformation of Zagreb’s Advent season from a traditional mulled-wine-and-sausages affair to a month-long street party – it’s the nearest thing you’ll find to après-ski without going anywhere near the pistes.
Until recently the mass migration of Zagreb’s citizens to the coast meant that the summer going-out scene slackened off at the end of June, and didn’t really pick up again until early September. Even now, conventional wisdom dictates that the InMusic Rock Festival at the end of June, marks the end of Zagreb’s summer season rather than the beginning. However the sharp increase in predominantly young, nightlife-savvy visitors has radically changed the habits of the locals, who are now far more likely to stick around in Zagreb over the summer and spend at least part of the holiday soaking up the increasingly vibrant atmosphere of their home city. The Tkalčićeva dining-and-drinking strip now boasts the kind of summer-long buzz that simply didn’t exist a couple of years ago.
And there are quite simply more things to do. The recent inauguration of outdoor art and gastronomy festivals like Gourmingle and The Courtyards has lent a new sense of verve and excitement to the sunny season. Blockbuster exhibitions of art and history (traditionally held in the spring) are nowadays scheduled to cover at least a couple of the crucial summer months.
Elsewhere the look and texture of Zagreb has not radically changed. The one new signature building in the city centre is the Music Academy on Trg maršala Tita, a grid-patterned cube topped off by a rainbow-coloured cone designed by veteran Croatian modernist Milan Šosterič. Headlines were grabbed not so much by the building itself as the installation directly in front of it – a soaring silver needle and a golden-coloured sphere. The latter is a direct homage to Ivan Kozarić’s similarly planetoid ‘Grounded Sun’ sculpture on the pedestrianised Bogovićeva nearby. You can say what you like about Zagreb, but it has never been short of balls.