The changing face of Zagreb: a Croatian success story

The inland capital is experiencing a visitor boom like nowhere else in the region. Jonathan Bousfield examines the reasons behind Zagreb's growing appeal

The more popular Zagreb gets as a tourist destination, the more difficult it gets to describe it. Is it really a little Vienna? A cute cousin of Prague? A near-Mediterranean Manchester? Maybe it’s a sign of Zagreb’s ongoing success that labels like these no longer make any sense.

With its mixture of baroque beauty and nineteenth-century grit, Zagreb is, in any case, an unusual and unique hybrid, a northern European city warmed by the climate and the culture of the south. However, it’s not just this idiosyncratic mixture of northern soul and southern sunshine that has made the Croatian capital into such a favourite among visitors. Its tourist fortunes have been transformed by the kind of small-scale innovation and subtle change that has brought new vitality to the streets while leaving the historic fabric largely untouched. Zagreb’s booming bistro culture, constantly morphing nightlife scene and burgeoning cultural festivals have all, pretty much without exception, been tailored to suit the needs of the local public. The result is that odd thing that we are all looking for but very rarely find: a visitor-friendly city where the tourists feel like locals and the locals don’t feel displaced.

Zagreb is in any case ideally suited to the contemporary city-breaker who prefers to drift through a city and feel its rhythm, rather than moving from one sight to another in the manner of their guidebook-toting forebears. Unusually for a modern European capital, the main outdoor food and flower market is still bang in the centre of town, right next to the main square; you’ll see shoppers with carrot tops and parsley leaves poking out of their bags stuffing themselves into waiting trams alongside the business suits and high-school kids. The cult of fresh food is in evidence wherever you go; stalls on street corners sell an ever-changing array of seasonal fruits and berries; while the main square itself is frequently pressed into service as the main venue for food fairs showcasing salamis, olive oils and other deli fare.

Food is absolutely central to the Zagreb experience and of there is one place where you can gorge yourself giddy on a culinary conveyer belt of Balkan grills, Adriatic seafood and Central European cakes, this is it. The last few years have seen Zagreb subjected to successive slow-food, bistro-food and street-food revolutions, all of which have left a profound mark on the look and feel of the city. Pavement terraces with parasols and decking are spilling out everywhere, filling hitherto untrodden courtyards and snaking their way along side streets, all of which has taken Zagreb’s sheer strollability to a whole new level. The artisanal emphasis on doing your own thing has turned the catering trade upside down, spawning boutique patisseries, boutique ice cream, boutique coffee, boutique burgers and, of course, boutique beer. Zagreb is one of those rare places in which international franchises have been squeezed out of the high street by people with smart ideas.

Exploring the city has more to do with experiencing the ambience than any actual sightseeing. The top attractions are public spaces such as piazzas, parks and the Grič Tunnel: a World War II air-raid shelter that was opened to the public for free rather than turned into a didactic attraction with captions and a souvenir shop. Equally quirky is the Art Park, a patch of waste ground right behind the main shopping street that was taken over by the city’s street artists and turned into al-fresco gallery-cum-garden party. Sashaying down the pedestrianized, café-lined strip of Tkalčićeva is almost like being at a seaside resort, with bars of every description and a constant procession of dressed-up promenaders subtly devouring each others’ gazes.

Zagreb is all about moving and mingling out of doors, something which is given full expression by a new breed of arts festival that uses outdoor locations and an informal, no-reservations-necessary approach. Prime examples include Design District Zagreb, which transforms the area around Martićeva into one big street party every June; and The Courtyards in July, which turns the historic backyards of the old town into pop-up concert and party spaces. One of the key reasons why the reinvention of outdoor festivals has been such a runaway success is the willingness of the local tourist board to work with local creatives, reimagining public spaces and working out new ways in which Zagreb people can enjoy them. With an events calendar packed with street-food festivals, open-air film screenings and summer concert seasons, the idea of the al-fresco arty party has become something of a Zagreb trademark.

Nowhere has this emphasis on outdoor moving and grooving made a bigger impact than during the Advent season. Zagreb’s hitherto rather humdrum Christmas market has in recent years been totally transformed by the tourist board and a coalition of innovative partners into a celebration of Zagreb’s creative side, with gourmet snacks, good wine and hand-crafted souvenirs doing battle with the customary pre-Christmas kitsch. With a host of outdoor stages and micro-parties on central parks and piazzas, there’s always a feeling that something different is waiting just around the corner.