Less frequented than the spectacular Dalmatian riviera and the marinas of Hvar, the Croatian capital is tucked away in the hills in the far northwest of the country. But is Zagreb worth visiting? Totally! Sure, you don’t have access to the sparkling Adriatic Sea or the idyllic Croatian islands, but there’s plenty to make up for that…
Elevated 122m (400 ft) above sea level, the city spills off the sides of the Medvednica Mountain, rolling into an old center from forested ridges. It’s home to a quarter of Croatia’s total population – a quarter! So, get ready to feel the beating pulse of a true Balkan metropolis, complete with all the nightlife and cafe culture, the art galleries and shopping that goes with it. On top of all that, Zagreb is a central hub of culture and academia, with a whopping 72,000 students bringing energy and life to its districts.
So, is Zagreb worth visiting? Yes! But don’t just take our word for it. Check out the following seven reasons, which run through a couple of the highlights of the big city; you know the things you should enjoy before high-tailing it to the glowing pebble coves on the Croatian coast…
The culture and art
Some travelers are interested in rest and relaxation, others in natural exploration. However, many travel to learn about new cultures. And if you want to do that here, then there’s arguably no better place to do it than in Zagreb. The city is bursting with museums and art galleries, exhibits and shows.
One particular museum of note is the Museum of Broken Relationships. It might sound different but that’s exactly what’s so appealing about it. The museum is full of real objects that people have donated after a breakup. Each one comes with a story about why the relationship failed and floundered.
Here’s a selection of other museums that we think all culture vultures should have on the to-do list for the Croatian capital…
- Zagreb City Museum – Learn all about the history of Zagreb itself, including its religious and industrial past.
- Museum of Contemporary Art – This one’s for lovers of modern art. The striking exterior design is done to a plan by Igor Franić. Inside, there’s 12,000 works by iconic Croatian artists.
- Mimara – The Mimara hosts one of the most celebrated collections of painting in the country. Come to see works by the likes of Delacroix, Manet, and Degas.
The lively student vibe
Zagreb is also famed for its university: Zagreb University. It attracts learners from around the world and has a student population of over 70,000! Yep, 70k, which is just shy of 1/10 of the whole population of the town. That’s a HUGE proportion and it ensures there’s a real buzz about this place whenever term time is on (up until June and then again from September).
The Lower Town is the hub of student life in the city. It’s where the main campus and faculties are located, but also where you’ll find folks spilling out of the lecture halls and straight into the bars. On the weekends, they’ll creep up into the walking street of Ul. Ivana Tkalčića, one of the beating hubs of nightlife in the city (more on that later, though).
More than anything, the soaring number of students in this town keeps things young and vibrant. It ensures there’s a steady flow of coffee shops doing artisan roasts and eateries experimenting with international cuisine. It also means you get fantastic touring exhibits in the art galleries. There are also a few nights of the year when there are planned parties for the student crowds and the city goes WILLLLLD.
It might seem like a strange question to ask when we’re talking about the largest city in the country, but is Zagreb worth visiting if you also want access to nature? Well, fortunately enough, it is! the highlands of northern Croatia creep right up to city limits. You can even see the wooded ridges rising above the town center.
The closest of the lot is the peak of Medvednica. That hits just over 1,000 meters high on the northern side of the city. It’s got a handful of hiking paths and even the winter ski slopes of Sljeme. This is a tough one to do because it starts at a low level, but folks of moderate fitness levels shouldn’t find it too hard to reach the lookout points on high.
But it doesn’t end there. You can also drive south from town to hit the leafy wetlands of the Lonjsko Polje, a land of forests that poke from swamps and wildflower meadows that spill across the Bosnian border. Nature Park Papuk is also less than an hour’s drive, offering canyons and roaring waterfalls.
It’s small enough to be easy to navigate
While large cities come with plenty to do and a thriving nightlife, they can often increase stress. That’s because they’re often so spread out. Getting from point A to point B can be a real pain and it’s all too easy to get lost. You’ll be glad to hear, then, that Zagreb is incredibly easy to navigate. The main attractions are all within walking distance of each other and the city center is surprisingly small.
In fact, you rarely need to use public transport. Walking allows you to get to know the city more intimately, to exercise, and to save money, not to mention the environment. That’s why, when deciding whether to visit Croatia or somewhere else and asking yourself ‘is Zagreb worth visiting’, you’ll be swayed towards saying yes. For many travelers, the ideal destination is a place that has all the benefits of a big city but still feels small.
Fun fact: Zagreb is home to the world’s shortest public transport journey. This is in the form of a funicular that takes you from the bottom of a hill to the top. That’s perfect for when you can’t be bothered with the steps. Also, it has the world’s shortest bus line: route 150 that takes just 10 minutes to get from the first stop to the last. This shows just how small and easy to navigate it is in Zagreb city center.
Zagreb is something of a culinary hub of Croatia. It’s got the traditional cuisine of the Balkans by the bucket load, but it also adds in an edge of creativity. That comes in the form of international kitchens doing Greek food, Turkish kebabs, Middle Eastern mezze – you name it.
However, we think you should always start with the age-old foods that the locals love to eat. They include:
- Lamb cooked under the bell – A strange name for a dish but really does what it says on the tin. This is lamb, slow-cooked under a clay pot that’s shaped like a bell.
- Fish soup – Zagreb might not be on the Adriatic but it’s not far and the town gets some fantastic seafood to make this traditional broth.
- Strukli – Traditional pancakes done simply with a topping of cottage or creamed cheese.
When it’s time to branch out into the more experimental cooking that Zagreb is becoming known for, you should book into the acclaimed Pod Zidom Bistro & Wine Bar, a chic fusion kitchen with sommelier drinks lists. There’s also NAV, a prime fine-dining establishment that’s run by a celeb chef.
Is Zagreb worth visiting if your main aim is to learn more about Croatian history? Absolutely!. There are hints of the past on every street and in every neighborhood in the capital. Truth is, Zagreb is thought to have been founded sometime around the 3rd century AD by the Romans as the river town of Andautonia, so there’s certainly plenty to get through!
Over the centuries, different styles of architecture have been brought in and added. Downtown Zagreb was mostly constructed in the 1800s but many other buildings date back to the 17th century and even earlier. You should definitely take some time to see the Cathedral of Zagreb. That’s stood for more than 1,000 years and was once even destroyed by Mongol raids. The colorful rooftops of wonderful St. Mark’s Church are also a must. So, too, is the Lotrščak Tower, which is a part of the medieval fortifications of the city.
There’s no doubt that the best way to experience the rich history of the town is by actually being there and wandering the streets. You’ll feel deeply connected to Zagreb’s proud past as well as its thriving present.
The parks and gardens
There will be times when you want a taste of the countryside but don’t have the time to trek out into the mountains. Fortunately, you can experience the tranquility of nature without leaving Zagreb city center. That’s because the town is home to countless parks and gardens, each of which have their own unique vibe.
The Lower Town area alone is home to seven spacious parks, all of which are open to the public every day of the year. Our favorites include the riverside retreat of Bundek City Park. That’s got playgrounds for the little ones and even a large pebble beach where people come to BBQ and sunbathe in the summer months. For something grander, head north to Zrinjevac, a regal place surrounded by 1800s mansions and topped by gurgling fountains.
The Upper Town of the city has more relief, since this is where the mountains begin. There, the parks hit a zenith at the Art Park Zagreb, which is more like an open-air craft fair from the start of summer to the end. We also love a stop at the uber-quiet Rokov perivoj, where you can spy interesting statues and get some sweeping views of the town spreading out below.
Is Zagreb worth visiting? Our conclusion
Move over Hvar. Skip it Dubrovnik. The capital of Croatia would actually be up pretty darn high on our bucket-list for this corner of the Balkans. We wouldn’t say it’s the place for a sun-soaked vacation on the Adriatic – the nearest beaches are about two hours’ drive away to the southwest. What it is great for is a city break filled with art and culture, packed with museums, and fizzing with student-led nightlife. You shouldn’t need more than four or five days, but you will get to see somewhere truly enthralling that many visitors to Croatia miss.