Zagreb Vs Split? Croatian Capital Or Seaside City?

Zagreb vs Split
Photo by Blue Shark/Unsplash
The links on the website are in affiliation with Amazon Associates worldwide and we earn a small commission for qualifying purchases.

Zagreb Vs Split is a choice between the two largest cities in Croatia. But it’s not quite that simple. These two destinations are actually very different. Very different indeed. One is the vibrant capital, while the other sits plum on the sun-kissed shores of the Adriatic Sea. One has over 760,000 inhabitants, while the other has just shy 200,000.

The differing location has cultivated two towns that look, feel, walk, talk, and vibe like they might not even be of the same country. That’s not to say there aren’t similarities. There are. It’s just that a trip to Split will immerse you in Roman history and pine-studded swimming coves, while Zagreb is likely to be more about Slavic art and student nightlife.

This guide can help you pick the place that you think is best for you and your travel crew this year. It’s got the lowdown on Zagreb Vs Split, with info on a series of some of the most defining features of both places, ranging from the party scenes to the things there are to do. Let’s begin…

Zagreb Vs Split: The general vibe

A square in Zagreb
Photo by Kristijan Arsov/Unsplash

You might not even believe that these two cities are in the same country, that’s how different the vibe is. Zagreb, for its part, is a cocktail of student energy, industrial grit, and Balkan charm. It looks much more like the towns of Eastern Europe, what with its open plazas and cobbled old town streets. The crowds here are invariably local, and tourists very rarely outnumber the residents (all 700k of them!). On top of that, it’s urban to the core – what did you expect of a city? – with USSR-era sprawl on the outskirts and rattling trams within.

Despite being home to over 150,000 Croatians, Split still has the feel of a sort of beach resort. The salty smells of the Adriatic Sea bathe the entire city and you’ll see yachts bobbing in the harbors. There’s a local side to it all in new town areas like Lovret and Manuš, but the place does get packed to bursting with photo-snapping travelers in the hotter months. All-in-all, Split is more relaxed than the capital and it’s pleasantly authentic in a way that other out-and-out tourist towns like Dubrovnik could only dream of being!

Winner: Split. To be honest, it’s got one of the best city vibes in Europe!

Zagreb Vs Split: Ease of travel

A boat in Split
Photo by Archana Reddy/Unsplash

This is a tricky one. Why? Well…up until a few years ago, it was a clear-cut thing that Zagreb had the busiest airport in Croatia. Then Split suddenly leapfrogged the capital in 2019, when it catered to a whopping 3.5 million passengers in a single 365-day period. Today, both places are just about neck and neck, with Zagreb touting the larger array of arrivals on flag-carrying airlines from major European capitals and Split winning when it comes to low-cost carriers like Ryanair or easyJet from smaller hubs.

If you’re not flying, then there’s a good chance that Zagreb will be easier to reach. That’s not so much down to the trains because there’s only about six or seven international links by rail (to Frankfurt, Budapest, and Munich to name just three), but mainly because there are lots of long-haul bus arrivals from Western Europe and the Balkans. Split is better served by charter coach companies from Western Europe but doesn’t have the same commercial routes, though it does have one trump card: Direct ferries from Ancona in Italy that come across the Adriatic. It has to be a draw.

Winner: Draw

Zagreb Vs Split: Things to do

Ancient Split
Photo by Tom Bradley/Unsplash

The Croatian capital is home to some of the country’s biggest cultural draws. Architectural wonders abound in the Upper Town, the oldest part of the city, where you can spy out the Catholic Cathedral of Zagreb and the gilded St. Mark’s Church, one of the most important in the country. There are museums, too, though they are a little more off-beat than in other EU capitals – the Museum of Broken Relationships among them, chronicling failed love affairs. Then you have grand plazas like King Tomislav Square and the endless high-street shopping of the Lower Town.

The action is Split revolves almost entirely around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Diocletian’s Palace. A veritable patchwork of striking historical wonders, it dates back some 2,000 years and hosts everything from Roman Temples to Egyptian sphinxes. That can take days to explore to the full, but you’ll want to leave time for swims at Bacvice Beach and Kasjuni, hikes in the Dinaric Alps, and even trips out to surrounding Dalmatian Islands.

Winner: Split. Beaches plus that UNESCO center – can’t be beaten!

Zagreb Vs Split: History

A church in Zagreb
Photo by Domagoj/Unsplash

We’d recommend beginning your journey through the annals of history in Zagreb at the Zagreb City Museum. It’s smack dab in the middle of the Upper Town, where it offers an all-encompassing vision of the past of the town from the days of Roman settlement through the ages of medieval kingships. From there, it’s onto the sightseeing – the Church of St. Mark is particularly important as it’s the oldest church in the city. More modern sights include the Art Pavilion, an 1879 Art Nouveau creation, and Ban Jelačić Square, a plaza dedicated to a national hero.

Split can trump all that and then some in our opinion. The reason? Its World Heritage Site core is somewhere unrivaled outside of Rome and Athens for its wealth of ancient treasures. It’s hemmed in by a series of 2,000-year-old gateways, showcases temples to Jupiter, and the innards of a onetime imperial Roman palace. What more could you want? Wandering around and getting lost is a history lesson in itself in these parts!

Winner: Split.

Zagreb Vs Split: Hotels

A square in Split
Photo by Bells Mayer/Unsplash

Split might be the smaller of the two cities here, but it’s certainly the more popular tourist destination. That’s why it counts almost double the number of accommodations as the Croatian capital – Booking.com returns over 1,200 options in the seaside town but just 700 or so in the bigger city inland. That means you won’t lack for choice, especially when it comes to aparthotels and beachside lodgings with views of the Adriatic…

Zagreb’s mainstay accommodations are both self-catering apartments and classic historic hotels. You can get something to suit all budgets here, too, including a good array of backpacker hostels that really get packed up when the summer Interrail season gets into full swing. Check out…

  • Swanky Mint Hostel ($$) – A bit of a posh-tel with pretty sweet rooms, this one’s a good option for budget travelers in the Lower Town.
  • Sheraton Zagreb Hotel ($$$) – Get your taste of luxury courtesy of the tried-and-tested Sheraton brand in the Croatian capital.
  • Esplanade Zagreb Hotel ($$-$$$) – Grand and opulent, the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel offers a glimpse back into the golden age of Zagreb with its architecture and style. One for the jet setters.

Winner: Split.

Zagreb Vs Split: Nightlife

A street in Zagreb
Photo by David Boca/Unsplash

Zagreb is often hailed as the nightlife hub of Croatia. At last count, the town hosted something in the region of 72,000 students. They breathe life and soul into the abundance of bars, many of which coalesce up the snaking old town drag of Ul. Ivana Tkalčića. That’s usually where people start drinking, before moving onto the heady electro and dance warehouses of Hangar Club and Opera. Oddly, Zagreb mellows a little for the summer travel season because lots of students depart, though the onslaught of Interrailers does make up for it a touch.

Then you’ve got Split. Just to confuse matters, this is probably the only town that could rival Zagreb on the nightlife front. The thing is Split’s after-dark scene is heavily seasonal. The summer brings the goods, when a city pub crawl offers a wild night in some of the best venues for just $21 a head. Another party hub awaits down in Bacvice Beach, which is more your Mykonos-style club beach than an R&R spot. Oh, and don’t forget that Split is the kingpin of the annual Ultra Festival, a multi-day summer blowout of EDM and big-name DJs that sends the whole place into overdrive.

Winner: Zagreb, but Split has fantastic nightlife too.

Zagreb Vs Split: Day trips

Photo by Marcus Löfvenberg/Unsplash

Zagreb is arguably the worst place to be if you’re looking to explore more places up and down Croatia. Why? Just look at where it is – the capital is tucked deep into the northeastern part of the country, about two hours’ drive from the famous coastline and closer to the border with Slovenia than to the riviera. There are some places to go, including the port city of Rijeka (which has some alright beaches) and the untrodden ranges of the Žumberak and Samobor Mountains (great for hikers looking to go off the beaten path).

You’ll encounter no such problem in Split, a town that’s wedged into one of the most irresistible corners of southern Europe. Let’s begin on land, where you can hop trains to see the handsome old town of Šibenik before exploring the gurgling Krka National Park and its amazing waterfalls. To the east are the rises of Mosor mountain for the hikers. To the south and west is the Adriatic, which hosts bucket-list isles like Brac and Hvar – almost all of which are accessible by direct ferry.

Winner: Split.

Zagreb Vs Split – our conclusion

Unusually, we’d actually recommend first-time travelers to Croatia head to the salt-washed second city of Split before going for the capital of Zagreb. There are a few reasons for that, but mainly it’s about access to the iconic Adriatic coast, which is really the piece de resistance of the nation as a whole. On top of that, Split has one of the most incredible old towns outside of Rome, and a buzzy nightlife that’s fueled by summer holidaymakers. Zagreb is better for an authentic look at modern Croatia, art galleries, and urban vibes.

Previous articleThe Ultimate Guide To Snorkeling in Dubrovnik: 7 Top Spots
Next articleThe 7 Very Best Islands To Visit In Croatia In 2022
Joe has been a freelance travel writer for over nine years. His writing and roaming have taken him from the colonial towns of Mexico to the chowks of Mumbai to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. When he's not putting together the next epic blog on the best Greek islands or ski fields in France, you can usually find him surfing or hiking – his two top hobbies.