So many people see Zagreb as an airport to fly into when they can’t get a direct flight to Dubrovnik. They’re missing out.
Here’s what I love about Zagreb
So many of the best cafes and bars in Zagreb can be found down alleyways and in courtyards. This makes every spot feel like a hidden gem, even if everyone and their mother knows about it. It also makes it easy to escape the din of traffic.
Zagreb is also full of little hidden staircases, which I can’t help but be charmed by.
Basically every cafe in Zagreb has a patio. There’s a wealth of pedestrian streets and plazas where you can bask in the sun and watch the world go by. Maybe this is why there are still so many bookstores in Croatia.
Even in the dead of winter, people are relaxing outside on patios with blankets and heaters. Canadians would be huddled inside under their Hudson’s Bay blankets at these temperatures, while Croatians are sipping cappuccinos and rakija, enjoying the fresh air.
Zagreb’s eclectic mix of architecture displays the country’s varied history. Even if you don’t take the time to visit any of the history museums in the city (of which there are several) you’ll see the different eras simply walking down the street.
Familiarize yourself with the basic architectural styles and the city turns into a scavenger hunt.
So many gentrified areas strive to maintain a certain level of grit, something that’s happened naturally in Zagreb. The facades of Zagreb lack the Disneyland sheen of a restored downtown, making it feel like a real city rather than a tourist trap.
When people think of Croatian food, they imagine piles of grilled meat. That’s pretty accurate (and delicious), but there’s way more to it than that. Croatia is seriously into organic farming. Every vegetable and fruit you’ll eat is fresh and local — you can taste it.
Each time a new fruit comes into season, it’s a big thing. You’ll see fresh fruit stands in front of the Zagreb train station — and basically everywhere else around the city.
Even in the heart of the city (or in the malls) you can buy home grown produce (and homemade rakija and cured sausages) from farmers.
So many cities have a few gems surrounded by lots of mediocre (or worse) cafes. In Zagreb there are lots of hits and few misses.
I’ve drank some pretty dreadful cups of coffee in my time. I’ve never had a bad cup in Croatia. Sure, Italy never stretched as far as Zagreb, but they came pretty close. The influence of Italy and Austria means this capital serves up excellent coffee. There’s no snobbery, it’s just the way they do it.
Thrift stores in New York may have some amazing finds, but they’re no bargain. By the time an item makes it to a shop in Brooklyn, it’s made its way through the rounds into a hyper-curated selection.
Zagreb’s second hand shops are the opposite. The selection is extra eclectic, since this is where Western Europe, the Balkans, and Iron Curtain collide. And there are actual thrift store prices, because they’re not hipper-than-thou. Factor in the exchange rate and you might want to arrive with an empty suitcase.
The biggest difference between Europe and North America — for travelers at least — is how early things close. I don’t understand what to do when everything is closed as soon as it gets dark out. Do Europeans just go to bed really early? Is everyone at home reading scripture?
It’s a huge adjustment to go from having a 24/7 grocery store on my block to knowing the shops will close tight at 7pm and aren’t open on Sunday at all.
Zagreb isn’t quite a 24/7 city, but the shops are open late and you’ll even find a few open on a Sunday. People are out in the streets at all hours. It makes my life so much easier not having to plan out my shopping trips or wonder how early the cafes close. Things in Zagreb are open when I want to go, I don’t have to think about it.
Everyone says “the people” are the best part of visiting places, but I often disagree. There have been plenty of times where a culture of creepiness, homophobia, and a hatred of foreigners has ruined my trip. Some women appear to find the leering, groping men to be part of the charm. I do not.
Croatia has none of that. The dudes are not catcalling, following, or creeping. When people realize you don’t speak any Croatian beyond “hello” and “thank you”, they switch into English without the eye rolling, sighs, and exasperated rudeness of so many other countries.
While Zagreb isn’t the most gay friendly destination, problems are rare. The laws are a bit ahead of the culture as the country embraces diversity. There are established gay bars and you’ll likely encounter gay pride flags around the city (especially during pride month, when they’re everywhere). PDAs will probably turn heads, but it’s not going to end on the nightly news.
Overall, Croatians are a friendly bunch. In Zagreb you can walk around the city without feeling like cyclists and drivers and pram-pushers are trying to run you down. People are ready to step up and help if you need it. They’ll humor your attempts at Croatian, but most people speak English.
If you think you want to drink coffee and write novels in the grand cafes in Paris or London, you might want to book a flight to Zagreb instead. You’ll find what you’re looking for, I promise.
Ready to go? Here’s everything you need to plan your trip to Zagreb.