Zagreb, Croatia

Where: Zagreb, (capital of) Croatia

When: July 2015. Page last updated October 2015.

Why? We ended our honeymoon in Zagreb. We flew home from here as it’s the main international airport for the country.

Also on our honeymoon we visited Dubrovnik (and Bosnia), Korcula, Hvar and Split.

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Intro

Zagreb is a nice European capital city. It has an abundance of cool bars, restaurants and shops, and enough things here to see to occupy you for a weekend. Most of the city is modern, pleasant and nice, though there are still remnants of the concrete communist tower blocks away from the imperial centre.

Zagreb is very different to the coastal cities of Croatia. Zagreb is an Austrian-like, imperial, winter city, whereas the coast is a summer playground, more Italian-like, with vinyards, medieval churches and red tiled villas.

Zagreb was lovely in the summer sun, with streetside restaurants, lovely lounging parks, hustle and bustle and art. I imagine though that the city is even better in winter. It felt like a city built for snow, with the mountains on the edge of town, the Bavarian style buildings, dark cosy bars and cake.

For us, Zagreb was a city of layers, and the longer we were there the more hidden things we discovered and the better the city got. For example, at the station we discovered that there was a shopping centre literally under our feet, but there were no signs to this and no indication this was there. We discovered the best bar street was one street over from where we’d gone out, after we’d gone out for the night; and we discovered a pedestrianised, restaurant area, one street over, after we had spent hours walking to find somewhere to eat. Maybe we should have bought a better guide book.

Anyhoo – I liked Zagreb and I’d happily go back. It’s not a huge city, but it’s friendly and fun and a nice place to spend a day or two.

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Maps


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Getting there, getting away and getting around
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Jeff and I travelled from Split to Zagreb by train. It took about six and a half hours, but it was a really beautiful journey, up through the empty-wilderness that is inland Croatia.

In Split, the main train station is by the harbour. I bought the tickets from the ticket office two days before we departed, though the train wasn’t too busy and we possible could have just rocked up and still have gotten a seat. We had allocated seats on a nice modern train. The ticket cost us 208 kuna each + 8 kuna for our seat reservation (£22).

There were loads of take away places next to the station in Split, but no refreshment facilities on the train.

The train journey from Split to Zagreb is absolutely gorgeous. We weaved our way up country, around valleys and mountains, past castles and small, local communities; through 18 tunnels (we counted), over viaducts, through dark forests. It was wonderful to watch the country change from the Italian-style, Mediterranean dry coast, to the Austrian-style, forested, mountainous inland. It was like travelling between two distinct countries. It was also interesting as we passed many derelict buildings, remnants from the war; a stark reminder of what happened in these areas. We also passed through many small communities and each local station had a uniformed station master, with a flag and a whistle.

We could have flown from Split to Zagreb. The flight takes about 40 minutes and costs about £50, but we wanted to see more of Croatia, so we decided to take the train.

Zagreb train station is not right in the centre, but at the end of an avenue of parks that lead to the centre. The train station has all the facilities you could need, including a supermarket, three bakeries, a coffee shop, magazine shops and an information centre. There is also a huge shopping centre with a food court and a McDonalds underneath – which we didn’t discover until our second day. On our first night, we spent ages wandering around looking for food (we didn’t want bakery products again), but we couldn’t find anything. We walked the streets for a long time, before ending up back at the station bakery. There was a shopping-wonderland under our feet all along and we didn’t know it.

You can find out about travelling by train in Croatia (including how to travel all the way there by train), on the Seat 61 website.

Local buses and trams cost 10 kuna per ticket (about £1), and a one-day pass is 18 kuna. So if you’re going to do two journeys, it’s worth getting the pass. You can buy tickets on the bus and the drivers have change. When you have your ticket you have to stamp it. The buses were clean, pretty easy to navigate and the drivers friendly.

The local bus station is by the main train station, on the other side of the train tracks. To get there you go through the underground shopping centre, which you access by the stairs at the end of the platform (there were no signs for this).

We only used the local bus to go to the mall by the arena. Otherwise, we walked everywhere. There is a good tram system too, but we didn’t use this as we were based in the centre.

Google Maps has Zagreb public transport on its directions section, and we used this to navigate the city and to find out which buses we needed to get.

The airport bus is run by Croatia Air and costs 30 kuna (about £3). This departs form the long-distance coach station, which is near the main train station. If you’re looking at the main train station, walk about a mile to the left (along the arty wall), then the coach station is just on the other side of the train tracks.

The coach departs from a separate section of the coach station. It leaves from the Croatia Air office, which is the train tracks side of the bus station.

I paid for my ticket on the bus and the journey took about 30 minutes.

You can get the airport bus times from the Bus Croatia website.

Currently Zagreb Airport is pretty small and there are not a lot of facilities. Air-side there was only a small coffee shop and a duty free shop, so nowhere to get reading material or a big meal. Apparently, the government is going to build a huge airport in Zagreb in the next few years, so that this can become a European hub, so this may get better soon. www.zagreb-airport.hr.

At the moment, the airport is shared with the Croatian airforce, and as I was boarding the plane there were loads of cool fighter jets taking off. Unfortunately, Jeff’s flight was delayed for half an hour because of the air force and he nearly got stuck in Switzerland, poor thing.

I flew back from Zagreb with British Airways and the flight cost me about £100. The flight was a bit below par to be honest. The plane was a bit run down, the service kind but brisk and the food was very basic. I thought BA was prestigious, but actually, it wasn’t that great.

BA flies from Zagreb to London Heathrow and Newcastle. Other airlines that fly to Zagreb include Flybe (Manchester and Edinburgh) and Croatia Airlines (Heathrow). To find the cheapest flights, we tend to use SkyScanner.

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What we did on our honeymoon

Arena Centar Mall

Sometimes when we’re travelling we just like to do normal things – but in a foreign country. On our first day in Zagreb it was raining quite heavily, so we decided to head to the out of town mall. We wanted to buy some presents and souvenirs to take home and we wanted to visit C&A, which we no longer have in the UK. And on a wet Monday in Zagreb going to the mall seemed like the best thing to do.

The mall that we visited was out by the stadium. We used Google Maps to find out which bus we needed and the timetable. We caught local bus 234 from the local bus station, which is underneath the train tracks of the main train station.

Bus 234 took about 20 minutes to get to the stadium and the ticket cost 10 kuna (£1). We bought the ticket on the bus and the bus driver was really helpful and friendly, helping us with directions.

Arena Centar Mall is pretty cool: there were lots of popular European, high street franchises, many of which we don’t have in the UK, a big supermarket, a cinema and a pretty good food court. It was a nice place to visit on a rainy day and we spent a good few hours here, pottering about the shops. Prices were slightly lower than the UK.

www.arenacentar.hr

Incidentally, there is also great shopping in the streets around Ban Jelacic Square (see below).

Explored the city

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On our second day in Zagreb the sun was shining, so we went for a long, sunny, al-fresco lunch and then for an explore of the city.

Zagreb is a lovely city of parks and stately buildings. There is a wonderful, Bavarian-style old centre, full of funky bars and shops and also a pretty modern, shopping centre area of town.

The heart of the city is Ban Jelacic Square. This is a large square with cafes and trams, shops and statues (see above). It sits right in the centre of the city, on the edge of the old city and the new.

The old city is built on two hills, with the cathedral on top of one hill and the parliament on top of the other. The parliament is on Gornji Grad, which is the upper old town.

DSCF8749The first place we visited on this day was the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Katedrala Marijina Uznesenja) (a.k.a. St Stephen’s or Zagreb Cathedral), an imposing, high, edifice, with two, tall, scaffolding clad spires. It is very pretty and impressive from outside. Inside is very pretty too, with a mixture of modern and classic monuments and artwork. We spent about fifteen minutes in here.

At the base of Gornji Grad, the upper old town, we discovered Ulica ivana tkalčića. This is a main street that runs between the two hills, where there are many wonderful bars, shops and restaurants. If we hadn’t have been so hungover from the Medica we’d been drinking the night before, I think we might have sat in the sunshine and sampled some local beers here. It was a great spot and if we go back, this is where I’d head to for a night out.

We walked a long way up Ulica ivana tkalčića, and then we tried to find a way up the steep hill to the top of the upper old town. After following some other tourists down a random dead-end, we found one of the steep staircases that runs up the side of the hill and we panted our way up to the top.

The top of this hill is very pretty, like an old Bavarian town. We walked past the city museum, the parliament, St Mark’s church (which has a really cool roof with huge shields on it – see below) and St Mark’s Square (see photo at top of the page). I think we might have even seen the Croatian president in his motorcade.

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We went to have a look at Stone Gate, which is a bit of a strange place. Stone Gate is a gateway to the city, but it’s also a church and one of the most sacred places in Zagreb. The Gate is famous as it houses a sacred picture of Mary and Jesus. When the rest of the city burned down in 17something, the rest of the city was destroyed and only the Stone Gate was saved. Some attributed this miracle to the painting and so now it is a revered religious icon.

The gate is a strange mix of thoroughfare and church, with pavements, pews and candles etc. I felt like I was being quite sacrilegious walking through here and using it as a gateway. It felt slightly disrespectful to the people who were using this as a place of worship.

The gateway was covered in scaffolding when we were there, and it was very dark. I didn’t want to take any photos, as this would have been intrusive to the people worshipping there. The Stone Gateway seemed to be a really heartfelt place to me. Sometimes you go to a religious house and it’s great, but it’s not an emotional place. This Gateway to the city, seemed to hold real meaning to some of the people there; it was a place that they had gone to for comfort or to find peace. And yet it’s one of the main gateways to the city – that’s why it’s quite a strange place. Interesting though.

Finally on our trip to the old town, we walked past The Tower of Lotrscak (they fire a cannon from here at noon every day), and then we went to the funicular (Uspinjaca), which we caught down to the new town. The funicular was probably not worth it in some ways (you could walk down the hill faster), but it was fun and only cost 4 kuna (40p). Back in the new town we went for coffee and cake, which we felt we had earned after all our walking.

We had a thoroughly nice wander and a pleasant afternoon in the sunshine, and if we go back to Zagreb, I think we might actually venture into some of the museums and churches that we just walked past. Zagreb is a wandering kind of city and very pretty and a nice, easy place to spend a day or two.

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What we didn’t do in Zagreb

Mount Medvednica is a pretty mountain, that is on the edge of the city. This is a nice place to go for hiking, nature and skiing in winter, apparently. With only two days in the city, we only had time to explore the centre, but if we had been based here for a few more days, this is somewhere we probably would have ventured to.

Zagreb has a lot of museums, but sadly we didn’t go in any of them. Of particular note are the Museum of Broken Relationships (which houses exhibits from people’s broken/past relationships), the Contemporary Art Museum and the Archaeological Museum (which contains a lot of neolithic exhibits).

We did investigate going to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, for a day trip on the train, but the times didn’t quite work out for us. It was feasible, but we would have had to depart really early and we couldn’t be bothered to get up.

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Where we ate and drank

We arrived in Zagreb at about eight o.clock at night, after a six hour train journey. We wanted something to eat, but we were aware that late on a Sunday night we were unlikely to find anything. We’d had bakery products for lunch, so we were looking for something a bit more substantial and less pastry based, but we couldn’t find anything apart from three bakeries at the station. We walked the streets around the station, but couldn’t find anything else open, so eventually we headed back to the station to buy some sarnies.

What we didn’t know was that there was a huge mall underneath our feet the whole time and it had supermarkets and a food hall, and we could have gone here to eat. So if you’re looking for food around the station, head down the stairs at the end of the platform and here you’ll find a supermarket, a small food hall, lots of shops and a McDonalds.

One of the things that J loves about living in Europe is our drinking culture, so he wanted to have one last, semi-big night out before he headed back to Canada. Zagreb has a lot of drinking culture: it is packed with great bars, pubs and restaurants, most of which we didn’t discover until it was too late.

So, for our pub crawl we went down Opatovina Ul street, which is on the edge of the old town, near to the cathedral. We found a nice, meaty restaurant called The Lantern, then we crawled through a few pubs drinking £1 pints and shots of the local honey wine (Medica). We ended up in Tolkien’s House, which is a bar based upon Tolkien’s books, with relics from the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit movies etc. If J hadn’t told me it was Tolkien’s pub and why it was famous I might not have noticed, because to me it just looked like a bar with cool armour on the walls and lots of memorabilia. They did do great beer though and had a very wide selection of drinks.

The next day we found loads more bars, but sadly it was too late for us to go visit them. Ulica ivana tkalčića, which is the street that runs underneath the old town hill, is one long strip of bars, after bars, after bars. All of them looked really inviting and sold cheap good beer. In the summer they all had chairs outside. In the winter, I bet they’re really cosy. I’d like to come back to find out.

Another area with lots of bars and restaurants is around Nikole Tesle street, just south of Ban Jelacic Square. Here we went to a really cool pub called Bulldog. Their bar is decorated like the inside of an art-deco, ocean going, cruise ship, with huge wicker fans, mirrors, sweeping staircases and portholes. They also have extremely efficient waiters, which is something you don’t often find in Croatia.

Choco Bar Bonbonnière Kraš is a Mecca for cake, which we visited after our city tour explore. It was so inviting that even J had cake and that doesn’t happen often. They also sold lovely, luxury chocolates and have a really cool name.

Finally, the last meal of our honeymoon was at Wok and Burger on Ban Jelacic Square. We’d tried to find Pirat Kalaka, which is a Mexican restaurant in a pirate ship in Zagreb (how could we not go here?), but we hadn’t marked it on the map and we couldn’t find it. Like many things in Zagreb, we walked past it twice but didn’t see it as it was all dark and on a cross street we didn’t walk down. We tried to find sushi but had no luck; most of the restaurants around Nicolai Tesla had turned into bars by this point; so the only place left open was Wok and Burger. It wasn’t very romantic but by this point we didn’t care. The food was awful but the tables were out on Ban Jelacic Square, right in the heart of Zagreb, so that made it special. If you’re looking for late night, basic food then Wok and Burger is okay for this; otherwise, it’s not worth it.

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Where we stayed

Hotel Esplanade

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As this was our honeymoon, we decided to stay in some pretty snazzy hotels rather than our usual hostels. The great thing about Zagreb is that the best, most iconic hotel in the city only cost us the same as a standard chain hotel in the UK – so we treated ourselves.

The Esplanade is an Orient Express Hotel, built in the 1920s to host the rich tourists coming in off the Orient Express train. It is an art-deco beauty: majestic, stately, well-located, fun and yet not intimidating. It has housed kings and princes, celebrities and dictators – and now us too. It is one of the great hotels of the world and I’m so glad that we had the chance to stay here.

Our room was wonderful: we had a marble bathroom, big comfy armchairs, a huge wide-screen telly and a bed with a million pillows. There were wonderful La Occitain products in the bathroom, which we hoarded for later use, and a huge bath which filled in about a minute. The hotel was so opulent that you could even order a special bath to be run for you, with relaxing oils and wines etc.

I loved the mirrored lifts and had great fun trying to photograph us going off into infinity.

We didn’t use any of the other facilities such as the bar, restaurant and ballroom, as we went out each day, but they did look very fun and atmospheric and if we go back we will have to try them out.

Location wise the Esplanade is right next to the station and about ten minutes walk from the centre of the city.

I’d like to say a special thanks to the Esplanade for our honeymoon gifts. When we booked we mentioned that it was our honeymoon and they welcomed us with luxury truffles and wines. So thank you Esplanade.

And all this opulence only cost us £80/night. If we return, I think we will definitely stay here again (even if it’s just for the bath products).

www.esplanade.hr

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Useful links

www.zagreb.com

www.lonelyplanet.com/croatia/zagreb

www.visit-croatia.co.uk/index.php/croatia-destinations/zagreb

www.inyourpocket.com/zagreb

wikitravel.org/en/Zagreb

www.timeout.com/croatia/zagreb

www.independent.co.uk/travel/48-hours-in/zagreb-travel-tips-where-to-go-and-what-to-see-in-48-hours-10454634.html

 

Disclaimer

Please note, all opinions in this piece are those of the author only. This article reports how I found the location, my experience and what I thought of it.

If you think that I have missed something important or have gotten something wrong, please do let me know in the comments section below. 

Please note that some of this information may be out of date. Where information is likely to change, I have included a link to a local webpage

The photos are copyright of Jennifer Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to reproduce them or if you have any questions about this webpage, please email me.

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