Croatia's capital city, Zagreb, is most definitely an up-and-coming competitor for the nearby Eastern European cities of Prague and Budapest. I was so pleasantly surprised with the overwhelming stimulation that I found in Zagreb that I'm already daydreaming about going back there. It's always a pleasure to visit somewhere you never expected to go and then discover it's a true hidden gem that the world has yet to discover. Why Zagreb is not already a main European destination is beyond me. I predict that in the very near future it will become a major draw rivaling the "greats" of Europe. For the time being, I would love to introduce to you Zagreb, Croatia.
The city is divided into three parts including: 1) the upper town (the thousand-year old Gornji grad consists of the Presidential Palace, the historic church of St. Mark's, the Croatian parliament, and a plethora of museums and galleries set amidst cobbled streets and gas lamps); 2) the lower town (the 19th century Donji grad is lined with shops, restaurants, cafes, theatres, parks); and 3) the "new Zagreb" (the post-war (WWII) Novi Zagreb is full of high-rises and office buildings that aren't of interests to tourists). You can easily spend half a day walking through the upper town and then the latter half of your day exploring the lower town, before heading out "on the town" at night to the restaurant and bar scene, which are not to be missed.
|Looking down into Zagreb from the Upper Town|
When I first arrived in Zagreb, I was not sure exactly what to think. The airport, though nestled inside beautiful parklands (I've never seen this done before), welcomes you into a communist-era portion of the city where the exterior is a bit repetitive and impersonal. As with Rome; however, you cannot judge the city from the airport...you must wait into you discover the heart of the city. It did indeed seem beautiful, peaceful, relaxed, friendly and happy...all of which I loved; however, little did I know what was in store for me deeper inside the city's center.
After settling into your hotel and grabbing a tourist map, you will head back outside and find an endless sea of colorful buildings and a vivid architectural style that begs for photographs...you will be eager to continue unraveling the city that seems to get better and better with each and every step.
Though Zagreb has been called "a city of museums" (as there are more of them per square foot than any other city in the world - I even saw a museum there called The Museum of Broken Relationships...interesting!) , this doesn't mean that there is nothing else for you to do if you aren't a history buff. One of the many pleasures that the Zagrebcani (the people of Zagreb) enjoy doing is sitting in one of the numerous cafes watching the world go by. For me, this type of cafe culture has always been a personal favorite. Meander down characteristic European avenues lined with packed restaurants galore...
This city also has an abundance of greenery in the form of gardens and parks, making it a true city oasis. You will see mothers pushing strollers gracefully, young couples canoodling in the shaded parks, friends laughing over a picnic and businessmen taking lunch breaks in the sun.
The main square, Trg bana Jelacica (yes it's spelled correctly) is always booming, day or night, and is the center of activity for city festivals. It's also a great place to begin your tour of the city. I saw the most interesting things going on at the main square during my visit...everything from a dance-off for disabled people in wheelchairs (this drew cheers, roars and heartfelt tears from the inspired onlookers), to a bustling rock concert at night, to an army parade during the middle of the next day. This city is alive and I love it! Not even my pictures capture the vast number of people in the heart of the city - after all, I usually wait until they clear out of my photo frame to get the shot!
Not to be missed are the busy open-air markets in the city center, giving you a fresh selection of flowers, fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Not to mention, you can also find the cheapest souvenirs, postcards and magnets in this part of town.
More than anything, the first thing I am reminded of when I reflect on Zagreb is their tram system. Anywhere you want to go in Zagreb, you can take one of the blue trams to get there. Did I forget to mention that the trams are free? Not only are they beautiful and clean, but also, they are free of charge to locals and tourists alike. The trams run 24-hours a day, making them convenient in addition to being efficient. I felt completely safe walking around in Zagreb at night. The streets are still covered with pedestrians in the early morning hours as nightgoers make their way home....or early birds make their way to the bus station and/or airport!
As if there wasn't enough to do in Zagreb, within a short distance from the capital are an abundance of days trips including visits to charming towns, medieval cities, romantic castles, beautiful national parks as well as the nearby countries of Slovenia and Bosnia Herzegovina. If possible, I strongly suggest you book a trip to Zagreb. It was one of the most pleasant travel surprises I've experiences in quite some time. Saying I loved it there is simply an understatement. I cannot wait to return to this fantastic city if I'm lucky enough to do so.