Zest for Zagreb: Exploring Croatia’s Capital City

Truth be told, I’m not sure if Zagreb, Croatia would have ever made it on my radar had it not been for an inexpensive and convenient flight from Madrid to launch our Balkan adventures. But oh am I glad that it did.

St. Mark's Church, Zagreb, Croatia

St. Mark’s Church in Zagreb

The Balkan Peninsula is a fascinating region to visit today because of its recent troubled history. Most of us grew up watching the area plagued with war and perhaps never would have believed that the Balkans would soon become a hotbed of tourism and resorts. Not surprisingly, from the end of the Croatian War of Independence until today, the number of annual tourists in Croatia has grown 442%, and talking to any backpacker in Europe, it’s clear just how popular it’s become.

I’ll admit I was too young to follow the events of the Yugoslav Wars as they happened, and I remain far from an expert. Even still, beyond the beauty, ancient history, food, and lovely people, the Balkans have the additional layer of intrigue because of all that has happened there just in my relatively short lifetime.

Croatian National Theatre, Zagreb

The Croatian National Theatre

A brief history lesson: Zagreb dates back to Roman times and is Croatia’s largest city and, since 1945, its capital. The Croat people have inhabited the area since the 7th century, and Croatia became a unified kingdom in 925 A.D. The first and second World Wars heavily impacted the country, and it joined the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in their aftermath. Croatia declared independence from SFR Yugoslavia in 1991 and proceeded to fight for that independence for the following four years. But back to the recap!

Upon landing in Zagreb, after settling into our hostel, we headed straight to the city center for some nourishment, including in the form of local beers. The city’s long history means the center is replete with beautiful, old architecture, and its size means it’s bustling and full of life.

Zagreb, Croatia

Strolling through Zagreb that night

As luck would have it, we arrived in Croatia just three days before it was to be admitted to the European Union. The people of Zagreb were clearly thrilled about their impending status, and there were flags, posters, etc. announcing the news on every corner. In one square, we found an orchestra rehearsing for the EU celebrations to be held there later that week.

A street vendor selling corn on the cob getting in on the excitement

A street vendor selling corn on the cob getting in on the excitement

Wandering Zagreb was especially lovely by night. We strolled through parks, past cafés, and down serenely lit streets, and the highlight of the night was when we stumbled across a live oldies band performing in a twinkling gazebo as locals danced the warm summer night away.

On day two, we were already off to our next destination, Ljubljana, Slovenia (to return to Zagreb a few days later), but we had the morning to explore more of the Croatian capital. By chance, we crossed paths with a parade of young performers dressed in traditional garb and playing folk music. We naturally assumed this was a Croatian parade, but it’s only now, years later, that in reviewing my photos I’ve noticed the flags of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Poland (in addition to Croatia’s) displayed, so I’ll have to guess it was some sort of Slavic celebration. Whatever it was, it was a fantastic bit of culture to happen across.

Slavic Parade, Zagreb, Croatia

Slavic parade

Slovenia was amazing, so I’ll get back to that later, but on the day of Croatia’s induction into the EU, we returned to Zagreb to wander just a bit more. We focused on Gradec, the medieval center of the city, where we found some of Zagreb’s most interesting architecture. Did you know that Zagreb has a Museum of Broken Relationships featuring just what it sounds like? Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to enter, but that will be on my list next time I return!

Gradec, Zagreb, Croatia

Old and new as we headed out of Gradec

Back at our hostel, the hostel owner invited us to a barbecue he was hosting downstairs over an open oven. The meat was divine, the company was a blast, and we even tested the owner’s homemade liquor. A fantastic way to wrap up our stay in Zagreb’s capital.

While Zagreb exceeded expectations, it was nothing compared to the rest of Croatia. Next destination: the out-of-this-world Plitvice National Park. But more on that later!

4 Responses

  1. Zagreb is a great city that a lot of people visiting Croatia miss. The architecture is terrific, the food is great, the parks are lovely, the outdoor market in the main square is wonderful!

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