You are planning to do some sightseeing around Zagreb. But what to focus on? Here comes your guide to the top 15 attractions that you should manage to see in one weekend!
1) St. Mark’s church, square and the Kravat guards
You don’t do churches? You think they are boring? I understand! But this one is different. I bet even if you are not religious or into churches, you will want to take a selfie with this one. The roof is so colourful showing the Croatian emblem and making this piece just unique. In addition, it dates back to the 13thcentury with a gothic portal that is the richest and most valuable portal in southern central Europe. The church is located at the St. Mark square, where you can witness another highlight. Each weekend, the ‘Kravat pukovnija‘ guards are having a ceremony, checking their armies, having a parade and walking through the city. They dress in a replica of the original uniforms they had back in the 17th century during the 30-year old war.
Back then, the uniforms were the first ones to include a red scarf that ended up being the origin of the tie we know today. Yup, Croatians invented the tie.
2) Croatian National Theatre
When in Zagreb, it is almost impossible to not come across this stunning yellow building with all its flowers around. The Croatian National Theatre (Hrvatsko Narodno Kazalište, or simply HNK) is – who would have guessed – Zagreb’s theatre, opera and ballet house. Its’ establishment as Croatian national theatre dates back to 1860, with 1895 being the year it moved into the yellow building. It was build by Viennese architects, with emperor Franz Joseph I being present at the unveiling of the new building. Today the theatre is featuring all the classics, with a regularly changing schedule.
The HNK are is also a popular meeting and parking spot for the locals. At the corner, just across the HNK, you will find the café Hemmingway. It is very popular among actors and artists so if you want to experience an artistic flair, go, have a drink and check it out!
3) Tunnel Grić
Tunnel grić – something you do not expect in a city centre. Grić is a local name for gradec or gornji grad (upper town). Therefore, I assume that the tunnel got his name from being a connection between the lower and the upper town. It is a pedestrian tunnel located in the heart of Zagreb. There are 4 entrances to the tunnel on different locations in the city centre. You will find them marked on the brown sightseeing signs across the city. Once you are in the tunnel, it is very impressive. At least it was for me.
Knowing that it was possible for a city to have such a secret (the tunnel was opened to the public only few years ago) was just crazy to me. The official story is that the Yugoslavian government built the tunnel apparently during the second World war to serve as a bomb shelter. After the war it fell into disuse, many local people didn’t even know about its existence (including me) – until 2016. That’s when the tunnel reopened as a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, there is a legend among locals going on that the tunnel in fact is much older and dates back to the mid-century. During my research however, I wasn’t able to find any facts that support the legend. Nowadays, it is hosting cultural events several times a year. Maybe you are lucky enough to be in Zagreb for one of the tunnel expositions.
4) Stone gate (Kamenita vrata)
The stone gate. Another really old landmark in the city of Zagreb. It dates back to the 13thcentury and is one of the best-preserved landmarks of the old Zagreb town. The stone gate was part of the city walls of the upper town (Gradec). Although being much older, the stone gate got it current look in 1760. When you are walking through the gate, you will notice that there is a chapel with a picture of St. Mary of the stone gate (zaštitinica grada). The picture is a painting that apparently survived the big fire in 1731 without getting a scratch. They found it in the middle of the fire, with its frame in ashes, but the painting intact. You will see that many people, especially locals, are praying and lightning candles in the chapel. Out of respect, please don’t be loud while crossing the stone gate.
Interesting fact: Next to the altar the original mid-century shop entrance ‘pod boltom’ was kept.
5) Ban Jelačić square
Ban Jelačić square is the main square in Zagreb. Located in the center of the Zagreb downtown pedestrian zone, it is a popular meeting spot. In 1866, the large statue of ban Josip Jelačić on a horse has been installed in the middle. Until today it is giving the square the unique look.
Today, many city events and free concerts take place at the square. It is the place for football public viewing, pop up festivals and all other city festivities. Most tram lines pass in front of the squares’ southern side. This certainly helped it to gain popularity. A very local thing to do is to use the square’s clock as a meeting point. Read more about this in my ‘10 things to experience Zagreb as a local’ guide.
6) The cathedral and Kaptol
I don’t think that there is one single person in Zagreb who ever lived to see the cathedral without construction works. Given to its history however, I don’t blame them! Let me walk you through what the cathedral had to go through in the last 1000 (!) years:
- Construction of the cathedral started around 1095, finished in 1217
- Only 25 years later, in 1242 it was destroyed by the Mongols. No idea what they were doing in this part of Europe haha. But good news, it was rebuilt a few years later in 1263
- In the 15thcentury, fortification walls were added around the cathedral because the Ottoman Empire attacked. Some parts of the walls are still intact
- Another Ottoman threat in the 17thcentury: Now one of the watchtowers on the southern side was erected to be used as a military observation point
- It survived all of the upper, until in 1880 an earthquake damaged it severely. Since then, the cathedral is being originally rebuild, stone by stone.
The area where the cathedral is located on is called Kaptol. At the same time, it is the seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Zagreb.
Interesting fact: 86% of all Croatians are roman catholic.
The funicular – a monument of culture. One of the shortest but steepest funiculars in the world enjoys legal protection due to its original shape from 1888. I can continue like this. But let’s be real. It looks a little bit funny. Also, you are most probably quicker taking the stairs than the funicular. However, it’s all about the charm. What I quite like about it, is the fact that it’s being operated by ZET, the Zagreb public transport company. So basically, it counts into the same category as buses and trams. It has 2 cars, one on each side and can take around 28 passengers per car. It runs every 10 minutes from 6.30 am to midnight. The best spot for photos is sitting inside, next to the window of course. But hurry, there are only 16 sitting spots available.
Oh and by the way I forgot to mention why we have a funicular: It brings you from the lower town to the upper town!
8) Lotrščak tower & grić cannon
Let’s assume you take the funicular up to the upper town. When you get off, you will stand right next to a small, fortified tower. The Lotrščak tower. This tower, similar to the stone gate, dates back to the 13th century and was a part of the upper city’s wall. It has been constructed to guard the southern gate. Four centuries later, a fourth floor and windows were added to the tower with the intention to place a cannon on top. Since 1877, every day the cannon is fired to mark midday. It was supposed to give a ‘it’s exactly noon’ sign to all bell-ringers of all city churches.
Interesting fact: The complicated name Lotrščak derived from a latin word for ‘thieves bell’. It was referring to a bell that was hung in the tower in 1646 to signal the closing of the town gates.
9) Main train station & Esplanade hotel
Name one person who never thought about old times and how it possibly felt like to travel on the orient express from Paris to Istanbul. I always imagine it as the fanciest trip one could take back then. One place in which I tend to day dream even more about this, is the area around the Zagreb main train station and hotel esplanade. The train station exists already since 1892. With its sculptural works, it is really nice to look at. But there is more: The esplanade hotel. It’s a historic luxury hotel, located just next to the main train station in Zagreb. It was build back in 1925 to provide accommodation for the fancy passengers of the Orient express train. In the lobby you can still see how it must have looked like all those years ago. Today, the hotel esplanade is hosting 2 famous restaurants: Le Bistro and Zinfandel’s, both featured in the Michelin Guide 2018 and two of Croatia’s best restaurants.
Fun fact: There’s a legend, that the first Croatian striptease party was held in the hotel at a farewell celebration for an Italian count. True story, haha!
10) Botanical garden
It was a professor of the university of Zagreb who actually found the botanical garden back in 1889. Only two years later he opened it to the public. The charm of Zagreb’s botanical garden lies in its central location. The entrance is free of charge so you can just go in for a walk and relax your soul whenever you are in the area downtown. It covers 5 hectares and over 10.000 plants. Close to the botanical garden is a café with the name Botaničar. Mostly known only to locals, it features art, great coffee and a relaxing green atmosphere. You will love it!
11) Cemetery Mirogoj
By now I’m sure you are noticing that everything in Zagreb is pretty old. This impressive cemetery dates back to 1876. Something that takes your breath away are the massive arcades and cupolas around the church. It took quite a while to build them actually. Due to a lack of funding, it took a total of 50 years to finish the construction (1879-1929). But why lack of funding? Well, unlike most cemeteries at that time, Mirogoj wasn’t church owned, but rather by the city (and the church is where the money is of course!). That is also why members of all religious groups are accepted to be buried at Mirogoj, which led to some very impressive graveyards. Croatia’s first presidents, Dr. Franjo Tudman also rests there.
12) Zrinjevac & King Tomislav square
When walking from the Ban Jelačić square direction downtown, you will pass the Nikola Šubić Zrinski square and park. Locals refer to it as Zrinjevac. This park is probably the one in the city that is most used by the public. Throughout the whole year there are plenty of events happening, organized by the tourist board. In summer for example, you will find the ‘more knjiga’, means the ‘sea of books’ event in the park. You can lie in one of the deckchairs and read books that are provided by the city. In winter, it serves as a very romantic spot for drinking hot wine and enjoying music. The King Tomislav square and park is just a couple of meters further down coming from Zrinjevac. It is the first thing to see when arriving to Zagreb by train. When you exit the Main train station, you are directly looking at a statue of the first Croatian King, Tomislav, on a horse. This square is also popular for events, for example a food and burger festival or the famous ice skating in winter.
13) Strossmayer’s promenade
The Strossmayer promenade or just ‘Stross’ is one of the most romantic spots in the city. It is located in the upper town and gives you the opportunity to walk from one side of upper town to the other, while enjoying the best view of the lower town. The promenade is full of big, old chestnut trees, which makes it even more romantic. During winter, it plays a major part in the popular Zagreb Advent festivities. It is decorated gorgeously with lights, food and drink stands. Also, there is a stage with live music that allows you to dance if you feel like it. In summer, the Stross is part of the ‘Lijeto u Zagrebu’ event (means: summer in Zagreb). It’s decorated in a very special and artsy way and just makes you want to spend all of your time there.
14) Maksimir park
In Zagreb, you can find three things called Maksimir. The park, the stadium and the neighbourhood. All are located next to each other. The park is the oldest one in Zagreb, being part of the city’s cultural heritage. What’s more interesting, is its history. It was found back in 1787, being the first large public park in whole South-Eastern Europe. Back then, the park was at the edge of the city. Today however, different neighbourhoods (Maksimir neighbourhood for example 🙂 ) surround it. What impresses me each time when being in Maksimir, is the dense forest of more than four square kilometres around the park. Not something you would expect within a city. Also, there a five lakes and numerous creeks in the park that are home to the endangered bird species Dendrocopos medius.
Next to the park, in the southern part you can find the city zoo and as mentioned before, the Dinamo Zagreb football stadium. Both are worth checking out as well.
When in Zagreb, you also shouldn’t miss out on some of the museums. Now, I understand that there is not necessarily enough time for museum trips while on a city trip. But as Zagreb is holding the title ‘city of museums’, with the highest concentration of museums per square meter among European capitals, you should really take a look at some. That is why I am summing up the best museums Zagreb has to offer (only my opinion!), depending on what type of person you are:
- You are an art lover: Visit the all-time traditional Mimara museum for Zagreb’s finest art collection. If you are a modern art lover, check out the Contemporary Art museum. There you will find cutting-edge Croatian computer art from the early 1970s and abstract-geometric works from the 1950s.
- You are into science: You should visit the technical museum of Zagreb, also known as the Nikola Tesla museum. There are always some special exhibitions on him, and it is surprisingly entertaining. You can find a planetarium inside, old trams and steam trains, as well as a replica of a coalmine.
- You are a hopeless romantic: In the upper town, close to the funicular, you can find the Museum of Broken Relationships. There are only 2 of those in the world. One in Los Angeles and the other one in Zagreb. Take your time for this one, there is plenty of reading involved. You will see all kinds of objects that remind their owners of a previous relationship. The owners donate the objects to the museum together with their personal story. Couples uncoupling is what this place is about.
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