If you enjoy destinations that are a bit overshadowed by their neighbors, you’re going to love Zagreb. This city of about 770,000 people is Croatia’s capital city and, in my opinion, a hugely underrated European travel destination!
While Croatia’s main tourist trails coax visitors to explore coastal areas like Split and Dubrovnik (thanks, Game of Thrones), Zagreb is often overlooked by travelers who don’t know what they’re missing. The city is full of charm, has a long list of unique attractions, and is affordable to boot. Zagreb frequently makes an appearance on lists of Europe’s cheapest capital cities and is equally popular on rankings of the best places to visit on the continent, thanks to its favorable crime rates, pollution levels, and visitor amenities.
Located in northeast Croatia, the city is just a few hours from Vienna, Sarajevo, and Venice, and transportation links are easy. From Zagreb, there are daily trains to Split (and from there you can catch buses to Dubrovnik or the Adriatic Islands). If you’re day tripping, Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, is a short, scenic train ride away. Zagreb is also connected to Munich and Zurich by overnight sleeper trains. Croatia Airlines, Air France, British Airways, Lufthansa, Iberia, and more fly into Zagreb’s airport.
There are countless reasons to visit Zagreb, Croatia, and I’m happy to share. But first…
Based on my experience, the city is extremely walkable, and it’s easy to find your way around, but it’s never a bad idea to get a primer on the main neighborhoods where you’ll be spending most of your time.
Zagreb’s old town developed as two separate hilltop communities. Kaptol is where the clergy was based and is appropriately home to the Zagreb Cathedral. Its neighbor and rival, Gradec, was home to artists and tradespeople. It still has the feel of a very public space with lots of shops and galleries. Gradec also includes the Croatian Parliament, Constitutional Court, and the lone remaining old town gate. Finally, Lowertown is much more modern and is home to chic shops, contemporary hotels, and well-reviewed eateries and museums.
And now, without further ado, the reasons you have to add this lovely town to your travel list.
1. Crowds Are Few (Especially In The Shoulder Season)
I first visited Zagreb in the middle of summer. Europe in summer — that must mean I endured crazy crowds, right? Not at all! Sure, there were plenty of people out and about in the main public squares and most popular shopping streets, like Tkalčićeva, but it certainly wasn’t oppressive. It felt exactly what you’d expect of a lively city on a sunny summer afternoon when locals and visitors are shopping and sightseeing. It was bustling but not congested. If you’re thinking all European capitals are crowded like Rome and Paris, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Zagreb.
During the shoulder season (late spring and early autumn) there are even fewer people in the city. I personally think Zagreb has a bit of a student vibe — there are lots of college-age folks around, reading in cafes and walking with knapsacks. It’s a cozy, relaxed atmosphere, and the mild weather is wonderful.
2. The Architecture Is Amazing
Zagreb sits at that proverbial crossroads, being influenced by the West and the East at the same time. As such, the city’s buildings showcase centuries of influence from competing forces and global neighbors. The result is that Zagreb has a look that’s all its own. Those with a keen eye will spot Belle Époque influences from the Austro-Hungarian empire, as well as Art Nouveau design and modernist minimalism. The tourism board has a helpful pocket guide to local architecture available for download.
3. The City Is Full Of Blooms
Zagreb seems to just come alive in spring, when the entire city is covered in blossoms and blooms, but garden lovers will appreciate that there’s a lot happening here all year round. The Zagreb Botanical Garden, which dates back to 1889, is home to 10,000 species of plants. Visitors will especially appreciate the Botanical Garden’s Arboretum, which is fashioned after English-style gardens and is especially pretty.
The Zagreb Botanic Garden offers free admission and is open from April 1 to November 1. If you want an English-speaking tour, you can call the administrative office at least 5 days in advance to arrange a time. These tours cost about €5 per person (a real bargain if you ask me).
4. You Can Join Locals For Sports And More At Maksimir Park
Another beautiful public space is Maksimir Park, Zagreb’s oldest public park. Opened in 1794, it was once primarily a forested space, and many old-growth trees do remain. But now the park also contains Zagreb Zoo, five lakes, meadows, and diverse plant and animal species. There are more than 100 species of birds that visit Maksimir Park, and you can even join a bird-watching tour!
Visitors to Maksimir Park can also participate in Nordic walking, sport fishing, and yoga classes (as well as enjoy hiking, jogging, and biking on their own). If you’d rather learn a little bit about all aspects of the park, there are guided tours of the area that include information on history, culture, and ecology.
5. Zagreb Gourmet Provides Delicious Food Tours
Zagreb’s food scene doesn’t get the press it deserves. The city is absolutely filled with delicious options and the Zagreb Gourmet food tours are one of the best ways to find your new favorite flavors. Their classic Zagreb Food Tour lasts up to 4 hours and includes stops for cheese, cured meats, wine, cake, coffee, a tasting of pumpkin seed oil (a regional delicacy), and a visit to the city’s oldest bakery.
For those with a little less time, there is a 2.5-hour Brunch and Wine Tour that includes a visit to the Dolac Market. Brunch is a very big deal in Zagreb, and this tour provides valuable insight into one of the city’s favorite pastimes.
The same company also offers cooking classes that allow participants to explore different aspects of Croatian cuisine (such as dishes that are popular along the coast and those that reflect traditional Zagreb fare). Additionally, there are themed classes for advent and Christmas.
6. Dolac Market Is Amazing
Even if you don’t join a food tour or cooking class, Dolac Market should be on your travel list. Sometimes nicknamed the “Belly of Zagreb”, this is the place to go to grab local produce, meat, dairy, and even seafood from the Croatian coast (plus to watch locals catching up on gossip!). Nearby is the flower market, Opatovina — a great spot for people watching and photography.
7. It’s Rich With Folklore
My favorite thing to do in Zagreb is to enjoy a tour with a twist. Secret Zagreb’s “Ghosts and Dragons Tour” is an absolute delight. From May to October, it showcases a side of the city’s old town that you likely wouldn’t discover on your own. It covers everything from folklore and mythology to ghosts and spooky stories.
While there are some moderate hills, stone steps, and uneven streets, this is generally an easy walk and proceeds at a gentle pace. And you never know what you might see. At the end of my tour, I crossed paths with a ghostly white cat. Was this a visitor from the beyond or just one of the city’s many feline residents? I’d like to imagine that the spirits of Zagreb were extra happy to see me!
More Secret Zagreb Tours
Secret Zagreb also offers a Christmas tour from late November to early January and a “Badass Women” tour from May to August. They describe the latter tour as follows: “Opera singers, car drivers, models, scientists, soldiers… Learn about uncompromising, tough, bold, gamechanging women of Croatia, who lived or worked in Zagreb during their lifetime.”
8. It’s Home To A Fun, Funky Museum: The Museum Of Broken Relationships
The Museum of Broken Relationships is a charming, unconventional, and rather bittersweet look at failed romantic relationships. But this is no silly stop. In 2011, it was awarded the Kenneth Hudson Award for Europe’s most innovative museum.
So what can you expect to see when you’re there? It’s so much more than torn photographs and discarded wedding rings! There’s a clothing iron that was used to neatly press a wedding suit, a caricature of a couple sketched by a stranger on a train, and even an ax (don’t worry — it was used to turn a former lover’s furniture into a tidy pile of firewood, nothing more). It’s hard to imagine that anyone would be able to stroll through the museum and not see something that tugs at their heartstrings. Visiting is both a cathartic and fun experience.