Zagreb, the capital city of the region of Central Croatia—and of the entire country—is by far Croatia’s largest city in terms of population and area, as well as in commerce, culture, and shopping. The newly expanded Franjo Tuđman International Airport is the main airport for Croatia, and sits about a half-hour drive outside the city center. To get from the airport to the city center, the least expensive option is to take a regularly scheduled shuttle; however you can also grab a taxi or rent a car. As with all major cities, parking in the lots dotted around the city often comes at a premium. If you are traveling by land, you can also arrive directly at the city center by train or bus. Be careful not to confuse the Glavni kolodvor (literally “Main Station,” which is the train station) with the Autobusni kolodvor (“Bus Station”). These two hubs are about a 20-minute walk from each other, so you need to be sure where you’re going, especially if you’re running late to catch your connection! To easily get your bearings from any map, look for the three green parks running directly north from the Glavni kolodvor straight to the main square, Trg Bana Josipa Jelačića.
Zagreb truly has an east-meets-west attitude and a unique style of its own. The city’s name dates from 1094, after Slavic tribes had settled in the area. You can visit Lotrščak Tower, which remains from early town fortifications built in 1266 as protection against the Turkish invasion. From there witness the Grić cannon, which fires every day at noon to commemorate Zagreb’s victory over the Turks. Then ride the funicular to Zagreb’s Upper Town, Gornji Grad, where you can walk around the oldest part of the city, with its cobblestone streets and authentic gas lights. Here is the center of both history and government. On your way back to the Lower Town, Donji Grad, don’t miss the vibrant atmosphere at Dolac market, and try out some Croatian words with the local ladies selling fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers.
An exciting cultural hub, Zagreb is said to have the most museums per capita in the world—and they represent all interests. From the Archaeological Museum, the beautiful Art Pavilion (Umjetnički Paviljon), the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, the intimate Atelier Meštrović, and the Image of War photography museum, to the eclectic Museum of Broken Relationships, museum hopping is a pastime in itself.
Zagreb is known for education and medical innovation. The University of Zagreb has been in continuous operation since 1669. One of Europe’s oldest educational institutions, it hosts 70,000 students every year in 31 disciplines all the way through post-graduate studies.
And how many travelers know that Zagreb was a main station on the Simplon Orient Express route, made popular by Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, and none other than James Bond?! The Simplon route ran from 1919 through 1977 (with a break during the First and Second World Wars). It was literally the luxurious link from west to east for the elite of European society, running from Paris to Constantinople (present day Istanbul). The art deco Esplanade Hotel, located next to the Glavni kolodvor (train station), was built in 1925 for Orient Express patrons and today still exudes opulence and style; its fascinating history and guest list of rich and famous reads like a novel in itself.
If you’ve visited our blog, you know how unforgettable Zagreb is at Christmastime. Zagreb won the title of Best Christmas Market in Europe for 2016, 2017, and 2018. After sweeping three straight years, it was out of the running for 2019, but we can tell you it was pure magic. Christmas is a beautiful time to travel in Europe, and Zagreb is easily reachable from other European cities if you want to include it on your itinerary.
No matter what time of year you visit Zagreb, don’t forget to leave your afternoons free to experience café culture at its finest. Being in a hurry is not the Croatian way. Anywhere you walk in the city center you will find a spot to relax next to locals, people-watch, and relish a cup of coffee (šalica kave), a glass of local beer (čaša piva), or refreshing ice cream (sladoled). Can there be a more enjoyable way to experience a major European city center?
Zagreb is the vibrant capital of Croatia, and the center of culture and shopping.