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Why go now?
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the end of the Croatian War of Independence, and Croatia's emergence as a sovereign state. Its capital Zagreb is a lively city with a distinct café culture, more central European fop than Balkan workhorse – a trait that owes much to the centuries it spent as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, long before it was just an outpost in socialist Yugoslavia. Book now for National Day (25 June) or Zagreb Summer Nights, a series of concerts that dominates July (2-31; kdz.hr).
Croatia Airlines (0844 371 0310; croatiaairlines.com) flies to Zagreb from Heathrow and Gatwick, and Wizz Air (0906 959 0002; wizzair.com) flies from Luton. The airport is 10 miles south-east of the city. Shuttle buses depart from outside the arrivals hall roughly every 30 minutes from 7am to 8pm, fare 30 kuna (HRK30/£3.50). They go only as far as the bus station (1) at Avenija Marina Drzica 4. A further tram ride – line 6, HRK7.50 (88p) – will get you to the main square, Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica (2). A taxi costs HRK150-200 (£17-23), and takes 20-45 minutes depending on traffic.
The Zagreb Card, covering all public transport ( zagrebcard.fivestars.hr; HRK60/£7 for 24 hours, HRK90/£11 for 72 hours), is available at the Tourist Information Centre in the airport (8.30am-4.30pm Monday to Friday, 10am-4pm at weekends).
Get your bearings
Zagreb sits prettily beneath Mount Medvednica.
The capital can be divided into three sections. Gornji Grad ("Upper Town") is the medieval core, which occupies a steep hill directly above Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica (2) and Ilica – the key shopping avenue, which runs west off the square.
Donji Grad ("Lower Town") is flat, elegant and largely created in the late 19th century, spreads out between Ilica and the River Sava.
Novi Zagreb ("New Zagreb"), meanwhile, is a grey zone of Cold War housing – but increasingly of interest in its own right – that broods south of the waterway.
The central tourist office (3) can be found at Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica 11 (00 385 1 481 4051; zagreb-touristinfo.hr). It opens 8.30am-8pm from Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on Saturdays and 10am-4pm on Sundays.
The national tourist board ( croatia.hr) is a further useful source.
The Hotel Central (4), opposite the train station at Branimirova 3 (00 385 1 484 1122; hotel-central.hr), is a solid three-star where double rooms start at HRK780 (£93), room only.
The Hotel President Pantovcak (5) at Pantovcak 52 (00 385 1 488 1480; president-zagreb.com), a lovely boutique four-star with a leafy hillside garden, does doubles with breakfast from €109. (Upmarket hotels in Croatia tend to quote prices in euros.)
The Regent Esplanade (6) at Mihanoviceva 1 (00 385 1 456 6666; regenthotels.com/zagreb) is an art nouveau dame that opened in 1925 to host Orient Express passengers. Double rooms here start at €140, excluding breakfast.
Take a hike
The heart of Zagreb is small enough to explore on foot. Start in the main square (2) at the horseback statue of national hero Josip Jelacic, an aristocrat who nurtured ambitions of an independent Croatia in the 1840s. Move on to the north via Splavnica and climb the stairs into Dolac (7), where a daily food market is held (7am-2pm). Return down the steps and swerve right up Ulica Ivana Tkalciceva (8), now a gentle slope of bars, but once the route of a brook that split the two warring halves of the medieval town – the ecclesiastical quarter of Kaptol, around the cathedral (9), and the mercantile district of Gradec at the summit. As you climb, glance left at Krvavi Most (10) – "Bloody Bridge" – where the factions often clashed.
If you prefer a guide, Zagreb Inside (00 385 91 251 2336; zagrebinside.com) runs quirky tours – including "Do You Speak Croatian?". Tours depart at 1pm on Saturdays from the tourist office (3), price HRK90 (£10).
Urges to spend should be indulged in the morning, as Zagreb shops shut early at the weekend. Nonetheless, Ilica is refreshing. Kisobrani Cerovecki (11), Ilica 49 (00 385 1 484 7417; kisobrani-cerovecki.hr), has been crafting umbrellas since 1912. Salon Cipele Strugar (12), in a courtyard at Ilica 33 (00 385 1 483 3344; strugar.hr), sells leather shoes made on site – from HRK1,300 (£154). Franja (13), at Ilica 24 (00 385 1 247 9300; franja.hr), dispenses Croatian wine.
Lunch on the run
Spica – a coffee in town – is a Zagreb tradition that takes place between 11am-2pm on Saturdays. This see-and-be-seen event is pinned to Petar Preradovic Trg (14) (popularly referred to as Cvjetni – "Flower Market Square") and the streets around it.
Grab an outdoor table and a shot of caffeine at Golf Caffe, at the south end at Ulica Petra Preradovica 2 (00 385 1 481 4746; golf-caffe.hr), then hurry back to Dolac (7) and Bistro Amfora at Dolac 2 (00 385 1 4816455) for market-fresh tuna for HRK60 (£7).
Take a ride
Jump aboard a number 6 tram in Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica (2) and ride it south to the end of the line at Sopot. Here is Novi Zagreb, the slab of Sixties sprawl that still has a whiff of the Iron Curtain about it, although its drab corners are coming alive thanks to the flashy new concrete and glass Muzej Suvremene Umjetnosti (15) – the Contemporary Art Museum (MSU) – at Avenija Dubrovnik 17 (00 385 1 6052700; msu.hr; 11am-7pm Tuesday-Sunday, to 10pm Thursday; HRK30/£3.50). Its provocative and engaging collection concentrates on Croatian artists of the Fifties and onwards.
Orient Express (16), a bar at Ulica Nikole Teslina 10 (00 385 1 481 0548) that apes the interior of a rail carriage, is ideal for a medica (honey schnapps).
Dining with the locals
Baltazar (17), a carnivore's paradise at Nova Ves 4 (00 385 1 466 6999; restoran-baltazar.hr), has beef mignon with cranberry sauce for HRK120 (£14). Trilogija (18), Kamenita Ulica 5 (00 385 1 485 1394; trilogija.com), is a fish specialist: seabass in lobster sauce is HRK98 (£11.50).
At Pod Grickim Topom (19), Zakmardijeve Stube 5 (00 385 1 4833 607), the beef in truffle sauce is as enticing as the view from the veranda (HRK130/£15).
Sunday morning: go to church
Zagreb Cathedral (9) is a neogothic monster, its twin spires rearing up 108 metres from the bottom of Kaptol. Open 10am-5pm Monday to Saturday and 1-5pm on Sunday, its mildly dingy confines are lightened by panels of stained glass. Colour of another kind is the talking point at the Crkva Sv Marka (20) on Trg Sv Marka. St Mark's Church, open 7.30am-6pm Sunday (9am-noon on other days), is most notable for the mosaic coats of arms of Zagreb and Croatia on its roof.
Tinier, but more moving, is the Kamenita Vrata (21) on Kamenita Ulica. The "Stone Gate", the last surviving entry to the medieval town, is an open-air walk-through chapel.
Out to brunch
Vinodol, a popular haunt next to Orient Express (16) at Ulica Nikole Teslina 10 (00 385 1 481 1427; vinodol-zg.hr), exudes a cosy vibe. Its speciality, veal cutlets stuffed with spinach, costs HRK86 (£10).
Cultural afternoon Down forks as soon as you can, because the opening hours at some museums are limited. Hrvatski Muzej Naivne Umjetnosti (22), the Croatian Naïve Art Museum, at Cirilometodska 3 (00 385 1 485 1911; hmnu.org) showcases "peasant art"– scenes of Balkan country life in the last century. Open 10am-1pm weekends; 10am-6pm Tuesday to Friday, HRK20 (£2.40). The Mestrovic Atelier (23) at Mletacka 8 (00 385 1 485 1124; mestrovic.hr) displays the bronze carvings of Ivan Mestrovic – a Croatian sculptor influenced by Rodin – in his former home; open 10am-2pm weekends, 10am-6pm Tuesday to Friday, HRK20 (£2.40). The Muzej Mimara (24) counts pieces by Caravaggio, Goya and Rembrandt among the exhibits it guards at Rooseveltov Trg 4 (00 385 1 482 8100; mdc.hr; 10am-2pm Sunday; 10am-7pm other days; HRK40/£4.70).
A walk in the park
The unexotic oaks and ferns at the Botanical Gardens (25), Trg Marka Marulica 9a (00 385 1 489 8060; hirc.botanic.hr) won't have you reaching for your camera, but the pine-scented trails comprise a fragant experience nevertheless. Open 9am-7pm daily (to 2.30pm on Monday and Tuesday; admission free). And at Trg Nikole Subica Zrinskog (26), young families wander a grassy square where fountains whoosh and statues stare.
Icing on the cake
If you fancy a last spin around Zagreb, a jaunt by Segway should finish the weekend nicely. Segway City Tour Zagreb (00 385 1 301 0390; segwaycitytour zagreb.com) is based at the Regent Esplanade hotel (6) (available any day, but book in advance, 9am-6pm Monday-Saturday). The standard two-hour tour (HRK350/£41) may even give you time to race to Mirogoj (27), the grand cemetery where poets and presidents of Croatia see out eternity from a maze of marble.