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Zagreb city guide: Where to eat, drink shop and stay in Croatia’s capital

Cafe culture, quirky museums and year-round charm abound

Kristin Amico
Friday 21 December 2018 12:26 GMT

Forget Vienna or Budapest – for a city break that scores high marks on culture and cafes without hordes of tourists, head to Zagreb. It’s especially ideal if you need an extended coffee break to recharge work and life batteries. It’s estimated there are several hundred places to sit and get your caffeine fix in the Croatian capital – some even put that number in the thousands. Meaning you’re never more than a few steps from a cup of strong espresso.

With several new restaurants and boutique hotels having opened in 2018, summer music festivals and one of Europe’s most celebrated Christmas markets, as well as more museums per capita than anywhere else in the world, the problem isn’t what to see or do – it’s fitting it all in.

In warmer months stroll medieval alleys, people watch in the candy-coloured, Austro-Hungarian Ban Jelačić Square or picnic in the park. In the winter, warm up inside one of the many craft breweries or take the funicular from the main shopping area to the top of the hill and watch snowflakes dust the iconic Zagreb cathedral.

What to do

Experience Croatia’s largest Christmas market

In December, Advent Zagreb, the expansive Christmas Market, fills several neighbourhoods across the city. There are more than a dozen different event locations, including traditional food and gift stalls in the main Ban Jelačić Square, an outdoor ice skating rink in King Tomislav Square and live bands and mulled wine stalls in Europe Square (Trg Europe).

The city has the largest Christmas market in Croatia

Stroll Upper Town

Dating back to the 13th century Upper Town (Gornji Grad) is a maze of cobblestone streets, red tile roofs and historical sights. Put on walking shoes and spend a few hours in Zagreb’s oldest neighbourhood, visiting the iconic St. Mark’s Church with the Croatian and Zagreb coat of arms inlaid in the roof tiles (though you can only admire the interior if you attend mass, held daily). Glimpse the last remaining fortification from the original city wall at Lotrščak Tower, where the Gric cannon fires every day at noon. Step inside the twin-spired Gothic Zagreb Cathedral, which is the tallest building in the country.

Visit the iconic St Mark's church

Finally, savour bittersweet mementos of heartbreak at the Museum of Broken Relationships (40 kn), featuring a quirky collection of artefacts from actual breakups around the world, before lingering for coffee in the adjoining cafe with dreamy street views.

Smell the roses

Maksimir Park is a nature lover’s dream minutes from the city. The English-style park is home to a forest of 100-year-old oak trees, running and walking paths, more than 100 species of birds and several manmade lakes. Take tram 11 or 12 from Ban Jelačića square to get there.

Visit the city of the dead

Mirogoj cemetery, designed by Herman Bollé, the same architect who led the renovations of the Zagreb Cathedral and St. Mark’s Church, is a garden-style cemetery with landscaped paths, open-air sculptures and an impressive arcade.

Take a wander through the idyllic Maksimir Park

Take to the streets

Download the Zagreb Be There app for self-guided walking tours throughout the old and new districts. There’s a craft beer crawl, famous Croats tour and street art guide, too.

Where to stay

The Art Hotel Like is a modern and bright alternative to hostels. Choose from single, double, triple or family rooms (all with private bathrooms). Doubles from 500 kn (£60), B&B.

Located opposite the Main Bus Station, Hotel 9 is an affordable boutique choice with an on-site bar, modern rooms with white leather sofas and free Wi-Fi. It’s about a 15-minute walk to the city centre. Doubles from 660 kn (£80), room only.

The Esplanade Zagreb Hotel retains Art Deco features

Canopy by Hilton, Zagreb, is the latest addition to the hotel boom in the city. Opened in late 2018, the mid-range chain offers highly-designed rooms that include refrigerator and Nespresso machine, and there’s a restaurant and cafe on-site. Guests have access to complimentary Canopy bikes too. Doubles from 870 kn (£105), room only.

Built in 1925 for passengers of the Orient Express train, the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel retains Art Deco details alongside modern luxuries like marble bathrooms and exquisite city views. There are several restaurants and a 1920s-style cocktail lounge within the high-end hotel. Doubles from 1080 kn (£130), room only.

Where to eat

For a snack near the Dolac Market, step inside the concrete storefront located next to the staircase. The blue sign reads “burek” and that’s what they sell: three varieties of the flaky, phyllo pastry with cheese, meat and apple fillings. Eat your plate of messy burek standing at the counter. If you crave sweet and salty, sprinkle table sugar (there’s a bowl next to the register) on top of your cheese burek.

Veganspek is a casual and eclectic space with a menu catering to vegans and vegetarians, with enough meat and seafood dishes to keep everyone in the group happy.

It’s tough to find seating at the postage stamp-sized Mundoaka Street Food, but the ever-changing menu of refined street food from across the globe is a favourite with millennials and visitors.

Noel is Zagreb's most sought after restaurant

At Haustor Haus, a central bistro that opened in 2018, grab a casual lunch of seasonal salad, smoothies or soup, or a dinner of homemade pasta with a shaving of fresh truffle.

For a large wine list and Mediterranean meals sourced from local producers, the modern and airy Pod Zidom, just off the main square is a good bet.

A table at Noel is one of the most sought-after in the city. The fine dining establishment offers modern interpretations of Croatian and European cuisine (choose from a four or seven-course tasting menu that changes seasonally) in a sleek and polished setting.

Where to drink

Experience the city’s cafe culture by spending an hour people watching while lounging at one of the dozens of cafes and bars that line Tkalčićeva Street. From late spring to autumn, tables spill out into the street with locals and tourists sipping coffee or beer while smoking.

Specialty coffee roaster Cogito Coffee has three locations in Zagreb, including its flagship location a few minutes from Ban Jelačića Square. Savour third-wave coffee brews, matcha lattes or loose-leaf tea in the cosy cafe or terrace when weather permits.

Velvet Café is a favourite hangout for locals and in-the-know visitors. Choose from coffee, tea or generous glasses of wine alongside homemade snacks like biscuits and pastries. The interior is a combination of lush florals and minimalist furniture.

Experience the cafe culture at Cogito Coffee

To sample wines from across Croatia (only about 20 per cent of the country’s wine is exported), sit down to a tasting at Wine Bar Bornstein, located inside a 200-year-old vaulted cellar. You can also browse the shelves for bottles to bring home. Open daily, except Sundays.

The record store/cafe/bar that is Pločnik is packed with couches on the first floor and a menu of coffee, tea, wine and more than 60 craft beers. Later at night, it transforms into a casual club with live music.

Where to shop

For fresh produce, head to Dolac Market in the heart of the city. Outdoor vendors under red umbrellas hawk locally grown fruits and vegetables, while the indoor portion of the market is where you’ll find fish, meat and dairy. Save room to sample the Pag cheese (Paski sir) produced from sheep who graze on the distinctive vegetation on Pag Island on the Adriatic coast.

Stroll Dolac Market for fresh produce (Getty)

Walk along the city’s main thoroughfare, Ilica Street, for everything from European chains to local boutiques. Explore the side streets for even more selection, including Love, Ana from local designer Ana Tevšić. Here you’ll find her modern houseware items and a hand-selected variety of stationery, jewellery and gifts from other Croatian designers and craftsmen.

On Sundays, British Square (Britanski Trg) is transformed from a vegetable market to a bric-a-brac flea market with everything from postcards and jewellery to vintage dishes and kitschy finds. Be sure to haggle.

Architectural highlight

The Croatian National Theatre, a cheery mustard yellow neo-baroque landmark in Lower Town, opened in 1895 to coincide with a visit from Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. Today the grand dame of the Belle Epoque hosts ballet, opera and theatre performances.

The Croatian National Theatre is worth visiting just for the exterior (Getty)

Nuts and bolts

What currency do I need?

Croatian Kuna (kn).

What language do they speak?

Croatian, but English is widely spoken.

How much should I tip?

10 per cent on average, leave 15 per cent for exceptional service.

What’s the time difference?

One hour ahead of the UK.

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

A direct flight from London is about 2.5 hours with British Airways or Croatian Airlines.

Public transport

There’s a large public transport network that includes trams and buses. Uber is also available.

What’s the best view?

Head to the top of the city at the Gradec Plateau for sweeping views of the city and the best view of the Zagreb Cathedral. On top of the hill is where you’ll also find the famous whale mural by French artist Etien.

Insider tip

It’s still cold and dark in March, but the Festival of Lights (started in 2017) illuminates the city with light displays and artwork installations, as well as audio-visual exhibitions.

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