I turned 25 in Zagreb, as good a place as any to start a quarter-life crisis!
Pro tip: Don’t get cocky like me and think that just because you can speak a Slavic language, they will understand you everywhere in Slav country 😛 Because so many Czechs vacation in Croatia, I’d heard they speak Czech well, but this is not so outside of coastal resorts. Many Zagrebians spoke English, but CroCzenglish and lots of hand gestures were needed for those who didn’t. 🙂
Zagreb was different for me than most cities. I spent three full days there (and one in Plitvice National Park), and whereas my first impression was that it was very flat and not as attractive outside the immediate center, I grew to like the city more the more time I spent there. This is probably because of the homey feel it started to take on as I got to know it better.
The locals call it Little Vienna, as it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Viennese apparently liked to make trips there (it’s only 5 hours away) and build things. It’s not exactly as nice as Vienna but you can see where the inspiration came from.
First off, I’d like to recommend my hostel, Hostel Bureau. It is literally around the corner from the main square and cathedral – aka all the action. The first night (a Saturday), there was a ton of noise from a large group of Hungarian children, but once Sunday evening came, it got super quiet – there were about 11 people in an 88-bed hostel. Freedom! And wonderful staff who are full of recommendations and chats over tea.
On my first morning, I was lured to the Christmas market… yes, lured. How? By the smell of roasting sausage. And I don’t even like to eat it usually!
The Christmas market was quite funny with its fake snow, but also festive 🙂 So after my snack break, I journeyed up a small incline to Kaptol square.
After admiring it, as well as the old, original stone wall of a monastery on the left side, for a while, I had to get to the main square (a minute’s walk) for my free tour at 11am!
The tour is run by Free Spirit and it’s the city’s only free tour. This doesn’t say anything about its quality, as free tours rarely disappoint, and this one didn’t either. The guide was knowledgeable and seemed to really care that we see what’s cool about her city.
We met under the statue of Ban Jelacic, Croatia’s national hero (and the bane of Hungary’s existence, apparently). We learned some interesting facts, like that only tourists meet under his statue, and real Zagrebians meet on the other side of the square, under a modern clock 😛 We learned that Jelacic was crucial in creating a nationalist movement in Croatia and is responsible for Zagreb’s boundaries today. And we learned that the horse’s raised leg means he died from consequences of a battle rather than in the battle… but those complications just happened to be syphillis 😛
The main square looks to be typical Eastern European in the picture, with its large, colorful buildings – but don’t be fooled! This is one of the weirder squares I’ve encountered, and it unsettled me – the other side opens up completely to the main street in Zagreb, called Illica Ulica (assonance! Ulica means street), which is full of trams and really regular, not charming Eastern-European buildings on the other side. I was sad about it for a bit, then I got over it. (If you’re familiar with Central/Eastern Europe, you know what I mean.) At Christmastime, pop-up stands selling kuhano vino (svařák or mulled wine) line the border with the street.
Our first stop on the tour? A hidden, better view of the cathedrals and rooftops for amateur tourist-photographers!
Another great opportunity for photos is the newly-renovated St. Mark’s church with an appropriately patriotic tiled mosaic roof.
The badge on the right symbolizes Croatian unity while the one on the left is for Zagreb. The checkerboard pattern is connected with a legend that says a king in the 12th century won back the Croatian lands from a conqueror by beating him in chess.
We also passed through Strossmartre – a combination of the street name with Montmartre in Paris. If you were to be standing in the photo and turn to the right, there’s a gunpowder tower which shoots a cannon every day at noon sharp (link to Facebook video). And it will scare the crap out of you, even if you’ve been thoroughly warned… and warned again… and warned again for the whole minute (“No really guys, it’s loud, cover your ears”) before it goes off by your tour guide. This tradition was started because an unprepared Croatian army scared off the invading Ottomans by firing a cannon and accidentally killing the leader of the army.
This is one of the locations of the Christmas market, a beautifully lit place to walk at night and grab some kuhano vino with friends while sitting in a heated outdoor space.
After my tour, I grabbed a light lunch of strukhle, from a restaurant of the same name, which is a ricotta-like cheese-filled pancake (sort of like a blintz) baked with bubbly, mozzarella-like cheese on top. Delicious. And hot. And not recommended with a cappuccino – I don’t know what I was thinking. (Psh. Coffee addicts, amiright?)
I then visited the well-known Museum of Broken Relationships, started by a Croatian couple who broke up and didn’t know what to do with all the items left over from their own relationship – and struck gold with the concept.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is […] dedicated to failed love relationships. Its exhibits include personal objects left over from former lovers, accompanied by brief descriptions.
I could post a million pictures, but it’s a really personal and emotional experience. One of my favorites was this caterpillar plush, shared by a long-distance couple. The girl tore off a leg for every visit between them, and they agreed that once all the legs were gone it was time to move in together and start a life. That never happened. 😥
BUT BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CAKE!
I had three “birthday cakes” (on two separate days), but can’t find the third one…
Magnolia – lemon meringue pie and cappuccino
Amelie – strawberry and white chocolate, cappuccino
I’m not sure I’ve ever used the word “delectable” before, but I would about this cake. Plus the cake shop itself was so cozy and creatively designed – I felt like I was in Paris.
And let’s not forget coffee. Honestly, I was super disappointed with the coffee scene here, even the two pictured above. However, Eli’s Caffe has Zagreb’s certifiably best beans and most modern brewing methods, and made the best damn cappuccino I got.
Lastly, my birthday lunch at Medvedgrad Pivnice, a famous and incredible local brewery, complete with a waiter whose command of the English language was “beer,” “good,” and “New York” – though by the end of my hour in the restaurant, during which I smiled a lot and made lots of mmmm expressions, we were total buddies.
This is one of the best meals I’ve ever had and I can’t recommend it enough. It was a really classy, old-style restaurant with Iron Throne-like wooden chairs and large, beautiful wooden tables (I looked weird sitting alone at a table for six, but there weren’t any better options), with wooden columns everywhere. I was served a HUGE scalding pan of thick homemade noodles topped with savory goulash. YES PLEASE. And I got a beer tester of 7 of their most popular beers, light and dark alike, with the seasonal one in the middle. I usually drink testers from the one I least like to the one I most like, but I alternated between four most liked ones since I couldn’t choose the best.
The best part is that their prices are so reasonable – they don’t overcharge. I think this meal cost me no more than $7-9, but I gave a huge tip for service and satisfaction.
I’d come back to Zagreb for the cake and Medvedgrad alone. I also have a lot more of Croatia to explore in a future summer.
What’s your favorite thing about Croatia?