The main city in Slavonia, north-east Croatia, Osijek was once a major Habsburg military base. Refined architecture typifies the main streets of its Upper Town while the former Tvrđa fortress now houses bars, restaurants and a regional museum. A Hungarian influence can be detected in the local cuisine, in which spicy peppers come to the fore.
Once its own separate entity, Osijek’s Habsburg-built Upper Town (Gornji Grad) on the south bank of the Drava contains the bulk of the city’s main streets and landmarks. The grandiose Europska avenija, the Croatian National Theatre and the Church of St Peter and St Paul are all found here within a short stroll of each other. Cafés and restaurants abound, should you want a break from all the sightseeing.
One of the key features of Osijek costs nothing to see or to enter. Its river may not beautify the city like the Danube does in Budapest or divide it so clearly as the Sava in Zagreb – all you need to see, apart from the zoo and an open-air pool, is on the south bank – but the Drava is worth a waterside stroll in fine weather, restaurants such as El Paso pizzeria operating on moored boats. Nearby, the Pedestrian Bridge, a surprisingly rare crossing point, lends a little grace to the panorama.
Thanks to its Habsburg and Hungarian heritage, Osijek goes overboard when it comes to cakes, pancakes and pastries. Slathered in whipped cream and chocolate sauce, these are works of art in themselves, embellished with sprinkles and slices of fruit. The best place to find them is either at the café-restaurant at the city’s best hotel, the Waldinger, or the classic pâtisserie Peter Pan near the river, purveyor of ice creams as well as cakes and pastries of every description.
Just outside Osijek with tours sold in town, Kopački rit is a birdwatcher’s paradise, a large expanse of wetlands where the Danube and Drava rivers converge. Accessible by rowing boat, on foot across a series of boardwalks and even on horseback, this popular nature reserve contains kingfishers, wild geese and white-tailed eagles, as well as catfish, pike and perch, and pine martens, wild boar and wild cats. The reserve lies on the path of many migration routes, making autumn the best time to visit.
Trg Ante Starčevića, known by locals as simply Trg, the Square, is the centrepiece showcase of Osijek. Named after Ante Starčevića, the 19th-century politician whose monument stands here, the square is in fact a triangle, with the city’s most notable church dominating one corner. Towering over the public fountain, a main meeting place, the neo-Gothic Church of St Peter and St Paul, is visible all around the city and a point of reference for first-time visitors as they explore Osijek.
The main attraction within the Tvrđa fortress complex, the Museum of Slavonia was established as long ago as 1877. The permanent collection runs chronologically, through the centuries starting with from prehistory and the Roman era. Look out for the temporary exhibitions such as displays of Habsburg-era photographs when Osijek was an important outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The building itself, the former Vienna Chamber dating back to 1702, is also worth a look around.
A Baroque military landmark fashioned in the classic Habsburg shape of a star, the Tvrđa fortress was initially built shortly after the Turks were first driven out of Osijek, their brief but dangerous return prompting swift completion in the early 1700s. A military complex for nearly 200 years, the bastion saw many of its walls taken down in the 1920s. Today, its criss-cross of streets and many wings house school and college buildings, numerous bars and restaurants and the Museum of Slavonia. It’s residential too, home to some 10,000 citizens.
The key local dish to try, typical of Slavonia, is fiš paprikaš, similar in concept to its cousin, spicy fish soup, found just over the border in Hungary. Here, the main elements are traditionally carp and pike, and the best tomato- and onion-based fiš paprikaš is slowly stirred in a large cauldron over an open fire. Paprika, of course, is another vital ingredient, and pasta is also added. Every local restaurant in Osijek will not only serve fiš paprikaš but its reputation will depend on it. In the Tvrđa fortress, the Kod Ruže serves its fiš paprikaš with home-made pasta.
The waterfront holds few surprises until you get to walk past the Caffé Bar Bounty and, where Šetalište Kardinala Franje Šepera meets Ulica Vjekoslava Hengla, find a statue of Pablo Picasso. Sitting, stripped down to his shorts as he liked to paint, this particular likeness has him balancing on a narrow pedestal, his hands spread as if he were about to fall – or plunge into the Drava. Its creator was Ivan Sabolić, former dean at Zagreb’s Academy of Fine Arts, who died in 1986, shortly after the statue’s completion.
A monument to the dynamism of influential bishop, politician and cultural initiator Josip Juraj Strossmayer, the neo-Gothic Church of St Peter and St Paul stands a towering 90 metres (295 feet) over the city. Osijek-born Strossmayer instigated its construction shortly before his death in 1905, Mirko Rački’s frescoed interior completed nearly four decades later. The main feature within is the striking stained-glass windows, the backdrop to the altars, equally fashioned in neo-Gothic style.
Close to today’s border with Serbia, Osijek sustained heavy damage, as well as significant loss of life, during the first stage of the Croatian War of Independence in the early 1990s. One particularly dramatic incident was when one tank rolled over the little red Fiat car (‘Fićo’) of a local citizen, screened on the news later that day. In more recent times, a monument was erected and the car placed on top of the tank to symbolize the city’s triumph over its aggressor.