Zagreb is not only about stately institutions of Habsburg grandeur, although for the first-time visitor wandering around the façades and gardens of the Lower Town it might feel that way. Across the Sava, there’s a striking Museum of Contemporary Art and Croatia’s capital has a thriving gallery scene, part of an ever-broadening cultural agenda.
St Mark’s stands out as an iconic attraction because of its chequered-tile roof displaying the coats of arms of Zagreb and Croatia, brightening the focal square named after it. Other external features reflect its lengthy construction, such as its Romanesque windows, Gothic portals and particularly the 15 effigies over the south portal.
The National Theatre is a cultural landmark and a work of art in its own right. Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef attended the unveiling of this architectural masterpiece, created by the Viennese design team of Ferdinand Fellner and Herman Helmer. Ivan Meštrović later sculpted the fountain outside, The Source of Life.
The bizarre yet popular Museum of Broken Relationships illustrates doomed romantic liaisons by way of the unusual souvenirs, personal letters and strange artifacts that arise as couples uncouple. Conceived by a former couple, the concept struck a chord, and a permanent home was found here in the Upper Town.
The Art Pavilion dominates the landscaped square of Tomislav trg. Created for Hungary’s Millennial Exhibition of 1896 then transported from Budapest, this formerly iron structure was made a permanent feature by architects Fellner and Helmer. Now a prestigious art space, it stages major temporary exhibitions, such as the Giacometti show in 2017.
Zagreb’s finest art collection was bequeathed to the nation by controversial war-time cultural consultant Ante Topić Mimara. How Mimara came by his outstanding collection of Goyas, Canalettos and Van Dycks isn’t clear but for the tourist, such treasure housed in a beautiful former school from the 19th century is worth a day’s visit.
Created by Cathedral architect Hermann Bollé, Mirogoj is the main cemetery for both Zagreb and the nation. Croatia’s great writers, artists and politicians lie here in what was a summerhouse and vineyard. Bollé’s grandiose main entrance lends the right tone to any visit.
Dominating the skyline for miles around, the neo-Gothic spires of the Cathedral top this late 19th-century rebuild by German architect Hermann Bollé. Under restoration for several years, hence the scaffolding, the Cathedral contains the relief of Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac by Ivan Meštrović, marking the resting place of the controversial cleric.
The collection of the Archaeological Museum stretches to nearly half a million artifacts, most unearthed in Croatia. Stand-out exhibit is the Vučedol Dove, a vessel carved around 2,500BC and discovered in 1938. Its intricate markings are said to represent the seasons and constellations, perhaps the first calendar in the western world.
Created for the World Student Games of 1987, Jarun is Zagreb’s main area for recreation. Cycle paths and a skateboard park surround a man-made lake where sailboats glide, dotted with the islands that stage June’s major INmusic festival. Nightclubs, including the seminal Aquarius, fringe the shoreline.
Named after the famous inventor and national hero Nikola Tesla, the Technical Museum houses a planetarium, a collection of rare transport, a mock-up of a coalmine and a cabinet of Tesla’s bizarre creations. The end result is a surprisingly entertaining and diverse visit for all ages.
An unusual work created by renowned sculptor Ivan Meštrović, the Meštrovićev paviljon houses the Croatian Associations of Artists. Opened as a circular arts hall before World War II, it was later converted into mosque, then a museum. Today the building hosts events and exhibitions of national cultural importance.
Zagreb’s largest park was created in the 1790s by Bishop Maksimiljan Vrhovac. Its rolling hills and sprawling oak trees represent the English style, rustic and less constrained than its French counterpart, with lakes and footpaths. Today you’ll also find Zagreb Zoo and nearby the national football stadium, also called Maksimir.
Zagreb’s most significant cultural opening in modern times, the Museum of Contemporary Art is known by its acronym of MSU, permanent home for some 10,000-plus artifacts from the mid 20th century onwards. Architect Igor Franić has created a somewhat functionalist shell, with a flexible, twisting interior.
A Baroque creation of the 1600s, St Catherine’s lends its name to the pretty square in the Upper Town that also houses the Klovićevi Dvori Gallery in the adjoining monastery. The church displays the coat of arms of the noble families who contributed to its reconstruction later in the 17th century.
The recently opened Grič tunnel beneath the Upper Town fortifications was created as an air-raid shelter during World War II. Unused then abandoned, it was taken over by DJs and ravers in the 1990s. Now renovated, it stages fashion shows and exhibitions and is slated to host a Museum of the Senses.
Housed in the Habsburg-era Vranyczany Palace, the Modern Gallery holds some 10,000 domestic works from the 1800s to the present day. At any given time, some 750 are on display, from Impressionist paintings by Vlaho Bukovac to cutting-edge video art, along with sculptures and installations.
Donated to the nation in 1868 by the eminent bishop of the same name, the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters contains the 256 paintings of his private collection. Concentrating mainly on the Italian Renaissance, these works also include pieces by El Greco, Jean-Antoine Gros and Jan Wallensz de Cock.
Presenting the urban development of Croatia’s capital from prehistoric times to the present day, the Zagreb City Museum is most enlightening when dealing with the 19th century. Away from the fusty models and maps showing medieval expansion, the museum brings Habsburg Zagreb to life with replicas of shopfronts and artifacts from the theatre stage.
Opened in the 1890s, the Botanical Gardens operate from April 1 to November 1. Along with the many glasshouses containing some 10,000 species of plants, you’ll find large garden ponds, winding paths and many benches, allowing for quiet contemplation away from the busy city.
Workplace of Croatia’s most renowned sculptor, the Atelijer Meštrović occupies the 17th-century properties that he himself restored over 20 years until his arrest in 1941 and subsequent exile. Works in marble, stone, wood and bronze, and drawings and graphics cover two floors, an atrium and the atelier off the ivy-clad courtyard.