How To Make the Most of 24 Hours in Zagreb, Croatia

Enjoy the views from Zagreb cathedral
Enjoy the views from Zagreb cathedral | © Dalibor Brlek / Alamy Stock Photo
Zagreb’s meandering cobblestone streets and Neo-Gothic architecture host lively pubs and waiting-to-be-discovered cafés. If you find yourself on a 24-hour stopover in the Croatian capital, prepare to get a taste of its vibrant spirit.
Zagreb is a vibrant city of around 800,000 people, with St Mark’s Church among the most popular attractions © Inge Johnsson / Alamy Stock Photo

Forming a junction between the Sava River and Medvednica Mountain, Croatia’s capital has almost 1000 years of dynamic history. Between its origins as a modest diocese in 1094 AD and the lively city-break destination it is today, Zagreb has been a hotbed for artistic creation and resplendent architecture with first-class culinary developments to boot.

Morning

Start your day in style at café Amélie

Kick off your Zagreb sojourn as many local residents start their day – with a caffeine and pastry kick. Balance out a kava s mlijekom (espresso with a splash of milk) with Amélie’s chocolate-doused take on a Croatian classic: poppyseed cake. White-and-black checkerboard floors accentuate stylish wooden elements at this bijou café on Vlaška Street.

Pro tip: if you’re in town on a weekend morning, don your most stylish outfit to take part in špica – the phenomenon that sees Zagreb’s centre seemingly transformed into a runway, where morning coffee becomes an opportunity to see and be seen.

Zagreb has no shortage of cafés and bars from which to observe (or take part in) the phenomenon of špica © Robert Wyatt / Alamy Stock Photo

Dive into Dolac Market

Walk two minutes down Pod Zidom Street to your next stop: the “belly of Zagreb”, Dolac Market. The open-air marketplace has attracted vendors and artisans from all over Croatia since its founding in the 1930s. Wander under Zagreb’s trademark red parasols among stands brimming with fresh-caught Adriatic fish, local honey and souvenirs.

Pro tip: if you’re in the mood for a fresh fruit or veggie snack, grab the most unsightly produce available – it tends to be the most delicious.

The red parasols of Dolac market have become a symbol of Zagreb © paul prescott / Alamy Stock Photo

Ride a wave of history to the Lenuci Horseshoe

Head back down Pod Zidom Street and turn left onto Tome Bakača Street to peek into the Zagreb Cathedral. Sitting behind a Herman Bollé-designed statue of the Virgin Mary with Angels, the towering church’s Neo-Gothic spires stand tall at 108 metres. Walk four minutes through Tome Bakača to Trg Bana Jelačića, the city’s main square. The adjacent Praška Street will take you to the string of verdant oases known as the Lenuci Horseshoe – a U-shaped system of squares and parks. Stroll 15 minutes straight from the 19th-century Zrinjevac Park, peppered with the city’s signature plane trees, to elegant King Tomislav Square.

Pro tip: Lounge for a while on the grass. If you drift off to the sound of birdsong, don’t worry – prileći (Croatia’s answer to siestas) is a local tradition.

The Lenuci Horshoe is a U-shaped system of squares and parks © Dalibor Brlek / Alamy Stock Photo

Afternoon

Meander through a museum or two

Zagreb is almost as packed with museums as it is with cafés. On King Tomislav Square sits the majestic Art Pavilion, a golden Art Nouveau-style museum boasting past exhibits by Miró, Rodin and Calder. A 15-minute walk away down Baruna Trenka Street with a right turn onto Mažuranić Square, the Ethnographic Museum hides a rich cultural heritage behind a striking Art Nouveau exterior. Comprehensive without being overwhelming, the museums won’t take more than an hour or two to traverse.

Pro tip: Next to the Ethnographic Museum, stop to ogle the Croatian National Theatre; its yellow Neo-Baroque facade is hard to miss.

The Art Pavilion is set within a golden Art Nouveau-style building © Bjanka Kadic / Alamy Stock Photo

Sample Croatian wine at Vinodol

Vinodol Restaurant’s 1940s flagship, nestled in Teslina Street next to Zrinjevac Park, is one of the hottest spots in town for Croatian cuisine made with locally procured ingredients. Head chef Josip Hauptfeld reveals the house’s top picks, starting with traditional appetiser zagorski štrukli (filo pastry filled with cottage cheese): “We make the dough ourselves and use cheese from a nearby family farm,” he explains. Hauptfeld highlights seasonal favourite entrées from spit-roasted suckling pig and sarma (stuffed cabbage) to hand-rolled white truffle pasta and Adriatic octopus ispod peke (baked under a hot coal-covered lid). For those with a sweet tooth, Hauptfeld adds that he’d “definitely recommend a homemade apple or cheese strudel, gibanica cake from Međimurje or rafiol pastry from Imotski”.

Pro tip: wash it all down with a mean selection of wine – Vinodol offers over 120 wine varieties from across Croatia. Alternatively, opt for natural juices made from local ingredients like elderflower, sage, and lavender.

Indulge in the Lower Town’s material delights

From Vinodol, head down Teslina Street and turn right onto Preradovićeva. Stroll for five minutes to Zagreb’s main shopping street, Ilica, home to a mix of big-name international brands, quaint boutiques and local craft shops. Rev up your body after an inevitable post-shopping lull in pastry shop Vincek – you’ll recognise it by the line stretching down the street.

Pro tip: for the health conscious, Vis à Vis by Vincek is just around the corner, with gluten-free and organic options – try a scoop of carrot, ginger and almond ice cream.

Ban Jelačić Square is the central square of the Croatian capital © imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Evening

Leave no stone unturned in the Upper Town

On Tomićeva Street next to Vincek, find the world’s shortest funicular and hitch a ride to the Upper Town. Disembark directly at 13th-century Lotrščak Tower: once a protective fort, today it’s the perfect panoramic viewpoint. Wend your way down cobblestoned streets (follow Dverce onto Ćirilometodska) to nearby St Mark’s Church, displaying the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, together with the emblem of Zagreb, on its mosaic roof. From there, head down Kamenita Street through the Stone Gate, a medieval portcullis turned shrine.

Pro tip: The city centre has free WiFi throughout to facilitate stellar photo (and photo-sharing) opportunities at every turn.

Lotrcak Tower and Funicular railway to the Gradec area, Zagreb © funkyfood London - Paul Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

Enjoy craft beer and pub grub at Mali Medo

Walk down the staircase south of the Stone Gate. Turn left onto Kožarska Street and follow it to café-dotted Tkalčićeva, where you’ll find boutique brewery and pub Mali Medo. Snag indoor bench seating or sup alfresco on the outdoor patio. Pair a craft burger doused in Crna Kraljica dark beer with a draft Grička vještica. After dinner, go for an evening walk through the city centre’s gas lantern-illuminated streets or stay put and begin your pre-game.

Pro tip: Prepare for a potential serenade from above – the windows atop the pub are often occupied by performers.

Night

Get a taste of Zagreb nightlife

Keep your tryst with Zagreb central at rock and roller vortex Alcatraz on Preradovićeva Street, or Opera on Petrinjska Street, both a 10-minute walk from Tkalčićeva. Thrumming with a fusion of techno, hip hop and pop, Opera’s past lineups have included Idris Elba and Fedde Le Grand. Branch outside of the centre for electronic beats at Depo Club, a 15-minute drive away in a former factory on Radnička Street.

Pro tip: Uber and Bolt are available in Zagreb, but tram rides are just 4 kuna (US$0.40) a pop. Take tram 6 or 31 to Depo from the main square in the direction of Sopot. From the Autobusni Kolodvor stop, the club is a 10-minute walk.

Conk out in comfort

At Swanky Mint Hostel, a 10-minute westward walk down Ilica from the main square, hang your hat or continue the party; the hostel doubles as one of the hippest bars in town. If you’ve got an urge to splurge, check out ritzy 5-star Hotel Le Premier. It’s a 15-minute walk from the main square via Jurišićeva Street, from which you’ll turn right onto Draškovićeva, then left onto Kralja Držislava.

Pro tip: Try Swanky’s Swanky Spritz cocktail with cherry rakija (local brandy) and prosecco.

See a different side to Zagreb as the sun goes down © Nino Marcutti / Alamy Stock Photo