The Croatian capital of Zagreb is compact yet diverse enough to make for an easy, fun and fascinating weekend. Quality gastronomic options, a lively bar-lined street, a major market, historic sights and a collection of prime contemporary art are all within an easy tram ride of each other.
Meandering north of the main square, its course dictated by the stream it was built over centuries ago, lively Tkalčićeva has always been the city’s main strip for pubs and cafés. Some of the houses they occupy sit as the same low dimensions as 200 years ago, creating a fairytale feel to your bar crawl. Many venues have terraces, lending a Mediterranean atmosphere to the proceedings in summer.
Zagreb’s Dolac is at its busiest on Saturday mornings when locals do their weekly shopping and those visiting on a city break are happily browsing the selection of spirits, honeys and wines that can be found alongside the regular fruit and vegetables. The indoor fish market is an education in itself while you may want to sample the cornbread and cream cheese that is an essential part of the Zagreb experience.
From the market, the Upper Town is a fairly easy stretch, perhaps by crossing the main square, turning right into Ilica then taking the funicular. Doing this around noon means you might even see the Grič Cannon being set off at Lotrščak Tower. Behind, you can pop into the curio that is the Museum of Broken Relationships, an art installation turned popular attraction, displaying evidence of what separating couples leave behind. Wandering higher up, you reach St Mark’s, the parish church for the Upper Town and distinctive with its red, white and blue chequerboard roof.
Zagreb is no longer a culinary desert. A gastronomic revolution is well under way, one that has made local diners far more discerning, kitchens more eclectic and adventurous, and chefs have become TV stars. One example is Gallo, handily located amid the grander façades of the Lower Town. Here, Croatia and Mediterranean cuisine combine, the seafood is as fresh as the herbs picked from the garden alongside, and the pasta is hand-made.
You will have seen twin spires poking up into the sky as you walked around town. In place since architect Hermann Bollé rebuilt it after an earthquake in 1880, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary is Croatia’s tallest building. Within, you’ll find a relief by famed Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, who has depicted Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, the controversial cleric from World War II placed under house arrest for the last years of his life.
Crossing the river Sava into Novi Zagreb, you find the Museum of Contemporary Art. Many years in the planning, the MCA (MSU to Croatians) is the most significant cultural attraction to open in Zagreb in modern times. Among its permanent collection, you’ll find sections dedicated to computer art of the early 1970s and works by the so-called Gorgona Group responsible for the pioneering New Tendencies shows of the 1960s. Temporary exhibitions also merit investigation and are not limited to artists from this region.