- Lifestyle & Sports
- 17 Nov 11
The ‘White City’ of the Balkans is an overlooked tourist gem with stunning medieval architecture and a laid back sensibility – in other words, the perfect place for a weekend break.
Where exactly is it?
Zagreb is Croatia’s capital and most densely inhabited city. It’s located in the country’s north-west, on the southern fringe of Medvednica National Park. The river Sava divides the historic ‘White City’, which has a population tipping one million. Zagreb is also positioned on the south-western front of the Carpathian basin.
How do I get there?
Unfortunately, there aren’t any direct flights from Dublin to the Croatian capital. Your best bet is to fly British Midland or Aer Lingus to London Heathrow and then connect onward with Croatia Airlines. If time isn’t an issue, why not travel Aer Lingus to charming Dubrovnik and make the wonderfully scenic journey up along the Adriatic coast and then inland to Zagreb?
What language do they speak?
The official language is Croatian. The region’s natives speak the minority Kajkavian, one of the three main dialects of the mother-tongue. In fact, Kajkavian is more similar to Slovenian than to the other Croatian dialects. German is also widely spoken in Zagreb, unsurprising considering the Austrian border is only an hour’s drive away.
What is the local beer like?
The leading brand in Croatia is the pale lager Ožujsko. It’s a very palatable thirst-quencher with a faint aroma of hops and a fruity aftertaste. It’s locally brewed and a big hit with the city’s boisterous Dinamo Zagreb supporters. Its main rival is Karlovačko, a very grainy and largely tasteless lager produced by Heineken. If you’re looking for something a little stronger then check out Tomislav, a super-strength dark lager with a fine malty flavour. This dark brown brew with a cream head is a big hit with beer aficionados.
Like their Balkan neighbours, Croatians are noticeably fond of hard liquor. It’s common to be offered a shot of a strong digestif directly after each meal. Kruškovac is a well-liked spirit made from fermented pears and is noticeable for its distinctive yellow colour. Alcoholic drinks prepared from garden fruits are common in the Balkans and are collectively known as rakia. Homebrews are very popular and can vary in strength from 25 to 60%. Another local speciality is maraschino, a clear liqueur with a bitter taste made from cherries. Šljivovica is a widely served plum brandy with an almond-like aftertaste. It’s an interesting tipple, but, like many of the local spirits, too sweet to consume in large quantities!
What is the transport like?
Zagreb is at the intersection of the four highways that criss-cross Croatia and connects it with neighbouring Serbia, Hungary and Bosnia. The city itself has a modern, comprehensive road system. Per capita car ownership is extremely high, and traffic gridlock is a daily occurrence on all main routes. Don’t rent a car in this city! The inner city is serviced by an efficient tram network that connects the downtown to all the major suburbs. If you’d like to travel further afield, Croatian Railways offer a wide variety of destinations. These include coastal Split and both the Slovenian and Serbian capital cities of Ljubljana and Belgrade.
What’s the food like?
Zagreb is simply a great place to eat. Dining out in Croatia’s capital is an unfussy and very relaxing experience. Its many excellent and reasonably priced restaurants offer a broad choice of dishes reflecting the eclectic culinary styles of the Balkan region. It may be over 100 miles inland from the Adriatic, but nevertheless Mediterranean seafood and pasta dishes are extremely popular. Zagreb’s proximity to neighbouring Hungary and Austria has certainly influenced the natives’ eating habits. Meat goulash is a common offering, as is grilled skewered beef. Krvavice, a herb flavoured blood sausage is widely served and odojak is a popular roast pork dish. The biggest problem is choosing what to eat! From mature cheeses and cured hams to seafood stews and fruit pastries, there’s something here for every palette.
What’s the nightlife like?
The ‘White City’ certainly knows how to party! The downtown area is packed full of lively bars and clubs, populated by both locals and weekend warriors from neighbouring countries. The wide and elegant thoroughfare of Tkalciceva Street is the city’s real hotspot. It boasts a broad diversity of bars catering to many tastes and the generous licensing laws ensure the party continues into the early hours! The main city square is dotted with late night cafés and is a people watcher’s paradise. Preradoviceva Street is also a favourite for late-night revellers. This neighbourhood houses some excellent clubs with an often unexpected range of musical offerings blasting forth from the sound system. Whether you’re a fan of house or hardcore punk, it’s all here! If you happen to visit Zagreb during the sweltering hot summer, you may find yourself partying at Lake Jarun. What could be better than a midnight dip after an evening sipping cocktails!
Why should I go?
Zagreb is something of an unspoilt gem. This may seem a strange thing to say about a city of a million people, but it’s criminally overlooked by tourists eager to sample the delights of Croatia’s Adriatic coast. While many of Europe’s capitals have drawn the hordes for decades, Zagreb is something of a late starter. The old town area is an elegant mix of buildings from the days of the Austrian Empire and is dotted with funky boutiques, hip bars and artist galleries. The city‘s bustling café culture is one of life’s simple pleasures and culture vultures will lap up its thriving live music and arts scene. Whether it’s to party or relax, Zagreb is the ideal destination for a short break.
What are the touristy things to do?
Zagreb may be a little light on sights, but it’s certainly a beautiful and atmospheric city to wander around. The gornji grad (upper town) and donji grad (lower town) are home to many of Zagreb’s chief tourist attractions. The gornji grad area is the city’s medieval hub and is dominated by the gigantic Catholic cathedral. The old town gate leads onto Strossmayer’s walkway, an area famed for buskers and portrait painters. This tranquil location is a great place to grab a drink and soak up the atmosphere. Nearby, the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters houses an impressive collection of paintings from the renaissance period. The imposing medieval fortress of Medvedgrad overlooks the city and was built over 800 years ago to protect the city from invading Tartar tribesmen. The 13th century Lotrščak tower is situated close to the southern gate. It was originally constructed to warn citizens against attack by the Turks! Maksimir Park is a large green expanse close to the city centre, dotted with lakes and picnic areas. It also houses one of Europe’s finest zoos.
Croatia has a long standing tradition of producing artists who paint in the childlike or naïve style. The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art houses a large and impressive collection of works from this unique and colourful genre. It’s regarded as the world’s first museum of its kind and celebrates the achievements of these self-taught and often highly influential artists.
Anything to avoid?
Don’t get caught on public transport without a ticket! Croatians take a dim view of this practice and the fines are hefty. Likewise, avoid the city’s unscrupulous taxi fleet. They specialise in over-priced, magical-mystery tours and somehow seem to forget your destination halfway through the journey.
What should I bring home?
Not sure that fetching fridge-magnet of Marshal Tito will bring a smile to her face? Why not pick up some locally produced natural cosmetic products! Croatian companies produce a wide range of soaps, seaweed baths and shower gels made from fruit, herb and vegetable extracts. Watch those brownie points soar!
When should I go?
Temperatures regularly top the 40 degree mark during the Croatian summer. If you’re not a fan of sweltering heat and humidity, don’t dream of booking during July or August! Late spring is the ideal time. Temperatures are in the mid-20s and the weather is generally fabulous.
What’s my challenge?
Zagreb is certainly one of the most relaxed capital cities in Europe. The locals don’t ‘live to work’ and value their free time enormously. Take a leaf out of their book and spend an afternoon sipping coffee and soaking up the sights and sounds. Everyone seems to have plenty of time on their hands. What’s the rush!?
What’s the currency?
The Croatian Kuna (HRK). Croatia was expected to join the EU and the Eurozone by 2014. They seem to have gone a little cool on the idea, I wonder why!
Something to remember...
The Balkan War/Croatian War of Independence is still very real in the minds of Zagreb’s citizens. The bloody conflict finally ended in 1995 after four years of bitter fighting between Croatian nationalists and forces loyal to the Serb controlled Yugoslav People’s Army. Over 12,000 Croats perished, but unlike most major cities in the former Yugoslavia, only minimal damage was done to Zagreb.