Recent years have seen a Croatian tourist boom, with its stunning coastline perhaps the worst kept secret in Europe. But is the country's landlocked capital still one of our continent's hidden gems?
A generation of Brits now know Croatia as an electronic-music festival hub, and what a few entrepreneurial ravers saw some ten years ago is the spirit of a country that loves to host parties. After heading from Manchester to Zagreb, it’s clear the capital is no different.
The weekend of my visit saw a central park turned in to a sort of burger-expo, with grill chefs from all over the country competing for attention with their beef, and this sort of behaviour is indicative of a city where life happens al-fresco. From award-winning Christmas markets to a multitude of gatherings focused on food, drink and anything cultural, Zagreb wants to play out.
There’s plenty to see inside too, though, with a host of galleries and museums worth your attention. Pick of the bunch is undoubtedly the Museum of Broken Relationships, though perhaps not if yours is on the rocks. The building houses a disparate collection of artefacts from lovesick donors, everything from an axe to some ecstacy- all with their own fantastical back plots.
The yarns are as divergent as the objects, ranging from curt one liners to war-torn life stories shared, you get a sense of the catharsis that this installation has offered people, as well as some solace of your own in the knowledge that everyone else has to put up with the same shit trying to find someone worth spending their time with. But most of all it’s just really funny.
Although a weekend could easily be spent in the city’s art galleries alone, there is graffiti to be found on most corners too, including some really impressive murals. Hunting around on foot is the best way to see what’s on offer, but be sure to check out the Art Park, which is home to plenty. And for something a little more organised the Museum of Contemporary Art in the city’s south holds some great examples of local and international talent.
Tunel Gric is the must-see underpass through the past, a walk through the country’s history which celebrates the birth of a nation alongside some of its favourite sons and daughters. Tesla’s influence on the scientific world in particular gets its own electrifying exhibit.
For those after a real sense of the city, Dolac Market represents the true heart of Zagreb, as it has done for almost a hundred years. The sprawling square boasts fruit and veg outside, with delicatasen and fishmongers in the surrounding buildings. There is some genuinely fantastic produce on offer and this a great spot to pick up edible souvenirs (the best kind, of course).
Culture ticked off it’s time to whet the whistle. Cheap pints are easy to find, but there’s a burgeoning craft beer scene that deserves an afternoon’s investigation at the very least. Make your way to the Craft Room for a taste of some fantastic local creations alongside an excellent global selection.
If you’ve got time, a tram out of town to the Garden Brewery offers a wide selection of brews and excellent burgers from neighbouring street food purveyors, Submarine. The public transport in the city is cheap, simple to use and runs frequently, so don’t be afraid to take full advantage.
If the sun’s shining a visit to Krivi Put and their expansive beer garden makes a lot of sense. The atmospheric dive-bar sits amongst the University campus, and is a great place to meet fellow time-wasters. Its name translates as The Wrong Way, but it’s definitely the right direction to turn if it happens to be your round, you can sup bargain-priced local lagers for less than a couple of quid a pour.
Food in Croatia shares the same contrasts that exist in the country’s landscapes. The lighter Mediterranean cuisine of its coastal areas, which revolves around fantastic seafood and salads, gives way to heartier central European fare inland. Zagreb’s most famous and must-try dish, strukli, is a delicious dough dumpling usually served steaming and indulgently cheese-filled. The best place in town to try it is La Struk, a little cafe where its literally the only thing on the menu.
Hearty portions that would even put your gran to shame are the order of the day at Bistro Vještica- be sure to save room for dessert though, their apple fritters with cinnamon syrup are something quite special. This cosy Upper Town taverna takes its name from the Witch of Gric, a series of novels written by national treasure Marija Jurić Zagorka, the country’s first female journalist and writer of some of Croatia’s most revered literature. Her old home, overlooking Dolac Market, has now been converted into a small museum commemorating her contumacious life and works.
For dinner, a delicious selection of traditional delectables can be found at Agava, also in the Upper Town; enjoy beautifully tender oven baked octopus after sharing starters of strukli with local meats and cheeses. The pork products of Croatia are not to be ignored, you can find the quality cured ham pršut just about anywhere, but keep an eye out for kulen, a brilliant spicy salami loved by locals.
Head to Eggpress for brunch and you can enjoy it alongside other cold cuts, and eggs how you like ’em. Zagreb’s first egg-focused restaurant is just the place to nurse and nourish yourself the morning after if required, they’ll even do you a full English, wryly named the Br-egg-xit. Breakfast always tastes that much better with an extra dose of national shame, after all.
Once the sun goes down, that spirit which welcomed the world’s clubbers with open arms is unarguably prominent. Nowhere is more fun than Masters, a crazy little bolt-hole housed in a tennis complex on the city’s outskirts. A courtside terrace entertains shuffling heads til nightfall, when things move inside to a life-affirmingly sweaty dancefloor built within handpainted walls lit only by the obligatory glistening disco ball. Those with stomach for the session might find their stroll home interrupted by the first few sets of eager tennis players getting an early game in the morning after.
For a more conventional night out, the roads around the Upper Town house plenty of welcoming bars bristling with atmosphere at most times during the day. A statue of a local prostitute peering out to passers by offers an insight into the darker history of an area which was once one of Europe’s brothel hotspots back in the early 20th Century. These days entertainment comes in a more family friendly form, aside from her particularly well-endowed steely buttocks, which are surely another must-see.
It’s hard not to fall a little in love with a city that at once feels every bit a cultural capital whilst still retaining the vibe of friendly little town. There’s so much to recommend about a place that still feels a bit off the radar, despite its certified suitability for a wicked weekend break, meaning we’d head back to Zagreb faster than anyone can say ‘idemo’ (we’ll leave you to learn some Croatian for that one), with or without the direct flight from Manchester opened by the ill-fated Monarch shortly before the airline went bust.
British Airways offers return flights from Manchester to Zagreb via London Heathrow for £160 return, including taxes, fees, and carrier charges; www.britishairways.com
Stay at the centrally located ARCOTEL Allegra Hotel; www.arcotelhotels.com, +385 1 4696-000. Prices from £75 per room, per night.
For more information about Zagreb please visit www.infozagreb.hr