I ended up in Zagreb somewhat by accident. My original plan was to fly to Amsterdam on a great seat sale but the algorithms worked differently if you flew Europe to Canada or Canada to Europe, which made the flight several hundred dollars higher than advertised. I’ve been to Amsterdam a lot so I just picked a location that gave me a better deal so I ended up in Zagreb!
I had considered spending time in Zagreb on my way to Dubrovnik but I didn’t have time so it was a virgin travel experience for me. As usual, I was really busy before I got on the plane and I knew enough about Croatia to just arrive and figure it out sitting in sidewalk cafes. The charm of arriving somewhere having done almost no research is that the trip will be filled with surprise and – if you get lucky – you will be totally charmed by the discoveries.
Zagreb absolutely fits this profile perfectly. Croatia as a destination is amazing and still fairly under the radar. That is changing fast though so don’t wait to plan your trip. Dubrovnik is already swarming with tourists but you’ll still get a friendly welcome and great prices in Zagreb. There is enough to see and do to fill several days, especially if you are a history buff.
The tourist board publishes a Zagreb Step by Step guide, which may be available at your hotel. It’s an excellent resource with details on the key attractions grouped by neighborhood as well as aerial photos and maps noting where everything is located. As a tourist, you are likely to be focused on the ancient part of the city. The west has done a lot more marketing but the east is full of complicated history and historic monuments that will make you feel like you are on discovery rather than a packaged holiday with way too many others ticking off the famous sites.
The old town is a bit hilly and covers enough territory that you will want to allow yourself a few days to cover all of it. You can move randomly or at whim or you can follow the course of history.
I hadn’t appreciated how old Zagreb was. To see its beginnings you will have to climb a hill. It’s possible settlements were established as early as the 8th or 9th century. What is known is that a religious settlement was established around 1094 on Kaptol hill. The first bishop of Zagreb was a Czech named Duh (which actually means “spirit) appointed by King Ladislav.
A cathedral was commissioned and is a must see destination. The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has two soaring twin towers and is a defining symbol of Zagreb. The cathedral was added to and repaired over the centuries so it includes all sorts of different architectural styles as whatever style was popular at the time was incorporated into the expansion or restoration. Renaissance walls were added between 1512 and 1521 to protect the city from Ottoman Empire raids.
There are other sights to check out once you have walked up the hill. It’s a peaceful place and allows you a chance to wander in a unique atmosphere as this part of the city was a religious compound cut off from the more secular Zagreb that evolved around it as the centuries transpired. It will inspire you to further explorations of the charming nature of this city still under the radar of mass tourism.