Lonely Planet just named Zagreb, Croatia #1 on its “Best in Europe” hot list for 2017. I’ve spent the last three months here, so here’s my guide to Zagreb.
It’s laughable for Lonely Planet to tout Zagreb as the #1 destination in Europe. It doesn’t stack up against other destinations like Paris, London, or Prague for sights, things to do, food, or along other typical tourist dimensions. Nor is it an undiscovered gem. While tourism numbers are much lower than other famous European cities, they are rising quickly, and you will see many tourists in the center of Zagreb year round, and especially during the Summer.
If Zagreb isn’t #1, what is it? A clean, safe, small, pleasant city that you can easily walk that also has great public transportation. It’s a place that you can easily combine with a trip to the Croatian coast, or to Vienna, Venice, or Belgrade.
I’ve been here for about three months this year, about two months last year, and a few days in the few years prior. I’ve focused on learning the language and other personal projects. It has been a nice place to do that. Here are my recommendations if you come:
All major European legacy carriers fly to Zagreb, so it is easy to get here from the United States with miles from all three alliances. Unfortunately not many low cost carriers fly here. Croatia Airlines is the dominant carrier. You can use Star Alliance–like United–miles to fly Croatia Airlines, but they only fly within Europe and to Israel.
There are also frequent bus and train services to Zagreb from nearby cities. Vienna, Belgrade, Ljubljana, and the Croatian coast are particularly close. Venice is less than a four hour drive. Based on its central location and the fact that Zagreb is not the #1 tourist destination, in my opinion, I recommend combining several of these destinations into one trip.
Transportation in Zagreb
Zagreb has Uber, and it is very cheap and reliable. Within town my trips are usually $3 or less. To and from the airport, Uber costs a flat 90 kuna ($14.) Unfortunately the only place I cannot consistently get an Uber is the airport. Luckily there is a 30-minute bus from the airport to the bus station for 30 kuna ($4.5) every half hour.
Zagreb has an awesome network of trams that goes everywhere a tourist could want to go. Trips of 30 minutes or less cost 4 kuna ($0.6), and you can buy the ticket from the tram driver.
You should be able to walk most places you want to go. Other than the airport, Mount Slijeme if you want to hike, or Lake Jarun if you want to swim or party, the places of interest to tourists are all within one square mile.
Where to Stay
Google Trg Bana Jelačića. Try to stay as close to it as possible. There are several nearby hotels, hostels, and Airbnbs. The only chain hotels I know in town are both SPG properties: the Westin and the Sheraton.
The Sheraton is 1 km from the main square and the bus station and 800 meters from the train station.
The Westin is 1.3 km from the main square and farther from the bus station and train station.
Both are Category 2 properties that cost 4,000 SPG points during the week and 3,000 on the weekends or about $150 cash. I’ve been to the lobby of both, but the rooms of neither. The Sheraton has a reputation for being nicer.
I’d rather stay at an Airbnb, but those are good uses of SPG points.
Croatian food is lightly seasoned meat, potatoes, cabbage, and cheese. Or it’s soup. Or it’s bakery products like baked, filled, meat pastries with a flaky crust. It has Eastern European, Balkan, and Turkish influences.
For Croatian food, my favorite restaurant is Plavi 9 (“Plavi Devet” means “Blue Nine”), which has a small menu of Croatian classics, a cheap daily special, and several soups on offer. For the soups, you’re supposed to order a huge half liter bowl and a protein (like a fried chicken filet), which is served with fresh bread for $4.5. You’ll be the only tourist here.
A little more upscale, is Kod Pere, which also has a small menu of Croatian classics with a nice view of the city for prices in the $10 range.
For ćevapi, grilled ground meat formed into the shape of mini-sausages popular throughout former Yugoslavia, I recommend Fast Food Gianni, which serves 10 pieces with a hot piece of bread and chopped onions for about $3. Add ajvar, a sweet roasted red-pepper spread, and kajmak, a thick cream, to bring the price to $4.5. I believe the ćevapi here is 100% beef, but it may be mixed with pork.
Bakeries are omnipresent in Zagreb, especially three chains: Dubravica, Mlinar, and Pan-Pek. They have sweet and savory food, and are common lunch spots. They are the quickest spot to try burek, which is a savory pastry filled with meat or cheese.
My other favorite restaurants, none of which serve Croatian food, are:
- Curry Bowl: Sri Lankan food, get the Deviled Chicken ($7)
- Umami: Dishes from Japan, Thailand, India, and more ($7). I recommend the Thai Noodles, Indian Curry, Gyoza, and Choco Bomb.
- Potato House: Baked potatoes with a range of hot and cold topping possibilities ($5 for a large potato and three toppings) and soups
During the summer, people like to drink outside at cafes and bars that line Tkalčićeva street, a pedestrian street that runs to the main square or the three block pedestrian zone across the street from the main square.
You can easily wander around and find a bar that suits you.
I like Alcatraz (the original on Nikola Tesla street, not the newer one on Tkalčićeva), which is disgusting, dark, and smoky inside, but is fun and standing-room-only on the street out front during warm nights.
What to Do
In addition to what you’ll find on Tripadvisor, I’ll recommend:
- Ljeto na Strossu: Live music every night all summer in the upper town with a view of the city. Take a picnic, take some drinks, take a blanket, and enjoy a quiet evening. (Or sit in the chairs and benches there, and buy drinks at the bar.)
- Slijeme/Medvedgrad: Catch an Uber to Medvedgrad, a fortress on the hill overlooking the city and, after touring it, walk an hour and a half downhill back to town. Or look up the hiking route to the top of Mount Slijeme for an even more active day.
- Festivals: Every day during summer there seems to be some different food festival in the center of town. Some are listed here. The rest you’ll find by walking around.
- Museum of Broken Relationships: Heartbroken people donate an item that epitomized their relationship or breakup and include a short story. So popular, they opened a second museum in Los Angeles.
Free Zagreb Chapter from Lonely Planet
You can download Lonely Planet’s free take on Zagreb here.
I love Zagreb, but it’s absolutely not the #1 destination in Europe, and I can confidently say that no matter what your interests are. It is worth a visit as part of a larger trip, and if you come this way, hopefully my suggestions are helpful.