Zagreb: Two Cities Rolled Into One

John Laudando
Zagreb Cathedral, at the heart of its city. Independent/John Laudando

We arrived in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and immediately tried to get cast in a commercial for Staropramen Beer. The park just around the corner from our Airbnb had been transformed with lights, sets, signs, and seating in preparation for shooting the commercial, but alas, they weren’t looking for more actors, so we headed to town.

Our Airbnb was within easy walking distance to Zagreb Cathedral, at the city’s vibrant heart. And that’s steps away from Ban Jelacic Square, dominated by a large statue of Josip Jelacic on a horse. Installed in 1866 by the Austrians, the statue has caused many controversies and political machinations ever since, but it remains “the place” to meet up in Zagreb.

The square is also the site of countless stalls selling nearly any kind of food you could imagine, and it’s not very far from the site of Zagreb’s famous open-air and underground market, Dolac. Both Dolac market and the stalls in the square offer an amazing variety of homemade cheeses, baked goods, flowers, you name it. Our first Zagreb breakfast came from one of many personable vendors in the square.

Zagreb is divided into the Upper and Lower towns. The two were bitter rivals for centuries but united in the 1600s to stave off an invasion from the Turks. The city has also endured Communism and a bitter war. When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Zagreb became its capital. We actually saw a few signs of it being hit during the resulting war, but for the most part, the city escaped relatively unscathed.

The Upper Town is the oldest part of Zagreb. It’s a pastiche of red-roofed buildings and church spires on cobblestone streets. The way there can be steep or somewhat flatter, but you can take what’s billed as the world’s shortest funicular ride up, for under $1. The funicular is less than 10 minutes from the main square. Also nearby, you can drop into a long row of restaurants offering an enticing variety of national and international cuisines and libations.

We toured both the Upper and Lower towns on a walking tour with Dora of Free Spirit Tours. Free Spirit is a great example of the many free tour groups offered in most European cities. They are easy to find on the web, and, for us, have always proved to be well worth a generous tip to the tour leader at the end of the rich and informative look at a place. We especially enjoyed the dancers in front of the Church of St. Mark, famous for its intricate roof treatment.

That evening, we found unexpected excitement — the CRO Race, with some of the best cyclists in the world, had its last leg right under our noses. The final laps of the six-stage event ran right through the center of the city, and we were there to see them zoom by. It was a fun surprise to see such a speedy race on those ancient cobblestone streets.

We loved the city’s museums — at least those we were able to see. We enjoyed the Mimara museum on our first day there. On our last day, Croatia’s Independence Day, when many places were closed, we went for a stroll, admiring many little parks, amazing buildings, and a far-reaching botanical garden. Then, lo and behold, we found a museum open, with an exhibition of Calder mobiles. Again, I wondered why museums showing mobiles don’t incorporate fans to keep them moving, which is what they are designed to do. Luckily, I carry a hand fan with me everywhere I travel, and it was strong enough to set some of Calder’s wonderful creations in motion. I probably looked silly, but I was happy.

Dinner that last night in Zagreb was the cherry on top of the great food we relished throughout Croatia. The waiter from our first night in Rovinj had recommended Boban Restoran, and it was the perfect, delicious conclusion to this first-rate visit to three countries.

P.S. — We ended the trip with one night in London, where we stayed close to The Blackbird, our favorite Kensington pub, so we could once more feast on pies, ale, and cider. And our timing meant we had the opportunity to see the marvelous Chihuly exhibit “Reflections on Nature” in Kew Gardens.

But that wasn’t why we booked the way we did. We found that booking a flight to London, then booking from there to Zagreb, saved us about $500 over booking from JFK to Zagreb, even though the more expensive flight also stopped in London. So now, if a flight to one place has a stopover in another, we investigate booking first to the stopover, then booking from there to our ultimate destination, with the potential for great savings.

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