Living in Kosovo for the past three years, I’ve done my best to explore as many parts of the Balkans as I can. Croatia is always a favorite (and the location of my 40 person honeymoon sailing trip!), but I had not yet made it to the capital. I jumped at the opportunity to tag along for a quick 24 hour stop earlier this week and am grateful that I did. Read on for my itinerary, recommendations, and an interactive map!
I was pretty pumped when I realized I’d be taking my first propeller plane on the direct flight from Skopje to Zagreb. After being rocked into a peaceful sleep thanks to the propellers’ vibrations, we arrived around 6pm – just in time to drop our bags at the hotel and head over to meet friends of friends in Ban Jelačić Square, the big pedestrian thoroughfare at the heart of the city.
Dinner at Konoba Didov San
I always enjoy a new place best when I visit with locals, so was excited for the blind meet up and the opportunity to hear about Zagreb from our new Croatian friends. We walked up a series of beautiful cobblestone streets to find the delightful Konoba Didov San tucked behind St. Mark’s Church in Gronji Grad (Upper Town). We did well with our appetizer – an assortment of local cheeses, prosciutto, and local treat, uštipci (donut-like fried dough) – as well as a carafe of the restaurant’s delightful house wine, Domaća Kujundzuša.
In a nod to my days living in France, I got a bit adventurous with my main course and went for snails and polenta. While I always love the various preparations of polenta in the Serbo-Croat countries (this one had bacon!), the snails were a bit difficult to eat. Worth a shot, though, and the company more than made up for it!
The Esplanade Zagreb Hotel
I need to take a minute here to rave about our hotel… The Esplanade Zagreb Hotel was everything I hoped it would be, and more! The 90 year old hotel is famous for hosting artists, celebrities, and politicians dating back to Zagreb’s time as a noted destination on the Orient Express.
The original charm of the hotel’s concierge and lobby were maintained beautifully during it’s 2011 renovation, though the rooms went a bit modern for my taste. Either way, it was a luxurious and convenient option for just €150/night. My favorite part of the stay was the delicious breakfast, which featured bottomless sparkling wine. Always a winner in my book!
Feeling charged after my breakfast of bubbly, I was ready to see what Zagreb had to offer. As I made the journey across town to the Museum of Illusions, I quickly realized how small and walkable Zagreb’s city center is. Located along trendy Ilica Street, the museum was just one of 14 recommended by my favorite travel app, Triposo. Zagreb must hold some kind of record for the number of museums per square kilometer. I narrowed it down to just two, and opted to go in a quirky direction. Though the Museum of Illusions was rather small (and most of the other guests were under the age of 12!), I got a kick out of making my way through the 70 optical illusions the museum has to offer. For just 40 kn (€5), it was a fun introduction to the city’s sights.
Continuing my wander around Zagreb, I concluded that the city must also hold some kind of record for street markets per square kilometer. I was set to visit the city’s main market, Dolac, but encountered three others on my stroll between the museum and Zagreb Cathedral. As the weather was quite spring-like, the city and its markets were especially beautiful with a wide array of flowers and Easter eggs for sale.
Zagreb Cathedral, widely considered the symbol of the city, was also buzzing with Easter spirit. Beautiful painted eggs adorned the entry to the 13th century church and dozens of Croats stood patiently in line inside to give their Easter confession. The cathedral is noted for being Croatia’s tallest building and a beautiful example of Gothic architecture. Most interestingly, the cathedral hosts a relief of Croatian Nazi-era martyr and local hero Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998. Having been to many relatively-empty cathedrals in Europe, it was beautiful to see local believers practicing their faith during this holy week for Christians.
That was also the case just up the hill at the Stone Gate, where our local friends tell us that young lovers often go day and night to light a candle before a portrait of the Virgin Mary that is displayed there. Legend has it that a great fire in 1731 destroyed every part of the wooden gate, except for the painting of the Virgin and Child (by an unknown artist). Tiles of thanks and praise surround the elaborate iron gate that now houses the portrait.
I continued my walk up the hill back into Gronji Grad to visit my second church and second quirky museum of the day. St. Mark’s Church is undeniably Croatian, with the country’s crests adorning its roof. It is also, as the locals joke, a great example of how intertwined church and state are in the country: the church is surrounded by Croatian government buildings.
I truly saved the best for last with my final stop of the day: the Museum of Broken Relationships (30 kn/€4). The museum, which grew from a traveling exhibition, hosts dozens of items donated by heartsick people all over the world. The donations run the gamut from letters and photos to an axe, accompanied by stories that run the full range of emotions as well. Here are a few of my favorites: a toaster, Bob Dylan book, and list of the top 10 reasons one young Brit wanted his Aussie lover to stay in the UK:
I wrapped up my day with a late lunch at Bistro Pauza, followed by a stroll back through Ban Jelačić Square, where a live band was entertaining passers-by with traditional music. With a few krona and some time left to spare, I spent them in the best way possible: tasting more delicious local cheese and wine at Cheese Bar. Full and happy, I headed back to the hotel to catch my 9pm flight.
Want to experience a quick stop in Zagreb for yourself? Check out the map of my recommendations…