A visit to Zagreb, Europe’s living room

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My visit to Zagreb, Croatia started at 5 a.m. on a Budapest street corner, waiting for a bus that seemed like it would never come. But arrive it did, eventually, and five hours later it rolled into a city I’d never even dreamed of visiting. Still, to travel is to discover. And now, having spent some time there, I can count Zagreb as one of my most pleasant discoveries.

The Zagreb visit was a last-minute decision. I had lingered in Budapest after my Viking Danube cruise, partly to see a little more of Eastern Europe on my first trip there. But Budapest isn’t really close to any other major city except Bratislava, which I’d already visited. The next-best option was Zagreb, so off I went for a three-day look-see.

It often happens that the place you know only vaguely from old news photos turns out to have far more to offer than you expected. That’s more than true of Zagreb, capital of a country that still bears the scars of a civil war in the 1990s. Zagreb cathedral spiresBut the city escaped most of the war damage, and today it’s a mecca for those who like to sit on patios sipping good beer and watching the passing scene. In fact, I later heard someone describe it as Europe’s living room.

My first look at the city, as I arrived from my hotel in the suburbs, was the spires of the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, centrepiece of the Kaptol, the heart of the old city. It’s also the centre of the tourist district, which runs for several blocks, through quaint streets and broad squares in Zagreb’s upper city and the lower city at the bottom of the hill.

But first, a look at the city’s downtown, to see a bit of the real Zagreb. And it was more inspiring than expected, filled with classic-looking buildings that showed this was once a pretty affluent place. As with Budapest, there were vintage buildings that had been beautifully restored, and others that hadn’t.

But the city was alive, filled with hustle and bustle. New-looking trams rumbled by, filled with people heading home for the weekend while others watched from streetside patios, enjoying a pre-dinner drink.

Zagreb street scene

The downtown core boasted several buildings that would have looked at home in Paris or Rome – including HDLU, the headquarters of the Croatian Artist’s Association. Set in the dark-sounding Victims of Fascism Square, it looked a bit deserted as I walked around. But even at this hour, it seemed to attract a few people, just to wander through its maze of pillars or sit on its circular steps.

Arts Society building Zagreb

Back toward the tourist district, a five-minute walk took me to Zagreb’s showpiece: Ban Jelacic Square, the city’s nerve centre, surrounded by grand buildings from the 19th century. It’s a place that’s perpetually busy. Most of the city’s tram lines seem to pass through here, and for tourists and locals alike, it’s the place to meet. In fact, the favourite spot is under the tail of the equestrian statue of Ban (Governor) Josip Jelacic, which occupies a place of pride.

Ban Jelacic Square Zagreb

Ban Jelacic Square is also the gateway to the city’s real attraction: the patio district. Turn the corner and you’re in a maze of ancient, cobblestoned streets lined with places offering every kind of food — not to mention beers from all over the world. A constant crowd keeps it humming, even on a Sunday morning. But on a Friday night, it seemed like the perfect mix of a patio district and a club scene.

Zagreb patio

The streets around the centre are filled with entertainment, too. On Saturday night I took a wrong turn and found myself in a square filled with music, as a Latin band entertained an enthusiastic crowd. And the next morning, I happened into Ban Jelacic Square to see a column of 19th-century soldiers marching toward me.

Zagreb guard ceremony

There were horse soldiers, too, and an imposing-looking officer in full vintage regalia, there to perform a changing of the guard ceremony. And once the formalities were over, three of them obligingly took a position in front of the equestrian statue. A perfect photo op, even if most of the onlookers had no idea why they were there.

Zagreb Guard ceremony2

Most cities reveal themselves little by little. And the farther I wandered during my visit to Zagreb, the more lovely things I discovered: arts centres, neighbourhood squares with bright flower shops, the beautiful National Theatre, and on an undistinguished street corner, a statue of inventor Nikola Tesla, a native son, who visited Zagreb in 1892 and urged the city fathers to install electricity.

Then there was the funicular connecting the lower and upper cities, which claims to be the shortest passenger cable railway in the world. At the top, I wandered through, the neighbourhood that was once Gradec, the community that merged with Kaptol in the 1600s to become Zagreb. Today, it’s a tourist district, boasting one odd roadside attraction — the strangely conceived Museum of Broken Relationships.

Around the corner, the square that was once Gradec’s marketplace is now the seat of the Croatian government, with the governor’s palace and the parliament. But the best sight in the square is the 13th-century Church of St. Mark, with its roof tiles forming the coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia and Zagreb. There were services under way in the church when I came by, so I admired it from the outside.

St Marks Square Zagreb

There was more to see, including the long, beautiful chain of parks and squares that runs from the downtown to the vintage train station.  But no matter where I went on my visit to Zagreb, there were people having a good time, enjoying the warm weather while it lasted. Patios, outdoor markets, busy squares — everywhere, another carefree scene. Whatever dark worries lay beneath the surface, I could only guess: you don’t dig that deep on a three-day visit. But for a visitor, the city was a garden of peace.

Being pleasantly surprised is one of the joys of travelling. And a visit to Zagreb is almost guaranteed to bring at least a few happy surprises. After all, who expected to find Europe’s living room?

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Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

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