When I first mentioned that I would be traveling to Croatia to people, I typically got two reactions. The first set of people asked me where it was, saying they had never heard of it. The second group immediately asked me if I was going to Dubrovnik to see where Game of Thrones is filmed. Most people who do travel to Croatia are usually only stopping there on a cruise, although tourism for the entire country has grown and continues to grow at a very fast rate. Since Croatia is where my mom’s side of the family descends from, we wanted to spend a good amount of time exploring everything the entire country had to offer.
The first place to kick off our Croatian country tour was the country’s capital city, Zagreb. A city that is only just recently experiencing a large growth in tourism, Zagreb has one of the nicest, if not the nicest, airports I have ever been in. It’s small, with only a few terminals and two baggage claim belts but boy, is this place clean. I would feel absolutely confident eating off the floors. I was genuinely impressed so hats off to you, Zagreb Airport!
Upon exiting the airport, we met Kris, our driver for most of the next 10 days. It’s easy to say that my mom and I instantly felt a connection to Kris. A quick 20 minute drive later and we were dropped off at the Hotel Dubrovnik (interesting name for a Zagreb hotel, eh?), a beautifully renovated hotel in the heart of the lower town.
After a quick bite to eat, we met our tour guide who would be taking us around the highlights of the city. Our tour guide kicked off our tour in Ban Jelaĉić Square, the main central square of the city, named after Josip Jelaĉić, a famous military general who abolished serfdom in the country. The square is surrounded by beautiful, old buildings and features a small market selling local items.
We made our way towards Upper Town stopping first at the Zagreb Cathedral. Dedicated to the Assumption of Mary, the cathedral is the tallest building in the entire country of Croatia. Unfortunately, the inside wasn’t open to the public that day but the outside was certainly beautiful enough to make up for it.
Moving upward, our tour guide led us through the Stone Gate, one of the most important landmarks in the city. The Stone Gate is the only remaining piece of the walls that were created in the 1200s as a means of securing the city. Legend has it that the entire gate was destroyed in a fire in 1731 with the exception of a painting of Mary and her child. The painting still remains and it is believed to possess miraculous powers. Citizens and tourists alike regularly come here to light and candle and pray.
Just a few steps more, we finally came up St. Mark’s Church, something I had been exited to see based on my research of the city. It is quite possibly one of the most beautiful churches I have ever seen. It’s not large by any means in comparison to the typical cathedrals found throughout Europe but the roof is simply breathtaking. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to go inside but I can only imagine the inside matches the beauty of the outside.
Walking past the Lotrscak Tower, a famous 13th century guard tower (you can climb up it during peak tourist season), we made our way to the Funicular Railway, home to the shortest cable car in the world! For a few euros, you can ride the cable car up or down the hill. My mom and I would ride it down the hill the next morning. It is short; the ride lasts less than a minute. But it’s worth it to be able to say we rode the shortest cable car in the world!
My mom and I were guided down the hill on foot by our tour guide and dropped off at the bottom of Tkalciceva Street, a street known for its bars and active nightlife. It was nearing the end of the day and our tour guide gave us one more tip before leaving up: visit the Vincek Pastry Shop. As we parted my mom and I decided before we stopped at the pastry shop to find a bite to eat. This is where we learned something that would follow us for the rest of our trip: restaurants are limited in the country of Croatia. While the country’s economy is growing, wages are still very low in comparison to the cost of living, meaning people do not have much money. So instead of eating out at restaurants, they eat at home and go out at night to places called “Café bars.” These are everywhere and are exactly what they sound like: places that serve coffee and alcohol. You can find Café bars on every single corner, sometimes 10 of them lined up in a row. But rarely do they serve food. Finding a full sit down restaurant can be tough so beware! That being said, my mom and I finally stumbled upon a pizza/pasta place and enjoyed a nice glass of Croatian wine.
After our meal, we made our way over to the Vincek Bakery. While I wasn’t able to read any of the signs, I picked up a few sweets. This should definitely be a stop on your Zagreb tour!
My mom and I only had a few hours the next morning to finish exploring Zagreb before heading on the road to Topusko. As my mom and I are avid caffeine addicts, we made our way to Johann Franck, Zagreb’s famous coffee shop. We spent about an hour outside people watching in Ban Jelaĉić Square with a delicious cappuccino and breakfast pastry.
Our final stop in Zagreb was the Dolac Market, a fresh, open air market, which is open daily from morning until early afternoon. It houses produce stands as well as souvenir and craftsman stands. An almost centuries long tradition, my mom and I agreed we could have spent a whole afternoon in the market, exploring each stand. It smelled like heaven; fresh fruit and vegetables straight from the farm. This is a market not to be missed!
While our time in Zagreb was short, I feel like we covered just about everything, although I wouldn’t have minded an extra day to hang around and visit a few of the museums. Zagreb is definitely underrated in terms of Croatian tourist spots. It’s true that it doesn’t offer the incredible beaches like other cities and islands but it is the heart and soul of Croatia and I highly recommend everyone start their Croatian adventure here!