Many travelers think of Croatia solely for its stunning seaside and hundreds of idyllic islands, looking inland only as far as Plitvice Lakes or the capital city, Zagreb. The eastern region of Slavonia, including Osijek and Baranja, are destinations that go unnoticed. We, too, overlooked Slavonia until we heard whispers of culinary delights and small production wineries coming from the region. (OK, to be honest, mostly it was the tales of wine that garnered our attention.) The more we learned, the more we were intrigued and we knew we had to visit Osijek, Croatia.
A Brief History of Osijek
The city of Osijek – the fourth largest city in Croatia with a population of 108,000 – lies in the eastern portion of the Slavonia region near the borders of Hungary and Serbia. The first mention of the city dates to the year 1196, but people had been living on the land for centuries before that time. Situated along the Drava River just upstream from the Drava-Danube confluence, Osijek was built on slightly elevated terrain, safely above the floodplain.
In the Middle Ages, the city thrived, but fell to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Under Habsburg rule in the 17th century, the city was rebuilt in the Baroque style. By the 19th century, the city was flourishing again. However, in 1991, when Croatia declared independence, Osijek came under the attack of the Yugoslav People’s Army, which resulted in hundreds of casualties, heavy damage to the city and residents fleeing the region.
Osijek still bears scars from the war and aftermath: pockmarks dot the sides of structures, mortar blasts blemish sidewalks and poignant monuments have been constructed in remembrance. Many of the buildings on the oldest streets in the city have been neglected, evidenced by peeling paint and crumbling facades, as more pressing city projects have taken precedence. City center store spaces sit empty; the once prime real estate waiting for an opportunistic buyer to take interest.
Rather than feeling despondent, however, we sensed a subtle buzz of energy in the city. Forward-thinking and passionate residents are working to bring Osijek back to its former splendor. Throughout the city, historic buildings are getting facelifts, fresh-concept cafes and restaurants are breathing new life into once abandoned spaces and events are aimed at community involvement and participation.
Inspired to Visit Osijek
The Advent festival was precisely the reason we chose the wintertime to visit Osijek. After attending Advent in Zagreb, we were keen to see how other parts of the country celebrate the Christmas season. At first, we thought it might be unfair to compare Zagreb’s large-scale, award-winning festival to other Christmas fairs, but it turned out no comparison was necessary. Advent in Osijek offered something completely different from Zagreb: a friendly community event steeped in rich cultural traditions.
During our visit, Advent in Osijek was a nightly affair, but our days were filled with exploration – from sightseeing in the city to discovering natural landscapes throughout the region. Daily, we embarked on culinary expeditions of local fare. With so much to experience, we wonder why it took us so long to visit Osijek, Croatia…and we have a suspicion there will be a return trip for us in the future.
7 Super Reasons to Visit Osijek
Let’s get right to it: the food offering in Osijek is off the charts. From hearty soups to roasted game to cured meats and tasty pastas, the common ingredients are homemade and fresh. The regional specialty is River Fish Stew, which hardly sounds appetizing, but after one bite, it doesn’t matter what it is called…it is delicious. Paprika is used to flavor just about everything; the popular zingy spice is made locally from red peppers that are air-dried and ground into powder.
With wide open spaces, rushing rivers and nutrient-rich soil, clean eating isn’t a trendy new concept, but a traditional way of life in Osijek. In more recent years, modern farming may have derailed that idea, but many local food producers are still intent on only promoting naturally-raised food, free from enhancements, chemicals and preservatives. Just five miles from Osijek, in the town of Bilje, eco farm Orlov Put is a prime example; at their organic farm they only serve food that they grow or raise on their own property.
Even within the Osijek city limits we were able to get a taste of ‘farm to table.’ We shopped at the Green Market, buying locally-grown, in-season produce…then we delivered the food to Chef Nenad Komes to turn our haul into a magnificent meal. In The Black Room, which is part of Komes’ five-piece restaurant/café/shop/hostel conglomerate, he brilliantly concocted a slightly-sweet beef goulash and fresh vegetable feast.
Where and What We Ate in Osijek and Baranja Region
- Restaurant Club Waldinger – Upscale environment, yet affordable prices. We ate: tender beef shanks with homemade pasta.
- Ruza – Cozy space with boisterous live traditional music. We ate: Slavonska plata (local meats and cheeses) and carpacio smud (local fish) for starters, followed by punjena pljeskavica (grilled meat stuffed with ham and cheese) and perkelt riblja (fish stew) for mains.
- American Bar Dollar – Contemporary and urban. We ate: beefsteak tartar, juicy burgers and the American Dollar Plate (ribs, wings, onion rings, chicken strips, fries and taquitos).
- Josic – Red-brick wine cellar with open kitchen. We ate: fried frog legs, fish with paprika, savory roasted duck, goulash, catfish stew on a bed of homemade pasta with cheese and bacon.
- Orlov Put – Rustic farm dining. We ate: fresh-made goat cheese, sausage, bacon, fall-off-the-bone roasted pork in vegetable sauce, roasted turkey baked over layers of pasta, and jams and breads. *As if the meal wasn’t enough, we were also invited to tour the farm and take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the countryside to a nearby village during our visit.
- The Black Room (Privately prepared meal with Chef Nenad Komes from American Bar Dollar) – Shabby chic and intimate. We ate: charcuterie, grilled apples, apricot beef goulash, brussel sprouts and salad. *Watch: ‘Market to Table.’
- Eating at Advent in Osijek – The food options are abundant at Advent in Osijek, but we particularly liked Dobro for their platters of Mediterranean-style charcuterie and meat wrapped breadsticks and Langosica, a Hungarian-style, deep-fried flatbread topped with sour cream and garlic.
#2 City Sights
Given the city of Osijek’s long history, there’s a variety of sights. Walking around the city center, we were enthralled by the architecture, museums, historic buildings, city parks and monuments. (Map below.)
A. Museum of Slavonia (Muzej Slavonije) – The museum was founded in 1877 and is the largest general-type museum in Croatia. Centrally located in the City Magistrate building, which was built in 1702, the interesting and informational museum displays tell the history of the city and region.
B. Museum of Archeology (Arheoloski Muzej Osijek) – Housed in the Main Guard Building adjacent to the Magistrate building, the museum exhibits artifacts from the area’s early history and the Middle Ages. The Museum of Archeology is part of the Museum of Slavonia.
C. Citadel or Fortress (Tvrda) – Tvrda was built between 1693 and 1735 by the Habsburgs in the Baroque style. In addition to the eight bastions and two gates, city walls were constructed to protect the town from Ottoman threat. Today, most of the walls have been removed, but the Tvrda stands and the Old Town is still inhabited by thousands of residents and the former military buildings are occupied by the university and museums.
D. Co-Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul – Completed in 1898, the brick church features a 308-foot-tall spire, which makes it the tallest building in Croatia outside of Zagreb.
E. European Avenue (Europska Avenija) – The street, which has endured several names in its time, is known for the opulent houses built by wealthy residents prior to World War I in the Art Nouveau style. Although some of the residences are dilapidated, many of the properties are undergoing complete refurbishment.
F. Municipal Park of Petar Kresimir IV – The city park was created at the beginning of the 20th century complete with trees and fountains – and remains a relaxing central green space today.
G. King Tomislav Park – The pleasant park dates to the 18th century and is bordered by European Avenue, the Drava River and Tvrda.
H. Croatia National Theater – Osijek has a long theatrical history; the National Theater building, which features Moorish architectural elements, dates to 1866 and is still used for regular performances.
I. Drava River Promenade and Riverwalk – Along the banks of the Drava River are long stretches of pavement perfect for a stroll or bike ride. Many cafes and restaurants line the pedestrian walkways. *Copacabana River Beach is a popular summer spot on the river.
J. Pedestrian Bridge (Pjesacki Most) – The pedestrian bridge, which was built in 1981, has quickly become a symbol of the city of Osijek.
K. Museum of Taste (Muzej Okusa) – Recently opened, the small museum features wine bottles from the past – as well as a large restaurant. It is located on the former City Gardens that dated to 1804.
L. Monument to Fallen Osijek Soldiers – Called ‘The Radiator’ by locals who dislike the style of the monument, the large panel memorial is dedicated to Croatian war veterans and victims.
M. Battle of Osijek Monument – Often referred to as the Fico Monument, the tank and red Fiat monument represents a vivid image from the start of the Croatian War of Independence. As tanks rolled onto the streets in Osijek, a resident parked his red Fiat (Fico) on the street to block the tanks. Instead of halting the forces, the tank simply continued on its route, crushing the car. Captured on film and replayed on the news, residents realized the aggression of the Yugoslav People’s Army. The monument was designed with the car on top of the tank, symbolizing Osijek’s eventual victory.
#3 Kopacki Rit Nature Park
Covering 92-square miles of the Danube floodplain, Kopacki Rit Nature Park is the jewel of the Slavonia region. The wetlands are often referred to as the Amazon of Europe and more than 2,000 animals and insects call the park home – including more than 300 species of birds. On the protected land, deer roam the open space and the rivers are filled with fish.
We explored Kopacki Rit on a private tour with a park ranger (which can be arranged in advance through the park’s office). Even in the winter, the park was a stunning sight. Morning frost clung to trees and ice froze at the edges of the lakes. In the winter, most of the swampland was dry, but we could see how high the waters rise in the springtime, marked by discolored bark and moss clinging to tree trunks.
We walked along raised wooden boardwalks, spotting a grey heron basking in the sun and a white-tailed eagle (similar to the bald eagle), flying overhead. Through shallow water, we saw large clams nestled into the mud and caught sight of a herd of wild boar scampering into the reeds.
Before we left the area, we visited the Tikves Castle Complex, which dates to the 19th century. The castle served as a premiere hunting lodge – and was one of Yugoslavia President Tito’s many residences.
Hunting and fishing are not permitted within the park, with a license; however, gaming is allowed outside of the park boundaries. The park can be toured on foot, on bike, by car (only with guide) and by boat or train.
#4 Local Sips
Wine is what lured us to Slavonia, so we were eager to taste the local products. Wine making in the region dates to Roman times. There are four districts – Baranja, Djakovo, Erdut, and Fericanci – in the area surrounding Osijek where the conditions for growing grapes are favorable. Winemakers excel in producing both red and white wines. Since we have a penchant for red wine, we mostly sampled full-bodied wines made from Cabernet and Frankovka grapes, but enjoyed light and crisp white wine from the region, as well.
We particularly enjoyed the cuvee wine from Josic, which we tasted both at restaurants in Osijek’s city center and at the Josic winery and restaurant in the village of Zmajevac. Their cellar is located along an inclined and somewhat inconspicuous lane that leads north from a church on the main road. Past their property, tiny brick houses, which are occupied by small-production wineries, line the street. Strategically built along the sloping land, the small dwellings feature cellars that have been dug into the side of the hill as a way to store wine naturally at an ideal temperature.
Wine isn’t the only adult beverage in Osijek; the city has a long and well-known place in the beer industry, as well. The local Osjecko beer was the first ever Croatian beer, which is still made today using the original recipe from 1697. While history intrigues us, so does the modern art of craft beer. Lucky for us, the craft beer revolution that is sweeping through Croatia has found its way to Slavonia and Osijek. A few bars, like American Bar Dollar and Gajba, have both Croatian and worldwide craft beers on their menus.
It would be remiss if we didn’t talk about the coffee culture in Osijek. Cafes attract longtime locals, young people and students (the local Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek enrolls 18,000 pupils). From boutique cafes to long-standing institutions, in the city center or along the river promenade, there are plenty of places around town to get a good cup of Joe. We particularly liked the atmosphere at Trica, which featured a cozy indoors and a bright, brick patio.
We love attending festivals around the world – especially ones that help us to better understand the culture of the places we visit. Attending Advent in Osijek wasn’t just about holiday spirit and mulled wine (although, there were plenty of both!); it also allowed us to gain insight into the history of Osijek, as well as an opportunity to observe and converse with the local people.
Advent u Tvrdi, which ranks as the largest Christmas celebration in eastern Croatia, takes place on St. Trinity Square in Tvrda (Citadel). The small wooden chalets that circle the square sell sweets, traditional Christmastime fare and copious quantities of mulled wine and hot rum punch. Locally made products and Christmas gifts are sold from huts surrounding the Plague Column. A towering evergreen tree, decorated with lights and ornaments, stands in the square; friends and families gather around the wood burning stoves to stay warm on crisp evenings. On the stage, varied performances – from traditional tamburica to an energetic and nationally-known cover band, Soulfingers, to a local girls’ choir – entertain the fairgoers. Scheduled activities, like decorating Croatia’s traditional licitar ornaments with the Blazekovic family, are planned in conjunction with the main square celebration.
Advent wasn’t the only event taking place during our visit to Osijek; we were also able to attend WineOS. The wine fest, which makes use of the vacated city center mall, features more than 70 exhibitors. Top winemakers from Croatia and the neighboring countries of Serbia and Hungary, pour unlimited samples of wine for thirsty attendees.
For a glimpse of local life, there is no better place to go than the market. Osijek actually has two main markets: the Green Market in the city center, where produce and fresh meat are for sale, and Autopija, a flea market outside of the city center.
At the Green Market, locally grown fruits and vegetables are displayed on tables under umbrellas. Items are weighed using traditional balance scales and weights. Fresh-made cheeses and meats are sold from glass cases indoors and small shops surrounding the market sell fish – some so fresh they are still swimming.
The Autopija flea market is less formal – with a higher entertainment value. Clothing, tools, cars, antiques, fish tackle and a mishmash of used items are displayed on carts or simply spread out on blankets – and sometimes on the hoods or roofs of cars to appeal to shoppers at eye-level. Unlike the Green Market, all prices are negotiable at the flea market. Locals can score the best deals – as speaking English practically guarantees a higher price. Still, unique and incredibly inexpensive items can be found. While the market may seem unsanctioned and unorganized, regulations exist. One rule we learned: no live animals – such as chickens, puppies and bunnies – are allowed to be sold inside the market…you have to cross the street for those.
We didn’t anticipate it, but we found the Osijek-Baranja region to be a photographer’s paradise. It wasn’t only the incredible nature and the beautiful historic city buildings that caught our eye, but also the small towns and places where time seems to have stood still. We were enchanted by the abandoned structures we found in the countryside and delighted to capture life on a farm, just a few miles from Osijek.
Bonus #8: People
So often, our opinions of places are formed by our interactions with the local people – and we found the citizens of Osijek to be particularly charming – kind, open and engaging, we felt quite welcome in the city that felt more like a small town.
Practical information for a Visit to Osijek
Getting to Osijek:
Osijek can be reached by car, bus, train or plane. From Zagreb, the drive takes about 2.5 hours; by bus or train the ride takes approximately 4 hours. The Osijek Airport has daily flights to Zagreb and seasonal international service.
Getting Around Osijek:
Osijek city center is compact enough to walk to most sights. Bike paths throughout the city center and region make cycling a great choice as mode of transportation and exploration of the nearby countryside. Osijek’s trams are fantastic for getting around the city. The tram system is Croatia’s oldest and has been in continuous operation since 1884 when it was a horse-pulled tram.
Staying in Osijek:
There are many options for accommodations in Osijek. We stayed at Hotel Waldinger, a four-star, boutique hotel in the city center featuring 15 rooms, a restaurant and café – as well as a complimentary gourmet buffet breakfast.
Other Top-Rated Accommodations in Osijek
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