As the crisp air brightens my cheeks and little puffs of breath escape from my mouth, I inhale the scent of sizzling meat being cooked to perfection. The tantalizing aroma drifts on a light breeze from cheerfully decorated wooden huts and I wonder how many minutes will pass by until we succumb to buying a sausage. Festive lights hang in a canopy over the street, casting a warm glow onto the revelers swaying to the music as they peruse the wares for sale. Although I feel foolish, I can’t wipe the giddy grin from my face. Advent has begun – and there is nothing quite like a European Christmas market to usher in the holiday spirit. With a steaming cup of spiced, mulled wine in one hand and my other tucked into the crook of Kris’s arm, we navigate our way through the merriment as we celebrate the beginning of Christmas in Zagreb, Croatia.
We’re having trouble pinpointing exactly what it was about Zagreb, Croatia that made us fall for the city, but we think the truth of it is that there were many things that contributed to why we loved Zagreb.
#1. We loved Zagreb because we didn’t feel like tourists
Perhaps it was the ordinary life happening all around us. It felt less touristy and, therefore, we felt less like tourists. When we visited the Cathedral, we were among parishioners going in to pray. When we were in St. Mark’s Square, business people walked with purpose into the surrounding government buildings. Even when we sat at cafes in the tour guide recommended squares and streets, many of the other tables were filled by locals.
Our recent travels have taken us to quite a few old walled cities with little green space. A trip to Plitvice Lakes cured our craving for nature, but that didn’t mean we weren’t stoked to find 7 parks in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. In addition to strolling the historic streets to see the sites in Zagreb original towns, Gradec and Kaptol, we found green spaces throughout the city.
7 Parks in Zagreb, Croatia
#1: Maksimir Park
Maksirmir Park, which is just a short tram ride east of the city center, was opened in 1794 – making it the oldest of all the parks in Zagreb, Croatia. In addition to the numerous trails, there are five lakes and a zoo at the park.
We’re going to let you in on a not-so-little secret: We like beer. And, we love craft beer. And right now, Nova Runda craft brew from Zagreb, Croatia is pretty high on our list.
During our 11 months of travel, we’ve tried a hefty number of brews around the world. We’ve been fortunate to stumble on a couple of cities where the craft brew revolution is in full swing, like in Bariloche, Argentina, Wellington, New Zealand and Cape Town, South Africa. In Vietnam, it’s hard to be too critical of 25 cent “fresh beer” made daily. Since we’ve arrived in Europe, we’ve found plenty of ‘new to us’ beers, but in reality they are the equivalent of America’s big brewers, like Budweiser, Coors and Miller. And, then we got to Zagreb, Croatia, home of Nova Runda Craft Brewery.
With ample time in Zagreb, we connected with the Croatian Tourist Board to obtain more information than our Zagreb-in-a-Day guidebook provided. Our eyes were opened to places we hadn’t even heard of and, in addition to seeing the sights of Gradec and Kaptol, we quickly filled our remaining calendar with nearby parks, a quick trip to Samobor and a full day trip to Krapina and Varazdin in northern Croatia.
The town of Krapina – named for the abundant carp that swim in the river – is best known for the ancient Neanderthal remains discovered on the hillside and the museum detailing the findings. However, we were introduced to many other points of interest on our day trip to Krapina, including three churches, a gallery and wonderful history.
Zagreb, Croatia’s history dates back to the year 1850 with the joining of two medieval towns, Gradec and Kaptol, which date back to the 13th and 11th centuries, respectively. The towns at one time were separated by a river that was diverted when the towns merged, making a clear distinction between the two difficult now. After taking in the sights of Gradec, we moved through the Stone Gate chapel toward the Kaptol sights.
Kaptol sights: Tkalciceva
We made our way to Tkalciceva, the riverbed-turned-café-lined-street. Outdoor tables and chairs stretch the entirety of the pedestrian-only street that families, couples and dog walkers parade up and down. During the winter months, sunny spots are coveted and warm drinks, like mulled wine, are popular. The Pivnica Medvedgrad Brewpub quickly caught our eye with a stellar happy hour ($1.25 half liter beers and half priced pizza).
Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, pulses with life. It has all the tell-tale signs of a European city: rich in history, beautiful architecture, a plethora of cafes and a humming public transportation network. The city long ago merged from two medieval cities, Gradec and Kaptol, creating what is today’s center. We’ve spent the past few days strolling through the city discovering the best of Zagreb’s sights, starting in the 13th century upper town, Gradec.
Gradec sights: Funicular
With more than one way to get there, we chose the least strenuous: the funicular. Although the climb isn’t that steep, a ride on (what Zagreb claims to be) the shortest funicular in the world seemed a worthwhile way to go. The 50 cent ride takes less than a minute to ascend the slope and we were surprised that we were the only tourists in the full car.
The more we learn about Zagreb, Croatia and the encompassing area, the more we want to see of it. After spending the weekend in the central city observing the markets, indulging in the cafes and being energized by city life, we set out on Monday afternoon for a day trip to Samobor.
Tucked in the hills near the Slovenia border, Samobor seems much further away than the 30 minute bus ride it takes to get there. The expansive main square is lined with cafes dishing out local delicacies and surrounded by historic buildings. The yellow painted church, St. Anastasia, sits prominently across from the square on a hill with a clock tower ringing out the time. In the distance, the remains of the Old Town atop Tepec Hill are visible – and accessible via a short, but steep, climb. The Gradna stream rambles through town, which encouraged us to do the same.
There’s just something about a capital city; a palpable energy. People dressed in business attire walk with purpose, there is constant movement of public transportation, and a sense of real life is happening all around us. And, so it is true with visiting Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.
One-sixth of Croatia’s population call Zagreb home. They work, eat and play in the area spread from the historic center to the far-reaching urban sprawl. Bustling cafes are around every corner and line every square. Bread shops and grocery stores occupy space on every block. On weekends, Zagreb’s parks are packed and so are the pews at church.