What brings the greatest joy to our soul is stripped of expectations.
Zagreb was like that for me, a city chosen only as a hub for bigger adventures, a place to visit briefly during the first and last day of our road trip through Croatia and Slovenia.
With no expectations in sight, we were able to see the true face of the city, unbiased by social media projections that proper research usually conveys.
We found Zagreb’s old town pretty quiet during a Saturday morning, vibrant and cheerful on weekend nights, with a unique blend of medieval and communist architecture, and a charming old town wrapped in a sea of melancholy.
I loved it for the dimly-lit corners and romantic allure of its Upper Town, for the medieval vibes surrounding Zagreb Cathedral, for the summer terraces and bohemian cafés filled with cheerful people, but also for its quaint attractions.
The locals are pretty cute too as each shop or café has a little water bowl for dogs outside their door. Sweet, right?
This laid-back atmosphere of Zagreb made us wander aimlessly for a while before visiting the city’s main attractions.
How to spend a weekend in Zagreb, Croatia
Mirogoj, one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world >
Museum of Broken Relationships – “personal battles, global wars”>
St. Mark’s Church >
Dolac Market >
Ban Jelačić Square, Zagreb >
Zagreb Cathedral >
Street Art in Zagreb >
Croatian National Theatre >
Zagreb’s Upper Town Promenade >
Zagreb 3600 Observation Deck – See Zagreb from Above >
Kod Mike – where to eat in Zagreb >
Mirogoj, one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world
Visiting beautiful cemeteries around the world might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s a certain romance to wandering a place of eternal rest in perfect silence.
The quiet walk on Mirogoj’s alleys revealed many hidden treasures: beautiful sculptures, century-old lamps, graves covered in colorful mosaics, and my favorite part – seemingly endless rows of columns covered in green ivy.
The arcades and cupolas completed by colorful mosaics on old crypts, most belonging to famous Croatians, make it an architecture lover’s dream and one of the most photogenic places in Zagreb.
The big chapel greeting the visitors at the main gate looks amazing and walking around it uncovers different perspectives of the columns surrounding it.
When going inside, one cannot really tell of the religious belief reining this place of worship because the walls are clear of any iconography.
Later on, I found out that Mirogoj is one of the very few cemeteries around the world where all religions are welcomed: Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Latter Day Saints, and that the cemetery is much older than it looks – it was established in 1876.
Stepping outside reveals another wonderful view – red brick towers topped with green roofs and covered in ivy. These green walls border the cemetery and their symmetry made me linger after the visit, trying to capture its astonishing vanishing points.
Mirogoj is a hidden gem and one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve seen, not to mention one of Zagreb’s most interesting attractions, so I highly recommend you visit it.
St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb
When getting back in Old Town Zagreb, we adventured uphill to see the famous St. Mark’s Church, the main city landmark and a favorite photo spot in Zagreb.
Built in the 13th century and almost completely redone in the 14th century, the church is designed in the Late Gothic architectural style, with few Romanesque elements; its famous roof bears the colorful coat of arms of Zagreb.
The church is a place of gathering for locals and tourists alike, mainly because of its welcoming cobbled square.
We found it bathed in a sweet afternoon light, perfect for tourist and wedding photos, therefore a bit crowded for my taste. So I circled the church to find some of its lesser-known angles while hoping the wedding parade would move on.
The quietness behind the church matches the first vibe I got from Zagreb while the buildings and cobbled streets around it complete the fairy-tale vibe of this place.
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary and its twin towers seemed to follow our every step while wandering Zagreb’s Old Town.
We felt intrigued and stepped inside for a few minutes to admire its main nave and the façade’s gorgeous Neo-Gothic details.
Its towers are impressive, and the cathedral is the tallest building in Croatia, but I found the interior lacking the grandeur of its outside walls, although its mosaic floors are indeed beautiful.
Stepping outside, I found out that this place of worship has endured a major earthquake in 1880 when its original tower was damaged beyond repair, and so the two spires were added as part of its restoration.
Few meters away from the imposing entrance, there’s an old clock with a story that gave me serious goosebumps.
It is said that this rusty clock belonged to the former cathedral tower and it stopped working at the exact time of the 1880’s earthquake; its dials still show 7:03 a.m.
Today, Zagreb Cathedral is again under construction and one of its spires is covered for an undergoing restoration. Still, it looks amazing, especially from Zagreb’s 3600 Observation Deck.
Street Art in Zagreb
Wandering Zagreb’s Old Town is rewarding not only for medieval charm seekers but also for street art lovers.
There are at least three street art pieces you’ll surely not miss when strolling the old city center:
– “The old woman with a basket full of apples” – on the steps leading to Dolac Market,
– “The blind-folded communist miners” – near the Strossmayerovo šetalište (promenade),
– “The wedding photographers” – on Tkalčićeva street, near Dolac Market.
The beauty of wandering the streets of an unknown city with no plans also has some downs. We missed Dolac Market because we got there after all the temporary shops were closed (weekend, around 5 p.m.), but I hear you can explore it at noon, on weekend days, and also get the chance to try some traditional food.
Croatian National Theatre
During our second evening in the city, we stopped by the Croatian National Theatre, the most impressive architectural gem in Zagreb.
It was built in 1895 and designed by two Viennese architects: Helmer and Fellner. It’s the city’s main art venue (theatre, opera, ballet), and many travelers choose to see a play here.
We arrived in front of the gorgeous Neo-Baroque building during the Blue Hour, after I caught a glimpse of its shimmering yellow façade at sunset, but it was too late to take good pictures.
Ban Jelačić Square, Zagreb
Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb
Heartbreaks – “Personal battles, Global wars”
Visiting the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb was a very emotional experience for both of us. We couldn’t finish reading all the stories of heartache and sorrow aboded within its walls.
We stepped outside on the verge of crying… like all the suffering trapped inside those white rooms was somehow pouring down into our souls.
When I first heard about the Museum of Broken Relationships, I didn’t read much about it and assumed it was a collection of funny moments that sometimes accompany breakups.
“Never assume!”, I say. And still, I was almost sure that nobody would dare to collect the sorrows of people from around the world like tears in a jar and put them on display close to items reminding of forever lost love.
It reminded me of another museum I visited in Istanbul a few years back – “Museum of Innocence”. The museum and the novel belong to Orhan Pamuk, one of the best Turkish novelists, also the recipient of 2006’s Nobel Prize in Literature.
Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence now seems a prequel for the Museum of Broken Relationships since it tells the story of an impossible love in painful details and the angst of waiting in vain for your loved one.
While the Museum of Innocence paints the anatomy of sorrow caused by the impossible love, the Museum of Broken Relationships depicts the almost cruel epilogue of a lost love and the resignation that goes with it.
Although our visit to the Museum of Broken Relationships was soul-stirring, I hope you stop by when in Zagreb and experience it for yourself. It’s beautiful in a very sad way, the kind that only a romantic city like Zagreb would abode.
If you do, don’t forget to get the “bad memories eraser” as a souvenir.
Zagreb Upper Town Promenade
Wipe the tears on your cheeks and fill your heart with joy by watching lovers stroll the dimly-lit cobbled alleys of Strossmayerovo šetalište, Zagreb’s Upper Town promenade.
We walked hand in hand along the promenade, taking in the beautiful vista and admiring the shimmering orange roofs in a glorious sunset, all while restoring our inner balance over a Croatian Rosé wine.
Zagreb 3600 Observation Deck – See Zagreb from Above
Zagreb’s 360 Observation Deck is the best place to get a bird’s eye view of the city, and it’s where we admired our first Croatian sunset.
Seeing Zagreb from above offers an entirely different perspective of the city: more medieval charm, less communist apartment buildings.
Zagreb’s Old Town Square with its cobbled streets and rows of colorful houses, but also the majestic hills surrounding the city, reminded me of Sibiu, one of the most picturesque cities in Transylvania, Romania.
We watched the sun disappear behind the hills over a latté, and it turned out to be a perfect end to a wonderful first day in Croatia.
Tips for visiting Zagreb, Croatia
Where to eat in Zagreb
Croatia’s cuisine is part Mediterranean, part central European, so I didn’t feel the need to search for traditional meals.
Kod Mike is one good place to have a decent Croatian meal, and I went for an Istrian dish similar to macaroni and cheese but with a great twist – fresh black truffle sauce.
I love truffles and don’t get to experience them often; therefore I couldn’t leave Croatia without buying a small jar of black beauties. Haven’t cooked with truffles before, but I’m sure it’s going to be memorable.
Kod Mike restaurant felt like good value for money, and their Rosé wine is the best I had in Croatia.
Their location is also excellent, on the cheerful Tkalčićeva Street – the perfect place to enjoy a good Croatian meal and get into the mood of the city.
There are also lots of bohemian cafés where you can get a snack after wandering the cobbled streets of Zagreb’s Old Town.
Where to stay in Zagreb
Accommodation is pretty affordable in Zagreb when compared to Split (twice as expensive), and we paid 66€/night for a double room at Hotel Jadran, a 10 minutes’ walk from Zagreb’s Old Town.
The hotel was decent, clean, and the staff very nice, so it’s a good accommodation option if you’re only spending two nights in the city.
How to get around Zagreb
Booking a hotel close to Zagreb’s city center will save you time because almost all the attractions are within walking distance.
We took the blue trams a few times in order to get to the car rental office and to Mirogoj Cemetery.
You can buy tram tickets at every newspaper stand, and there are lots of them on every street. That’s because Croatians still take time to read newspapers over coffee during mornings and late afternoons, a habit that surely adds to the bohemian vibe of the city.
Travel Tip: 2-3 days are enough to visit Zagreb: see some quirky attractions and slowly wander the medieval Old Town and Upper Town.
Heartbreaks and romance, quiet cobbled streets bordered by colorful medieval houses, all wrapped up in a sea of melancholy. This is Zagreb, an unplanned destination we ended up loving.
Road Trip in Croatia: Zagreb, Plitvice Lakes, Split, Bol – Brač Island | August 2018 | All Photos ©Ana Matei > Instagram: @MateiAna