You don't have to take a long road trip to sample Croatia's northern heartland: Many of the castles, wineries, historical sites, and natural wonders within a 161km (100-mile) radius of Zagreb can be visited on day trips, depending on what you want to see. It takes just a few hours to investigate charming Samobor or rustic Divlje Vode. Even historic Karlovac is less than an hour from the capital. Excursions such as a day of hiking the trails at renowned Plitvice Lakes National Park with its waterfalls, karst gorges, and forests; or a day exploring the shops, cafes, and castle at the Baroque town of Varazdin, are within easy reach of Zagreb. Whether you want to spend a few days driving through the Medimurje wine country in extreme northern Croatia, or if you have just half a day to wander around Tito's childhood village at Kumrovec in the Zagorje, you can do it without spending a lot of time in transit. Check with the Zagreb County Tourist Association at Preradoviceva 42 (tel. 01/487-36-65; fax 01/487-36-70) for excursion possibilities. The office is open from 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday and from 9am to 1pm Saturday (closed Sun), late June through early September. Other times, office hours are from 8am to 4pm Monday to Friday. The association's website (http://zagzup.tripod.com/turizam/index.html) is handy for tourist contact information in Zagreb's outlying towns and for such statistics as the towns' distances from the capital. To get information on exploring the territory north of Zagreb in the Zagorje or in Medimurje regions, contact the Tourist Board of Medimurje County in Cakovec at R. Boskovica 3 (tel. 040/390-191; www.tzm.hr).
We've put the sites in Zagreb's orbit into several itineraries according to routes out of the city. Each can be used whole, broken into segments, or combined with other routes to suit individual interests.
Getting There & Around -- Once in Zagreb you can book guided excursions from the city in any direction. Multiple itineraries are available and especially useful if you are pressed for time, if you are unfamiliar with the region, if you are without your own transportation, or if you want an overview of the sites that ring Croatia's capital. Some excursions from Zagreb can be reached by train; for schedules, go to Croatian Railways (tel. 030/333-444; www.hznet.hr). Another great way to travel outside Zagreb is by bus. Popular bus companies include Croatia Bus (tel. 01/235-23-33; www.croatiabus.hr) and Contus (tel. 023/315-315; www.contus.hr). No matter how you arrive at your destination, however, your adventure will involve walking, as these destinations are compact and sometimes limited to pedestrians.
Excursions South of Zagreb
Most tourists who set out on the autocesta that stretches southwest from Zagreb toward Rijeka race across the 177km (110-mile) stretch of road as if they were wearing blinders. Usually that's because they are focused on getting to the Adriatic coast and nothing else. If they were to take a short detour onto the Jastrebarsko highway exit, they would find the gateway to a surprising collection of towns and terrains that offer wetlands, castles, upscale accommodations, wineries, and a mind-boggling array of outdoor activities, including river rafting, horseback riding, biking, hiking, and much more. Most of these destinations are within an hour's drive from Zagreb.
Visitor Information -- Just about every tourist office in every city throughout Croatia offers tours of Plitvice Lakes. Tourist offices in Zagreb in particular have racks of maps, brochures, and information on most attractions and events within 161km (100 miles) of the city. In addition, most towns in Croatia have city tourist offices with more localized information plus commercial tourist agencies that run excursions and handle private accommodations.
Getting There & Getting Around -- The area from Zagreb south to Plitvice Lakes National Park (Plitvicka Jezera) can be accessed via the Zagreb-Rijeka autocesta. Each town along the way can be explored on a day trip as well, though the entire itinerary could take several days, especially if you decide to include the Zumberak region and Samobor on your list. The same applies if you linger at any destination, or if you are traveling by bus or train and have to wait for connections.
Of all the possible excursions from Zagreb, you need to allot the most time for a trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is 2 hours from Zagreb and a place where most visitors take their time wandering trails and gazing at the countless waterfalls. You might find that overnight stays in Karlovac or Plitvice are viable choices to slow the tempo of your travels, or you can speed things up and add itineraries farther afield. Rental cars are handy for such customization, especially if you are interested in visiting tiny hilltop wineries or searching for bird species in the Crna Mlaka (Black Marsh) wetlands. But rental cars are not absolutely necessary unless you plan to explore some of the more remote villages deep in the Zumberak region. Public transportation -- buses, trains, and private tours from Zagreb, for example -- also is available, but that can require some complicated logistical planning.
Excursions North of Zagreb
The green, rolling landscape of the Zagorje and Medimurje regions north of Zagreb could have been patterned on illustrations from Grimm's Fairy Tales. This is Croatia's storybook land, where each new vista reveals another gentle swell of green topped with cream-colored hilltop churches and gingerbread-brown brick cottages. In the troughs between these verdant agribreakers, the villages of rural Croatia remain countryside repositories of the nation's early culture and customs, a source of larger-than-life heroes and historic events that helped shape the country and its unique character.
High in the hills, visitors can say a prayer to the Blessed Virgin at Maria Bistrica or wander the caves at Krapina, where signs of a Neanderthal settlement were discovered in 1899. Farther on, visitors can see the medieval fortresses of Veliki Tabor and Trakoscan, or marvel at the Baroque town of Varazdin and its museums and castle. Even casual tourists will see that spas like Terme Tuhelj and St. Martin are turning their attention to guests looking for luxury rather than rehab, and that the aristocratic "palaces" like Dvor Desinic are attracting curious gourmets rather than indolent aristocrats. Kumrovec, Tito's rural birthplace, now looks like a Croatian version of Williamsburg, Virginia, with blacksmiths forging iron, costumed guides explaining exhibits, and townspeople selling homemade rakija (brandy) and local honey.
At the top of the country, which skirts the Slovenian border, Medimurje wine roads curl through the hills near Cakovic, the region's center. There, family vineyards abound, and everyone from Grandma to the smallest of children pitches in to bring in the grapes.
The people of the Zagorje and Medimurje are known throughout Croatia as some of the nation's most industrious and frugal citizens. They also have reputations for generous hospitality, for serving exceptional meals made with local produce, and for loving their land and the fruit of their trees and vines. Just like the winegrowers in France's Beaujolais region who celebrate le vin nouveau on the third Thursday in November, the people in northern Croatia also have a designated day (Nov 11, St. Martin's Day) to taste and tout their new vintage. On that day, the wine is blessed and the whole area takes part in a festival of food, wine, and merrymaking, a celebration of a season's work that lasts well into the night, ending only with morning and the beginning of a new cycle of life.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.