There is a new spirit in Zagreb, a city that travelers regarded as more a stopover than a destination as far back as the days of the Orient Express. No more. Zagreb’s attractions aren’t as famous as Paris’s, or as numerous as Rome’s, but it’s still impossible to experience all the city’s delights on just an overnight stay.
Zagreb has always played a pivotal role in the life of Croatia, mostly because of its location at the crossroads where western and eastern Europe meet. This is not a glitzy city, but one of history, culture, and purpose, informed by war and natural disasters. Zagreb is still finding itself after nearly a millennium of foreign domination, but it is changing and growing, and emerging as a destination in its own right.
Nowadays, Zagreb’s squares fill every summer with people speaking a variety of languages. New restaurants, attractions, and entrepreneurial ventures are sprouting everywhere. As so often happens with travel, much of how one experiences Zagreb can come down to luck—being here at the right moment. On rainy Sundays, central Zagreb is deserted: Stores are closed and restaurants and museums are empty. If a visitor has just a day and is forced to see the city from under an umbrella, Zagreb seems a sad, gray place. But if that same visitor is lucky enough to be in the city center on a sunny Saturday, Zagreb is a vital metropolis, pulsating with color and buzzing with energy. On a day like that, Zagreb hums with chatter as fashionistas haggle with wizened old ladies in black at the colorful Dolac Market, and the city becomes a backdrop for curious tourists, for friends sipping wine at sidewalk cafés, and for anyone listening to the street musicians that fill Trg Ban Jeličić with beautiful noise.
Weekdays, Zagreb is alive with serious hustle and bustle, and what seem like endless hordes sipping coffee at sidewalk cafés or carrying briefcases or bags of bread and flowers. Evenings, Zagreb is all softness and laughter, as diners linger over dessert at the newly restored Gradska Kavana, head for open-air cocktail bars, or just stroll the cobblestone streets.
The city’s blend of old and new, of country and cosmopolitan, is a yin-yang combo that somehow works. This is not a city that instantly takes your breath away, but—given enough time—Zagreb will wiggle its way into your heart and tempt you to stay a while.