Jane Foster wanders a city with a fascinating past

Croatia might be better known for its coastline, but if you are visiting its capital on business you’ll find much to discover, too. Nestled in the north-west of the country, Zagreb’s historic centre has a Central European ambience thanks to its architecture and café culture, the result of centuries under Austro-Hungarian rule. 

The city centre is made up of two parts – the medieval Gornji Grad (Upper Town) and 19th-century Donji Grad (Lower Town), which meet at Trg Bana Jelacica, the main square. While Gornji Grad is made up of cobbled alleys that are mostly pedestrian-only, Donji Grad is flat and laid out on a grid, with a constant flow of cars and trams. As a whole, the area is compact and can easily be explored on foot – here are some highlights to take in.

Trg Bana Jelacica 

Zagrebian city life centres on the main square, laid down in the 19th century and named after Count Ban Jelacic, an army general who abolished serfdom, and is honoured here by a gallant bronze equine statue. Vienna Secession and art deco buildings surround the square, many with old-fashioned cafés at ground level, making it the city’s favourite meeting point. 

Immediately north of the square, Dolac market (dubbed the “Belly of Zagreb”) has been in operation daily since the 1930s. On the piazza, stalls are piled high with colourful fruit and veg – in autumn, expect pumpkins, mandarins, lemons, dried figs and walnuts. Below, market halls vend meat such as red kulen (salami seasoned with paprika) and kobasica (sausages) from Slavonia, while an adjoining fish market vends fresh seafood, delivered direct from the Adriatic coast at dawn each morning. 

Gornhi grad

The Upper Town is the heart of “Old Zagreb” – the first bishopric was established here in 1094, while the adjoining neighbourhood of Gradec was proclaimed a free royal city in 1242. Built into a hillside, with cobbled streets running north-south, traversed by wooden stairways running east-west, you’ll see more tourists than locals in Gornji Grad.

Visible from Dolac market, the twin spires of the cathedral rise above terracotta rooftops. Its neo-Gothic façade conceals a spacious interior with tall, slender columns. There’s been a church here since the 13th century – check out the northern wall, which bears an inscription of the Ten Commandments written in Glagolitic, a medieval script that predates Cyrillic and remains unique to Croatia. 

The Roman Catholic church has played a pivotal role here for centuries – Croats are predominantly Catholic, while most Serbs are Orthodox Christians. One of Zagreb’s most charming religious shrines is Kamenita vrata (Stone Gate), a medieval archway concealing an icon of Our Lady, where the faithful light flickering candles.

Behind the Sabor (parliament) you’ll see St Mark’s Church, with its colourful roof. Nearby stands the 13th-century, 30-metre-tall Lotrscak Tower on Strossmayer promenade. A cannon is fired here every day at noon, and if you make your way to the top (entry fee 20 kn/£2.40) you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views, with the high-rise apartment blocks of Novi Zagreb (New Zagreb) rising to the south, on the far side of the River Sava.

From here, a tiny funicular (5 kn/61p) connects Gornji Grad to Ilica, the city’s bustling main shopping street, lined with well-known European chains. Side passages take you into quaint dvorista (courtyards), home to smaller boutiques, ateliers and cafés. If you’re not in the mood for shopping, retrace your steps and descend to the main square via Tkalciceva, a colourful pedestrian-only cobbled street packed with busy little cafés and bars, much loved by local students, with outdoor terraces, and rugs and heating provided through the winter.

Where to eat: Lanterna na Dolcu is a fine choice for dinner, with an arched brick ceiling and starched white table linens. Its chefs shop for produce for their authentic regional dishes at nearby Dolac market – try the speciality, pisanica stubica (veal medallions in a plum sauce, served with croquettes). Closed on Mondays. lanterna-zagreb.com

Where to drink: Bornstein, near the cathedral, is a stylish wine bar in a vaulted brick cellar. There is Croatian wine-tasting and an adjoining shop where you can buy bottles to take home. Closed on Sundays. bornstein.hr

What to see: Standing near the parliament, the Museum of Broken Relationships – perhaps appropriately, given the break-up of Yugoslavia – examines love stories that went astray. Each exhibit is a testimony to a doomed liaison, with a short text explaining its significance to its ex-owner. Open daily; entry 40 kn (£4.85). brokenships.com

Where to shop: Link Gallery is a tiny concept store stocking quirky accessories by Croatian designers, such as ceramics, wood-and-epoxy-resin jewellery, marble kitchenware and hip backpacks. galerija-link.hr

Donji Grad

Laid out by the Hapsburgs in the 19th century as the city expanded, the Lower Town is a grid of tree-lined boulevards overlooked by grandiose Austro-Hungarian buildings. Walking from the main square down to the Glavni kolodvor (main train station), you’ll pass through three adjoining monumental squares, each centring on a park with green lawns and towering plane trees. It’s especially lovely here during the city’s Advent festivities (November 30-January 7; adventzagreb.com), when the trees are hung with fairy lights, kiosks sell mulled wine, the old music pavilion hosts after-dark concerts, and an open-air ice rink is set up in front of the station.

Zagreb once lay on the Orient Express rail route, hence the opening of the imposing Hotel Esplanade next to the station in 1925. Nearby are various public buildings erected by the Hapsburgs, including several (slightly weary) museums and the impressive imperial-yellow Croatian National Theatre. South-east of the train station, the area between Drzic avenue and Radnicka street, close to the new Doubletree hotel, is regarded as the new business district, with recently constructed high-rises.

Heading east from the main square, Vlaska street runs into Maksimirska road, which will bring you to Maksimir Park, an expanse of lawns, clusters of oak trees, ponds and ornamental flower beds. Also here is Maksimir Stadium, where Zagreb’s football team, Dinamo, and the Croatian national squad play their home matches. In this neighbourhood, a deliciously sweet smell of dark chocolate hangs in the air – the Kras factory (kras.hr) produces Croatia’s favourite chocolates, Griotte (filled with cherry liquor) and Bajadera (with hazelnut nougat).

Where to eat: Modern European restaurant Noel was awarded a Michelin star earlier this year. Chef Goran Kocis’s dégustation menus (four or seven courses) might include almond and lobster risotto, ravioli with trout and truffles, or duck with pumpkin. It’s located several blocks east of the main square. Closed on Sundays. noel.hr

Where to drink: Dezman Bar serves quality coffee, organic herbal teas, fine wines (by the glass or bottle) plus cocktails and snacks, all day in a peaceful pedestrian area off busy Ilica street. Closed Sunday-Monday. dezman.hr

What to see: The Modern Gallery exhibits an array of paintings, sculpture and multimedia from the 19th century to the present. Displayed chronologically, it highlights the avant-garde creativity in the former Yugoslavia and today’s Croatia – look out for works by sculptor Ivan Mestrovic and painter Edo Murtic. It lies midway between the main square and the train station. Closed Mondays; entry 40 kn (£4.85). moderna-galerija.hr/en

Where to shop: Aromatica stocks its own natural cosmetics, including soaps, shampoos and lotions, containing fragrant rosemary, sage and lavender, plus essential oils and teas. It’s on Vlaska, east of the main square. aromatica.hr/en/ 

If you have time, there are also some excellent excursions close to the capital.

In half a day… Located about 9km north of Zagreb, Medvednica Nature Park is criss-crossed by a network of well-marked hiking trails, leading through meadows and woodlands. Begin at the Sljeme tunnel, then follow the most popular trail (number 18) to the Bliznec Information Centre and up to the Puntijarka mountain hut (6km; 927 metres above sea level), where you can refuel with a classic hiker’s lunch of grah s kobasicom (beans and sausages). Medvednica’s highest peak, Mount Sljeme, rises 1,035 metres and offers skiing in winter. pp-medvednica.hr

In a full day… About 50km north of the city, rural Zagorje is known for its sleepy villages, imposing castles and hills planted with vineyards. Several wineries are open for tours and tasting (reservations recommended), notably Bodren, Bolfan and Vuglec Breg. On November 11, Martinje (St Martin’s Day) is enthusiastically celebrated in Zagorje with the blessing of the season’s new wine. The best castles to visit are the sturdy medieval Veliki Tabor and the white fairytale Trakoscan. For lunch, try Gresna Gorica near Veliki Tabor, which serves rustic local specialities such as zapeceni strukli (baked cheese dumplings). visitzagorje.hr, bodren.hr,
bolfanvinskivrh.hr, vuglec-breg.hr, gresna-gorica.hr

Overnight… Croatia’s most visited inland destination, Plitvice Lakes National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site located 130km south of Zagreb. It’s set amid dense pine forests that conceal 16 turquoise lakes connected by a series of cascades and waterfalls. The entrance ticket (from 60 kn/£7.27 to 250 kn/£30.28 depending on the season) gives you access to a labyrinth of wooden walkways that cross the park and the national park boats that traverse the lakes. Stay at the luxurious Fenomen Plitvice boutique hotel. np-plitvicka-jezera.hr, fenomen-plitvice.com

Zagreb airport is served from London Heathrow by both Croatia Airlines and British Airways.