Touring Zagreb, Croatia

The rooftops of Zagreb, Croatia. Zagreb Cathedral's two sandstone spires tower over the oldest part of the city, Upper Town (Gornji Grad).
The rooftops of Zagreb, Croatia. Zagreb Cathedral's two sandstone spires tower over the oldest part of the city, Upper Town (Gornji Grad).

Many visitors to Croatia make the trip in the summer to relish the clear, blue waters of the Adriatic aboard a sailboat or from the comforts of Dubrovnik, Split and other towns that sit along the country’s hundreds of miles of picturesque coastline.

Others head inland.

My husband, Andrew, and I were among the others — twice.

We traveled to the capital city of Zagreb, in central Croatia, in spring 2011 and then again this past Christmas, its friendly residents and easygoing ambience drawing us back.

Though a vibrant city, its many narrow streets lined with restaurants and shops nestled in and around 18th-century buildings offer a change of pace.

And the pace my husband and I move at on vacation is a stroll.

Thankfully, Zagreb offers lazy afternoons of cafe-hopping and seemingly endless treks down cobblestone streets.

Start at the center

Zagreb has been described as the country’s — if not Central Europe’s — main showcase of a cross-section of cultures, complete with a park that rivals Golden Gate Park, called Maksimir, and a Roman Catholic cathedral whose two sandstone spires tower over the oldest part of the city, Upper Town (Gornji Grad).

My husband and I get to know any city by walking it. In Zagreb, we started most of our days in the central square, Ban Jelačić, in the Lower Town (Donji Grad). From there, we could easily access Upper Town, shop on the main street, or people-watch at the daily Dolac farmers market.

While many cities can be described as a mix of new and old, in Zagreb there is a clear line to travel that separates the eras: One of the shortest cable car rides in the world.

In about a minute, the 66-meter-long Zagreb Funicular takes its passengers from the wider roads and modern shops of Lower Town to the cobbled streets and legends of Upper Town. While it’s a bit of a novelty, it is a great way to divide a walking tour of the city’s upper and lower sections.

Back at the square, inviting cafes in every direction offer outdoor seating in almost any weather. We made frequent stops for espressos in the mornings and beer in the afternoons. The country’s beers include Karlovačko and Oujsko, the second of which is brewed in Zagreb. And if you are feeling adventurous, a shot of the liquor rakija is what to request. The drink, popular across the Balkans, often ranges from 40 percent to 60 percent alcohol by volume.

Among our favorite stops near the square are Nokturno, an Italian and Croatian restaurant on a particularly small and steep alleyway with a view of the cathedral’s spires, and the pedestrian-only street ul. Ivana Tkalcica, lined with cafes and bars for several blocks stretching from the central square to a small park and remnants of the city’s old walls. Or how about lunch and wine in the warmth of a more-than-300-year-old brick cellar? Laterna restaurant is just another street over, on Opatovina. Note: If you order a tomato salad in Croatia, you’ll receive a bowl of only tomatoes. Same goes for lettuce. 

December in Zagreb

In December, the city lights up the main Jelačić Square and surrounding streets for Advent. Late into the night, Jelačić Square fills with people admiring the large Christmas tree, sipping mulled wine and eating sausages, as well as enjoying periodic performances on an outdoor stage (we were lucky enough to catch the sounds of a children’s choir).

Near the square sits a Christmas market, where stands were packed with handmade ornaments and other decorations for sale, as well as candy and roasted chestnuts. Among my best finds were ornaments in the shape of hearts and painted red, representing traditional licitars, or decorated biscuits, traditionally given as gifts in Croatian culture during important celebrations.

The Zagreb Cathedral is also nearby, a block or so off the square. For Christmas, a Bethlehem village was set up in front, where children were petting goats and other animals as passers-by gathered to watch occasional Nativity re-enactments.

Dolac market

Also not far from Jelačić Square is the Dolac market. It’s an expanse of tradition under red-topped umbrellas that is built and taken down year-round every day, starting about 5 a.m. and ending in the early afternoon. In a plaza, you’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables; below it, stall after stall offers fresh meat and fish. There are flowers, crafts and coffee. Often, street performers are serenading the marketgoers. We tasted homemade cheese, ate dates and bought from a local butcher the beef that we’d use in Dalmatinska pašticada, a traditional Croatian dish that my family would enjoy Christmas Day. The Dolac is more than a market; it’s a landmark. 

Upper Town

This is where we go back in time.

If you’ve started your day in Lower Town, be sure to catch the funicular to Upper Town before noon. You’ll want to ensure your quiet, relaxing morning is interrupted by a big bang.

At the top of the funicular lies Lotršcak Tower, built in the 13th century to protect the southern gate of the old town. Brace yourself at exactly noon for the firing of the Grič cannon from the tower’s fourth floor. I’ve heard several stories that claim to explain this daily jolt, but one legend says that a shot fired from the cannon at noon kept Turkish fighters at bay. So, a shot has been fired at noon ever since.

Despite preparing myself for the boom while standing at the tower’s base, I was still startled. And keep your eye on the sky: I was hit by a small cannon wad, still a bit warm and smelling of the powder.

After that excitement, follow the cobblestone road to two more mustsee but more subdued historical sites:

• St. Mark’s Church, a 13th-century gem rebuilt in the 19th century, sits in its own square, surrounded by impressive government buildings. What makes this church so stunning is its colorful roof. Tiles create the image of two coats of arms, of Zagreb and of Croatia. Unfortunately, on both of our visits, we could not enter the church.

• At Stone Gate (Kamenita Vrata), its spiritual importance now outweighs its historical significance as the last remaining gate of the medieval city. Sitting just to the east of St. Mark’s Square, the short, semidark tunnel is more chapel than gate. Again, a legend: A fire in the 1700s destroyed the gate, but a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus survived. It is seen as a miracle. We stopped at the gate several times — it’s the main link by foot between the upper and lower town — and during each visit, at least a half dozen locals were there lighting candles and saying prayers.

Before following the streets back down toward the buzz of the more modern main square, look up: The lights that line the streets of Upper Town are old-fashioned gas lamps. On one early evening, we spied a fellow walking the streets, lighting each as he went.