Underrated and wonderfully tourist-free, Croatia’s capital is not only a great destination but a cheap one too. Daisy Cropper explains
Croatia is firmly back on the travel map. Around 20 years since the Homeland War the country is open and welcoming tourists. In fact, the tourist board, as recently as this month, reported that Croatia has seen an influx of visitors from the UK this summer and autumn. And why not? The country is beautiful and offers activities for all travellers, from hiking to kayaking, island-hopping to shopping and everything in between. But it can be expensive. The Adriatic jewels of Dubrovnik and Split, not to mention its idyllic islands, can be a drag on your wallet. If you’re looking for a budget Croatian break it’s all about the capital city.
Zagreb is packed with things to do and see – plenty of them being free – and has a cracking range of cheap bars, restaurants and cafes for when you do need to part with a kuna or two to recharge. Here are the best ways to experience the city for nowt:
A classic way to explore a city for free: pick up a map of the city’s Old Town from the main Tourist Information Centre (Trg Jelačića 11) and make a round trip. Start from Ban Jelačić Square – making time to spot the elegant equestrian statue – and loop your way through cobbled streets and narrow alleyways, around the heart of the city. It may not look as impressive as other old towns (especially compared to a city like Dubrovnik) but the atmosphere, architecture and friendly locals make for a good mix.
Stop by the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the tallest building in Croatia – to the west of the square. The exterior is looking slightly worse for wear, but the interior is peaceful and home to frescoes dating back to the 13th century.
Located a 30-minute drive outside of Zagreb, Medvednica mountain is the perfect country escape. Suitable for visitors in all weathers, the area offers trails, forests and challenging hills to climb. In summer, it makes for a cooler break as temperatures at the top are, on average, five degrees lower than in the city.
Originally, there was a cable car ferrying visitors to the top, which has fallen into disrepair. From the summit, you can see flower-carpeted meadows, forests and nearby towns. It makes for a striking viewpoint.
Street Art Museum (MUU) is a project aiming to raise awareness of Croatia's street art scene, wherever in the country you're heading. In Zagreb, the street art vibe is big and there are sights and murals to seek out across the city.
Walk the length of the Branimirova Ulica, a street littered with creative and often intriguing artwork. A wall running parallel to the road has created the perfect canvas for a 450m walkway of weird and wonderful street art. Close to the central train station, it is ideally located in the centre. See if you can spot the giant white lips, bizarre mermaid and wrong-way-round faces.
The best thing? Not only is viewing street art completely free, MUU's website also explains: “It doesn't have its own space, working hours or pompous exhibition openings.” Find more street art here: www.muu.com.hr
Home to unique, quirky and often unusual transportation and exhibits, the rather boring-sounding Technical Museum (18 Savska Street) is a great budget stop. Founded in 1954, the museum hosts a grand collection of scientific and technological displays. However, it is not free: admission is from 15kn (around £1.70).
For those on the tightest of budgets, every Sunday, the Technical Museum offers a free ride in a pre-war tram. The model from 1924 starts its trip at 9.30am every week, journeying to the Maksimir Park – Zagreb's oldest public park – and back.
Not a bad start to a relaxed Sunday.
On the first Wednesday of every month Zagreb’s impressive Museum of Contemporary Art (Av. Dubrovnik 17) is free. On show is a range of Croatian and international artists with works from the last half-century.
Make time for the collection of films and videos on show from the 60s – you won’t get time for all 456 but watch something from Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s collection or Tomislav Gotovac – both showcase experimental techniques and styles. Cool viewing.
Other exhibits on show include photography from the 1950s, sculptures, The Tošo Dabac Archive (with over 2,000 negatives) and graphic art.
Browse through one of Zagreb's most colourful and interesting markets. Popular since the 1930s, when city officials designated this area on the 'border' between the Old and New Towns a suitable market space, Croatians from the city and nearby villages still flock here to buy and sell their wares.
Find fruit and vegetable stalls, fishmongers, butchers and more. Don't miss the nearby flower stalls or the locally-produced honey and handmade ornaments at the northern end of the market.
To take some downtime in the city centre, visit the Zagreb Botanical Garden, a short ten-minute walk from the main square. The 4.7 hectares are filled with an English-style arboretum, flower parterre, indigenous plant species and greenhouses – home to tropical and subtropical plants. Marsh plants are also found around the garden’s artificial lakes. Spot plant species endemic to Croatia, such as the Velebit degenia – a pretty rock-garden plant with small yellow flowers – while exploring the grounds.
As well as a range of plants, the gardens are also home to a small collection of wild birds, tortoises and frogs.
From Wednesdays through to Sundays a small exhibition pavilion is open too. Originally built in the mid-80s, it houses plants over the winter.
Note: the gardens are closed from 1 November to 1 April each year for the winter.
Zagreb: capital of Croatia
When to go: Zagreb is quietest during the summer months of June to September, but this is when it’s at its hottest.
Getting there: British Airways and easyJet both offer flights to Zagreb from a number of UK airports.
Getting around: A bus leaves directly outside of the airport for the city centre, taking around 30 minutes to the main bus station. From here, you can take trams or walk into the centre. Walking is easy around the Old Town; buses and trams connect the more modern areas.
Where to stay: Located close to the busy Tkalčićeva area, Taban Hostel is a cheap sleep with clean, cosy rooms and welcoming staff. Doubles with shared bathroom from €39 (£32).
Where to eat: There are a range of cuisines on offer around Zagreb – escape the strip of bars and restaurants on Tkalčićeva and find something more authentic. Head to Lanterna na Dolcu, for hearty Croatian food and good beer. For vegetarians, the vegetable risotto is a must-try. The staff are wonderfully friendly too and will offer advice on your trip plans, if you only ask. Nokturno is a great little Italian, think gigantic pizzas and pasta dishes with small price tags, nestled up a tiny side street.
Useful resources: www.zagreb-touristinfo.hr