There’s only one place to start in Zagreb, and that’s Trg Bana Jelacica, the central square, named after a 19th-century military hero who sits proudly on horseback, brandishing his sword. Trams clatter past newspaper kiosks, and the cafés around the piazza are busy day and night. For people-watching, take a seat on the terrace of Mala Kavana and order a cherry strudel, but if you want to meet the locals, head around the corner to Jurisiceva street to K&K (Knijga i Kava), a cosy café cluttered with old books and pictures of Zagreb in homage to local author Zvonimir Milcec.
Afterwards, climb the steps to Dolac market, where farmers sell cherries and plums beneath colourful red umbrellas, and old women from the countryside set up their stalls with fresh eggs and homemade cottage cheese. Bars around the market sell hearty brunches of grah (bean stew) and cevapcici, a Bosnian dish of grilled meatballs served with raw onions and aubergine relish in a crusty bap.
A 55-second funicular ride, operating since 1890, climbs the hill to the old town of Gradec, or you can walk up through the Tuskanac woods. The walk brings you out beside the enjoyable City Museum, where you can easily linger for an hour or two. Set in an old convent, the museum tells the story of Zagreb from its 1094 founding to a rocket attack on the presidential palace in 1991.
Stroll through Gradec, with its medieval churches and cobbled streets, to St Mark’s Square, home of the Sabor (Croatian parliament). Don’t miss the mosaic tiles on the roof of St Mark’s Church, depicting the coat of arms of Zagreb and the distinctive red-and-white chequerboard of Croatia. From here, it’s a short walk to Pod Grickim Topom for lunch on a flower-filled terrace overlooking the city. Try the shrimp and ham risotto, Dalmatian fish stew, Zagreb-style steak or baked octopus. Arrive before noon and you will be just in time to hear the cannon being fired from the 13th-century tower overhead.
After lunch, take bus 106 from outside the cathedral to Mirogoj Cemetery, a beautiful oasis of Renaissance arcades and funerary architecture on the edge of the city. The tomb of Croatia’s first president, Franjo Tudjman, is always covered in candles and flowers. Just outside the gates, there is a moving memorial to the victims of the Homeland War (1991-1995), which began as a pile of bricks on a street corner in Zagreb, each representing a missing person. The bricks were moved here in 2005 and inscribed with the names of 13,500 dead.
Back in town, spend the evening on Tkalciceva, a 19th-century promenade of wooden houses and balconies where Zagreb’s young and beautiful strut their stuff. You can choose from pizza at Mangiare, risotto at Panino or vegetarian food at Ivica i Marica, a folksy restaurant decked out like a Hansel-and-Gretel cottage. There are dozens of bars, but for something different, try Cica, an offbeat art gallery and grapperia selling spirits flavoured with blueberry, walnut, mistletoe and figs.
If you still have some energy, try to catch some jazz at BP Club, whose 73-year-old owner Bosko Petrovic can still be heard playing his vibraphone some nights. Woe betide anyone who talks during the performance. For a more relaxed atmosphere, head around the corner to Jazz Club on Gundulic´eva, a cellar bar where students from the nearby music academy sing late-night jazz standards for their friends.
Or if classical is more your thing, see what’s on at the Croatian National Theatre, a showy 19th-century opera house on Trg Marsala Tita. Even if you can’t afford to stay there, you must visit the Regent Esplanade, which opened in 1925 for passengers arriving on the Orient Express and whose guest list includes Orson Welles, Maria Callas, Pele, Tito and the Queen. Over the years the hotel has hosted Zagreb’s first striptease, and it was the first place in Croatia to celebrate Valentine’s Day and to serve champagne by the glass. Inside the lobby, all is walnut, marble and Art Nouveau decadence. Pop into Le Bistro for a late breakfast of štrukli (cottage cheese ravioli).
From the Habsburg-era railway station outside the hotel, follow the series of parks that lead to the main square. The last of these, Zrinjevac, is gorgeous: its fountain, bandstand and shady avenues attract streams of lovers.
To escape the city for a few hours, take the tram to Dolje and then the cablecar to the summit of Sljeme, where rustic alpine lodges serve up huge portions of sausages and bean stew. It takes about two hours to walk back down via Medvedgrad castle, a 13th-century fortress with stunning views over Zagreb. The path ends in the village of Sestine, where you can get a bus back to the city.
By now you will be ready for dinner, so take the funicular to Fran’s Reef, a funky bistro-cum-tapas bar owned by archaeologist Franjo Hrzic, serving new-wave fusion cuisine in an old house in Gradec. The menu features everything from lobster with blackcurrant and coconut milk to bouillabaisse or smoked tofu and mango salad. Order a bottle of Croatian wine and raise a glass to one of Europe’s newest and most charming capital cities.
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