My five nights in Split were long, but packed with activities. From exploring the nearby islands (e.g. Hvar) to day trips to Plitviče Lakes and Bosnia & Herzegovina, I was constantly out from morning to evening– that said, I found my time in Zagreb a much-more relaxing affair, all the while seeing a good amount of the Croatian capital itself.
I took the national bus to Zagreb, getting in about five hours later close to 13:00. Unlike previous stays in Dubrovnik and Split, I would be Couchsurfing the first two nights before booking a hostel for the last night. I had difficulties finding hosts in the previous Croatian cities I’d stayed in, but I managed to get a host in Zagreb, at least for two of the three nights. Any case, I didn’t have to stress so much once I knew where I would be staying.
Upon arriving at Zagreb’s main bus station, my Couchsurfing host picked me up and drove us over to his flat. He actually didn’t live in the city center, but rather within the county— granted, it was a bit of a pain to get to the city (it took one hour by bus, then tram), but it was what it was. My host was a man in his early thirties who was quite laid-back, but also quite odd– I’ll save what had happened during my stay for another post, but rest-assured, it wasn’t anything dangerous, just weird.
Any case, I didn’t do much on my first night, as my host lived really far from the center and I was tired from traveling that day. I loafed around my host’s flat (which was surprisingly nice and spacious) while waiting for him to return from work, as he’d picked me up during his lunch break. He returned past 21:00 and we spent the night in– he offered some strong spirits and wine, and we chatted over drinks before turning in for the night. I had a *massive* mattress in the living room to myself, which was like luxury in comparison to other Couchsurfers and hostels I’ve stayed in. Despite the afternoon nap I took, I still knocked out for the night.
My host gave me a second set of keys to the flat, so I could leave and return whenever I could. He left early for work the next day, and I headed out past 11:00 to take the bus, then the tram, into the center to start my day of sightseeing. I got off at Trg bana Josipa Jelačića, the main square where everything comes together. People were out and about– locals and tourists alike– as it happened to be a sunny and blazing-hot day.
I arrived past noon and, feeling ready for lunch, I headed to a small restaurant not far from the Zagreb Cathedral to try the local štrukli, which is a doughy, creamy layered casserole that reminded me somewhat of lasagna. I ordered a truffled štrukli, which was piping hot and incredibly savory– it wasn’t bad, although I found myself getting super-stuffed, as the dish is far from being light and healthy. All the same, it was a solid meal for only 45 kuna (about 6€). *Fun fact* Zagreb is significantly cheaper than the coastal cities like Split or Dubrovnik.
After lunch, I made a brief visit to the Zagreb Cathedral, the tallest building in Croatia at 108 meters (354 feet) before taking the bus north of the city to the Mirogoj Cemetery, considered one of the most-beautiful cemeteries in Europe. Morbid as it sounds, Mirogoj Cemetery is quite striking, with the main entrance showcasing a towering chapel and a crematorium displaying an ever-burning exhibition of the lives lost in the country. It was a large cemetery, as I easily spent an hour just wandering around.
I took the bus back to the city center, where I passed the time strolling between Upper and Lower Town– the former is evidently situated on an incline, and it has the colorfully-tiled St. Mark’s Church and various small museums, whereas the latter is at the town’s base with the shopping and eating opportunities. I went between these two parts of town, all the while admiring the colorful, Hapsburg-influenced architecture. If Split and Dubrovnik had been more Italian in character, then Zagreb was quite different with its Austro-Hungarian layout– it was interesting to see the contrast between parts of a country!
There was also the Tunel Grič, a former bomb shelter during WWII and apparently a rave hub in the 1990’s. Today, it’s a tourist draw to wander through, with a few light exhibitions highlighting Zagreb’s history– plus, it was really cool and refreshing inside, which helped beat the June heat!
Near St. Mark’s Church was the Nikola Tesla House, the birth-home of the eponymous Croatian inventor who contributed to the making of the AC electricity supply system in the late 19th century. There was also the well-known Museum of Broken Relationships, which I’d been interested in checking out. It was a really-small museum, but chock-full of memorabilia from, you guessed it, failed relationships– some were quirky, others heart-breaking, but it offered something new from the usual “classic” art museums I frequent in my travels.
By the time I finished my visit in the museum, it was nearing 18:00. Although it was still light out, I was tired and decided to head back to my host’s flat. I took the one-hour ride back, and I spent the night in once more with my host after he returned from work. We had more drinks and conversation, and that was about it.
I still had one more night in Zagreb, but I was done staying with my host after the second night– he was kind enough to drive and drop me off near the center the next morning, and I headed to my hostel just to drop my belongings off before check-in that afternoon. I headed up Zagreb 360°, a high-rise building that offered views of the city above– it wasn’t that high up, but still a lovely sight to see.
Having tried štrukli the day before, I opted for Mexican street food for lunch that day. You might wonder why I would have Mexican food in Croatia: basically, I’d talked with a girl at my hostel in Split who’d gone to Zagreb beforehand– she recommended that I try this particular Mexican joint, as it’s known for its taquitos. Although I was at first skeptical of its authenticity (after all, I’m from Los Angeles), I decided to try it out.
The Mexican restaurant was tiny, nearly a hole-in-a-wall located not far from the Trg bana Josipa Jelačića. I didn’t order taquitos for lunch, instead opting for the vegetarian quesadilla: I also had the choice of two dips, so I chose chipotle and honey mustard. While simple in presentation, the quesadillas turned out to be deliciously flavorful. The dips were also a treat, extra bold and hot– while definitely not “authentically” Mexican, the taste was on-point, and I enjoyed it so much I ended up returning for dinner!
After lunch, I headed to Upper Town, where I decided to visit the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art. Having been inspired by naïve art from my visits to the jardin Rosa Mir and palais Idéal in France, I was keen on seeing more of this fascinating art style. The museum itself is incredibly tiny, with no more than six exhibition rooms– I was able to see everything within 40 minutes. All the same, I was especially drawn to the works of Emerik Feješ, a Croatian painter whose bright, asymmetric depictions of places like Belgrade, Vienna, and Paris were oddly-attractive.
I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out with a fellow Couchsurfer in town, with whom I’d gotten in touch through the “Hangouts” feature. He was a man in his late twenties from China, who was also visiting Zagreb with his Swedish girlfriend. We also happened to learn that we were staying in the same hostel (and same room!), and we had plenty of conversations on travel over drinks, more Mexican food, and a walk in town.
That evening, I was to meet another Couchsurfer for drinks– he was a Bosnian-Croatian in his late twenties and we spent a few hours conversing on just about any topic that came to mind: culture, Croatian history, millennials, even feminism. It was all pleasant, and we parted ways around 23:00. I revisited Zagreb 360° afterwards, as my entry ticket permitted unlimited access throughout the day– I got photos of the city at night and, after a glass of wine on the rooftop terrace, I returned to the hostel for the night. I would be leaving the following morning, so I didn’t want to stay out too long.
Zagreb proved to be a surprisingly-enjoyable experience. Prior to visiting, people have said that it wasn’t such an interesting place to visit, but I would have to disagree. Sure, it’s possible to see the main sights in one day, but I found the museums and food scene to be quite novel, even refreshing. The people I met in town were amazing, and I do recommend a stop over should you visit Croatia some day.
Stay tuned for my brief, but pleasant visit to Ljubljana, Slovenia in the next post!