Most visitors to Croatia tend to gravitate to its superb Adriatic coastline. With over a thousand verdant islands and innumerable idyllic anchorages, Croatian shores are very different to the rocky barren moonscapes often seen in Greece or Turkey.

Zagreb Main Square © Zagreb Tourist Board | Julien Duval
Zagreb Main Square
© Zagreb Tourist Board | Julien Duval

The city of Dubrovnik is rightly famous for its picturesque setting and Venetian architecture whilst Split is reputedly the most unspoiled Roman outpost in the Mediterranean. It was built in the 4th century by Emperor Diocletian as his private residence. He then wisely opted for sybaritic retirement rather than an untimely demise at the end of a Pretorian pugio.

Whilst the attractions of the Croatian coast are understandable and direct flights to Split, Dubrovnik, Zadar and Pula from many Western European cities make travel extremely easy and affordable, most visitors to the Republika Hrvatska regrettably by-pass the country’s capital, Zagreb. This really is a gem of a city and feels in many ways like a mini-Vienna. The influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in architecture and culture far outweighs the relatively brief period of Tito-esque drabness, and Zagreb has been described as “the last European city before the Balkans”.

Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall © Zagreb Tourist Board | Marko Vrdoljak
Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall
© Zagreb Tourist Board | Marko Vrdoljak

Traditional Habsburg yellow is noticeable in many of the public buildings and former grand private residences, which apart from some interior multi-comrade residence re-designing in Socialist times, have kept their exteriors exactly as they were before the feckless Archduke Franz-Ferdinand met an infelicitous end in Sarajevo.

Although the population of Zagreb is only around 800,000, it has plenty to offer music lovers and like many older performing venues in Eastern Europe, the intimate Croatian National Theatre presents drama and ballet as well as opera. It was designed by Viennese architects Fellner and Helmer, who also built the Zürich Tonhalle, the Vienna Volkstheater and Konzerthaus and the Theater unter den Linden in Berlin. Not a bad pedigree. The CNT was opened by Kaiser Franz-Joseph himself in 1895 and has continued to present quite a high standard of performances even during the difficult Tito times. The 2016-17 seasons offers four new productions including Schoenberg’s enormous Gurrelieder in September, a new critical edition of Don Carlos plus reprisals of another eight operas.

Croatian National Theatre © Zagreb Tourist Board
Croatian National Theatre
© Zagreb Tourist Board

A more recent performance venue in Zagreb is the 1900-seat Vatroslav Lisinski Concert Hall which is particularly active in bringing world-class artists to Croatia, even if the hall is a bit cavernous and the acoustics less than optimal. Bernstein, Mehta, Maazel, Gergiev, Muti, Jansons, Pavarotti, Carreras, Caballé, Argerich, Lang Lang and Rostropovich have all appeared in Zagreb in the course of the Lisinski’s 40-year history. Elīna Garanča and Thomas Hampson were there earlier this year. Ivo Pogorelić still performs at the Lisinski on a regular basis and is always given rapturous reviews. The Music Biennale Zagreb has also welcomed composers such as Stravinsky, Penderecki, Boulez, Lutosławski and Luciano Berio who have premiered their works at the Lisinski. September also sees a Festival of World Theatre, an International Puppet Theatre Festival, an International Organ Festival and huge numbers of concerts of music of all genres.

Apart from the many musical attractions in Zagreb, there is much more to commend this civilized, albeit slightly somnolent, city. Local Zagrebcani are obsessed with outdoor cafés and even in mid-winter, with snow and blizzards buffeting from all sides, steadfastly remain al fresco sipping endless coffees whilst shivering under heaters and blankets. Zagreb folk are initially a little on the shy side and not always confident about their English, but most manage much better than they think. Almost everyone under 30 speaks English fluently, which is not always the case in the Balkans.

The main square called Trg Bana Jelačić is the physical and social heart of the city and has constantly changing stalls selling everything from local Croatian native art and food produce to regular wine tastings and eclectic musical divertissements. The square is bordered by cafés both large and small of which Johann Franck is the most chic and attracts a regular crowd of young locals. A more traditional café is Charlie’s, a few minutes away on a tangential pedestrian precinct where a less fashionable, but definitely local, clientele gathers as regularly as the mid-day gun, which – à la Hong Kong – is fired at 12pm daily and can cause a shock to the uninitiated.

Trg Bana Jelačić © Lamasse | Wikicommons
Trg Bana Jelačić
© Lamasse | Wikicommons

The Croatian capital also boasts a wide selection of local and international restaurants ranging from the more formal Carpaccio or Boban establishments to the oustanding Korcula seafood eatery. All are within 3-5 minutes walk from the main square. Nothing is far in Zagreb and a car is more a hindrance than a help.

Interesting Asian fusion can be found at Umami off the pedestrian precinct called Tkalčićeva (Te-kal-chee-chay-va) close to the main square and quite decent pizza is served at the Kapuziner restaurant directly opposite the imposing neo-Gothic cathedral. For traditional Balkan cuisine called “Ćevapi” or “ćevapčići” in diminutive form (skinless sausages served with raw onion and a red-coloured garnish called “ajvar”), the best bet is the simple and rustic Jazz-Ba tavern just off the “Flower Square”. Many Ćevapi experts claim that the most authentic sausages in the Balkans can only be found in Sarajevo, but they invariably speak with a Bosnian accent!

There is also an endless number of friendly pubs in town, most of which are concentrated in Tkalčićeva. The Mali Medo pub/bistro offers a variety of good beers from its micro-brewery while the Ožusko Pub a few metres away sells its excellent eponymous lager for less than two euros a pint. A relative newcomer is an ersatz Irish establishment called Harat’s Pub on the market square which confusingly also stocks a large selection of German pilsner and Weißbier. Wine buffs won’t be disappointed either. Several small but excellent wine bars such The Cheese Bar behind Johann Franck and The Wine Bar Basement next to the funicular can be recommended. Grape varieties from the northern region of Istria are particularly impressive.

Accommodation in Zagreb peaks with the opulent Art Deco Hotel Esplanade close to the railway station, which was originally built for the well-heeled patrons of the Orient Express. Later train-less celebrities who favoured this oasis of sophistication in a country still suffering from socialist mediocrity included Maria Callas and Artur Rubinstein. The Esplanade is the most expensive hotel in town but does provide the appropriate fin de siècle grandness. It is also only a leisurely ten-minute stroll to the opera house. There are also any number of apartments to rent in Zagreb, most of which are quite large, conveniently located and immaculately clean.

Zagreb Mushroom Museum © Jonathan Sutherland
Zagreb Mushroom Museum
© Jonathan Sutherland

Zagreb has the usual small city collection of art galleries and museums, none of which are especially earth-shattering. There are however three which are absolutely unique. The first is called The Mushroom Museum which is exactly that, with over 1200 different species of fungi all lovingly collected and cataloged by the world’s leading mushroom expert, Croatian Professor DrSc Romano Božac. It is located right on Trg Bana Jelačić. A second is the often hilarious, often deeply sad Museum of Broken Relationships which is found in the upper town close to the Croatian parliament building. This is a collection of objects associated with terminal break-ups ranging from champagne corks to house keys and abandoned diaries. Explanatory notes beside each exhibit and make for fascinating reading. The final curiosity is the Torture Museum with many objects of discomfort ranging from medieval times to regrettably more recent modus operandi of violence. Not for the faint-hearted.

The biggest tourist attraction in Zagreb is the annual Christmas lights and Christmas market display which takes place on the main square and in the large Tomislavac park in front of the central train station. Zagreb was recently voted the best Christmas Market town in Europe over Prague and Vienna and it is no wonder why. Hundreds of thousands of twinkling white lights turn the extensive parks and streets into a sparkling fairyland.

Christmas lights at King Tomisalv Park © Zagreb Tourist Board | Mirsad Mehulić
Christmas lights at King Tomisalv Park
© Zagreb Tourist Board | Mirsad Mehulić

Enjoy the outstanding Croatian vintages, the seasonal mulled wine, the lethal digestif called rakija, the great food and beer and just remember to say Živjeli (pronounced ‘shiv-a-lee’) - which means “cheers” in Croatian. New Croatian friends will be made faster than you can say...  well, Živjeli.