Newly swish and businesslike, the Croatian capital still lacks the big-city vibe of Vienna or Budapest, its empire-era mate – but that’s where its charm lies. Set by Mount Medvednica, where the last foothills of the Alps meet the Pannonian plain, the city is closer in character to its central European cousins than Dalmatian resorts Split or Dubrovnik. It’s compact, too – you can walk to most appointments, and nearly all trams go via focal Jelacˇi´c Square.
Everything here has a time and place, an order common to German-speaking Europe, but with a Balkan sense of fun and, after dark, hedonism. Tourist and business travellers have been encouraged by a crop of new hotels – the local authorities have set their sights on hosting conferences and conventions.
Browse the Dolac market
Eighty years old and counting, Dolac, Zagreb’s main market, sits above the main square, a landmark for locals and tourists alike. Farmers from surrounding villages come to sell their home-made foodstuffs. In the covered market downstairs are butchers, fishmongers and old ladies selling ‘sir i vrhinje’, aka cheese and cream, while outside are some of the freshest fruit and veg you’ll taste. Alongside, the Ribarnica fish market sells fresh seafood every day but Monday. Look out also for the bargain lunches offered at little spots around the edge.
Bar-hop along Tkalcˇic´eva
A lounge-bar scene may have sprung up around the Flower Market just south of the main square, but this rustic stretch parallel to Kaptol pointing north is still the main nightlife drag for many a local. Rickety old houses now interweave with remodelled restaurants and galleries, while a dozen or more bars are dotted in between. A stand-out is Melin (www.melin.hr), a tattered old haunt for teenagers and grown-ups who should know better. Here and there are cocktail bars, terrace hangouts, faux pubs and hostelries of most stripes. Unsurprisingly, the handful of fast-food outlets are equally popular.
Take the cable car
Linking the focal shopping street of Ilica with the major sights of the Upper Town, Zagreb’s ‘Old Lady’ is more than 100 years old. Inaugurated in 1890, it’s the oldest public transportation in town, a year ahead of what was a horse-drawn tram. Its other nickname translates as ‘stuck’, locals poking fun at how many times it has stopped halfway up the incline. Although reliability is no longer a problem, the distance remains 66 metres from the base on Tomi´ceva, just in from Ilica. Carrying a maximum of 28 passengers at a time, itruns to the base of the Lotrsˇcˇak Tower every 10 minutes.
Grab some gableci
Cheap and satisfying, gableci are cut-price lunches sold at outlets around town where à la carte dishes may be twice as dear. Usually during the working week, you’ll see boards suggesting the three or four gableci for that day. With the modernisation of daily life, the spread of fast food, the standardisation of working hours and the trend towards healthier, lighter pastas and salads, (often) meat-heavy gableci are getting harder to find. But find them you will, around the Dolac market and Kvarternikov Square, where neighbourhood spots serve bean stew (grah), turkey with Zagorje pasta (purica s mlincima), squared pasta with roasted cabbage (krautflekerli), and so on. One place to try them might be the Gostionica Purger (+385 01 481 0713) between the main square and the station, titled after the local name for someone from Zagreb.
Catch quality live jazz
For its size, Zagreb punches well above its weight as far as live venues and music bars are concerned – but it really specialises in jazz. Along with the long-established, legendary BP Club (www.bpclub.hr), run by renowned vibraphone virtuoso Bosˇko Petrovi´c, the city also provides the discerning jazz aficionado with the Bacchus Jazz Bar (www.bacchusjazzbar.net) near the main station. Look out also for the Zagreb Jazz Festival in November, Jazzarela every spring, and International Jazz Days in October. Along with these major events, you should find a worthwhile live show nearly every night of the year.
Observe Saturday špica
Defined most simply, sˇpica is the Saturday-morning custom of having coffee in Zagreb’s city centre. More specifically, it takes place where Gajeva meets Bogovi´ceva and Preradovi´ceva, by the flower market on Cvjetni Square, between 11am and 2pm after everyone has paid a visit to the Dolac market across the main square. Literally, the word means the point of something sharp. Though nominally about drinking kava and enjoying a morning off from the hassles of the work, this ritual is more about looking sharp, fitting with the local stereotype of being on point with regard to the direction of the latest vogue breeze. It’s an impromptu stage for fashionistas, local paparazzi and hush-toned trendsetters. Though foreigners are considered nowhere near chic enough to participate, this could be your chance to rate your ability to travel under the radar. With the sun out and blue skies above, put your Porsche keys and iPhone on the table and check out the scene from behind D&G sunglasses. If people pretend not to notice you, you’re in.
The ski slopes, hiking trails and traditional mountain-lodge restaurants of Sljeme attract visitors all year round – and they’re only a tram ride or bus hop from the city centre. Zagreb is set in the valley protected by the Medvednica range. The highest peak is 1,033m-high Sljeme, a name used to define these easily accessible slopes, and it can be easily reached on foot, by bike, car, bus or tram. Thanks to this accessibility, sports activities here include hiking, trekking, skiing, caving, orienteering, running, mountain biking, road cycling and many more, depending on the season. They welcome mushroom pickers in autumn, and picnickers in spring and summer. There are numerous climbers’ and skiing lodges, where traditional restaurants offer hearty stews of meat and beans, and Zagorje specialities such as local mlinci pasta strips with goose, duck or turkey.
Need to know
Fly to Zagreb via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines (with a two-hour stopover; total travel time eight and a half hours) from Dhs2,100 return.
Where to stay
For visitors looking to be close to the centre to enjoy Zagreb’s late-night action, but who also want to enjoy a little nature, you couldn’t pick a better locale. Located about 4km out of town, the rooms in this three-star are beautifully designed with dark wood everywhere and more than a touch of modern, glassy minimalism. The complex has Wi-Fi, free parking, a bar and a buffet-style breakfast.
Rooms with breakfast from Dhs428 per night. www.hotel-jarun.com
This grand Secessionist mansion, the Schlessinger Palace, houses Zagreb’s first hotel, opened in 1907. More than a century later, it’s still one of the city’s most elegant properties. All 123 rooms are a mix of art-nouveau decor and contemporary amenities: sturdy wood furniture, huge windows, original paintings and spacious bathrooms with tubs.
Rooms with breakfast from Dhs729 per night. www.palace.hr.
Where to Eat & drink
If you’d like to taste the culinary treats of chef-owner Mario Cˇerhak at Marcellino but are apprehensive about breaking your budget, fear not. The Hugo dining room in the same building allows you to sample Mario’s delicate, inventive touch at taverna prices: the scampi in curry sauce, for instance, or the sea bass in olive oil. Both dishes represent the traditional experimentation for which Hugo is becoming known.
Open Mon-Fri noon-11pm; Sat 6pm-11pm (+385 01 467 7444).
This tiny, phone-numberless ‘graperia, cafeteria and galleria’ is the most underground place on the Tkalcˇic´eva strip. Inside, Cica changes often and is more of a living art installation. At present, the interior is a collection of mirrors and urinals framed inside glass display cases. Purple high-chairs surround sinks, which double as bar tables. A constant here are the house rakija fruit drinks – blueberry, honey, nut, fig, anis, mixed herbs – for which Cica is famous.
Open 10am-1am daily (Tkalcˇic´eva 18, Zagreb)
Dubai to Zagreb
Flight time: About six hours 30 minutes
Time difference: Two hours behind Dubai
Dhs1 = 1.4 Croatian kuna