As our Go Ahead Tours bus drove into Zagreb and our guide extraordinaire, Tamara, told us its history and we saw the beautiful architecture we couldn’t wait to see Zagreb’s top attractions. The fact that Zagreb was on our itinerary had been one of the tour’s compelling features. As hackneyed as it is to say that somewhere is an undiscovered gem it feels fair to say that Zagreb is just that for most American travelers. It certainly was for us.
Zagreb has a classic European look and a lively atmosphere that is probably fueled in part by the large presence of university students. It also has a low crime rate and significantly higher average salaries than elsewhere in Croatia which may all contribute to its cheerful ambiance.
After our bus tour, Go Ahead introduced us to our very perky and informative local guide. She took us on an easy and enjoyable walking tour that you could replicate on your own (minus her interesting patter). Here are the places the guide took us and what we found to be interesting.
St. Mark’s Church
A good place to start your tour is in the upper part of town in St. Mark’s Square. The square is home to Croatia’s Parliament building, their Constitutional Court and the old City Hall as well as St. Mark’s Church.
The church is one of the oldest buildings in Croatia and has a distinctive colorful tiled roof which features the coats of arms of both Croatia and Zagreb. St. Mark’s has had such a difficult existence it must have sorely tried the faith of the parishioners.
The parish was established in the 13th century and the first church was erected. Fires and earthquakes demolished the church and its bell tower so many times that it has been completely rebuilt 6 times. The current structure was a renovation done in the 19th century.
The Croatian Museum of Naive Art
Just a few short blocks from St. Mark’s you will come across the entrance to the small, excellent Croatian Museum of Naive Art. If you aren’t familiar with naive art it doesn’t mean that the artists believe in Santa Claus but rather that they did not receive formal art training.
Truthfully other naive art has left us a bit cold but the collection here is very impressive and engaging. Go Ahead Tours had arranged an English language tour of the museum which helped us appreciate what we were seeing.
The museum focuses on the Hlebine School (yes, it’s confusing that they have a school but not a school). The art displayed here is mostly from the 1930s through the 1980s. Some of the paintings are colorful and somewhat extreme portraits that are only broadly realistic. Others are scenic or tell stories such as the – surprising to us – depiction of the so-called “Jonestown Massacre” in 1978. We didn’t expect to encounter that in Zagreb (or anywhere else).
Even if you feel skeptical about naive art see this museum. It’s unlike any other museum you’re likely to see in Croatia and gives an interesting perspective on some of their less recognized artistic accomplishments.
St. Catherine’s Church
True confessions – when we were there the church wasn’t open so we didn’t see the interior but it’s pink and Baroque and looks great in other people’s pictures. Here’s a link where you can see it.
This church was built by Jesuits in the 17th century. They appreciated the value of a good location because outside, off the right side of the church, you can get some of the best views of the city.
Zagreb Cathedral (aka The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary)
We’re giving you a misleading impression of our interest in touring churches and we promise not to mention another one after this.
We were told that Zagreb Cathedral is the highest building in Croatia. Its twin spires can be seen from many places in the city and it’s the most visited attraction in the city. It has undergone extensive renovations (due to earthquake damage and poor quality stone) for years but they seem to be in the home stretch with only one of the spires to complete.
This Roman Catholic Gothic style Cathedral was first built in the 13th century. It covers a number of bases by being dedicated to the Virgin Mary (patron saint), Saint Stephen who was a king of Hungary (a politician who was a saint?) and Saint Ladislaus.
Take the time to go inside and see the Gothic sacristy which is a major part of the Cathedral’s architectural value.
After you leave St. Catherine’s you will make your way to one of the ancient city gates and into the area known as Lower Town. The main street for dining and shopping is Tkalciceva. Both sides of the street are lined with open-air restaurants and cafes offering traditional as well as international cuisine.
There’s a statue of Marija Juric Zagorka an early feminist, Croatia’s first female journalist and a novelist. She’s been dead since 1894 but is still the second most widely read writer in the country. You go girl!
There are stalls on Tkalciceva selling Croatian crafts and other local products. Some of the crafts have EU protective status which is prestigious and restricts would be copycats. There’s a lot of pride in items that have managed to get this designation.
From Tkalciceva you can walk to the nearby downtown shopping area. We have to confess that we loved Zagreb’s architecture, history and spirit but the shopping (other than for crafts) isn’t something to allot any time to experience. Our most telling moment came in a department store where we went to look at the shoes and nuns were in there buying shoes. No offense to nuns but they aren’t known for their stylish footwear so we knew it was time to head to our hotel!
Zagreb has enough charms for several days. But if your time is limited this easy walk to some of its most interesting sights is enough to leave you feeling as if you got a sense of the city and its history.
Disclosure to keep us out of travel blogger jail: We were the grateful guests of Go Ahead Tours. They didn’t tell us what to say or we probably wouldn’t have mentioned shoe shopping with nuns.