An Ode to Zagreb
Why I absolutely loved this city and why I think you will too
Where do I even start with Zagreb? It just really got me, and got me good. Even when we were in the city, I found it really difficult to put into words exactly what it was about it that I loved so much, so writing about it five days after leaving might not go too well. But I think it’s worth trying.
Even if I wanted to, it would be really difficult to write a post on “things to do” in Zagreb. It’s not that there’s nothing to do – far from it. There’s loads to do. But while it was really easy to identify the big hitting visitor attractions in Budapest, the ‘top things to do’ in Zagreb just seemed to stand out less. Add to this the fact that it is geographically nowhere near the popular coastal destinations, I can sort of understand why a lot of people skip Zagreb; why it flies under the radar a bit.
And a part of me is glad that it does. Because that’s part of its charm. I keep coming back to this word – charm. It’s just such a charming city. I feel like that’s the biggest and most genuine compliment I can pay it, but at the same time, it feels like it doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. Anywhere can be called charming, for a hundred different reasons. Zagreb, for me anyway, was different. I’ll try to explain why I think it was different, but it might only make sense to me.
Firstly, it kind of feels like Zagreb isn’t trying to make a big deal out of itself. Almost like it lets you make your own mind up about how great it is. I’m sure that might not mean an awful lot to some people – I’m not even entirely sure what it means to me – and I’m sure some locals might disagree with me. But I’ve been to loads of European cities that are really, really great – great atmospheres, great bar scenes, great histories, great food – but they know they’re great. And everywhere you go, there’s something else telling you about how great it is. I don’t know if it’s a tourist thing, and I’m really conflicted about tourism being a good and a bad thing at the same time. Often, I think that the crowds of people really take away from the specialness of certain countries, cities, or attractions, but then if I see that as a problem, I have to see myself as part of that problem. It’s a vicious circle.
We visited Zagreb at the end of August, so it was still really busy. The walking tour we did had around 80 people on it. So it wasn’t that there was a lack of tourists or tourism, but it felt to me like it still managed to retain a distinctly local feel. You could see and feel local life happening around you. I absolutely loved the time that we spent in Budapest. And there’s a reason the really popular attractions are really popular – they’re great. But I just got a sense that they knew that they were great. And they make the most of it, which is absolutely fine. I didn’t really get that from Zagreb. It’s not that it doesn’t know that it’s great – it does feel like a very proud city – but it just doesn’t force it down your throat. It kind of felt to me like Zagreb was showing its hand and taking a step back and saying ‘if you love it here, great, and if not, that’s cool too – nobody loses out.’ I loved that. There was no bluffing, no re-raising, and none of the bragging or boasting that goes along with winning a good hand. It felt like we were playing a friendly game in a friendly city. And that absolutely got me. I bought into it and haven’t let go since.
I don’t have to talk much about the history of the city, region, or country for most people to know that it’s absolutely fascinating, and heartbreaking. And so recent. I remember the first time I realised as an adult that the brutal wars in former Yugoslavia happened during my childhood and I couldn’t believe it was so recent. It seemed like something you read in a history book that happened generations ago that you couldn’t really relate to. But it happened so recently.
I don’t want to write about the history, because I’m absolutely not qualified to write about it in an informed and fair manner. And because I wouldn’t do it any sort of justice. I did make a point of going on a tour that covered the history of the recent wars and the role of the region in the first and second world wars. It also touched on the ways in which the wars have impacted on people’s everyday lives now, and this was probably the most fascinating aspect of it.
The tour, as well as interacting with local people, gave me a real appreciation of how the country is so young but really very, very old at the same time. It’s had a tumultuous history as a part of many different regimes, and its (relatively) recent independence means that local people’s sense of national identity and national pride shines through in almost every way. It’s a sense of pride that comes from hardship, resistance, perseverance, and a fierce sense of independence. It’s a national pride that is very familiar with struggle, and so doesn’t take anything for granted and isn’t arrogant or exclusive. Of course, there are complexities that go along with Croatian nationalism, especially in the aftermath of the recent wars, but I always felt very welcome and that I was very much living side by side with Croatians for the few days that we were there.
Of course, as an Irishman currently writing this in a cafe in Slovenia, I have absolutely no right to say any of this in a manner-of-fact sort of way. But this was a big part of my impression of Zagreb and a big part of why I loved it.
Another thing – or list of things – that made me love Zagreb, is all of the little quirks and eccentricities that bring it to life. The main square – very much the centre of social living in Zagreb – isn’t even a square. It’s not even close. It’s a long, long rectangle; but it’s still called the main square – or more often than not, just The Square. Nobody cares that it isn’t a square. It doesn’t matter. It’s still The Square. The fact that the cathedral – the centre of spiritual Zagreb – has three decadent golden chandeliers that were brought over from a casino in Las Vegas, just adds to the charm. They don’t look out of place. The cafe culture is one of the best I’ve experienced in Europe – again, without being arrogant or condescending. It’s much more difficult to find a bad coffee in Zagreb than a really good one. But that’s sound – it’s not like ‘look how amazing our coffee is’ – it’s just that they serve good coffee and that’s the way it should be. And you’re drinking it for relative pennies. The food has a distincly central European feel – lots of meat and pastries, but there’s also a mediteranian feel to it. We ate out quite a lot by accident. Just because we were coming across little corner stalls or cafes that did really good food for very reasonable prices.
All of this and much more adds up to mean that Zagreb offers a pace of life and atmosphere that leave you feeling like you’re doing things right. You’re never in too much of a hurry. Sit and enjoy your coffee, or your beer, or your lunch, but when you’re ready to move on, the rest of the city is waiting for you. And it always has something else to offer. We spent loads of time moving between the old and new parts of town and each offered their own unique charm, but they still felt like one city. It was like they were holding hands and supporting each other, rather than squabbling over which was better.
In the end, all of this comes together and offers the perfect platform for little moments of magic to happen – which is mostly what I’m dead into when I’m travelling. When you give a city a canvas of great coffee, great beer, great food, and an unpretentious yet vibrant lifestyle, it isn’t difficult for it to thrive. We had five full days in Zagreb, and took in most of the big attractions, but what I loved the most were the quieter moments. All over the city, there were little spots – parks, squares, cobblestoned alleyways covered in street art – where you could enjoy moments and make memories. Whether it’s sitting and reading, drawing, writing, chatting, drinking, eating, or just watching the world go by – Zagreb offers you the opportunity to create so many of these memories for yourself. My favourite moment was probably on our last night, where we sat on a little terrace above the city, just enjoying a good beer, a good view and a good long chat. It felt like the right thing to be doing and being in Zagreb played a big part in creating that feeling.
I suppose if you’re looking for a weekend break where you can live life at breakneck speed and cram in loads of attractions and experiences, Zagreb might not be the answer. Although the real beauty of the city is that it also could be the answer. But my advice is to get yourself to Zagreb and give yourself enough time to enjoy it at a more relaxed pace – soak up the local lifestyle, enjoy moments in the sun, and just allow yourself to be charmed by this wonderful city. Like I was.