Greetings from Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb! 💜
Now, before I talk about Zagreb’s cafe culture, I’ll give you a brief background on the history of this Balkan capital city.
Zagreb actually began as two feuding, medieval hilltop towns, Gradec and Kaptol, in a neighborhood that is now called Gornji Grad, or Upper Town. Some of the area is still fortified to separate the former hostile neighbors, including Kula Lotrscak, a watch tower in Gradec. 👀
You’ll notice many of the medieval buildings here have these spiked toppers, like an angel on a Christmas tree. Supposedly, those were used to stop witches from flying above your home and casting spells. 🧙♀️
Gornji Grad is also where you’ll find many marvels of 14th Gothic architecture, like St. Mark’s Church. This icon has a colorfully tiled roof decorated with the medieval coat of arms. 🇭🇷
Later in history, during the 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled this region and constructed many beautiful buildings, which still grace the city streets today. Here’s even a monument dedicated to former leader Ban Josip Jelačić, who ruled during that time. 😍
Most of this Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture can be found on the Lenuci Horseshoe, a U-shaped complex of beautiful squares and parks.
While I visited, the city was even hosting the Zagreb Classic in this horseshoe. Each night they had free, open-aired concerts played by world-renowned orchestras against the backdrop of the Art Pavilion in King Tomislav Square.Anyway, after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the conclusion of WWI, this area became Yugoslavia. This fusion of Slavic nations, which all embodied very different cultural and religious practices really struggled to get along, as well as, share a common national identity.
Then, after WWII, led by dictator Tito, Yugoslavia became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Tito was an incredibly powerful and controversial figure, much like a current ‘T’ leader we have today. Good thing these two men are ruling centuries apart. This T ‘n’ T pair would have been dynamite. 😂
Anyway, in 1991, after the death of Tito and the decline of the Socialist party, Croatia finally declared independence. Now, although some Balkan countries, like Macedonia and Slovenia, left this union without many challenges, Croatia had a different fate. They fought with Serbia for four years to become fully independent, which included causalities of at least 20,000 people, crimes against humanity, like rape and enslavement, and a massive air raid on the capital in 1995.😢
I read that it’s still a fresh wound for many Croatians today, and not something to brought up in conversation. After taking a free walking tour in Zagreb, I also heard that a lot of online resources are biased, and the exact events during those years in still unclear. One evidence through architecture that I found was this Grič Tunnel, which was used as a shelter to protect people from air raids. 💣
Upon first glance, just by looking at the crumbling facades of many of the buildings, it appears that Croatia its not as economically prosperous as neighboring Slovenia.
And despite their desire to become more economically prosperous, Croatians seem to realize that money does not buy happiness. Life can be enjoyed even on a simple budget, and the focus should be on gaining an abundance of relationships and experiences, not wealth. As an example, here is the Sea of Books festival in Zrinjevac Park. They offer free book rentals in a cozy, cosmic-themed outdoor library with wine-filled coconuts and intergalactic ice creams.🍦🌌
And if there’s anything worth spending a few Kunas on, it’s kava. ☕
According to Travel Honestly, “The world could be falling apart but as long as there is coffee, a Croat will survive.” Coffee seems to be more than just about drinking something delightful though.
It’s about the whole ambiance and the social element. For example, at this vintage cafe, Kavana Corso, they have a live pianist in the evenings to draw in a crowd.
Now, the streets of Zagreb are lined with inviting, charming, and quirky cafes, and with only two days in Zagreb, I was a cafe-hopping machine. One of the highlights was this off-the-beaten-path cafe, A most unusual garden, where the theme is based around Alice in Wonderland. 🐇🎩You’ll also notice that Zagreb’s cafes have very zany and eccentric interiors. At Mio Corazon for example, there is a hodge podge Spanish theme, with a dining room full of chatchkis, along with unexpected classical art pieces.
To soak up all that caffeine, I visited La Štruk with this British girl I met on my walking tour. She’s going to be traveling to Serbia to volunteer with refugees for a month. To preface my menu selection, I’ll add that Croatia is home to the world’s largest truffle, and sells oodles of truffle products.
These truffles are not chocolate, but a fungi, much like a mushroom, which grows underground in wild forests only a few months each year. You can hunt for truffles using dogs or pigs, and this delicacy can come at a high price of up to about 200 USD per ounce! It’s kind of like caviar, in that you NEVER want to cook it, and you add it on to dishes as a refined garnish. At La Štruk, I ordered their strukli with truffles. This savory pastry is stuffed with cottage cheese and topped with a truffle oil, but can also be sweet, with ingredients like apple cinnamon and blueberry.Verdict:
Zany decor also seems to spill out onto the streets of Zagreb during summer.For example, at Strossmarte, you’ll find an outdoor promenade lined with outdoor dining options and eccentric decor, like mannequins, yarn chandeliers, and clean undies hanging out to dry. 😂🧦
As for things to do in Zagreb, aside from cafe-hopping, the city has many museums. The most peculiar of them is the Museum of Broken Relationships, which showcases different household items that have either a sad or comical break-up story tied to it. Definitely worth a read! 💔
Now, one delightful thing I’ve noticed in Zagreb is its sense of nationalism. I saw the Croatian national symbol, a red and white checkerboard, everywhere I looked. It’s inspiring to see this after the region lost so much of its identity during Socialist rule. 🙌🏻
Where to Stay:
While in Zagreb, I stayed at Maju Jaya Hostel. My ‘roommates’ here were some 40-something-year-old Croatian road bikers, and the one reminded me of creepy Hans Klopek from the movie, The Burbs. Sleeping with one eye open…yikes! 😂
That being said, the bathrooms were SUPER clean, the air conditioning was cranked in the bedroom, and the reception gave me a long list of things to do in the Balkans during my trip. 👍
Driving (and especially parking) here seems like total madness, so luckily the city is well-connected with public transport. 😮
Aside from a few restaurant meals, I shopped mostly at the grocery store and local market. 🛒
Croatia is a carnivore’s dream!
Konzum and Kaufland are the major supermarkets here, and lucky for me, they had lots of veggie options too!
I even loved their healthy street food options, like fresh peaches and grilled corn.🌽
On the whole, Zagreb seems to be almost half the price of neighboring Slovenia, which makes me a happy backpacker!Anyway, up next I’m heading to Plitvice Lakes National Park before continuing onto Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, and reportedly, according to Hitchcock, the best place to view the sunset in the world. We’ll see how she looks! Until then! 🌅