Most Croatia visitors skip the capital in favor of the country’s well-known beach destinations and natural wonders. There are, nevertheless, a lot of fun things to do in Zagreb, and the Croatian capital offers attractions for history buffs and night owls alike. Here are some of the best places to visit in Zagreb, Croatia.
Welcome to Zagreb: Croatia’s Underrated Capital City
When you hear the name “Croatia,” you probably think about famous beach parties, the one-of-a-kind Plitvice waterfalls, and Game of Thrones filming locations such as Split and Dubrovnik. Yes, Croatia has all of these well-known places, but it also has a charming capital city.
Zagreb was founded as a Roman settlement in the 1st century AD and later became part of several larger states, including the Austrian Empire.
The city’s old town is unique as two distinct settlements – Gradec and Kaptol – were founded on two hills in the 13th and 15th centuries, respectively. Kaptol was built as a clergy neighborhood while Gradec became home to the non-clergy population.
At the end of World War One, Austria-Hungary collapsed, and Croatia joined the newly-founded Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945, and Zagreb remained a provincial city until 1991 – when Croatia declared its independence during the Balkan Wars. The war led to several atrocities in Zagreb, notably rocket attacks.
After the war, Zagreb started to flourish as a result of Croatia’s growth and tourism boom. Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 and is on route to becoming part of the Schengen Zone.
What you should know about Zagreb is that it was never a capital city. Throughout its timeline, the city had regional importance, but it was always part of an empire or federal state.
As such, Zagreb doesn’t have the historical grandeur of Vienna or the size of Belgrade. It is today home to around 800k people, but its metropolitan area is growing steadily.
In addition to that, Zagreb’s architecture reflects its multifaceted history. You can see pompous Austrian-style buildings, but also lots of communist blocks and grey 70s structures. Add to that some medieval charm and a few modern embellishments, and you have a diverse capital.
All in all, the places to visit in Zagreb make it a worthwhile addition to your Croatia itinerary. Better still, it’s the beating heart of the country – as many young Croatians move here for work or college, spawning a vibrant cultural scene and lots of nightlife options.
The Top Places to Visit in Zagreb, Croatia
You’ll find most of Zagreb’s tourist attractions around the two medieval neighborhoods – Kaptol and Gradec (jointly known as the “Upper Town”) – as well as the main square, Jelačić. On this basis, here are eight of the best places to visit in Zagreb, Croatia.
Kaptol: Zagreb’s Former Clergy Neighborhood
One of the most intriguing facts about Zagreb is that it started as two distinct hilltop settlements that grew side by side without integrating.
The first of those areas is Kaptol, the clergy neighborhood. The Catholic Church established the diocese of Zagreb here in 1094, and the area became home to various religious institutions.
Today, the most striking landmark in Kaptol is Zagreb Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic churches in Southeastern Europe.
The first cathedral dates from the 11th century, but it didn’t survive the 13th-century Mongol invasion. The Cathedral was rebuilt a few decades later, and it stood until 1880 – when a major earthquake caused severe damage to its foundations.
A few years after the tremble, Austro-Hungarian architect Hermann Bollé redesigned the building in its present Gothic style.
In March 2020, another major earthquake hit the Croatian capital, and the Cathedral suffered more damage. Parts of it have been under restoration since.
Gradec: the Secular Part of the Medieval Core
Gradec is Zagreb’s second medieval hilltop settlement. Located a stone’s throw away from Kaptol, It was the home of merchants and craftsmen.
Its cobbled streets and beautifully restored medieval buildings make this one of the top places to visit in Zagreb.
Aside from the fairytale houses, Gradec is also home to St. Mark’s Cathedral, the second must-see church in the Croatian capital. The Gothic structure dates from the 14th century, and its roof contains magnificent tiles that depict Zagreb’s coat of arms.
In Gradec, you’ll also find Strossmayer Promenade, a charming hilltop walk with panoramic views over the city. In summer, lots of food trucks and trendy open-air bars set up around the promenade, adding to the relaxing vibe of the city’s medieval heart.
Tkalčićeva Street: the Bar Street
If you’re looking for some fun things to do in Zagreb at night, head to Tkalčićeva Street.
Along the medieval alleyway, you’ll see colorful two-story houses, most of which are now bars and restaurants. It’s an excellent place to eat and drink in Zagreb, and it’s where both locals and tourists gather at night.
If you want to taste some regional Croatian delicacies, Dolac Market is your spot. It’s a daily market where farmers from the region sell meat, dairy products, and artisanal crafts.
Open every morning, shopping at Dolac Market is one of the most authentic things to do in Zagreb and an excellent place to experience the local culture.
Jelačić Square and the Lower Town
South of the medieval core, Zagreb’s Lower Town is its modern epicenter.
The area is home to Jelačić, the city’s main square. You’ll find a myriad of shops, restaurants, cafés, and bars here. Jelačić Square is also a transport hub, making it an excellent base to explore the rest of the city.
Adjacent to the pedestrian square, you’ll enter Ilica, one of Zagreb’s primary shopping avenues.
Zagreb’s Best Museums: Mimara and the Archaeological Museum
The best things to do in Zagreb undoubtedly also include the two large museums in the Lower Town.
The city’s main art museum is Mimara, named after an illustrious 20th-century art collector. It displays works of famous painters such as Renoir, Rubens, Degas, and Monet. Due to Second World War theft and some questionable donations, several art experts claim that some of the museum’s pieces are forgeries, but no indisputable evidence supports this claim.
The second recommendable museum focuses on archaeology. Thanks to its strategic location in the Balkans, Zagreb was part of many civilizations throughout its history. In this context, the Archaeological Museum is the best place to learn more about Zagreb’s eventful past.
The Lenuci Horseshoe: Zagreb’s Most Picturesque Park
If you’re looking for some historic Austrian pomp in Zagreb, check out the Lenuci Horseshoe.
Designed in the late 19th century, the Horseshoe consists of seven squares with green spaces that form a U-shaped ensemble.
Famous Croatian urbanist Milan Lenuci envisioned a space resembling the magnificent gardens in Vienna or Budapest, and his park is today a reminder of Croatia’s Austro-Hungarian heritage. Home to the city’s Botanical Garden, the Lenuci Horseshoe is one of the most relaxing places to visit in Zagreb.
Jarun Lake: a Summer Escape From the Hustle and Bustle of the City
Finally, bathing in Jarun Lake is one of the best things to do in Zagreb in the summer.
Croatia is famous for its Adriatic beaches, but the capital lies a long way inland. That’s why Zagrebians escape from the summer heat to Jarun Lake on the outskirts of the city.
The lake offers lots of leisure activities such as kayaking, swimming, and volleyball during the day, but it also caters to night owls. You’ll find countless bars and nightclubs along its shores, making it a recommendable spot for a waterside date or a night out with friends.
Where to Stay in Zagreb, Croatia
The best area to stay in Zagreb is undoubtedly the downtown area around Jelačić Square.
You’ll be within walking distance to most of Zagreb’s tourist attractions and have access to all the main tram lines. The downtown part offers hotels and Airbnbs for every budget, including international chains and local guest houses.