The first time I was in Zagreb – some 15 years ago – I left with an impression of a bleak and bland city, with no great desire to return. Maybe the incessant rain and icy temperature had something to do with it; things that can often hinder your appreciation of any destination.
Let’s just say it wasn’t the case on my latest visit to Croatia’s capital. Far from it, actually.
I now love this town! And after 15 months of travelling through 27 countries and seeing 5 continents, Zagreb was our final stop before heading home to Sydney.
Being in Zagreb in late October means cooler temps, maybe some unpredictable weather, and streets filled with a confetti of falling leaves.
It’s actually perfect weather – I think – to find a patch of morning or afternoon sun at a café, sip on something hot, and slip right into a routine that many-a-local perform every day.
Speaking of cafés, we had a handful of go-to’s during our 5-day stay in the middle of town. There’s plenty to choose from around the downtown area for us caffeine-a-holics – many of which are lacklustre and same-same – but here are my picks.
We loved the stripped-back, industrial set-up at 42 Coffee Co. on buzzy Vlaška Ulica. Communal tables aren’t a common sight in Zagreb, so one can expect to sidle up to another coffee-lover at this modern café, should the few individual tables be taken. As for the coffee, it’s pretty good!
42 Coffee Co. – Vlaška ul. 42
Meet Mia – Vlaška ul. 43
Over the road is the ever-popular Meet Mia. The coffee may be of the mildly-roasted Illy kind, but it’s made well and matches well with the star attractions of this Vlaška Ulica institution – those amazing pastries and inventive cakes.
Not too far away is Express Bar, a blink-and-miss-it joint that takes what it does seriously. Tasting notes, direct-trade beans and even some quality organic leaf teas for those that prefer a more mellow hot beverage.
My pick is none other than Elis Caffe, the city’s first specialised coffee bar. It’s also the first coffee bar in the country to ban smoking, so sitting in the dimly-lit space is an absolute pleasure. It is all about excellent coffee made by an award-winning barista, not someone else’s annoying fumes, after all!
Express Bar – Petrinjska ul. 4
Elis Caffe – Ilica 63
Running around town seeing all the sights and museums wasn’t on the agenda. Instead, we wafted about the centre of town stumbling upon places, picking up food at the market and often staying in with a home-cooked meal.
Zagreb’s central Dolac Market is a foodies paradise that operates every day; where locals have been market shopping since 1926. It can be found near the cathedral and behind the main square – Trg J. Jelačića.
The sprawling market sells fresh fruit and veg, flowers, preserves and honey, oils and some handicrafts. Don’t miss the ladies selling cheese!
Butchers and fishmongers can be found in the covered market downstairs alongside smallgoods, fresh pasta, bakeries and much, much more.
Dolac Market – Dolac 9
St. Mark’s Church – Trg Sveti Marka 5
One of the city’s most picturesque neighbourhoods are the medieval hilltop settlements of Kaptol (where the Zagreb Cathedral stands) and Gradec, also known as Gornji Grad – or the Upper Town.
The 13th century hilltop town was once surrounded by defensive walls and watchtowers, but today it overlooks Doni Grad (Lower Town) and the modern city of Zagreb sprawling beyond it.
The most photographed landmark in Gorni Grad is St. Mark’s Church, which is lovingly known for its colourfully tiled roof depicting Zagreb’s coat of arms and the Triune Kingdom of Croatia. The quiet cobbled streets around it are filled with government buildings, but there is the odd restaurant or museum like Atelijer Meštrović.
Strossmayer Promenade offers the most panoramic views over the Lower Town, and it’s here where the old city walls once stood. You’ll also see the 13th century Lotrscak Tower, which has been firing its canons every day at noon since the 19th century.
Right by the tower is one of the world’s shortest funiculars. For more than 120 years it has moved passengers between the Upper and Lower Towns. Hand over 20 kuna and you can ride its 66m track, or simply walk up some not-so-strenuous steps.
Tkalčićeva Street is a vibrant, pedestrian thoroughfare that marks the border between Kaptol and Gradec. The street was actually created in 1898 by covering the Medveščak creek; doing away with numerous watermills that helped operate soap, paper, cloth and liquor factories of the twin cities either side of it.
Sometime after it became the premier red light district of the city, yet today it’s lined with cafés, restaurants, bars and shops.
Where did we eat?
If we weren’t gathering ingredients at the market or grocer and cooking in our Airbnb apartment, we were tucking into something truly delicious in the city centre.
Tkalčićeva Street comes alive when the sun goes down, so parking at a cafe, bar or restaurant for evening drinks was the thing to do. There’s so much to choose from!
The very unpretentious Otto & Frank serves up pub grub with a bistro atmosphere. Here you can swill on craft beer or local vino, nibble on a platter of charcuterie and cheese, tuck into a burger or plough into a mound of crisp pork belly with creamy mash. I was pretty chuffed to find knedle sa šljivama (plum dumplings) on the dessert menu; something I ate a lot when I was a kid.
Otto & Frank – Ulica Ivana Tkalčića 20
We’d walked past Mimice numerous times during our stay, and when I suggested we try it for lunch, little did I know it was a city institution. Stepping down from the street into Mimice reveals a simple dining room that possibly hasn’t changed since they opened in 1945.
A handful of benches fill the room – all meant for stand-up dining – though there are some stools for those lucky enough to get them.
Seafood runs supreme at this old stalwart, cooked to order once you pay at the cashier booth. It’s a simple menu of smelts, sardines, calamari and sprats, with a few larger fish like mackerel, grouper and hake. Everything appears to be fried, which is ok with us as it’s fried to juicy perfection.
Not into seafood? Then a rižoto or blitva (Swiss chard) would have to do.
Mimice – Jurišićeva ul. 21
The excellent food continued at another lunch destination – Duck Fast Bistro – found on lively Teslina Street. The afternoon menu takes a modern and creative approach on dishes from regions all over Croatia.
Being such a small space with only high-topped bench and bar seats available, it fills in no time.
Whether its a beef cheek slider (28), Slavonian chicken & veal paté (18) or Dalmatian pašticada (78) served with bread dumpling and dried plum jam, it’s a tasty city centre option.
I simply adored their signature sweet pork (36) dessert. Berry ice cream, crumbs, white chocolate and pork lard with Grana Padano, salt, pepper, olive oil, a touch of chilli and basil. Remarkable.
Duck Fast Bistro – Ul. Nikole Tesle 17
Really good food and excellent service is a given at this not-so-secret eatery in the bustling heart of Zagreb. The menu at Mundoaka Street Food is brief, seasonal and very approachable.
Forget the “street food” label, though, as this is far from a speedy grab-and-go type of eatery. This is somewhere you want to sit and relax, be it inside or out on the terrace.
I couldn’t get enough of the pumpkin risotto with prawns (80); beautifully creamy with zucchini, radish, Grana Padano and thyme. And you can’t go past their signature glazed pork ribs (85), served up with potato salad, coleslaw and homemade bbq sauce.
Mundoaka Street Food – Petrinjska ul. 2
It’s all about simple and authentic at this tiny downtown restaurant. Gyoza & Sake Bar offers a decent number of Japanese dishes, but it was the gyoza we were both hankering to try. Perfectly thin pastry, nicely blackened bases and a tasty meat filling.
We also went for the teisyoku style set meal where, for 52 kuna, you have a choice of main, a side dish and rice. It’s a simple meal, a little on the lean side for someone with a big appetite, but for AUD$10 it was tasty nonetheless.
Gyoza & Sake Bar – Boškovićeva ul. 6
Nine Autotrans buses leave Pula daily for Zagreb. We got the 10am and arrived at 2pm. Cost is 115 kuna per person.