Despite being the next European capital to join the European Union (Croatia’s accession is timetabled for July 2013), Zagreb is far from being the kind of internationalised city that you might expect. Indeed it retains a great deal of street-level character, navigating today’s economic challenges in a way that’s shaped as much by local tastes as global commercial imperatives.

International shopping culture has taken firm root in the new breed of mega-malls that girdle the suburbs, leaving the city centre free to continue leading its own life. Apart from a sprinkling of stores selling branded sportswear and luxury label clothes, most of the businesses are local. Dive into the courtyards leading off main shopping street Ilica and you’ll discover a decidedly not-your-usual-high-street world of boutiques and workshops, many of them selling hand-made jewelry or individually-crafted hats and shoes. This is a city in which professions like millinery and cordwainery (that’s cobblers to you) still cling to their traditional place in the city centre. And in stark contrast to your average European metropolis, Zagreb is a city in which the main outdoor fruit and veg market still occupies centre stage, a few steps uphill from the main square.

Café culture

The need to devote quality time to coffee and conversation still dictates the tempo of life in the pedestrian streets around the main square. And given how much Croatians love their coffee breaks, it’s initially surprising to note that international coffee franchises are totally absent from the Zagreb streets. The truth is that local cafés are so good at producing strong, quality brews that the global coffee-shop brands would find it well nigh impossible to compete.

East of the centre, a more internationalised Zagreb is growing up around Radnička cesta (literally ‘Workers’ Street’), a former industrial zone that now hosts bank headquarters, conference facilities and high-end shopping opportunities. Radnička still remains something of an inner-city quandary, however, with warehouses, engineering workshops and vacant lots rubbing shoulders with the steely facades of twenty-first-century blocks. Despite the relocation of several major financial institutions to Radnička cesta, it remains unconvincing as a future hub of leisure and culture: many of the new restaurants and cafes have the bland appearance of an airport departure lounge, while not enough use is made of the industrial architecture around the edges.

Elsewhere, Zagreb’s contributions to corporate urban architecture are far too scattered to impinge seriously on the city centre’s predominantly 19th-century skyline. The 26-storey Eurotower (housing the Zagreb Stock Exchange) already presides over a mixed business-and-university district southwest of the train station; while the double ellipse of the SkyTower – whose 22 storeys have been revised down from the pre-recession target of 29 – looks set to spur the spread of commercial Zagreb along the west-leading corridor of Zagrebačka avenija.

Shopping and art

A large proportion of Zagreb’s population still lives in the functionalist modern chunks of grey concrete thrown up during the Sixties and Seventies in areas like Novi Zagreb, the sprawling suburb that lies south of the River Sava. It’s here that the new energies shaping the city are at their most manifest. Zagreb’s most visited shopping centre, Avenue Mall, stands diagonally opposite the Museum of Contemporary Art (or MSU, to give it its Croatian acronym), which cleverly mimics the flash info-technology of the world of commerce with a ring of high screens around the building. It is unlikely that the MSU will ever compete with Avenue Mall in terms of visitor numbers, but the juxtaposition shows the range of choice now available to inhabitants of this former dormitory suburb.

With more and more mall developments springing up on Zagreb’s outskirts, peripheral neighbourhoods are becoming centres of social relaxation as well as shopping frenzy. Both Avenue Mall and City Center One East (6km out from the centre on the road to Varaždin) boast multiplex cinemas and all the fast-food opportunities that go with them. The Arena Center in Lanište, right on the western boundary of Novi Zagreb, not only has an IMAX cinema but also stands right next to Zagreb Arena, the 20,000-seater hall that has hosted international rock-pop aristocracy from Beyonce to Lady Gaga.

The new work-shop-then-catch-a-movie culture has meant that Zagrepčani are on the move much more than ever before, frequently driving out to parts of the city they never bothered to set foot in a few years previously. That said, Zagreb remains an easy city in which to wind down. The city centre retains its compact Central European scale, and most old-school entertainment options (restaurants, concert halls, the theatre) are concentrated in a relatively small area. The question of what to do in the evening can frequently be answered by drifting on foot from Cvijetni trg to Tkalčićeva and back again, perhaps with a detour to Kino Europa – the art-film cinema that seems constantly in the throes of hosting an international festival of some sort. Recent club openings like Pepermint on Ilica or VIP Jazz Club on the main square provide the city centre with more in the way of early-hours options too.

Summer in the City

According to popular wisdom Zagreb is something of a ghost town in July and August, with most of its citizens either heading to the Adriatic coast or leaving their phones off the hook in the pretense that they are already there. Visitors to the city during the summer period are often surprised to discover a city in the grip of one of the world’s longest siestas, during which nightclubs are closed and cafes are empty.

Recent years have witnessed a host of increasingly vital signs however: the Fantastic Zagreb film festival (scheduled for the beginning of July) brings a dash of cinematic glamour to a city accustomed to taking its culture in spring-and-autumn-only doses. Summer on Stross, a season of concerts and happenings on an open-air stage in the Upper Town, has grown to become one of the saving graces of Zagreb’s otherwise notoriously languorous summer.

The other palpable August hit is Gradec Summer Cinema, a season of films shown on the plateau just behind St Catherine’s Church. It’s free, there’s a bar, and there is plenty of room for lolling around on the grass if you don’t arrive early enough to get a chair. Suddenly, the mad rush to the Adriatic doesn’t seem quite so obligatory after all.