Zagreb: Things to see – city centre
All journeys cross the main square, often referred to as Jelačić plac. Nearly everything in the centre is walkable – parking, whilst no longer a nightmare, is not easy.
For serious sightseeing, invest in a one- or three-day Zagreb Card (www.zagrebcard.fivestars.hr, 24hr 60kn; 72hr 90kn) from the main tourist office on Jelačić. Nearby, a short, steep climb away, is the busy daily market, Dolac, and Zagreb Cathedral. Further over on Gradec, is a cluster of sights around the main one of St Mark’s Church. Gradec is best accessed from a funicular (Tomićeva, every 10mins, 6.30am-10pm daily; 5kn) by Ilica, a gentrifying main commercial street running west from Jelačić. The short ride takes you to the Lotrščak Tower (Strossmayerovo šetalište 9, 01 48 51 926, open 11am-7pm Tue-Sun, 10kn), a look-out tower built in the 13th century, reached by climbing a winding wooden staircase. Every day since 1877, a couple of loud cannon blasts from here signal noon sharp.
Leafy Strossmayerovo šetalište runs by the tower giving a lovely view of the rooftops. Nearby stands St Catherine’s Church (Katarinski trg, 01 48 51 950, open during Mass), built by the Jesuits in the 17th century, with a beautiful Baroque interior of pink-and-white stucco. Two galleries surround it: the Croatian Museum of Naive Art and Klovićevi Dvori. Close by, the Stone Gate, Kamenita Vrata, is the last medieval entrance to the Upper Town. It’s more a short, bendy tunnel than a gate, and is a shrine to mark a fire that consumed everything here but a painting of the Virgin Mary in 1731. Prayers are whispered, flowers laid and candles lit.
Passing through it, you wander the cobbled streets of Gradec, perhaps popping into the Croatian History Museum (Matoševa 9, 01 48 51 900, www.hismus.hr; open 10am-6pm Mon-Fri, 10am-1pm Sat, Sun; 20kn), a Baroque mansion which hosts changing exhibitions rather than a permanent collection. At the heart of Gradec stands St Mark’s Church on Markov trg, a modest square considering it houses the Croatian Parliament and the Ban’s Palace. North, edging towards the verdant slopes of Mount Medvednica, are the Meštrović Atelijer; the Natural History Museum (Demetrova 1, 01 48 51 700, www.hpm.hr; open 10am-5pm Tue, Wed & Fri, 10am-8pm Thur, 10am-7pm Sat, 10am-1pm Sun) and the Zagreb City Museum.
Walking back through the Stone Gate, you come into Radićeva and, crossing back over Bloody Bridge, to one of the most atmospheric and lively streets in Zagreb, Tkalčićeva. Pastel-shaded low-rise old houses accommodate galleries, bars and boutiques. The parallel street of Opatovina, once a legendary bar hub, has long lost its verve and is now lined with kiosks of cheap clothes. Crossing the market square, your eyes are drawn towards the spires of the cathedral, surrounded on three sides by the ivy walls of the Archbishop’s Palace. Around it runs Vlaška, which brings you up to the park of Ribnjak, pleasant by day, filled with amorous teenagers and partiers after dark at weekends.
The Lower Town also begins at Jelačić. A criss-cross of streets begins with a pedestrianised zone around Preradovićev trg, which is better known as Cvjetni trg or Flower Square (so-named after its flower market). The pedestrian zone extends from the two streets – Preradovićeva and Margaretska – which meet to form the square and moves east along Bogovićeva to Gajeva. The result is a hopping café district and the unofficial headquarters for the Saturday-morning, coffee-and-socialising ritual known as špica. Stern, grey Habsburg façades run down to the station.
Parallel are two neat rectangles of green space stretching north-south as far as the train station, bookended by the Botanical Gardens. This is the so-called Green Horseshoe, an attempt by 19th-century urban designer Milan Lenuci to create a city in the Austrian mode. Each park is parcelled up into three parts, centrepieced by grandiose landmark buildings of prominent institutions. Trg maršala Tita is notable for the neo-baroque Croatian National Theatre and the statue outside it, ‘The Well of Life’, by Ivan Meštrović.
The Lower Town ends at the train station and another fin-de-siècle façade, the neo-classical train station, Glavni kolodvor. A major stop on the Orient Express, it echoes another era, when arrival by train was the norm. Next to it was built one of Europe’s great railway hotels, the Regent Esplanade, surrounded by a pedestrianised square of fountains and an underground shopping mall. The main rail lines still run to Vienna and Budapest – the domestic network is extremely limited. South and west run a right-angle of broad avenues: Savska, site of Zagreb University’s Student Centre; and Vukovarska, site of several modernist public buildings where Orson Welles shot part of his film version of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ in 1962.