Our final destination in Croatia was Zagreb. I hadn’t really put much thought into this decision. It made sense to spend some time in the capital of the country, but otherwise Zagreb had never crossed my travel radar. I was disappointed to be leaving Split so soon since the constant rain had cut into our sightseeing time. I expected a more industrial, modern city that was slightly rough around the edges. Anyone who has actually been to Zagreb will know that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In contrast to the run down, rural towns we passed through on the train, Zagreb was the poster child of beautiful European cities. Walking out of the main train station, we were greeted by Trg kralja Tomislava (King Tomislav Square), a beautifully symmetrical shady space smack dab in the middle of the city. Wide streets lined with trees stretched out before us. The leaves had just begun to change colour and fall. Dinky little trams sped too and fro along their tracks. It smelled like autumn. Compared to the medieval walled cities we had been visiting, this felt like a whole new world.
The wide streets of the Lower Town opened up into countless squares and parks. Cafés and coffeehouses were scattered about on every street corner. Everything seemed to lead to Trg J. Jelačića, the city’s central square. From here, gently sloping streets led to the Upper Town. As soon as you pass through the Stone Gate, or Kamenita vrata, the atmosphere changes. Perhaps it was due to the handful of elderly pilgrims praying in front of the Shrine of Our Lady of the Stone Gate, but everything suddenly seemed quieter. The streets narrowed, and the sky turned gray. Just around the corner, past Zagreb’s oldest continuous working apothecary (est. 1355), lies a beautiful gem: St. Mark’s Church.
Wandering through the streets of Zagreb, I couldn’t help but feel this historic old-timey vibe, but this is definitely not a city trapped in the past – not even its museums. Located just down the street from St. Mark’s, the Museum of Broken Relationships was one of the most unique museums I have ever visited. The collection was once a mobile exhibition, but it eventually settled in Zagreb. It consists of items donated by different individuals that represent a relationship they once had. The items are accompanied by a written statement from their owner.
Displayed throughout the rooms are stories of love and loss. Some are long essays while others are a simple sentence. Some of the stories were heartbreaking, some were uplifting, and others were just plain funny. One of my favourites was a black and white photo of a lakeside dock. A large arrow was drawn pointing to the end of the dock. The caption simply read ‘Where I saw my first penis’. I don’t know why the person felt like donating this, but in the sea of sad stories, this one made me laugh.
Snaking down from the Upper Town is Ulica Ivana Tkalčića. This street was lined with restaurants, pubs, cafés, and bars of all sorts. There was a place for everyone. My personal favourite was the Cookie Factory. Super cozy, delicious cookies. What more could you want? We spent a whole afternoon there hiding from the rain. At night the heat lamps come on and bright lights illuminate the whole road. It really does feel like the city’s living room.
Croatia was incredible, and our time in Zagreb was simply the icing on the cake. It was like the love child of Edinburgh and Luxembourg. It’s small, pedestrian-friendly, and chock full of history. I was only able to sample a handful of the museums and historic sites even though we were there for a few days. The woman who ran the hostel we stayed at said most people only visit for a day. My advice: one day is not nearly enough. You would be missing out on so much! If you are planning on visiting Croatia in the near future, definitely leave yourself a couple of days to get to know this underappreciated city.