Croatia,  Europe

Croatia: Exploring Zagreb

Arriving in Croatia

Crossing from Slovenia into Croatia was very different to any other borders we have passed through on this trip, where we have just driven straight through without having to stop at all. Here there was a big queue and it took us about half an hour to get through. It was a strange experience because there was a booth in which two border security officials were sitting side by side, only a few feet from one another. As we approached, a hand appeared through the narrow gap at the bottom of the first window and we handed over our passports. A couple of minutes later the official passed them back to us and motioned that we should move forward, where another hand appeared at the bottom of the next window, only a few feet away. I can only assume that one official was checking us leaving Slovenia and the other one checking us arriving in Croatia, but it did seem funny.

Croatian Roads

They don’t use the vignette system in Croatia like they did in Slovenia, so we were back to paying tolls on the motorway. We hadn’t managed to get hold of any Croatian Kuna yet so we thought we may have to use our credit card to pay the fee, but fortunately the electronic display as you pass through tells you the amount in Euros as well as Kuna and you can choose to pay in either, although you don’t get any change if you pay in Euros. We had read that the roads in some parts of Croatia are in a poor condition and so we weren’t sure what to expect, but the motorway towards Zagreb was fine. Once we left it to head for the campsite though it was a different matter: in places the surface was just a patchwork of repairs and different sections of tarmac or else was just lumpy and uneven, and we could see the caravan behind us bouncing up and down as we drove along. Only time will tell if this stretch was typical of the whole country.

Curiously, cars in Croatia sport the letters ‘HR’ on their number plate rather than ‘C’ as you would imagine. The HR stands for Hrvatska, which is the Croatian name for their country.

As we arrived in Croatia the temperatures soared. We stayed on a lovely campsite where all the pitches were neatly arranged in several rows around a huge circular plot. We got one of the outside pitches, so had plenty of room, but there was very little shade, which meant an uncomfortable night’s sleep in the caravan.


The next day as we headed into Zagreb it wasn’t much cooler. We parked in an underground car park right near to the cathedral so that we didn’t have far to walk to the main sights. We have found that often the cost of the car park in a major city is no more than the cost of four return tickets on public transport and it gives us so much more flexibility. The drive into the city was pretty hair raising this time though as the roads and tram tracks seem to criss-cross over one another all the time and we had to be careful not to get in the wrong lane and get sandwiched between them.

Zagreb Trams
Driving into Zagreb was a hair raising experience!

Almost of quarter of Croatia’s population, some one million people, live in its capital, Zagreb. Not surprisingly, the area has a very long history of human habitation, dating right back to the Stone Age. Its more recent history has been pretty turbulent, although as you walk around it today you wouldn’t know that it was a place of such horrors only 20 years ago during Croatia’s fight for independence.

The city is divided into two distinct halves: the upper town, which is the old heart of Zagreb, and the lower town, which largely developed in the 19th century. The upper town is built on two hills and is full of narrow streets, cobblestones and picturesque buildings. The lower town is laid out in a formal grid pattern and contains many grand public buildings and green spaces.  A busy shopping street – Ilica – runs between the two, with the city’s distinctive blue trams passing constantly to and fro along it.

Zagreb Ilica
Left: One of the busiest streets in Zagreb is Ilica which runs across the city between the upper and lower towns and along the side of Ban Jelačić Square. Right: tram tracks seem to run everywhere in the city

We started off our exploration in the upper town at the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Cathedral

The double spired cathedral dominates the skyline in the city. It is surrounded on three sides by incredibly well preserved medieval walls with huge round towers, built in the 1500s. A huge earthquake in 1880 did enormous damage to the cathedral and much of it was reconstructed in the neo-gothic style that was popular at the time. And to provide an unobstructed view of their newly rebuilt cathedral, they demolished part of the medieval walls surrounding it. At the end of the new square that had been opened up, they built a fountain with gold-plated statues of the Virgin Mary and four angels that represent Faith, Hope, Innocence and Humility. The result is a lovely open space in which you can stand and admire the craftsmanship and beauty of this impressive building.

Zagreb Cathedral and Fountain of Virgin Mary
Left: the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Right: the fountain of the Virgin Mary with four angels that sits in the square opposite

The Dolac Market

We wandered through the narrow streets of the upper town until the walkway suddenly opened out into a huge space crammed full of bright red parasols. This was the Dolac open air market and the sweet smell of ripe strawberries and cherries hit our nostrils. We inhaled deeply to enjoy the heady fragrance and it made our mouths water. What a delight for all our senses! The market was enormous and is apparently affectionately known as ‘the belly of Zagreb’ due to the incredible array of seasonal fruit and vegetables and other irresistible foodstuffs brought in from all over Croatia. The square was packed with stalls and was buzzing with locals and tourists and around the perimeter the cafés were busy with people taking a break and enjoying the sunshine. The colours and sounds of the marketplace were fabulous.

Zagreb Dolac Market
The colourful (and sweet smelling) Dolac Market

Ban Jelačić Square

From here we descended the steps past the flower market and the heady smell of spring flowers hit us like a wall of fragrance as we passed. We were now in Ban Jelačić Square, a huge space surrounded by imposing buildings and with the city’s distinctive royal blue trams run right along one side of it. This is the main square and heart of modern Zagreb and the day we visited it was filled with a huge temporary stage where a disability awareness event was going on.

Zagreb Flower market Dolac
Just down the steps from the main Dolac marketplace was the equally colourful flower market

The square has had many different uses and names over the years. It was originally Zagreb’s main market place and was called Harmica (Hungarian for ‘one thirtieth’) after the tax levied on on the goods that were sold there. In 1848 it was renamed after Governor (Ban) Josip Jelačić and then after WWII its name was changed to Republic Square. It returned to being Ban Jelačić Square in 1990.

In the centre of the square is a statue of Josep Jelačić on horseback, his sword drawn and his arm outstretched. Jelačić was Governor of Zagreb and his statue originally faced north, to symbolise his defence of Croatia’s rights against Austria and Hungary. However, the statue was removed by the communist authorities in 1947 and only returned in 1990 following a public petition. When he was returned to the square though, they decided to have him facing south instead so as to provide a better balance to the layout of the square. I wonder what he would’ve made of it all had he still been alive today.

Zagreb Governor Ban Jelačić statue
The statue of Governor Ban Jelačić in Zagreb’s main square

Next we headed further up into the old town and this involved a climb up many steps to reach the top. But of course, as soon as you get up higher, you also get wonderful views, which we did and could see the cathedral and get a sense of the size of the city.

We passed a statue of the poet and writer Antun Gustav Matoš sitting on a bench on the lovely tree-lined Strossmayer Promenade overlooking the city. Matoš wasn’t originally from Zagreb but he apparently grew to become one of the city’s greatest enthusiasts and he wrote some of the best loved poems in the Croatian language.

Lotrščak Tower

As we continued on, we could see lots of people crowding the path ahead and wondered what they were looking at. Many of them had their cameras or phones held aloft, looking up the hill, around the corner from where we were standing. And then something happened that made us jump out of our skins: a cannon fired! It was incredibly loud and we could see smoke coming from the upper window of a square tower nearby. We had just witnessed, at close quarters, an event that has been happening at noon in Zagreb every day since New Year’s Day 1877, although some stories claim it was earlier than this. One story has it that the cannon was presented to the people of Zagreb by the Hungarian King in 1242 as a reward for protecting him from the Tatars and on condition it was fired every day to ensure that it never rusted up. Whatever the origins of the tradition, the sound of the shot can apparently be heard all over the city and the locals set their watches by it.

Zagreb Lotrščak Tower Antun Gustav Matoš
Left: the Lotrščak Tower from where the cannon is fired every day at 12 noon (you can just see it sticking out from the right of the very top windows). Top right: the statue of poet Antun Gustav Matoš. Bottom right: view across Zagreb towards the cathedral.

St Mark’s Church

Just a bit further up from the tower is St Mark’s Church, which has to be one of the prettiest and most distinctive churches I have ever seen. It sits in the middle of a delightful cobblestoned square and its whitewashed walls are set off by the colourful tiled roof above. The church dates from the 13th century and has been added to and extended over the years. The roof depicts the coats of arms of the Kingdom of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia on the left and Zagreb on the right.

Zagreb St Mark's Church
The pretty St Mark’s Church in the upper town of Zagreb

We found somewhere in the shade in the square to perch and eat our lunch. As we did so, we watched many parties of school children coming and going on tours around the city or visiting the government buildings surrounding the square, for this is where the old Governor’s Palace is located, as well as the Croatian Parliament building.

Zagreb St Mark's Square Governor's Palace Parliament
Left: the Banski dvori or Governor’s Palace at 1 St Mark’s Square is the seat of the Croatian Government and also the location of the office of the Prime Minister. Right: the Croatian Sabor or Parliament building

The Stone Gate

Leaving the pretty church and square behind, we headed back down towards the lower town. We passed through one of the old gates of the city, which has a chapel underneath its arch dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who is the patron saint of Zagreb. It holds a painting of the Virgin that was miraculously saved from a devastating fire in 1731 and the chapel has been a place of pilgrimage ever since. When we were there, people were queuing up to kneel in front of the painting to pray.

Zagreb Stone Gate and Chapel
The chapel underneath the Stone Gate is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who I saw the patron Saint of Zagreb

Ties and Fountain Pens

Each time we visit a new country, we set the girls (and ourselves) the task of finding out some interesting information about that country and one of the things that came up about Croatia is that it is where the necktie originated. Apparently in the 17th century, the small knotted neckerchiefs worn by Croatian soldiers came to the attention of the French King, who started to wear something similar.  The new fashion became very popular and quickly spread over Europe.  It was given the name ‘cravat’, which is thought to come from a combination of the French and Croatian words for people from Croatia (Croates and Hrvati).  We saw shops selling ties all over the city.

It is also claimed that the fountain pen was designed in Zagreb.  It was invented by engineer Eduard Slavoljub Penkala, who patented it in 1907. He also patented the world’s first mechanical pencil the year before. He apparently produced his fountain pens in Zagreb and exported them to 70 countries around the world.

Zagreb Upper Town Radićeva
The lovely street of Radićeva slopes gently down from the upper town to the main square

The Shortest Funicular In the World

One of Zagreb’s quirkier attractions is its funicular railway, which connects the upper and lower towns. At 66 metres long, it claims the title of the shortest passenger cable railway in the world. The height difference between the top and bottom is a mere 30.5 metres and it can carry up to 28 adults on the 55 second journey to the top. When it originally opened in 1890 it was steam powered and was one of the first ever forms of public transport in Zagreb. I could just imagine the ladies and gents of the time queuing up to travel on it rather than making the strenuous climb up the steps to the old town. I fear we weren’t anywhere near as elegant, as by now we were all hot and sweaty, but we enjoyed the seat and the brief ride. At the top we exited, bought another ticket to go back down again and got back on board. The funicular runs approximately every 10 minutes throughout the day and costs 4 kuna per journey, which is about 45 pence, making it a bit of fun that won’t break the bank.

It was fun travelling on Zagreb’s tiny funicular

After the funicular though, we realised we were done. There was still plenty of the city to explore, including most of the lower town, but the 30 degree heat had totally sapped our energy. We had enjoyed our time exploring Zagreb but we were ready to head back to the campsite. We drove through the lower town on our way out of the city and could see the ordered streets and parks, laid out in a grid pattern during the second half of the 19th century. The town planning scheme at the time said that all streets must be straight and the same width and all buildings should be of the same type and height. They also planned huge monuments, fountains and pavilions, together with wide open squares and green spaces, making sure they achieved the right ratio of greenery to urban buildings. All of this planning gives the lower town a feeling of uniformity and space. Maybe one day we’ll come back to do it justice.

Zagreb Lower Town Museum of Arts and Crafts
The Museum of Arts and Crafts building is typical of the grand-scale of the architecture of the lower town of Zagreb


  • Roy

    wow fab photos of this part of the trip, loved the churches and markets and a ride funicular railway with two girls looking a bit worn out, love the blogs keep them coming and take care

    • Sarah

      Thanks Roy – we were worn out and so hot! We’re in Budapest at the moment and it is the same, although I hear that you’ve been having it hot in the U.K. too recently. Hope you’re managing to keep cool. Xx

  • Liz Wetherby

    Kind of late to the party here but must say that is the strangest looking Cathedral I’ve ever seen. The spire on the right looks like it was supposed to go on another Cathedral and got dropped on this one by mistake. I loved St. Mark’s church and the tile work, the noon canon (reminded me of Edinburgh) and the food stalls made my mouth water. The funicular railway was fascinating – that they would go to the trouble of building one for such a short distance. Thanks again for including us on your adventure!

    • Sarah

      Thanks Liz! The spire does look odd doesn’t it? The photo doesn’t make clear that it is actually just partially covered with scaffolding so that explains why it doesn’t look right. And I agree about the funicular – why go to all the trouble and expense for such a short ride? Seems crazy to me! Xx