As you set out to take a tour round Zagreb, determined to see its highlights, you’ll find that you’ll end up rather enjoying it. Sitting at one of its Viennesestyle cafés, strolling leisurely around its streets and promenading through its parks, it’s like you’re starting out on a love affair with this city and its people. And pretty soon you’ll know that this is love in its early stage, the kind that only grows stronger in time.

Welcome to Zagreb

The cosmopolitan buzz of Zagreb will soon strike you. Everything is accessible on foot – from your hotel to the theatre, wandering around the old Upper Town or through the bustling streets of the more modern Lower Town, which has not lost an ounce of its charm despite the eternal march of time. Venture out and let the moment take hold. There is something special about the rustle of leaves as you stroll through the autumn colours of downtown Zrinjevac Park. There is magic in the reflections of the gas lanterns in the Upper Town, as the songs of the street performers evoke their own emotions with their distinctive sound. As night falls, everything becomes soft and subdued; the twinkle of candles in the cathedral and at the mystical Stone Gate; the cafés beckoning you in the twilight with their warm hues. Zagreb is special. It is a long-running tale that allows you room to write your own chapters with your own impressions, something for you to add to the story. Quite simply, Zagreb has a soul. And you… You have Zagreb…

The streets and monuments of Zagreb proudly testify to its thousands of years of history. But their greatest value is not measured by mere history alone, but by the special moments these historic attractions give us as we stand back to enjoy their beauty. While these sights await their next admirer, we in turn become richer for having befriended a place whose special features have put it on the roster of key European cities of art and culture, and whose character is earning a place in our heart.

If cities had hearts…

If cities had hearts – and some most certainly do – the beating heart of Zagreb would be Ban Josip Jelačić Square, one of the city’s symbols and the quintessential subject of its postcards. Zagreb’s central square is the first port of call and the archetypal meeting place. Imagine that you have just arranged to meet somebody but haven’t specified exactly where. Don’t worry, you’re bound to find them. When in Zagreb, do as any local would do – join the throng of people who also have a chance encounter, without prior arrangement or fixed meeting point. Just bear in mind that all streets lead to Ban Josip Jelačić Square. The old clock has served as a beloved meeting point for generations of citizens. For many a year, people have been meeting under the clock to discuss politics, football and other issues of vital importance. With their hands full of groceries just bought at the main market nearby, they have stopped to have a coffee with friends and catch up on gossip and talk over old times. A huge equestrian statue of Ban (or viceroy) Josip Jelačić dominates the square. Both the Ban and his monument hold important places in the stormy history of Croatia. At Manduševac Fountain, legend goes hand in hand with reality – a coin thrown into this wishing well might earn you happiness.

A must see

How many times must you have passed through this square without stopping, and how many more times could you still pass it and remain unaware of its beauty and everything it has to offer? Yet however beautiful its façades may be, however inviting the park, Strossmayer Square is much more than just a peaceful space of superficial beauty.

In the park, you are surrounded by the busts of eminent Croatian personalities, with pride of place going to Bishop Strossmayer’s monument, created by the equally famous Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meštrović. The palace housing the Gallery of Modern Arts, the temple of Croatian 19th and 20th century art, accommodates another precious collection in the Department of Prints and Drawings of the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts. The Strossmayer Gallery, housed in the building of the Croatian Academy of Science and Arts, holds the works of famous artists, mostly belonging to various Italian schools of painting, as well as masterpieces by the likes of El Greco, Goya and many others.

Ilica is the backbone of Zagreb. It can be measured either in simple kilometres or by the number of chance encounters that happen down it every day. You will never see it deserted – there is always traffic down it, whether it is just passers-by, young businessmen with their briefcases, flirty girls with their eyes cast on the glittering merchandise in the shop windows, or humming trams on the night shift.

Ilica – a street that never ends

The street was first mentioned more than five centuries ago. Ever since, Ilica has grown together with the city of Zagreb. Ilica is dynamic whatever the time of day or night. Just a few steps away from Ilica is the city’s funicular, forever shuttling up and down between just two stops, the shortest link between the Lower Town and Upper Town. At the upper terminus, you will find yourself at the foot of Lotrščak, the 13th-century defence tower. This monument is pretty hard to miss, but even if you fail to see it, you will certainly hear it, however strange this might sound at first. For more than a century, the cannon mounted at the very top of the tower has been fired at noon every day. On Sundays, a leisurely stroll or a short tram ride down Ilica will bring you to an antique fair.

On display you will find little treasures from a grandmother’s chest of drawers, remnants of a bygone ages, keepsakes that will tell you stories of their owners and their destinies. Lined with shop windows and restaurants, cafés and pastry shops, Ilica is comprised of living elements that give the street its own special character.

If you want to get to the roots of the city, head to its biggest open-air market, the Dolac, conveniently located above the main square. The belly of Zagreb is a colourful site adorned with bright parasols; a wonderful choice of fruit, vegetables, flowers and souvenirs arranged on rows of stalls; and vendors in their different clothes typical of the region they come from.

Scents and flavours of nature

Here you can savour the sweet fragrances of fruit which grow in long-established rural orchards, and you can smell the sea at the fishmongers’ stalls around the recently renovated Ribarnica. Shopping for food at the Dolac is a ritual for many citizens of Zagreb and visitors in the know. The Dolac is not just a place where you go to buy fresh goods, it is where friends and acquaintances meet, especially on Saturdays. The usual business, politics and other topics are replaced by lighter subjects, more appropriately suited to the leisurely weekend that lies ahead: that day’s best buys at the Dolac; the time-tested recipes which will supply the Sunday dinner table; a recommendation for a good restaurant, or a destination for a day out which must not be missed. An integral part of the Saturday ritual is to sit over a coffee on the terrace overlooked by Kerempuh, the vagabond of lore in statue form, and talk over old times.

A flowing street

After all that browsing and shopping, you’ve earned yourself a break. Grab a seat somewhere, have a chat with a local or a fellow passer-by, stop to enjoy a decent cup of coffee and after a while, you can move on again. As you relax between errands, whether you’re waiting for a friend or just gazing at the people strolling by from the terrace of one of the many cafés around the pedestrianised zone right by the main square, you realise what they’re talking about when they call Zagreb a city with soul.

Only a few steps away from the main city square, the downtown bustle disappears as if by magic. If you want to experience Zagreb at its most relaxed, you should head to Tkalčićeva Street, lined with cafés, bars and restaurants, a beloved meeting place of the citizens of Zagreb and any visitor just passing through.

Here it is as if time has stood still. What used to be a stream called Medveščak was converted into a street; and these days a different kind of change is taking place in this locality. Glimpses of ramshackle old houses unchanged for decades peek through the colourful parasols of the many café terraces; brash new businesses and galleries stand beside age-old establishments. One thing hasn’t changed, though: the statue of Marija Jurić Zagorka, the popular writer and faithful chronicler of Zagreb, who stands halfway down, still observing the constant to-and-fro of her fellow citizens. Whether it’s a run-of-the-mill modern-day business, or a specialist boutique displaying old customs and crafts, the overall array of restaurants, cafés, galleries and little shops gives Tkalčićeva a nostalgic atmosphere – it feels as if it has been here forever.

Text and images from Zagreb Tourist Board.