Visiting Zagreb, Croatia with a Dog
Zagreb surprised us. Pleasantly at that. As I reflect on our time there, I think it is safe to say that it’s one of the most undervalued capital cities of Europe, and that’s a real shame. Not only are Zagreb’s three historic zones—lower town (Donji Grad), old town (Gornji Grad), and upper town (Kaptol)—ridiculously pretty, Zagreb also has an insane amount on offer in a walkable radius.
For a capital that has only been around since 1991, you’d be stunned to discover that the city boasts over 20 museums, 10 theatres, and over 350 libraries. It has a university and more artistic and cultural events than you could possibly fit in during your time there. Zagreb will woo you with its worldly charm, consistently good food, and charming markets.
Once upon a time, two settlements on adjacent hills were constantly at war: Kaptol, the centre of religious power, and Gradec, the centre of politics, favoured by the Croat-Hungarian King Béla IV. The stream that separated the two hills was where most of the clashes occurred. In fact, there once was a bridge over the stream, called the Bridge of Blood. Chilling, isn’t it? But as fate would have it in a morbid way, there was a mighty earthquake and it sort of put a stop to all of that.
The earthquake also means that nearly all the monuments and architecture you will find in Zagreb are a lot younger than in many cities in Croatia. Nearly all the buildings in Zagreb were built after 1880, when the post-earthquake rebuild started.
Lower Town (Donji grad)
Because we were staying not too far from this part of town, we came to know it quite well. We’d often walk toward lower town, but on the way home, we’d take the subway back, giving our tired legs a break. I liked the vibe we found there. There are really fun coffee shops and restaurants …
And there is the very pretty Croatian national theatre, which often acted as our compass when we needed to sort out what direction we were facing. The theatre was designed by a Viennese architect and you can see that in the building’s lines. The theatre also marks the start of some lovely and very profusely flowering gardens. A perfect place for any dog with a sniffer to explore!
But the part that we enjoyed a great deal more than expected was a small strip a bit further east where you will find the Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters, the Art Pavillion, and the Modern Gallery, all around a stellar park.
Even if these museums are not pet-friendly indoors, the long walk in the gardens is, and the gardens are really beautiful.
And we loved seeing many Otto-Hungarian inspired buildings freshly restored to their glory.
I also really liked the bike path; and we found a weird little bar with funky art …
And then there were the Smart police cars…
Upper Town (Kaptol)
Separating Donji grad from both the Kaptol and Gornji grad is a great square. Here the trams pass and stop and pick up and drop off a lot of Croatians going about their daily business. The coffee shops and restaurants here are pricier but if you like to people watch, then you may want to sit down and order a treat.
We headed off to Dolac Market instead. At the foot of the pretty Church of St. Mary’s, I was overwhelmed by good smells of local flowers, both fresh and dried, and foods. (Oh, tell me, what canine does not like to stick his nose in food!)
I really liked the statue of the old lady on the steps leading up to where the two main sites awaited.
The cathedral is absolutely breathtaking. You don’t have to be of that faith to appreciate the beauty of the Cathedral of the Assumption and Blessed Virgin Mary (woa… looong name!). I enjoyed the elaborate spires, the magnificent large and ornate door, the new Neo-Gothic façade. It’s a pretty place and you feel the historical importance it holds.
Right next door is the Bishop’s palace. I wasn’t allowed inside any of these so we just walked about, enjoying what we could see from the outside. But my favourite part of this section of town was Radiceva street. Here, in this fun and curved pedestrian street, we found wonderful restaurants, boutiques, and just a happy sense of wellbeing.
We stopped for lunch, and had a wonderful meal with a most helpful and pleasant waiter.
We had such a great time that we returned more than once over the course of our stay in Zagreb. It sort of became our favourite place to hang out and watch the locals and tourists under patio heaters.
Old Town (Gornji grad)
Back at the bottom of Kaptol, where the tramways come and go, we followed Ilica street and turned onto the tiny street of Tomiceva. Here, you can take the little funicular up (or down) to Gornij grad. Give yourself enough time for this part because this is where a lot of the main sites are.
First we visited Lotrščak Tower. At noon every day, a cannon is fired from the tower. We climbed all the way to the top for a stellar view!
By that point, we were a bit cold so we went to visit the Museum of Broken Relationships. It sounds depressing but it was actually a highlight of our visit. First of all, it’s pet friendly!
And the coffee shop was lovely and warm and had copious supplies of honey for Mom’s tea. (Yep, that darn cold of hers!). And the exhibit? Rather fascinating. We left feeling lucky in our little loving family. But we also found a certain comfort in seeing that no matter where in the world you may live, a broken heart and a failed love story seems to be a rite of passage in life. And there is something comforting in that.
We walked up to the spectacular Church of St. Mark and its unmistakable roof. The coloured tiles on this Gothic church form the coat of arms for Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia, and Zagreb. Two on each side.
It takes a while to soak it all in. And then we wondered on to see the Sabor, or Croatian parliament building.
To head back down into the Kaptol, we had to pass by the stone gate. Now the stone gate is fascinating, Dear Reader. See, in 1731 a fire destroyed all the houses, but, somehow, a painting of Mary with child on the gate remained completely untouched. A chapel was subsequently built around it. Right there. Under the wall of the city, in the open space. You can just stop as you pass by. Very unusual.
And this is also where you will find the oldest pharmacy in Croatia, in existence since 1350. Interestingly, it belonged to Nicolo Alighieri, the great-grandson of none other than … the writer Dante.
And I will leave you there, Dear Reader. Not because there was nothing else to see, but because we ran out of time in this wonderful city. Oh, how I wish we had time to see the botanical gardens or the unbelievably beautiful Mirogoj Cemetery with its fanciful arches. I would have liked to have taken a walk in the Maksimir Park and visit the famous Ivan Meštrović Gallery. But alas, time was not on our side and neither was the weather.
In review: A must-stop on any trip to Croatia. Visiting Zagreb, Croatia with a dog is a must and do take the time to visit instead of using it only as a stopover to Spilt or Dubrovnik. Zagreb is a wonderful city and very pet friendly. We ate, we walked, we dined and visited museums, all three of us, together. Would we go back? Absolutely, yes.