We were very skeptical about being able to enjoy the city of Zagreb. In our research there wasn’t particularly much to do in the city and the only reason we booked an overnight stay was because it was the only direct flight we could get from Russia into Croatia. Thankfully we were completely wrong and ended up learning quite a bit about Croatian history and were able to get a quick overview of this up and coming tourist hotspot.
Zagreb is the capital city of Croatia but suprisingly has only been a tourist destination for about 5 years. The great thing about this is that prices at restaurants and bars have still managed to keep at local prices. Now the population of Croatia is roughly 4.2 million and a quarter of these people live in Zagreb.
With so little time here we went on the Free Spirit Walking Tour to get as much as we could out of this city. Our guide Ivan is a 23 year old local who took us through the main historical sites of the city and was able to give us plenty of insight into the past and present political issues.
Zagreb only became a city in 1850, prior to this it was two neighbouring medieval cities who often fought over land ownership. The city these days is divided into two parts: downtown (new part) and upper town (older medieval city).
Croatia has only existed for the past 25 years. For previous centuries it has always been a province of a greater empire initially under Roman, then Byzantine followed by Hungarian and then Austrian-Hungary until the end of the first world war. Following this it was controlled by the communist Yugoslavia until 1991 when it declared independence.
We were shown some of the back streets and unique buildings that we never would have found on our own. Starting with a bunker tunnel that was built for World War II in case of bomb raids. This bunker is now a nice long and cool walkway for people to come during hot days but there are now plans to turn this into a museum.
We were then taken up to Gentlemen’s street to a square with St Mark’s Church. This square was where they used to have the ‘Pillar of Shame’. During medieval times, individuals who hadn’t paid their debts to the government were tied to the pillar for a day and made an example of by the empire leading them to ultimately be shunned by society.
It is also the square commemorated to the Peasant King who caused an uprising of peasants and farmers to rally against the feudal system (where peasants do all the hard work and still end up paying rent to the Lords who owned the land). This was quashed and the peasant king was executed by pouring a molten metal crown over him (like in Game of Thrones) before being quartered.
We were then explained about life currently. Croatia has the 3rd highest unemployment rate in Europe (behind Greece and Spain) with the tourism the main source of revenue, making up 18% GDP. It has kept some of the socialist ideals including free education in schooling and university as well as free healthcare.
The city’s drink of choice is espresso and macchiato. The coffee culture is so big that there are no coffee-to-go chains (Starbucks) in the whole city.
For dinner we went to a local favourite as recommended by our guide and tried our hands at cervape. It has practically zero nutritional benefit but offers 100% satisfaction. Essentially it is two halves of a a round pita bread fried and semi-soaked in oil filled with a few pieces of grilled meat with chopped raw onions on the site. It was delicious and definitely worth having at least once!
Zagreb was a pleasantly surprising stopover for us and a great place to learn the history of Croatia.
Next stop…Plitvice Lakes!
Til next time
Ann & Jason xo