Things to Do in Zagreb
The living heart around which Zagreb beats, Jelačić Square was built in the mid-19th century when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it marks the boundary between Gornji Grad and Kapitol (both in the Upper Town) and Donji Grad (Lower Town). The huge, paved piazza is named after a military leader of the 19th century, whose equestrian statue by Austrian sculptor Anton Dominick Ritter von Fernkorn was erected in 1866; it has great sentimental value to the Croatian people as it was removed from the square in 1947 by the Communists, and only replaced in 1990 during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Surrounded by elegant Baroque buildings – many swathed in advertising hoardings – the vast square is crossed by several of the city’s great boulevards, including Illica and Radićeva. It is lined with bars and cafés that move outdoors in the summer, when locals and visitors jostle for space with buskers, beggars and the trams that constantly rattle around its perimeter.
The dramatic Stone Gate (Kamenita Vrata) marks the eastern entrance to Zagreb’s medieval Gornji Grad (Upper Town) and is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, providing a useful navigation point for visitors passing between the Upper and Lower towns. The stone-carved arch is more than just a gateway though – local legend has transformed it into a shrine and the adjourning chapel flickers with candles, lit daily by local worshippers in honor of the Virgin Mary.
The origins of the Stone Gate date back to as early as 1266 and today the restored archway forms a key part of the ruins of the ancient city walls. The story goes that the original gate featured a painting of Mary holding baby Jesus and after a devastating fire swept through the capital in 1731, the artwork miraculously survived, appearing to locals like the image of the Virgin Mary was emerging from the ashes.
Encompassing the medieval hilltop settlements of Kaptol and Gradec, Zagreb’s Gornji Grad (Upper Town) is the capital’s historic district, looking down over the modern center of Donji Grad (Lower Town) below. Loosely defined as the area north of the central Bana Jelačića square, Gornji Grad’s lattice of cobblestone streets, pretty medieval squares and lively café culture make it Zagreb’s most picturesque neighborhood and visitors to the city will likely find themselves spending a large portion of their time here.
Stroll along the leafy walkway of the Strossmayer Promenade, where the old city walls once stood; light a candle at the revered Stone Gate (Kamenita vrata), now transformed into a shrine to the Virgin Mary; or pay a visit to the adorably quirky Museum of Broken Relationships. The most famous landmark of the Upper Town is the Gothic Zagreb Cathedral of the Assumption, perched on Kaptol Hill, but other notable highlights include the mosaic-roofed St Mark’s Church.
Rising to heights of over 1,000 meters and surrounded by forested foothills, Mount Medvednica (‘Bear Mountain’), looms over the city of Zagreb and makes an easy escape from the capital. Sljeme is the highest point at 1,033 meters and while hiking the scenic route to the summit is a popular choice, the peak is also reachable by road and cable car, making it the focal point for most day-trippers. The wooded slopes around the summit make up the protected area of Medvednica Nature Park, crisscrossed with hiking and mountain biking trails, as well as restaurants, traditional mountain lodges and a winter ski area.
Another key attraction of Medvednica is the medieval fortress of Medvedgrad, originally built in 1242 and now home to the Altar of the Homeland memorial, a poignant dedication to the local soldiers who fought and died in the Croatian war of independence.
Marking midday with a single shot from the famous Grič cannon since the late 19th century, Lotrščak Tower is one of the oldest buildings in Zagreb’s historic Gornji Grad (Upper Town). It was built into the defense walls of the original 13th-century settlement of Gradec and closed every night at sundown; reputedly those who were left outside the walls overnight were in grave danger of being robbed.
As Gradec was gradually absorbed into present-day Zagreb, the use of Lotrščak Tower changed and down the centuries it has been a prison, a warehouse, a fire station and even a billiards club. The tower has been extended upwards since the 13th century; today the square, five-story tower houses an art gallery but most people visit to scale the spiral staircase up to the observation post to catch a glimpse of the bright tiles on the roof of St Mark’s Church and gaze out across the parks and Baroque mansions of Zagreb’s Donji Grad (Lower Town).
The imposing, daffodil-yellow Neo-Baroque edifice of HNK Zagreb dominates Trg maršala Tita, the northeastern link in the network of parks around Zagreb’s Donji Grad (Lower Town), which forms the city’s cultural district. The theater was designed by Austrian architects and opened by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1895; it is punctuated by towers on each corner and topped with a copper dome. The interior is equally opulent, a riot of marble, gilded columns and frescoed ceilings interspersed with busts of composers and opera singers. The scarlet-and-gold auditorium has the capacity to seat 800 and the repertoire includes a full season of ballet, orchestral and opera. As well as being the home of the Croatian Radio Symphony Orchestra, HNK Zagreb attracts big-name performers and theater companies from all over the world. In the square outside the theatre stands “The Well of Life,” a vast bronze sculpture by 20th-century Croatian master Ivan Meštrović in 1905.
More Things to Do in Zagreb
The modern center of Zagreb might not be as strikingly picturesque as its higher altitude neighbor, but Donji Grad, the ‘Lower Town’, is still the focal point of many visitors’ itineraries, home to several of the capital’s most prominent buildings and museums. The dramatic centerpiece of the Lower Town is Lenuci’s Horseshoe (nicknamed the ‘Green Horseshoe’), a series of eight adjoining parks and gardens that encircle the district’s main public squares and form a scenic walking route around the principal sights.
Starting just south of the central Jelačića Square, the Green Horseshoe includes the 12,500-acre Zrinjevac Park, home to the Zagreb Archaeological Museum and Zagreb’s court buildings; the exquisite English-style Botanical Gardens; and the Mimara Museum, the city’s most important art museum. Nearby attractions include the Cvjetni Trg or Flower square, renowned for its idyllic cafés and colorful flower stands; the Arts and Crafts Museum.
A repository for broken dreams, the museum is stuffed full of discarded clothes, letters, stuffed toys and photographs, each accompanied by a short story explaining the item’s significance or how the relationship foundered – some are sad, some humorous, some sweet, others angry and bitter, all are touching and therapeutic, signifying a final letting go of lost love. All exhibits – from the handcuffs to a collection of neatly labeled underwear – are displayed in snowy white galleries, with the most macabre possibly being the axe used by one lovelorn suitor to chop up his ex-girlfriend’s furniture.
Sitting on the southern flanks of Mount Medvednica and looking over the suburbs of Zagreb, Medvedgrad Castle is one of Croatia’s most important medieval fortresses. It was constructed in the mid-13th century to protect the growing city from invasion by the Tatars, who were warlike tribes under the rule of Mongolia in the Far East. The castle changed hands many times over the centuries, and by the mid-15th century was in the hands of the Counts of Celje, who terrorized the local area, plundering neighboring villages and towns. Following their downfall and a disastrous earthquake in 1590, the castle was abandoned and fell in to decay before being rediscovered in 1979 and slowly nursed back to life. Today the defense walls stand once more, encircling the carefully restored stone chapel of St Philip and St Jacob, the Great Palace, fortified towers and the Oltar Domovine (Homeland Altar) memorial to all the war dead of Croatia, made of stone from regions across the country.
A flamboyantly Art Nouveau building originally constructed for Croatia’s art offerings in Budapest’s Millennial Exhibition in 1896, the Art Pavilion (‘Umjetnicki Paviljon’ in Croatian) was taken down piece by piece and transported back to Croatia. There it was rebuilt on the verdant ‘Green Horseshoe’ designed by Milan Lenuci in the late 19th century and encompassing a string of parks, squares and monumental buildings in Zagreb’s Lower Town. Overlooking the manicured formal gardens and fountains of King Tomislav Square (Trg kralja Tomislava), the Art Pavilion mimics the nearby Croatian National Theatre in style, and its glass-topped dome is now a symbol of Croatian culture and one of the best-loved landmarks of the city.
With its grand neo-Renaissance façade presiding over Roosevelt Square in Zagreb’s Donji Grad (Lower Town), the Mimara Museum (Muzej Mimara) is impossible to miss, but the dramatic building is more than just a pretty face. This is the city’s biggest and most important art history museum, housing over 3,750 works, including paintings, sculptures and crafts, spanning over three millennia. The permanent exhibition is made up of the personal collections of Wiltrud and Ante Topić Mimara, an extraordinary assemblage of artifacts bequeathed to the city in 1987.
Elements of the collection come from all around the world, including Persian carpets, ancient Egyptian glassware, elaborate Renaissance altarpieces and archaeological finds from Greece, Rome and early-medieval Europe. Highlights include an enameled 13th-century crucifix, a series of ancient Far Eastern artworks and paintings by Dutch artists Rembrandt and Ruisdael, Spanish painters Velāzquez and Goya.
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