Until recently, Zagreb was treated as a point on the transit route to the coast. These days, however, Zagreb is a tourist destination in its own right, with guests electing to linger and enjoy cultural events and festivals as well as a whistle-stop sightseeing tour. The people of Zagreb, not jaded by the constant streams of tourists that invade other capitals, are glad to welcome visitors and proud to show off all the city has to offer. Equally, trips to the city's surroundings are becoming increasingly popular on the tourist itinerary. It takes just a few minutes to escape the city confines and enjoy the green and truly pleasant countryside coloured by local fetes, cultural and culinary festivals, criss-crossed by hiking and bike trails and dotted with glorious spots for outings. All of this makes Zagreb an ideal destination for a surprisingly varied short break with lots of things to do and enjoy!
Jonathan Bousfield looks at ten big ways in which the Croatian capital has changed since Zagreb In Your Pocket first flew off the presses in 2001
A tourist city without the tourist traps
Fourteen years ago you would have turned your head and stared if you heard someone talking English, French or Spanish on the city’s downtown streets. Nowadays you can’t get away from their incessant babbling. It has become normal to think of Zagreb as a tourist destination in its own right rather than a Cinderella city condemned to live in the shadow of Dubrovnik, Hvar and Split. While this influx has definitely changed the appearance of Zagreb at street level (there are more bars and restaurants for a start) it has in no way ‘spoiled’ the city or altered the way in which it is enjoyed. There are very few tourist-trap establishments to which locals simply don’t go, and Zagrebians themselves remain open and approachable – very rarely will you come across city folk mumbling “bloody tourists” under their breath as they muscle past you on the way into the tram.
A place to work and live
Until recently it would have been unimaginable to have a conversation in Croatian with a Frenchman at an outdoor café on Cvjetni trg. But that’s what happened to me the other week. Croatia’s entry into the EU has made it easier for foreigners to live and work here legally rather than, as they used to do, simply slipping in and out under the radar. What is striking is that Zagreb’s foreign population is such a cosmopolitan, pan-European bunch – there are few pockets of English-speaking ex-pat-land, and the foreigners who do live here are happy to fit in.
Goodbye ručak, hello lunch!
A decade ago pretty much all of central Zagreb’s restaurants were devoted to the traditional Croatian ručak or lunch, a time-consuming and hearty affair featuring generous piles of meat. There wasn’t much on offer to those who just wanted a light lunch, a salad, a slice of quiche or a box of sushi. Nowadays there are cafes, street-food bars and bistros all over the place, most serving an imaginative menu of Mediterranean-meets-what-you-fancy fusion that mixes fresh local ingredients with global flavours. And most of them are very good – the commercial pressures of modern life and tourism have so far had the effect of forcing gastronomic standards upwards rather than down.
Many of Zagreb’s current flagship attractions simply didn’t exist more than a decade ago. Top tourist draws like the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Museum of Street Art or the Museum of Contemporary Art have redefined sightseeing in the city, laying down the gauntlet to the older gallery institutions and forcing them to primp up their collections and organize more in the way of summer blockbuster exhibitions.
The event-driven city
This year Zagreb’s InMusic rock festival celebrates its tenth anniversary, a salutary reminder of how much the city’s cultural calendar has changed in the last decade. Although long standing, decades-old events like the Zagreb Folk Festival, Animafest and Contemporary Dance Week are still going strong, the festival menu has broadened out considerably thanks to the emergence of a new generation of scene-defining events. The Zagreb Film Festival (already coming up for its thirteenth birthday although it still feels like a newcomer), Dan D design festival, Subversive Film Festival and Zagrebdox have all become Zagreb trademarks despite their relative youth, lending the city a whole new cultural profile. Nowadays the trend is towards big outdoor social events – The Courtyards takes place in the forgotten open spaces of the Upper Town in July, while Artikuliranje and Gourmingle take over the a city park for large chunks of the summer.
Zagreb has gone the way of other European cities in that the majority of accommodation is now booked over the internet, putting private apartment owners in direct contact with their potential clients. There are far less new hotel openings than you might imagine, and the kind of guidebooks and tourist publications that write about hotels have been largely rendered pointless.
Old age? It’s all in the mind
Traditionally Zagreb was promoted in pretty much the same way as any other city of Central Europe: an old city full of history, monuments, museums and traditions. The local tourist authorities would get excited if a coach party of middle-aged Austrians came to visit; there was no sense in which young tourists were considered desirable or worthwhile. Nowadays this picture has largely been turned on its head; it’s through nightlife, contemporary art, design, fusion food and rock-and-roll that the city sees itself.
A city for all seasons
Until recently residents of Zagreb were very careful in advising their foreign friends when it was safe to actually visit the Croatian capital. “Come in spring!” they would say, conscious of the fact that the city was deserted in summer, lifeless in autumn and downright depressing in winter. Nowadays the situation has completely changed: a spate of cultural events (including the Zagreb Film Festival) has given the autumn a whole new shine; while the emergence of advent, with its skating rink, outdoor bars and live music, has given the winter a totally new meaning.Summer is no longer the desperate disappointment it used to be, largely because of the influx of party-hungry young tourists and the increased provision of outdoor events (with outdoor stages on Strosmayerovo šetalište and Strossmayerov trg). Late spring/early summer remains the season of choice, with its spate of cultural festivals and its hedonistic, end-of-term vibe.
Going for a spin
Young Zagrebians took to their bikes en masse somewhere in the early 2000s, a lifestyle choice that the city authorities soon responded to by marking cycle lanes on key city-centre routes. The route network is far from complete, however, and many cyclists continue to use the pavement – much to the consternation of local pedestrians. Evidence that Zagreb was catching up fast with the rest of Europe came in 2013 with the launch of nextbike, an urban rental system with pick-up and drop-off points throughout the city, and payment made by sticking a credit or debit card in one of the nearby machines.
Going for a spin: part two
Once upon a time – and indeed until very recently - visitors were largely dependent on expensive hotel laundry services or were reduced to washing their skimpies in the sink. Coin operated launderettes simply didn’t exist. Suddenly you can’t avoid them, they seem to be springing up all over the place. The growth in the local student population has been a factor in their rise, although one can’t help thinking that the growth in tourist numbers has been the main impetus behind their high-street takeover.
Jonathan Bousfield is the author of the Rough Guide to Croatia