Where to stay
Esplanade Zagreb Hotel The last word in opulent luxury, the art-
nouveau grand hotel is packed with perks such as goose-down bedding.
You can even get your own bath butler. Doubles from £95.
Mihanoviceva 1, 00 385 1 456 6666, esplanade.hr
Hotel Dubrovnik Situated on the main square, there’s a wide choice
of well-furnished rooms here in both the new and old parts. The latter
guarantees the best views. Doubles from £90. Ljudevita Gaja 1,
00 385 1 486 3555, hotel-dubrovnik.hr
Hotel Jadran A bright and airy hotel in a good location. Well-equipped
rooms with free Wi-Fi. Doubles from £50, excluding breakfast.
Vlaška 50, 00 385 1 455 3777, hotel-jadran.com.hr
Palace Hotel The former palace was Zagreb’s first hotel, opened in
1907. Rooms have large windows and the lobby features signed
photographs of many celebrities. Doubles from £80.
Trg JJ Strossmayera 10, 00 385 1 489 9600, palace.hr
Panorama Zagreb Hotel Excellent-value hotel next to the Dom Sportova arena with sensational views. Doubles from £55. Trg Krešimira Cosica 9, 00 385 1 365 8333, panorama-zagreb.com
Zagreb is the capital and largest city of Croatia, situated in the north of the country. Flights from the UK take just over 2 hours and time is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the kuna. In August, the average high temperature is 27C and the average low is 15C; in September the average high is 22C and the average low 10C.
Croatia Airlines flies to Zagreb eight times a week from London Heathrow, with return flights starting from £120. croatiaairlines.com
RESOURCES Zagreb Tourist Board provides all the information you need to make the most of your trip via its user-friendly website. infozagreb.hr
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht is a spellbinding journey through
the troubled history of the Balkans, set in a nameless ‘City’.
The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr is a thriller about a Nazi-era Berlin policeman who falls for a Yugoslavian film star.
To offset your carbon emissions when travelling to Zagreb, visit climatecare.org and make a donation. Return flights from London produce 0.45 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £3.39.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for a three courses, with half a bottle of wine,
unless otherwise stated.
Agava Slightly elevated from the buzzing street below, professionalism shines through in every dish. There is a strong Mediterranean streak in the wide choice of dishes, from tagliolini with pumpkin and Gorgonzola to gilthead fillet with chive emulsion and roasted Sicilian potatoes. From £30. Tkalčićeva 39, 00 385 1 482 9826, restaurant-agava.hr
Dubravkin Put The beautiful wooded location conceals a highly sophisticated minimalist interior. Outstanding plates include prawn soup, deconstructed vitello tonnato (an Italian veal dish) and sweetbreads in herb and pistachio crust. Exceptional wine list. Seven-course tasting menu from £50. Dubravkin Put 2, 00 385 1 975 4834, dubravkin-put.com
Lari & Penati Named after Roman household gods, the menu
changes daily. Perch on high stools, enjoy the excellent range of light
dishes, ribs and wings, then decamp to its new Croatian wine bar next
door. A large plate and half bottle of wine cost from £10.
Petrinjska 42A, 00 385 1 465 5776, laripenati.hr
Mali Bar The small, unfussy bistro is regularly packed for the vibrant
dishes from TV chef Ana Ugarkovic. The Croatian version of market-
led tapas might include homemade chicken liver and foie gras pâté,
breaded and fried monkfish cheeks with Thai dressing and salad with
nasturtium, or sticky and spicy chicken wings with tzatziki. From £25.
Vlaška 63, 00 385 1 553 1014
Pod Grickim Topom Frequented by politicians and visiting
dignitaries (Hillary Clinton, to name one), the terrace is the place to
be on a sunny day. Regional and classic Croatian cooking at its best
includes veal baked under a peka (a bell-shaped oven), shrimp
risotto and sea bream with white wine sauce. From £25.
Zakmardjeve Stube 5, 00 385 1 483 3607
Vinodol A local favourite, the food here never disappoints. Central European specialties include cream of porcini soup in a bread loaf, spit-roast lamb, veal, steaks and trout with almonds. Twice a week they bake soparnik (cheese and chard pie) – be sure to get there on time. From £25. Teslina 10, 00 385 1 481 1427, vinodol-zg.hr
Zinfandel’s The beautiful restaurant at the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel has a lovely terrace for alfresco dining. Chef Ana Grgic is one of the leading Croatian campaigners for sustainable fishing, and exciting menus including John Dory with yellow carrot foam and black lentils are testament to this. Five-course tasting menu from £55. Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, Mihanoviceva 1, 00 385 1 456 6666, esplanade.hr
- Chicken soup with dumplings
- Sweet yeast buns
- Cuspajz s fasirancima
- Cabbage stew with minced meat
- Grincajg juha
- Market vegetable soup
- Griz koh
- Semolina sponge cake
- Juha od buce
- Pumpkin soup
- Knedle sa sljivama
- Plum dumplings
- Kravice sa zeljem
- Black pudding with sauerkraut
- Poppy seed roll
- Purica s mlincima
- Turkey with flatbread pieces
- Rezanci s makom
- Poppy seed noodles
- Ricet s buncekom
- Barley and bean stew
- Samoborska kremsnita
- Vanilla custard slice
- Sir i vrhnje
- Cottage cheese with sour cream
- Floating islands
- Tripe and bacon stew
- Baked cheese pastries in sour cream
- Zagorska juha
- Meat, mushroom and potato soup from Zagorje
- Zganci s lukom i spekom
- Polenta with onions and bacon
- Cornflour cake
Food and Travel Review
Boom! Or ‘bum!’ as they say in Croatian. Every noon the ancient Gric cannon is fired with a teeth-rattling roar from the Lotrscak Tower in Zagreb’s medieval Upper Town.
On the face of it, it’s a charming tradition that has been played out daily since 1877, interrupted only by the First World War. However, this is no ordinary cannon and no ordinary European city. For starters, the cannon boasts its very own Twitter account (@gricki_top), which faithfully records midday every day. Bum!
Zany, historic, friendly, cosmopolitan, subversive, green, edgy: the capital of Croatia is a city of many faces, moods and surprises. Zagreb has been described as Vienna’s little sister. It has much of the latter’s reserve and precision, as well as the Habsburgian architecture, but the wind from the west brings a big-hearted, blunt honesty that results in a laissez-faire, sensual aspect.Comparisons aside, the city has a character of its own that mixes the sedate with the eccentric; the boho with the bourgeois. Yet there is a distinct whiff of other histories – more complicated narratives of war and politics, as well as of cultural identity and allegiance. Crumbling, pockmarked palaces and scarred former Soviet ministries would make ideal sets for film noir intrigues, but restoration is unveiling a city the colour of molten honey be out of place in London or New York, as well as vaguely anarchic hangouts identified solely by a hand-scribbled note.
Be prepared to find your way down passageways, under archways, up stairways and through courtyards. It makes for a deliciously furtive experience: around each corner expect the unexpected – perhaps an eccentric museum, an 18th-century picture of the Virgin Mary reputed to have magical powers, or a present-day shrine devoted to craft beer and rock icons.
The ‘Balkans’ label is controversial. For those whose cultural compass is skewed towards the West, it’s a term with negative associations. The Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža once said that the Oleander terrace at the truly magnificent Esplanade Zagreb Hotel – built in 1925 as a haven for Orient Express passengers – was ‘where the Balkans ends and civilisation begins’.
That, of course, was then but the hotel remains the centre of Zagreb’s social scene. It’s where one still dresses to impress, where society weddings are held and where chef Ana Grgic delivers a sophisticated modern European menu. The Esplanade is still noted for its version of the homely local speciality struckli (baked dumplings with cheese and sour cream). It is deep-rooted comfort food; the sort of dish you want to dive into headfirst.
Other Zagreb specialities can be found at the central Dolac Market, including ajvar (a spread of aubergines, red peppers and onions), smoked sausages and salamis such as garlicky cesnjovka, fiery Slavonian kulen (the first Croatian product to be protected by law), egg noodles, wild mushrooms and the substantial golden cornbread made by the redoubtable Mrs Slavica to an old family recipe. There are also packets of mlinci – crispy flatbread ready to be bathed in the juices of roast Zagorje turkey, a heritage breed reared semi-wild with strong, dark meat. Rare black Slavonian pig is also beginning to appear in sophisticated restaurants such as Agava, where it is served with pear and ginger chutney and black beluga lentils.
Pumpkin seeds and oil, Zagreb-style veal stuffed with ham and cheese, wild boar with sauerkraut, roast duck with slightly sour cherry sauce, Liptauer cheese, and paprika-spiked soups made with home-grown vegetables also bear witness to the city’s Austro- Hungarian history; as do the poppy seeds, curd cheese, walnuts, plums and apples in richly layered and deeply flavoured strudels, pastries and tortes.
Venice’s former control over Dalmatia and Istria is also evident, in dishes such as octopus salad, fish with potatoes and Swiss chard, and the prevalence of truffles, egg pasta and gnocchi. For a more contemporary Italian influence, there’s Agava’s risotto with prawns, nettles and burrata cheese, and swordfish carpaccio with citrus pesto, capers and caviar. Despite Zagreb’s inland location, its fish market, overlooked by the twin spires of the neo-gothic cathedral, offers the first pick of seafood still sparkling from the Adriatic.
In another edible history lesson, the Ottoman Empire is recalled in flaky stuffed burek (pastries) and cevapcici (sausage) kebabs, as well as the magnificent soparnik, a speciality of Marijo Cepek at Vinodol restaurant. This giant pie, filled with fresh goat’s cheese, chard and spring onion, is baked under the ashes of a wood-fired oven to spectacular effect. At Pod Grickim Topom, below the cannon and next to one of the world’s shortest but steepest funiculars, some of these traditions come together in an exceptional pasticada, a beef and dried-fruit stew marinated for a week and served with homemade gnocchi and plum jam.
Croatia is a nation of coffee lovers, and at home many still make it ‘Turkish’-style. Until recently, food was rarely served at cafés; the emphasis was on the excellent coffee alone, now raised to barista heights by roasters such as Eli’s Caffè and Cogito Coffee, or the many herbal tisanes that Croatians love to sip. It’s still not unusual to bring in a freshly baked pastry from one of the city’s excellent bakeries that indulge the country’s sweet tooth. Older visitors, however, prefer to have their coffee and cake in the grand café at Hotel Dubrovnik overlooking the ever-thronged Ban Jelacic Square.
Yet contemporary Zagreb is more than a sum of its historic parts; it is dynamic, forthright and edgy, with a sharp eye on the future. Traditional products have been reinvigorated, from rakija (fruit brandies) to lavender biscuits, bitter orange preserves, herbal salts and extra virgin oils. Craft breweries pop up like porcini (though a truffle ale might seem a pint too far). Small organic producers are showcased in the Little Market from the Attic, a fluid event that has outgrown its original loft location.
Fashionable trends traverse the city like its charging blue trams. There’s a packed calendar of festivals and street events (not to mention one of Europe’s best Christmas markets). Zagreb is a fast-moving video game: exuberant graffiti transformed into street art, Segway charioteers, pavement cafès, devout nuns, Croatian beauties in teetering stilettos, sedate grandmothers, sharp-suited businessmen, rollerblading teens... It ought to be a dissonant scene but blends into a surprisingly harmonious whole.
Croatian design – in clothes, interiors and architecture, as well as food – is strikingly bold and avant-garde but, says Marija Kata Vlasić of the Croatian Design Superstore, the creative outpouring of recent years is also due to historical forces. ‘In the past it was difficult for young people to find a voice because of politics and bureaucracy, but we’re such a small country, we now need to shout about what we can do,’ she is keen to inform me.
Igor Tomljenović, of the excellent Lari & Penati, represents an exciting new wave of bistros meeting a demand for accessibly priced informality with a hip edge. ‘What’s happening now is a combination of young people travelling abroad, having lots of ideas and knowing how to use the technology of the kitchen,’ he says.
Seven years ago, he was the first to bring an informal market-led repertoire to the city matched by a choice of terrific Croatian wines barely known outside the country. Like most people here, he is very relaxed about wine and food pairing. Rosé is a growing trend here, and a tart yet refreshing Roxanich, for example, would set off his marinated sea bass or home-smoked duck breast.
Croatia boasts 64 indigenous grape varieties as well as ‘international’ ones, and four main wine-producing regions. Highlights include flagship white Istrian malvazija from the Kozlović winery; the white wines made from graševina (also known as ‘welschriesling’) in Slavonia that display a crisp, bracing minerality; teran reds and perfumed prosek, made by the Italian passito method. In an interesting historical note, the Iloć ki Podrumi winery on the Danube, the second-oldest in Europe, had its traminac wine served at both the coronation and Diamond Jubilee of the Queen.
Swiss-Canadian chef Priska Thuring of the super-smart Dubravkin Put restaurant agrees about the food scene in her adopted home. Ingredients such as goose liver, spider crab, oxtail, sweetbreads and cuttlefish define her polished, Mediterranean-influenced menu, which reflects the vitality that courses through the city.
‘There are so many young chefs in Zagreb full of energy, just busting to go crazy,’ she says. ‘Ingredients are one of the reasons I’m here. There aren’t that many places in Europe you can go to any more where you’ll get such amazing tomatoes, meat, fish and vegetables. I’m sourcing from all over the country, such as fabulous lamb from the island of Pag, but I also have guys coming to the door offering me microgreens or mind-blowing hot relishes.’
Uniting all these strands is an assumption of freshness and seasonality: in summer, for example, every street corner glows with crates of scarlet strawberries and burgundy cherries.
Red is a powerful colour in Slavic culture: it reflects life, hope and emotion. The city is lit up by the ubiquitous red and white gingerbread hearts in every souvenir shop, cheerful folk costumes and coral beads, the tiled roofs, tomato-red market parasols, the vermilion interior of the Design Superstore, as intense as a bleeding heart, and the discarded ruby stilettos in the poignant Museum of Broken Relationships. But as I found out, seeing red in Zagreb is not the end of a love affair – simply the start of a new one.
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