A Zagreb Walking Tour
Updated: May 1, 2022
In South Africa and Namibia, car culture abounds. If people can drive or walk, they pretty much always opt for the car option. So, it was refreshing being in Croatia, where people seemed to constantly be strolling through the streets. Embracing this attitude, we spent the first few days self-guiding our way through a Zagreb walking tour.
The “Skip Zagreb” Fallacy
Before talking about walking around Zagreb, we need to dispel a fallacy. As the inland capital of Croatia, Zagreb inherently lacks the beaches and coastal beauty of Dalmatia, the primary destination of visitors from the United States. As a result, many travelers - regrettably - heed the advice to just skip Zagreb.
What a mistake.
Chipp first visited the city years ago en route to Montenegro (to propose to Jenna!). From the Republic of Georgia, he flew into Zagreb then caught buses to Sarajevo and, ultimately, Podgorica, Montenegro.
During his time in Zagreb, Chipp absolutely fell in love with the city - beautiful architecture, sprawling city parks, countless outdoor cafes, incredible food and drink, and just an abundance of life. With such fond memories, flying into the capital and immediately leaving the city just wasn’t an option for us. Instead, we’d spend our first week in Croatia living and working in Zagreb, trying to absorb as much of the city as possible in such a short period of time.
Zagreb’s Lower Town and “Horseshoe” of Parks
Mountains tower over Zagreb to the north. Working south from these peaks, you hit stunning, hillside residential districts. As you continue south towards the city center - still descending - you arrive in the historic, castled district of Upper Town (more on that below).
As one would expect, Zagreb’s Lower Town unfolds in the lowground further south, stretching from the base of Upper Town to the banks of the Sava River, which bisects the city from east to west.
We stayed in a restored apartment in Lower Town, a bustling mix of outdoor cafes along tree-lined streets, bars and restaurants, museums, and beautifully preserved Gothic and Neo-Renaissance buildings (NOTE: We leaned on Zagreb architecture experts, not our own (lack of) expertise to point out these styles…). For visitors and young residents alike, Lower Town’s a great, centrally-located base for experiencing the city.
Our first morning in town, we’d take advantage of one of Lower Town’s most picturesque walks - the Lenuci Horseshoe. Designed in the 19th Century by Milan Lenuci, this U-shaped series of parks in the heart of Zagreb includes seven, adjacent city blocks, each of exceptionally manicured green space. Strolling through these parks, you A) get a great overview of central Zagreb, while B) still feeling like you’re on a nature walk.
The Upper Town and Museum of Broken Relationships
Sitting in the hills above Lower Town, Zagreb’s Upper Town is the oldest part of the city, with narrow, medieval-feeling streets surrounded by castle walls. Entering this neighborhood from the west, you experience these ancient fortifications, needing to walk beneath the historic Old Stone Gate’s arches.
St. Mark’s Church, with its Croatian-flag, rooftop mosaic, is one of the most iconic features up here. And, immediately next to the church is the Croatian Parliament - something we discovered when, during a parliamentary session, security guards politely asked us to take the long way around…
Upper Town lacks the hustle and bustle of Lower Town - far more residential vibe along its narrow, cobblestoned streets. But, it’s certainly worth the climb (or funicular ride). The sweeping views of Zagreb alone justify the visit, giving you an unbelievable view over the city, the Sava River, and the green fields and hills south of Zagreb (especially if you pay the small fee to climb the Lotrščak Tower!).
And, as we’d discover, Upper Town has an absolute gem of a museum - the Museum of Broken Relationships. While the name may make it seem like a strange choice for a husband and wife to eagerly visit, it’s an incredible experience. What began as a traveling exhibit of mementos to broken relationships - for any number of reasons - has evolved into a permanent museum. Hundreds of items, each with its owner’s accompanying story, walk you through the entire emotional spectrum of ended relationships - laughter, heartbreak, anger, longing, confusion - visitors feeling all of it via these deeply personal (but anonymous) stories.
The exhibit remains a “living” one, as well, with the curators continuing to solicit donations. In the museum’s own words, “Unlike ‘destructive’ self-help instructions for recovery from grief and loss, the Museum offers the chance to overcome an emotional collapse through creation: by contributing to the Museum’s collection.”
Oh, and the museum embraces its own pun-iness quite well. After the emotional rollercoaster of the exhibit, the Brokenships Bistro - the museum’s streetside cafe - makes for a perfect place to enjoy a beverage or two.
Croatian Basketball, Nationalism, and the Drazen Petrovic Museum
We noticed a theme walking through Zagreb: museums - lots of them. It seemed like you couldn’t walk a block without seeing another one. Some may just take up little storefronts, while others dominate entire city blocks. With only a week to spare, we couldn’t hit all of them, so we narrowed the list.
As a basketball fan (albeit a mediocre player in his “prime”), Chipp jumped (pun?) at the opportunity to see the Drazen Petrovic Museum. Late 80s and early 90s NBA fans, anyone who’s seen ESPN’s Once Brothers documentary, and pretty much anyone from Croatia know Drazen Petrovic’s story. One of the greatest 3-point shooters of all time, his life was tragically cut short by a car accident.
But, Petrovic’s basketball career also can’t be viewed outside of the geopolitical realities of Yugoslavia’s collapse. As the Balkans broke apart and fell into bloody conflicts, Yugoslavia’s - once extremely dominant - national basketball team served as a microcosm of these divisions. Guys went from teammates to enemies seemingly overnight - and Drazen Petrovic played a central role in these events.
The museum - located adjacent to Zagreb’s Drazen Petrovic Basketball Hall - walks visitors through Drazen’s playing career, from youth to NBA and everything in between. If you love basketball, want to learn more about the intersection of sport and history, or both - the museum’s a must.
Bundek Lake and Sava River Strolls
A longer stroll from the city center, most visitors - quite unfortunately - don’t make it out to the banks of the Sava River. Beautiful trails line the river, and just south of these flowing waters, Zagreb’s Gradski Park is one of the city’s outdoor highlights. Shaded paths wind through this urban park, all surrounding the gravel beaches, swans, and clear waters of Bundek Lake.
The warm and sunny day we walked through the city, over the Sava, and into the shaded grounds of the park, hundreds of locals strolled, relaxed, and picnicked on the grounds. And, it also happened to be an end-of-year festival for students, with middle- to high-school-aged kids, all in color-coded t-shirts for their respective grades, running around, quite clearly ready to embrace the upcoming summer.
As the older students snuck cigarettes and beers among the trees and the younger ones played tag, we posted up on the banks of Bundek Lake. An open-air cafe gives visitors an ideal place to sit in the shade, enjoy some drinks, and people watch. Certainly more of a local aura than Lower and Upper Town, you feel like a true participant in Zagreb life during an afternoon here.
The Museum of Hangovers - with a Beer
Similar to the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Museum of Hangovers features stories and mementos from an eclectic cast of characters. However, as one would guess, this latter museum takes a more, well, Bacchanalian approach.
Not a huge museum, each room takes you through a subsequent phase of a drunken night - from pregame to party to try-but-fail-to-make-it-home-esque shenanigans. And, along the way, you have opportunities to participate, wearing “drunk goggles” to throw darts, walking on an earthquake-feeling “drunk path,” and, yep, having a beer or glass of wine in your hand the whole time.
While Relationships forces you to contemplate your emotional baggage, Hangovers makes you question plenty of other life choices!