After a great stretch eating, drinking, and working in Zagreb, we had another few weeks before meeting our parents along the Dalmatian Coast. So, we figured we’d see parts of the country most visitors don’t have the time to explore. Next stop, the old capital of Varazdin to see Croatia off the beaten path!
A Varazdin Overview and Why We Visited
Tucked into the far north of Croatia - just a few miles from the Slovenian border - Varazdin doesn’t feature prominently in too many US travel itineraries. Logistically, this is somewhat understandable. For the Americans who do make it to Zagreb, a trip further away from the coast generally takes too much time to justify on a week-ish trip to Croatia.
But, if you have the time, Varazdin is an absolute gem of a town.
As we hung out in Zagreb, plotting our travels through Croatia, we had the luxury of a month and a half timeline. We’d be meeting our folks out on the more internationally popular Dalmatian Coast, so it made sense to spend the interim seeing places slightly off the beaten path. Looking at the map and doing a little background research, we decided on a few days in Varazdin.
With a population of just under 50,000, Varazdin certainly isn’t huge. But, historically, it punches above its weight. Apparently the first written reference to the town came back in 1181 - it’s been around for a bit. And, from 1756 to 1776, Varazdin actually served as the capital of Croatia before Zagreb reclaimed that title.
Today, Varazdin remains an industrial, administrative, and cultural hub of northern Croatia. And, unlike some of the other cities that faced near-total destruction as Yugoslavia fell apart, Varazdin was largely spared. During the 1991 Croatian War of Independence, the Yugoslav Army stationed in the area surrendered fairly quickly. So, today, the city’s stunning baroque architecture stands in unbelievable shape.
Just over an hour’s drive northeast from Zagreb, we set Varazdin as stop one on our Croatian road trip.
A Day Trip to Trakoscan Castle
In addition to wanting to stroll through these historic streets, we were also pulled to Varazdin by its proximity to well-preserved castles. Like kids everywhere, we both grew up holding medieval castles in near-mystical esteem. Whether it’s the enduring impact of King Arthur legends, popular culture, or elementary school history lessons, castles are just, well, cool.
Northern Croatia has an abundance of castles, some of which have been exquisitely preserved. Serving as defensive fortifications on the frontiers of different empires, these hilltop castles dot the countryside. One in particular - Trakoscan Castle - jumped out in our research as an especially worthwhile one to visit.
Germany’s Neuschwanstein - inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella castle - claims the title of most stunning castle in Europe, at least on the outside. Trakoscan, on the other hand - while also having an impressive exterior - has found fame as the most immaculately preserved and furnished castle interior.
Built in the 13th Century and integrated into Croatia’s defensive frontier, Trakoscan stands on a hilltop about an hour west of Varazdin. Visiting on a gray, rainy day, the castle seemed to just appear out of the clouds as we rounded a bend. Parking at the base, we strolled up the winding staircase leading to the castle’s outer fortifications. For the next couple hours, we went from chamber to chamber, blown away by the exceptionally preserved furniture, art, and tapestries throughout the castle.
Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed to take photos inside, so you’ll just have to take our word. If you find yourself in northern Croatia, we highly recommend a day trip to Trakoscan - fascinating history, and you can pretend you’re a kid again!
A Restoran Ivancica Lunch and Competing Philosophies on Warming Up
Returning to Varazdin, we passed through the small town of Lepoglava. Actually, we set that as our destination, having heard about the town’s famous Restoran Ivancica and its delicious, traditional Croatian fare. Great decision.
A cold and rainy day, we ideally would’ve eaten inside. But, COVID restrictions as they were, we were seated on the restaurant’s outdoor patio. Fortunately, plenty of space heaters turned the patio - rain falling steadily onto the roof - into a fairly cozy setting. And, bowls of piping hot soup and a heaping platter of Croatian meats, veggies, and fries certainly helped!
Our time at Ivancica also affirmed another hard distinction between Chipp’s approach to warming up versus Jenna’s. Yes, the food helped, but you also need a good beverage to warm the soul. In a nod to her Ukrainian heritage, Jenna opted for a hot tea with honey. Going his own way, Chipp saw a dark Croatian beer - Tomislav (outstanding, if you ever come across it!) - as the surest way to warm the system!
Strolling Through Old Town Varazdin
The next day’s weather couldn’t have been more different. We woke to a warm, sunny morning - perfect for a day strolling through Varazdin’s historic streets.
At 50,000-ish people, Varazdin isn’t huge. And, the historic center - roughly 500 meters by 1,000 meters - can be thoroughly explored in a day. Or, more precisely, the streets and narrow alleys can be explored in a day - could spend weeks there trying different restaurants and cafes, exploring museums, and just absorbing the city’s feel.
We’ve tried to emphasize that we’re anything but architectural experts. But, with the help of Google, we can certainly pretend to be! According to UNESCO, the town’s “dominating architectural impression is one of baroque, giving Varazdin the right to be called the most baroque town in the continental part of the Republic of Croatia.”
In line with that baroque feel, the local theater serves as a focal point of the historic city center. Beautiful in and of itself, the building also abuts a fountain- and outdoor cafe-filled square, an ideal place to start the day with a coffee and some people watching. Very European-feeling, sipping a small cup of coffee while sitting in the middle of a bustling, historic square.
Recognizing that these UNESCO experts can describe Varazdin far more eloquently than we can, we’ll let them continue: “The old and preserved grid of streets and squares is lined with noble baroque palaces and smaller buildings used as dwellings and it is crowned with an interesting layer of medieval-renaissance-baroque set of buildings of the Old Town (the Castle).” On the northwest corner of the city center, Varazdin’s “Old Town” is a castle complex dating back to the 14th Century. Coming from America, it’s mind boggling that what we see as the historic part of town - dating from the 18th and 19th Centuries - actually qualifies as the new city, with the Old Town preceding these structures by hundreds of years.
Wine at “The Office”
After a few hours navigating Varazdin’s sprawling squares and narrow back alleys, we decided to redirect our focus to the city’s culinary delights.
Ready for an afternoon beverage, we found ourselves back in King Tomislav Square, a palace-lined spread in the heart of the city. On three sides of the square, the first floors of these baroque structures had all been converted to retail frontage, restaurants, or cafes. On the north side, Varazdin’s City Hall - one of the oldest in Europe - towers over the square’s marble flagstones, worn smooth by centuries of foot traffic.
With a few watering holes to choose from, we picked the punniest - “The Office.” Sitting under the shade of an umbrella and watching the world go by, we ordered cold glasses of local white wine - perfect complement to the hot day.
Similar to leaving the Washington, D.C. area, it’s amazing how quickly the cost of living changes when you’ve left a capital city. Despite only being an hour or so outside of Zagreb, we noticed a marked difference in prices. Specifically, at $.80 for a glass of this delicious wine, why go anywhere else!?