An Unambitious guide to Zagreb with(out) kids

Welcome to Croatia, the homeland of football vice-champions. Many people started loving Croatia because of the 2018 football World Cup. Thanks to great football success, people all around the world got to know more about this small country. Before that happened, one could say that Croatia was known for being the home country of one of the world’s greatest scientists, Nikola Tesla and that Croatians invented the tie. Nowadays, Croatia is better recognized because of Luka Modrić, currently the world’s best football player.

Some people also think that there is still war in Croatia. Don’t worry, it was over long ago. Now Croatians struggle with banks and debt, not bombs and gunshots. So, now it’s a cheap and safe destination.

Besides sport and science, Croatia is known for its beautiful sea towns, islands, cultural heritage, and unspoiled nature.

Advent in Zagreb 2019

Most people think that Croatia is a country for summer holidays, but the capital city Zagreb became a very popular travel destination all year round, and especially at Christmas time. For the past three years, Zagreb has been voted the most beautiful Advent destination in Europe thanks to its unique Christmas Market. Holidays are always an opportunity to become a child again. There are many things to do with kids during Advent in Zagreb. You can read the Advent guide to find out where to meet Santa Claus and experience more magical moments in Zagreb. Did you know that Santa Claus moved from Laponia to Zagreb for Advent? We actually saw him drinking mulled wine and talking to regular people.

Zagreb has the best Christmass Market in Europe/ Foto by Lonely Planet

Things to Do in Zagreb with(out) Kids

We actually live in Zagreb, but we put ourselves in the shoes of a tourist who would visit Zagreb for a day or two and put together this unambitious guide with the kids. The good news is that all the main attractions are within walking distance but if you want to explore the whole town, take a tram. The kids were hanging on the bar in the tram to free up some seats for old people. Aren’t they sweet?

1. The Ban Josip Jelačić Square

The best starting point to explore Zagreb is the Ban Jelačić Square – a huge square with a statue of a national hero riding a horse.

Well, Croatians had a lot of national heroes through its history, but it seems that the most popular ones nowadays are football players. We guess that one day, the captain of the country’s team, Luka Modrić, will have his own square.
The Ban Jelačić Square is a great meeting place in the center of Zagreb for both locals and tourists. All important events and celebrations in the city are held in this square. It is hard to believe that over half a million people gathered right here to welcome the Croatian national football team who achieved historic success by winning a silver medal in the World Cup in Russia.

The Ban Jelaćić Square/ Photo by Sportske Novosti

Occasionally, there is a large open market in the main square where you can buy various local products and handicrafts, with music played by street performers.
The most famous fountain in Zagreb is Manduševac, located on the main square. More attractive are ones next to the National Library where the water dances along with lighting effects. Actually, the mayor of Zagreb is kind of crazy about fountains and he is hoping that one day Zagreb will have more fountains than Rome. Rome has more than 250 fountains and Zagreb has only 7. It will take a long time to overtake Rome.

Attractive fountain in front of the National Library in Zagreb/Photo T-Portal

2. Walk uphill to Kaptol

The most famous symbol of Zagreb, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is located on Kaptol hill. Our children, of course, love to light a candle inside, as they do in any church on our way. The cathedral is built in a gothic style in the 13th century and was reconstructed in the 20th century after an earthquake damaged it. It can be visited without paying, which is not often the case nowadays since in most European cities you have to pay to visit their temples.
Inside the cathedral, you can admire big marble statues, grand baroque marble altars, and the iconic organ believed to be among one of the 10 best in the world. The colorful painted stained-glass panes and high roof are also very impressive. The cathedral also has a very rich treasury but it is not open for viewing.

Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the largest sacral building in Croatia, 108 meter high

3. Stop at Dolac Market

It’s easy to find the Market Dolac as it’s behind the Ban Jelacic Square to the north. This is the main open-air market where locals have been buying their fresh food and flowers for the past 80 years. It’s a colorful and vibrant place with farmers selling dairy products, woodcraft, traditional lace and of course, fruits and vegetables. At the entrance of the market is a statue of a woman carrying a basket on her head. Imitating her, the kids realized that it wasn’t an easy time for women back then. If you want to feel the market atmosphere from a close distance, you can take a seat in one of the many cafes and restaurants surrounding the market and just watch it all flow by.

The most recognizable souvenir in Zagreb

If you look for the most recognizable souvenirs of Zagreb, you will find The Šestine Umbrella. This umbrella is part of the traditional folk costume, carefully handmade from metal wires, a wooden rod, chestnut handle and a red cotton canvas bordered with a few colorful stripes. You will see the bigger version of this traditional umbrella at Dolac Market serving mostly as parasols. The Šestine umbrella is often given to celebrities, government offices, ministries, ambassadors and presidents, but you can also buy one for a reasonable price.

The Šestine umbrella is protected non-material cultural goods of the Republic of Croatia.

4. Walk along historical Tkalčićeva street

Tkalčićeva is the most popular tourist street in Croatia, where all generations gather; students and pensioners. It is vivid and vibrant in the morning, day and night as if it never sleeps. This is not only a favorite touristic place, but locals also love to ritually drink coffee in this authentic street. It looks like people are never in a hurry and have plenty of time to relax here.

Tkalciceva Street, as we know it today, has changed its face and name throughout Zagreb’s history. It wasn’t a street actually. Tkalčićeva was once a stream with wooden bridges, surrounded by green trees, vegetation, and mills. Sounds idyllic if we look at it from a modern point of view, but Tkalča was a street of poor workers and servants who worked for wealthy citizens. They lived a hard life here. Now there is a stream of tourists, and instead of water mills, there are restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops. Only the old architecture and monuments bring back the spirit of old times.

Tkalčićeva: The stream was replaced by street

5. Light a candle at Stone Gate

This is a unique historical and spiritual place. The Stone Gate was built in the 13th century as one of four main gates leading into the town. Within the gate, you will find a shrine praising the Virgin Mary. There is a true miracle story related to this gate. Since the city was made mainly of wood, fires were a frequent occurrence. A big fire in the early 18th century destroyed most of the buildings in and around the gate, barring a beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary, which is preserved very well even today. That is the reason people stop by, light a candle and pray in front of the painting.

Every Tuesday at 8 PM local people pray the Rosary at the Stone Gate

6. Take a photo of the Roof of St. Marks Church

The most photogenic spot for tourists in the upper town is St. Mark’s Church, as it has elements of the Romanesque and Gothic dating back to the 13th century. This church stands out because of its unique and colorful roof that reminds me of Lego pieces. This unique roof depicts the Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia. There is no fee to visit this church, but it is mostly closed, except weekdays at 18:00pm, Saturday at 7:30am and Sunday at 10:30am and 18:00pm.

Historic St Mark Square is also the site of the Croatian Parliament, government, and the Ban’s Palace, now the Presidential palace. The Croatian president became world famous for her gesture there after the Croatian team lost the World Cup. The whole world was talking about the Croatian president standing in the rain without an umbrella and hugging players and all the other people, including judges. Some people called her behavior inappropriate and other told that the world leaders should learn from this lady who smiles from her heart, even when her country is on the losing side.

7. Climb the Lotršćak Tower

A few steps from St Mark Square is the 13th-century Lotršćak Tower, which fires a cannon every day at noon. It is the most significant symbol of Zagreb, reminding us of the great defense against the Turks. If you climb to the top of the tower (for a 2,5 euro entrance fee) you get a great 360-degree view of the city and the fabulous roof of St Mark’s Church. It is recommended to go at noon to see and hear the cannon fired. In front of the tower, you can see old-timers waiting to see those who love to discover and romanticize Zagreb from a modern point of view.

8. Talk to A Great Poet at Strossmayer promenade

Strossmayer promenade is one of our favorite parts of Zagreb. It is an ideal place to escape from the city crowd. One of the best Croatian poets, A.G. Matoš, used to find some peace and inspiration here. Now there is the statue of him sitting on one of the benches. You can sit next to him and have some philosophical talks if you like. Statues are good listeners. Matoš lived a bohemian life, mostly being alone. He died young and is remembered as a rebel and a dreamer.

Photo by Lice Grada

Strossmayer promenade is shaded by large chestnut trees. Colorful and unique pieces of art adorn the trees, benches, and lamp posts along the alleys. It is most popular in summer when it is full of artists, food stalls and cafes. Over the last three years in particular, it is very attractive and vivid at Christmas time as Advent in Zagreb is in full swing.

9. Take a ride in the shortest cable car in the world

There are few ways to get to the upper town: You can climb up the stairs or take the small funicular, the shortest in Europe. For more than one hundred years, it has been transporting locals and tourists between the upper and lower towns. The lower station is located on Tomićeva Street, while the other station is located at the base of Lotršćak Tower. The shortest ride in the world will cost you 4,00 Kuna (approx. 0,5€). The funicular departs daily (including Sundays and Holidays) every 10 minutes.

10. Take a panoramic look of the Lower town

Panoramic view from Upper Town

Stunning view from Gradec terrace

11. Pass through Tunnel Grič

If you are not claustrophobic, you shouldn’t miss going through the 350-meter long Tunnel Grič. It is a fun and free attraction. Tunnels are always mysterious and exciting places that evoke kid’s imaginations. It is exciting to be a mole for a while and walk underneath a city through a hill. The tunnel has several exits to different parts of the city, all near the central, historic and touristy part of Zagreb. This tunnel was built during World War ll and served as a bomb shelter. Today, it is a tourist attraction and also helps people as a pedestrian shortcut to avoid climbing the hill. The tunnel is worth seeing, especially during the Advent time.

Tunnel Grič in Christmas time

12. Experience “Špica” at Flower Square

Flower square is a great place to have a break during the exploration and walk through the lower town. It is a very atmospheric and vivid area with flower shops, cafes and restaurants, and a monument of poet Petar Preradović. He looks like he is saying, “In my time, young people didn’t have that much time to drink coffee.” This is also a favorite place of trendsetters and people who like to show themselves off, mostly on Saturdays around noon. That popular time for coffee is called ‘Špica’ which literally means ‘Rush Hours’, but no one seems to be in hurry.

Flower square/ Cvjetni trg in Zagreb

13. Relax in one of the parks

Zagreb is known for its beautiful parks and forests. Some of them are in the city (Zrinjevac) and others can be easily reached from the city center in 20 minutes by tram or by bus (Maksimir, Bundek, and Jarun).

Zrinjevac Park

If you need to relax, you don’t have to go too far away from the city, because just around the corner from the central square is one of the most romantic places in Zagreb, Zrinjevac Park. It has a bunch of fountains, lots of greenery, flowers, and benches. In the heart of Zrinjevac stands the Music Pavilion which serves as an open-air concert stage. Many memorable concerts are held on this stage during summer and Christmas time. At its northern part, there is a meteorological column from 1884. This is a small device showing temperature, air pressure and weather which was very interesting to the kids.

Only in autumn, you can see all the colors of trees

Maksimir Park

Some tourist has described it as a nice smaller version of Central Park in New York. Maksimir is one of the biggest forest parks in Zagreb, with a zoo and a few kids playgrounds, great for walking, jogging, cycling or just clearing your thoughts. Main paths are well maintained and fine for wheelchairs &
strollers. We are not fond of zoos, so the kids were happy to just see cute ducks, squirrels, and birds living freely in the forest and lakes. The park has many paths through the forest, by the lakes, and even some great picnic spots. The only downside is that there are too many mosquitos in the summertime.

Turtle is sunbathing in the lake

The traditional celebration of Advent in Zagreb will take a place in Park Maksimir this year. I am not sure if animals in the zoo would like to be distracted this way. However, no one would ask them anyway.
Botanical Garden
A green oasis in the middle of the town where you can see native Croatian and Mediterranean flora and stroll between the old trees and creepers. It has over 5,000 species of plants. Kids always want to surprise their mums with flower bouquets, so we had to make sure they didn’t pick some endemic plant.

14. Visit The Museum of illusions and Museum of Broken Relationship

In our travels through Europe, we have visited many museums, but two museums in Zagreb are different to any other museums we have seen: The Museum of Illusions and the Museum of Broken Relationships.
The Museum of Illusions is definitely the most amusing museum we have been to. Instead of just staring at exhibitions, the whole family can interact with the art. You will see fascinating exhibits of optical illusions, some puzzles/brain teasers, and holographic pictures. The kids loved checking out all of the illusions and playing with the puzzles. It turned out that they were much cleverer in solving problems than us. We also took some cool pictures. The museum is very small, but the activities will keep kids entertained for a while if you need a break. The admission price is reasonable.

Museum of Broken Relationships hosts a really interesting collection of artifacts from people around the world who have donated pieces that reflect lost love, broken-hearted lovers, families divided and personal loss. Some are actually very funny and sarcastic. All items are followed by a personal story. This is a unique concept that contains mementos of failed relationships and the stories that surround them.

15. Eat Štrukle

Although meat and fish are indispensable in the traditional cuisine, you still can find some delicious vegetarian/vegan options in Zagreb restaurants.
You might like to try a traditional food called Štrukle. It’s a baked dough filled with a creamy cheese and your choice of additional savory (such as truffles or peppers) or sweet (fruit, honey) ingredients. A bar called ‘La Struk’ specializes in making all kinds of Štrukle. The best Štrukle are served in the Luxury Hotel Esplanada but they are a bit expensive, being 7 euros per portion.
Warning: It is served very hot so you better don’t be ravenous, otherwise you’ll burn your mouth! Other food products that are typical of Zagreb are cottage cheese and sour cream. A combination of the two has become a symbol of local cuisine. You might find it on the menu in most of the local restaurants or even better, buy it fresh at Dolac Market.

Vegan options

Here is a list of the best restaurants and bars where you can get vegan or vegetarian nutritious and healthy dishes in Zagreb. If you want to get your vegan/vegetarian meal quickly, there is a vegan bar called Green Point in the city center next to the Cvjetni trg (Flower Square) on Varšavska street. They have delicious seitan burgers, hemp dishes, falafel, and ‘scrambled eggs’ made of tofu. They are also known for having big portions which are not too common in vegan restaurants.