Inland Croatia – Zagreb and beyond
Written by Rudolf Abraham
With Qatar Airways increasing its flights to Zagreb, regular Croatia visitor and former Zagreb resident Rudolf Abraham takes us on a journey through the cultural and scenic highlights of inland Croatia.
While most visitors to Croatia head straight for the coast, inland areas – in particular the capital, Zagreb – boast wonderful architecture, fascinating historical sites, vibrant festivals, exquisite landscapes, and some of the country’s best museums.
Follow a flight of steps up beside the funicular in Zagreb’s old town, and you arrive at a terrace with the city laid out below you – its grand buildings bathed in early evening light, the silvery statue of a seated poet glittering nearby. This makes as good a spot as any to begin a tour of the Croatian capital.
Zagreb is a vibrant city with a beautifully preserved old town, impressive architecture, and plenty of parks and green areas. Sculptures of literary figures are dotted across the city, trams rattle through the streets, and cafés spill out onto squares and pavements, where locals enjoy that most beloved of Croatian pastimes, sipping coffee.
The Croatian capital also has a staggering number of museums and galleries for a city its size, many of them outstanding. My recommendation for the best of these to visit would include the Meštrovic Atelier – the former studio of the great Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrovic – and the Museum of Naïve Art. The latter, one of the oldest museums of naïve art in the world, includes paintings by Ivan Generalic and other artists of the so-called Hlebine School, a style which developed at Hlebine in northern Croatia in the 1930s. The nearby Museum of Zagreb does a very good job of shedding light on the city’s fascinating history over the centuries. For something more modern, head for the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Zagreb owes much of its elegant and remarkably cohesive late-19th-century feel to the fact that a good deal of it had to be rebuilt following a massive earthquake in 1880, which flattened a large part of the city. The task of rebuilding the capital fell largely to local civil engineer Milan Lenuci, who incorporated a series of manicured parks and gardens stretching in an arc through the city centre – Zagreb’s so-called ‘Green Horseshoe’, punctuated by grand public buildings such as the National Theatre and the recently restored Art Pavilion. Along with Lenuci, the other figure linked inextricably to the face of Zagreb is Hermann Bollé, the late-19th-century Austrian architect responsible for some of the city’s best-known architecture, including the Secessionist Arts and Crafts Museum and the neo-Gothic façade and spires of the cathedral.
The Croatian capital can easily be used as a springboard to visit some of the cities, castles, national parks, and more of inland Croatia. For a short day out, it’s worth going to the small town of Samobor, just half an hour’s drive away, with its pleasant square and indulgent cakes – kremšnite – something like a great wedge of custard and cream sandwiched between two layers of crispy, wafer-light pastry.
Some 80km north of Zagreb, beyond the wooded hills of Medvednica Nature Park, the town of Varazdin was the Croatian capital for a brief period during the 18th century. As well as this and several other impressive castles which dot the landscape of this part of northern Croatia, there is also the country’s most famous Neolithic site at Krapina, where finds date back 130,000 years, and recently an excellent new museum and interpretation centre was opened.
Just an hour’s drive from the Croatian capital, the huge wetlands of Lonjsko Polje sprawl across the landscape southeast of Zagreb. Lonjsko Polje is a RAMSAR site (Wetland of International Importance) and is protected as a nature park. This area provides a haven for waterfowl and other birdlife, in particular white storks, which nest here in their hundreds, stopping here for several months on their migration route to sub-Saharan Africa. You’ll see their nests on rooftops and elsewhere; large, messy-looking tangles of twigs. There’s also a good chance of seeing spoonbills and the rare black stork. Aside from all the birdlife, and the stout, local breed of horses, there is also some well-preserved traditional wooden architecture in villages such as Cigoc and Lonja. Many of the wooden houses here, arranged neatly beside the road which winds alongside the River Sava, are over 200 years old.
Further east from Lonjsko Polje lies the town of Dakovo, with its striking red-brick cathedral and its Lipizzaner horses, which have been bred here for over 500 years.
If you only visit one natural wonder in Croatia, it really should be the emerald- and turquoise-coloured lakes and travertine falls of Plitvice Lakes National Park (Plitvicka Jezera) – an unforgettable, watery landscape set amid lush, extensive beech forest.
There are 16 lakes, linked by travertine falls which have been created over hundreds of years, and descending in elevation by roughly 130m over a distance of around eight kilometres.
The national park is easy enough to reach as a day trip from Zagreb, although particularly in summer the lakes are best explored first thing in the morning – the park attracts a huge number of visitors, and an early start gets you in before most of the tour buses arrive.
Plitvice Lakes was the first area in Croatia to be designated a national park (back in 1949), and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. A network of easy paths, as well as wooden boardwalks across some of the lakes themselves, make it possible to explore the waterfalls up close, and visitors are also shuttled back and forth across one of the lakes by boat. In autumn, the surrounding beech forest turns an extraordinary kaleidoscope of reds, yellows, bronzes, and golds, and during the winter months, the waterfalls freeze, turning into fairytale cascades of ice, festooned with icicles.
Plitvice Lakes is one of the many places in inland Croatia which remind you that there’s so much more to this wonderful country than just its stretch of exquisite coast and islands.
A trip to the coast – the Opatija Riviera
In case the allure of the Croatian coast proves too great – and it is fairly hard to resist – head for the Opatija Riviera, at the head of the Kvarner Gulf. This stretch of coastline became an enormously fashionable destination for the well-heeled Austrian elite during the late 19th century (at which time Croatia was part of the Habsburg Empire), when everyone from Gustav Mahler to the Emperor Franz Joseph flocked here. Opatija still has plenty of grand, imposing architecture, and more recently the nearby tiny fishing village of Volosko has emerged as the pre-eminent gourmet enclave in Croatia, with several outstanding restaurants.
Medvednica Nature Park
When you want a break from the Croatian capital’s oodles of museums and galleries, hit the trails in nearby Medvednica Nature Park, the wooded slopes of which rise gently from the city’s chic northern suburbs. Easy, well-marked paths lead through peaceful beech forest to benches and picnic spots. There’s a castle (Medvedgrad), an old mine open to the public (Zrinski Mine), and in the winter there’s decent skiing near the summit.
Museum of Illusion
Zagreb’s newest museum is full of wickedly clever displays which trick your eyes and brain into thinking you’ve shrunk, the kids have outgrown you, your nearest and dearest have been beheaded, or you’re about to fall over. Fantastic vertigo- and smile-inducing fun for kids and grown-ups alike.
Kids will enjoy visiting Zagreb’s zoo, on the edge of the swathe of green that is Maksimir Park. Despite its relatively modest size, it has a good range of animals in well-maintained enclosures. Highlights include lynx, grey wolf, and other species which, although they inhabit some of Croatia’s mountains and national parks in small numbers, are highly elusive in the wild.
Zagreb has an increasingly good range of hotels, from five-star luxury to family-run boutique
In terms of sheer opulence, nothing in Zagreb tops this. Since opening back in the 1920s to provide a suitably grand overnight stay for passengers on the Orient Express, the Esplanade has seen a steady stream of A-list celebrities and royalty pass through its doors – from Elizabeth Taylor, Anita Ekberg, and Woody Allen, to Leonid Brezhnev, Hillary Clinton, and the Emir of Qatar himself. Fine dining is provided by two restaurants: the top-notch Zinfandel’s and Le Bistro, under the expert direction of chef Ana Grgi.
Mihanovieva 1, Zagreb; +385 1 456 6666; esplanade.hr
If you make a trip to the Opatija Riviera, you should stay in this beautiful and stylish family-run hotel on the hillside above Volosko. Rooms are spacious and have generously sized balconies with spectacular, panoramic views out over the Kvarner Gulf and islands – and the hotel restaurant, Laurus, is truly outstanding. The owners, Krunoslav and Andrea Kapetanović, recently opened a second hotel, the über-stylish Navis, right on the waterfront.
Nova cesta 12a, Opatija; +385 51 741 355; villa-kapetanovic.hr
A short walk uphill from British Square, the stylish Hotel President is arguably Zagreb’s best boutique hotel – and certainly my favourite. Rooms are light and spacious with polished wooden floors, and have balconies which overlook peaceful woodland. The tasteful décor includes furniture by Croatian designers and various artworks, the restaurant is excellent, and the service is impeccable.
Pantovak 52, Zagreb; +385 1 488 1480; president-zagreb.com
Yes, there is a major folk festival in Zagreb – but for folk costumes as well as authenticity, not to mention sheer energy, nothing really matches the Brodsko kolo, an annual folk-dance festival in the town of Slavonski Brod. Spread over three days amid the sprawling ruins of an old fortress, the festival attracts dance groups from all over Croatia as well as neighbouring countries, and is an event of huge local importance and prestige.
Ivan Meštrović (1883–1962), Croatia’s greatest sculptor, is best known for his iconic sculpture of Grgur Ninski in Split. His work can also be found throughout Zagreb, and his former studio in the old town is open as a museum, the excellent Meštrović Atelier – the perfect place to learn more about the artist and his work. Meštrović was the first ever artist to give a one-man exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Distance: 3,894 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 50 minutes
Frequency: Daily via Budapest