Zagreb

This is the First destination of three in the Croatia itinerary. The details related to planning for this destination and the others on the Croatia circuit are described in The Croatia Travel Planning post.

Zagreb is the capital city of Croatia, and airport of entry for long haul international flights. It’s an interesting combination of leftover, communist era gray block apartments, the modern city of Zagreb with buildings and architecture that look similar to any late twentieth century design, and classic 19th century Austro-Hungarian architecture that fooled my eye into thinking I was strolling through sections of Vienna or Budapest. Compact, and a joy to walk all of its streets at a leisurely pace, immersively discovering it’s wonderful cafes, restaurants, historic sites, and museums – some a little quirky, like the Museum of Broken Relationships.

Arrival

After a short layover in Paris, the two hour flight to Zagreb was uneventful – the very best kind of flight. Transiting through the Franjo Tu?man international airport in Zagreb, named after the Croatian historian, and first president of the republic post the dissolution of Yugoslavia. With only carry-on luggage in tow, gliding through passport control, then exiting to the ground transportation area required a mere 15 minutes – the hallmark of a smaller airport, something the size of Columbus, Ohio, or Saint Louis Missouri in the US. I had pre-arranged for a private car to pick us up with our apartment host. The price was so reasonable, it gave me no incentive to research the availability of Uber, or the local price of airport taxi service. The ride into central Zagreb was 20 minutes, complete with a drive through soviet-era, gloomy gray apartment blocks – the bane of the poorer countries from that era. That gloom was a sharp contrast as we entered central Zagreb, with its lovely 19th century architecture making up the old part of the city.

 

Settling in

Our apartment for three days in Zagreb was on Ribnjak Ulica, right across the street from Ribnjak Park. The pictures below show the view through the front bay window to the park and the Zagreb Cathedral in the background. The apartment was bright and spacious, with a grand sitting room that included a piano.

This apartment was selected through Airbnb, which is not my first choice for apartment rental because they do not disclose the location of the property until booking has been completed, and I have committed to the rental. This particular apartment is a case study as to why I am averse to using Airbnb.

The photos of the apartment on Airbnb were lovely, the views from the front window were alluring, but what was not known to me because the property location was not disclosed, therefore a Google Street View was not possible, is that the apartment was above a nightclub on a street with regular tram traffic. This might have been a bad experience, save for the fact that the night club was no longer in operation. The tram working hours ended in the early evening, so the street noise was not an issue at night, and sleep time was relatively quiet. Dodged one, but it could have been much worse. Caveat emptor with Airbnb.

The Airbnb drama aside, the apartment was in a residential part of central Zagreb, within easy walking distance to the old town. There were many restaurants and cafes within a 10 minute walk, and it did feel like being a local for a few days. That’s how immersive travel happens for me.

 

Discovery Trek

We did a discovery trek around the old town part of Zagreb. Most of the old town revolves around its main square, Ban Jelacic, and is comprised of 19th century Austro-Hungarian architecture. The old town is compact, relatively flat, and a pleasure to discover by walking. My wife and I easily walk 10 miles per day for exploration and discovery, and we work up healthy appetites as a result. We eat well while traveling, and the Food Scene section covers all of our indulgences.

The weather was lovely in the first part of June, 2016 – with warm days, blue skies, and cool evenings. But no matter how blue-sky the day started, there was a significant chance of showers in the late afternoon, or early evening. Showers may be an understatement. I don’t know if my experience was unusual, but when it rained it was a deluge – as an example, see the Food Scene entry for Kaptolska Klet, a fine dining establishment that flooded while we had dinner there one evening. A strong umbrella is necessary equipment for visiting this lovely part of the Balkans in early June, by my experience.

 

Medvedgrad and Maksimir Park

Medvedgrad is a fortified medieval village on the south slope of Medvenica Mountain, a 10 minute taxi ride from Central Zagreb. It is little touristed, and it’s not on anyone’s list of sites to visit in Zagreb. Below the main tower of the castle ruins is Oltar Domovine (Altar of the Homeland) , dedicated to the fallen Croatian soldiers in the war for independence. The views from Medvedgrad were grand, and on our clear day visiting there we could see for miles – all the way to central Zagreb and beyond.

Maksimir Park has been open to the public since the end of the eighteenth century. It was the first public park open to the public in southeastern Europe. It’s architected like an an English garden, with grand green spaces, walkways, and lakes. It was a delightful, uncrowded tour on a sunny day, enjoying a long walk in the great outdoors of metropolitan Zagreb.

 

Plitvice Lakes National Park

I rented a car for the day, and enjoyed a lovely two hour drive from central Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park. This is a heavily visited site, with tour buses pulling in by the dozens. There was some bureaucracy to be endured in working through the entry process due to the fact that this facility is government operated, and the crowds were thick. The park is grand, and required bus service from the its entry to its interesting parts.

It was possible to separate from the pack and find some space to explore the park. We bused to the highest part of the park, and worked our way back. As we walked our way through it for a few hours, the park unfolded before us in a series of plateaus. It should have been a four hour walk through some of the most beautiful scenery I have experienced. As it turned out, we were hit by a deluge-like rainstorm at the three hour mark. My wife and I both had sturdy umbrellas with us, having learned our lesson from the afternoon storms in central Zagreb. But the umbrellas did not stand up to the torrent, and became super saturated – eventually rain fell straight through the soaked umbrellas. I hadn’t previously experienced anything like this.

It was a painstaking march to leave the park under a heavy rainfall with leaking umbrellas. But once out, we drove to Rastoke en route back to Zagreb. The rains had cleared, and  blue skies were restored by the time we had arrived. We had a wonderful, multi course meal at Jelovnik Konoba (see the Food Scene section) , and explored the mini-Plitvice on their grounds. The little private park was lovely, and relatively uncrowded. It was like having our own little Plitvice with little tourist traffic.

 

 

Food Scene

Restoran Ivek I Marek

Located on Tkal?i?eva Ulica (kind of a restaurant row in Zagreb), this little restaurant with nice outdoor seating, had a daily menu presented on a chalkboard. The day we were there, they had fish, steak, and seafood items on their hand written menu. We chose a charcuterie appetizer plate, squid over greens and potatoes, and grilled trout with handmade noodle dumplings. The food was good, and the vantage point was nice for people watching.

 

Capuciner Grill & Steak

This was a large restaurant with an equally large and varied menu, focusing on meats. In fact the menu was so varied, we ate there twice. Our first time, we ordered a grilled meat sampler for two, with grilled mixed vegetables. Cevapi is a Croatian grill staple, ground beef and pork, with spices. Also on the plate were two types of chicken, one grilled, the other stuffed with cheese and spices. This was genuine local fare. It went  well with beer.

 

Kaptolska Klet

This was a fancy restaurant with an upscale menu. We wanted to sit outside, however it started to drizzle and we were relocated indoors. We ordered a whole smoked, roasted duck with grilled vegetables, and cabbage with carrots on the side. The food was nice, but the real show was the weather. With the restaurant packed with customers, including a large wedding party, the skies opened up, and we were deluged with rain. It rained so hard that it came right through the roof, and flooded the restaurant with water several inches deep. It was interesting trying to eat while the staff were squeegeeing the floor dry.

 

Sestinski Lagvic

We walked to this restaurant on our way back from our tour of Medvedgrad, grabbed lunch and took a taxi back to central Zagreb from there. The pictures are a shade of pink because we were under a red umbrella outdoors. We ordered a mixed salad, a cheese plate, and a mixed grill – pork and beef, with grilled vegetables. The mixed grill was a staple on many menus in Zagreb.

 

Capuciner Encore

This restaurant had a large, and varied menu, including a good variety of seafood, which is why we came back to it. This time we had a charcuterie and cheese board, a green salad, grilled vegetables, grilled chicken skewers, and grilled octopus over potatoes and peppers. The octopus was very good, but one needs to be a fan of that sort of thing.

 

Jelovnik Konoba

This restaurant was en route back to Zagreb from Plitvice Lakes National Park. The restaurant was part of a resort that resembled a mini Plitvice Park. It was nice because it was as scenic as Plitvice, but much less crowded. We had cream of mushroom soup, chicken soup, a trout spread with whole wheat bread, grilled veggies with emphasis on mushrooms, grilled trout, fried trout over bread, grilled zucchini and tomatoes with a light white sauce. The food was very good, and the portions generous. It was very pleasant outdoor seating with a view of the surrounding park.

 

Cafe Ceker

This cafe overlooks the lively Dolac Market on Ban Jelacic Square. It is a great place for people watching. We had meat filled and cheese filled Burek. This is a baked phyllo dough pastry filled with your choice of meat and cheese. It is common in the Balkans, having tried this delicacy previously in Slovenia and Serbia. It’s Balkan fast food.

 

Epilogue

Reflections on Zagreb. A little rough around the edges, but Central Zagreb, with its 19th century Austro-Hungarian old town was a lovely and interesting entry into Croatia. The capital city, the center of Croatian history and culture, what a great contrast Zagreb was to the rest of the Dalmatian coast. I would highly recommend spending a few nights in Zagreb as part of any tour of Croatia. The people were friendly, English was common, and spoken well. The cost of everything we did, including fine dining, was very reasonable by European standards. I had an immersive traveling experience in Zagreb, would visit again, and would recommend it as part of a greater Croatian experience.

 

Related Topics

 

 

Croatia Travel Planning

Croatia Travel Planning

Motivation – Croatia Travel Planning

The Balkans are a part of the continent that must be explored by anyone wanting to see a good representation of European history, geography, and culture. There is so much more to Europe than France and Italy, with all due respect to the charm and allure of this magical duo. Let’s face it, we won’t see the rest of Europe, not to mention the world, if we don’t stop visiting these two wonderful countries. It took me years to move on from the France/Italy habit, and I still go back occasionally – just not exclusively.

Croatia has so many wonderful things going for it, starting with its mild, sunny Adriatic climate. The Croatians are a friendly, even-keeled lot – easy going, English speaking, and customer focused since so much of their GDP comes from tourism.

Modern day Croatia has a history going back to Roman times, then through periods of Hungarian, Venetian, Ottoman, Napoleonic, and Austrian rule – all before World War II. It is steeped in history. Croatian food has a focus on the bounty of the sea, the Adriatic to be specific. Lovers of seafood will have a heyday, and others will enjoy the great variety of meats, sausages, and cheeses that have made Croatia famous. They have traditional restaurants called Konobas that specialize in a variety of meat dishes. Vegetarians be warned.

Croatia has thousands of islands comprising its sunny Dalmatian coast. The geography is perfect for lovers of the beach, sunshine, and island hopping. And the very best part – it is amazingly affordable. Compared to the dynamic duo of France and Italy, it is even dirt cheap.

Plan a trip, and pack your bags.

 

Itinerary – Croatia Travel Planning

The calendar allowed for 12 nights on this trip, starting at the beginning of June 2016. I wanted to establish reasonable lengths of stay at each destination to explore them at my leisure, and to have the best chance for an immersive travel experience. Three nights in Zagreb is necessary, not only to get over the jet lag, but explore the city thoroughly, and to do a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. I apportioned  five nights for Dubrovnik because I wanted to do day trips to Mostar, Bosnia-Herzigovina, Kotor, Montenegro, and do some island hopping in the area. And lastly, I set aside four nights for Split because I expected to do at least one day trip there as well to Hvar and Zadar.

Zagreb – 3 Nights

 

Dubrovnik – 5 nights

 

Split – 4 nights

 

Logistics – Croatia Travel Planning

There are no regularly scheduled direct flights to Croatia from the US at the time of this writing. So the best we can plan for is a one-stop of reasonable duration in London, Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt, or Munich airports. Other airports – most notably Istanbul, take us out of our way with lengthier flight times. From my Atlanta home base, I can book flights on Delta and their SkyTeam partners conveniently to Amsterdam and Paris using frequent flyer miles. This greatly reduces transportation costs for the longest and most expensive leg of the flight. I selected Paris Charles DeGaul as the layover because it had the most convenient connecting flights to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city. The Air France connecting flight to Zagreb was very reasonably priced due to the intense competition in Europe from all of its startup carriers, like EasyJet and RyanAir. So my airfare requirements to get to Zagreb were complete –  frequent flier miles sponsored round-trip to Paris, and round-trip Paris to Zagreb on Air France – a major carrier without the silly bag restrictions that some of the smaller carriers impose.

There were other destinations in Croatia to be visited beyond Zagreb. I briefly considered driving to them, but such an itinerary would have only made sense with more days than I had because the driving times were so long.  Flying was more pragmatic, convenient, and relatively cheap as well.

I planned to fly to Dubrovnik, the Southernmost point in Croatia for this trip. Dubrovnik would be a perfect hub to use for exploration by car. The car would be used to work my way North on the Dalmatian coast to Split, our last destination on this trip. And finally, Split had many scheduled flights to Zagreb to conveniently connect back to Paris.  Air Croatia had a near monopoly on these flights, but didn’t gouge its customers because of it.  I found the service to be very good, and the prices competitive, much to my surprise. I think the Croatians understand the gold mine that tourism is to their economy, contributing nearly 20% to GDP.  I think Air Croatia is a key factor to that gold mine.

Take a look at Croatia on Google Maps. It begs to have some exploration by car. Driving on this trip is a must – definitely for aesthetic reasons, aside the pragmatic need to get between points A and B. I booked a car for a day trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park – a single day booking, which I had not done previously. I also booked a car for a week, to be picked up in Dubrovnik and dropped off in Split. This would provide ample opportunity to day trip from both locations, as well as the basic transportation to get between them. Sixt is my go-to car rental company in Europe, having booked many times previously with them, and always having had a good experience – even the one time I damaged the car during the rental.  The customer service is very good, and the execution is German-efficient.

I have a strong preference for apartments over hotels for several reasons. In general, apartments are a better value as compared to hotel rooms because they have much more space, can come with a washing machine so that both excess luggage and laundry services can be avoided, and are typically less expensive than hotel rooms – sometimes much less expensive for a much better experience. And the most important reason for apartments over hotel rooms is that it leads to a much more immersive travel experience for me.

I can find apartments in the center of the old part of town in most of the destinations of interest, which leads to more exploration time because I’m already located where I usually need to be for my style of travel, and I avoid transit time to the center of town. An apartment feels more like being a resident as compared to a hotel room. I found excellent apartments for each of the three destinations on this trip using a combination of Homeaway.com, and Airbnb.com.

 

Resources – Croatia Travel Planning

Indispensable for planning purposes: Google flights. It works well with mainstream carriers, as well as the puddle jumpers.  I use it to analyze costs related to date ranges, as well as stopover options for those destinations unreachable directly from my home airport – like Zagreb.  Once I have my flight schedule selected, I add my flights to the alert list for price changes, and patiently wait for a good price to come my way.

I rely on several sites for apartment rentals.  In the order of preference:  HomeAway, booking.com, and last and definitely least, Airbnb.  Some may be shocked that I prefer to avoid Airbnb, but I have good reasons to avoid them.  On this particular trip, I did end up using Airbnb for Zagreb as they had some good apartment selections, and I was  able to circumvent the Airbnb location ambiguity (mostly) before booking it.  The other two apartments were booked through HomeAway, as they had quality listings in both Dubrovnik, and Split. Ironically, I booked nothing through Booking.com.

Google maps is a staple, and I use it on every trip for a variety of purposes.  On this trip, it served as my GPS while navigating through Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. It’s also very useful for navigating to restaurants and points of interest while on a discovery trek.

TripAdvisor is awesome for advanced trip planning, as well as finding a decent restaurant on the spot.  When I use it for this purpose, I select “near me now/restaurants” and filter on “open now”.  Then I sort by distance – not highest rated.  When I’m hungry enough to find an unplanned restaurant, I want closest, then best.  To be fair, Google maps is also good for this purpose, although the restaurant ratings are less sophisticated.

With Google translate on my phone at the ready, I fear no language barrier. But every place I went to in Croatia was English friendly, and I only had some minor issues with language in Mostar, Bosnia.

 

Epilogue – Croatia Travel Planning

Reflections on Croatia. The trip was a wonderful extended vacation, with immersive travel experiences in Zagreb, and Split. Dubrovnik was very touristy, and as a cruise ship port of call, it received tourists in great volumes on certain days. Still, it was an exceptional travel experience, which I would both recommend, and personally return to in the future. The trip was relatively inexpensive – I rarely comment on this because my focus is on immersion, but it is noteworthy. The people were lovely, accommodating to travelers, and were sharply focused on providing a good experience for visitors. English was spoken well everywhere I visited in Croatia. The food was excellent, and a great value – although vegans might have a tough time finding accommodating fare. I find myself at a loss in recalling any negative reflections on this trip.

 

 

Related Destinations – Croatia Travel Planning