Initially when we brainstormed our “dream destinations”, Croatia was right near the top of our list but once we took a look at prices, we didn’t think we could swing it. The high season in Croatia is July/August meaning the already expensive destination was now grossly inflated to capitalize on increased tourism. So that was the deciding factor that we would not be able to hit one of our top countries on this trip.
Fortunate for us we learned early on to leave our planning open and flexible, we later decided to try again for Croatia but this time during the shoulder season and stay in the city as opposed to the more expensive coast. So with a combination of booking one month on Airbnb (huge discounts for long-term rentals), going in September, and staying inland in Zagreb, we were able to make it happen!
Lay of the Land
As mentioned in many other posts, we love to get introduced to a city in the first few days with a free walking tour. So first on our agenda was to join a local gym, second find cheap eats, and third was to take in the history of the city with the walking tour. Our apartment was situated about 20 minutes from the city center by tram and we absolutely loved the location. We were steps away from at least six cafes, our gym, our favorite burek spot, our sandwich/gyro stand, a cool treehouse Gin garden, and the main transportation hub.
Once you enter the city center by tram, the rest is very walkable. On the walking tour, we met in the main square and then learned about the original division of the city which was separated by a creek. The interesting fact of the creek was that it was the main cause of conflict between the two towns. Since the creek was needed for farming, it was crucial to the survival of the inhabitants. So whoever had their mills along the river held all the power in the region. This caused multiple bloody battles, so the road that is now where the bridge used to be is called “blood bridge”. They have since filled in the creek and built up the commercial area in its place.
Also on our tour, we were taken to St. Mark’s Square which hosts the church with the famous tiled roof that is synonymous with Zagreb. We learned of the history of Tkalciceva, the main bar/restaurant pedestrian street, the cannon that is still active today, and the local market.
I love wandering through the local markets of every city we visit. In the center of Zagreb is the Dolac Market which has been in operation for over 90 years. Every day of the week the market is open selling fresh flowers, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and honey outdoors. Inside is where the meat, dairy, bakeries, and sauerkraut is found. We ended up with quite a variety, we bought: dried figs, sauerkraut, ham sausage, hummus, and the best cornbread you will ever eat!
I must mention this cornbread because it was unlike any other I have ever had. There are only a few women who continue to bake the traditional style of yeast-raised cornbread, and the loaves sell out before midday. This type of cornbread has a crusty exterior and a dense yet soft interior packed with the flavor of fresh corn. It is very labor intensive to make but the finished product is delicious. My mouth is watering just thinking about it, the cornbread is a must try if you go to Dolac Market.
Zagreb is laid out beautifully with a U-shaped system of city squares with parks right downtown. This U-shaped area is called Lenuci Horseshoe, or Green Horseshoe and is comprised of seven landscaped town squares and a botanical garden. By foot, you can walk through the beautifully landscaped parks and see the highlights of the city. Along the route, you will see Nikola Subic Zrinski Square and the Zagreb Botanical Garden. During your stroll, you will also be able to see some of Zagreb’s most important civil and cultural institutions, which are situated nearby. They include the Croatian National Theatre and the Academy of Dramatic Arts. You can easily spend a few hours just wandering around Zagreb’s Horseshoe, taking in the parks, architecture and soaking in the sun.
Another reason we loved the location of our apartment was its proximity to Jarun Lake. It is a huge man-made lake on the outskirts of Zagreb designed for the rowing events in the 1987 Universiade – World University Games. Now, Jarun Lake is used as a recreation center for swimmers, rowers, bikers, runners and sun bathers. Cafes and restaurants line the parameter and a park surrounds the lake. We definitely utilized the lake on many occasions, since it was only a 25 minute walk from our apartment.
Devin read about there being an outdoor gym beside the lake so we decided to check it out. Usually, when we see any sort of outdoor equipment it is pretty lame and only being used by kids or seniors but this outdoor gym was something else! There were about 10 super fit guys doing insanely hard workouts with this old rusted out equipment. The weights were tires filled with concrete, kettlebells, parallel bars, chin-up bars and the funniest of them all, a huge piece of concrete Devin used for his thruster squats. It was the most testosterone influenced gym I have ever seen and it was so cool to watch all these guys get so creative with their workouts. Needless to say, Devin and I also did a workout and nearly killed ourselves.
Post-Workout Lunch Spot
We incorrectly assumed we would be able to find lunch near the workout park so we were drenched in sweat, walking around in the scorching heat without anywhere to eat. Luckily we stumbled across a local gem of a restaurant near the lake on a residential street. We could hear the chatter from the diners before we could even see the restaurant and it was packed. We figured it must be good so we sat down, totally underdressed and were excited to see what the fuss was about.
Every single person in the place was drinking beer and I could not resist the urge (even though we literally just finished our workout). Devin had the traditional cevapi and I ordered a pizza big enough for a family of four! It was delicious food, refreshing beer and we always love being “one with the locals” at their favorite spots.
The last time I splurged and got my hair done was in Dubai for my birthday, May 10th. It was now September. It had been way too long since getting a fresh color and cut so when Devin pointed out this beautiful salon we walked by, I popped in and booked an appointment! The funny thing was that my stylist (who was AMAZING) didn’t speak a word of English. So between another stylist loosely translating, showing pictures and just trusting her talent, I walked out a very happy customer. I gave her a big tip (not common in Croatia) and she was over the moon, she made me very happy so it was the least I could do. It was a very enjoyable experience and since traveling for ten months, you forget the simple pleasures that pampering yourself brings.
Another city, another casino is Devin’s perspective. I love getting my hair done which is not cheap, and he loves to play poker which can be either very profitable or very expensive. So off he went to one of the local casinos in search of the poker scene. He realized immediately that poker clearly was not as popular in Zagreb as it is in the US, Canada or even Prague. First time he went it was only tournaments (he prefers cash games) so he decided to play. The stakes were pretty low but no-one at the table was speaking English which made it tough to know the bets.
The second time he played was a cash game at another casino. He played for over five hours, finishing up around 2:30A and unfortunately it wasn’t a profitable session. Even if he doesn’t come out ahead, he will always have these international poker memories that are quite entertaining. Devin may not agree…
Each time I have a successful recruit and the contract is signed, Devin and I like to do a little something special. One of those hires happened to sign during our stay in Zagreb so it was the perfect opportunity to hit up the vibrant Tkalciceva Street. During our walking tour, we got some local recommendations for places to eat and drink along Tkalciceva Street so we were happy we got to try some out.
Originally Tkalciceva Street (Tkalča as the locals call it) was the first red light district in Europe. Every house on the street was a brothel and all windows had to have opaque glass and red lanterns. Today, the area is filled with traditional restaurants, cafes, breweries, boutique shops, and live music. It is a very bustling area and fills up by the time the sun goes down. Devin and I decided on a flight of beer to taste the different Croatian brews and a mixed cold platter which were both delicious! We then went to the highly recommended štrukli restaurant, La Štruk for dessert. It also happened to be Devin’s dad’s birthday so we had an extra beer to celebrate for him!
Dream Come True
Even though we didn’t get to see the coastal towns like Split and Dubronovik, we absolutely loved our month in Croatia. We have been fortunate to have seen a lot of beautiful coastal cities on this trip and we were happy with our decision to explore the capital city. When we do come back, and we will, we will see the rest of the beautiful country. I will always look back on our time in Croatia very fondly and will never forget the beautiful people, delicious food and incredible surroundings.