Croatia's capital and largest city, Zagreb is also the cultural capital of the region. The city boasts many museums, art galleries, orchestras and folk festivals. Today, outdoor cafes and city parks are full, dance clubs pump music into the night air and art festivals are popular.
Zagreb has several reminders of the Austro-Hungarian period, particularly the decorated facades and the deep yellow color of old government buildings.
The city can be divided into three areas: the upper town, or old town (the winding part up in the mountains), the lower town (the flat, gridlike section) and the new part (the surrounding plain covered with residential buildings from the communist era). If you are interested in old-style Zagreb, confine your sightseeing to the first two areas.
Begin at the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, with its neo-Gothic structure, richly decorated altars and Renaissance walls. Stroll past the nearby central market and into spacious Jelacic Square (Trg bana Jelacica), which is the heart of the city. The square's dominating sculpture depicts 19th-century hero Count Jelacic on his mighty steed.
Catch the funicular (Uspinjaca) to the upper town and pass the Stone Gate, which has a shrine to the Virgin Mary. (The gate's icon, surrounded by candles, was miraculously untouched after a devastating fire in 1731.) See the statue of the 19th-century literary figure Dora on the western facade.
Continue to St. Mark's Church, with its colorfully tiled roof (reminiscent of the Hapsburgs) and a stark interior designed by notable Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Note that the church is open only during Mass. During the summer months, see the guard-changing ceremony on the church grounds Saturday and Sunday at noon.
If you like churches, visit St. Catherine's, which has a frothy baroque interior that looks as if it could be made of whipped cream.
If you can't afford to stay at the Regent Esplanade hotel, located at Mihanoviceva 1, at least have a coffee or cocktail there. The art-deco wonder was built in 1925 to house passengers traveling through the area on the Orient Express from Paris to Istanbul.
If you have time, take a brief trip up Mount Medvednica, overlooking the city, where you'll find the medieval fortress of Medvedgrad. The former residential part of the fortress in the north is flanked by the sentry tower in the south. Don't miss the charming neo-gothic chapel of St. Jacob, built in 1847.
We recommend a long day trip into the picturesque rolling countryside to the north of Zagreb known as the Hrvatsko Zagorje. It's dotted with castles, spas, farms, small villages and vineyards. Famous for the traditional manufacturing of wooden toys and musical instruments, the area is known for its strong cultural heritage.
Start at Kumrovec, the village where former Yugoslavian President Joseph Broz Tito was born, to get an idea of early peasant life in Croatia. It's also home to the fascinating ethnographic museum Staro Selo, which features dozens of traditional residential houses, farm buildings and smaller structures restored to their previous rural charm. You can even watch master craftspeople (blacksmiths, artists, carpenters, etc.) at work.
Also worth visiting is the small village of Marija Bistrica, where the Church of St. Mary houses a 15th-century statue of a Madonna that has for centuries been considered one of the most sacred objects in the country. It is credited with miraculous deeds and attracts many tourists and religious pilgrims to the area.
The Mirogoj Cemetery is not to be missed. Created in 1876, the cemetery has a rich history paralleled only by its stunning architecture and beautiful natural attributes. Bus 106 runs directly from the Cathedral and takes roughly 15 minutes.
Like many other cities in Croatia, Zagreb offers an attractive discount program for tourists. Purchase of a Zagreb Card provides access to free public transportation, free entry to four major museums and the zoo, and reduced prices or special offers at more than 70 locations. Cards are available for either 24 hours (13 euros) or 72 hours (18 euros) and can be purchased online or at more than 20 locations. http://www.zagrebcard.com.
On weekends from April to October, Zagreb's streets are enlivened by historical reenactors dressed in period costume, folklore ensembles and other street performers, and concerts in city parks.
The Zagreb Film Festival takes place in late October, with screenings and public concerts part of the celebration. http://www.zagrebfilmfestival.com.
Advent in Zagreb is a Christmas festival and market that takes place from December until January. www.adventzagreb.com
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