x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

My Kind of Place: Croatia's capital, Zagreb, is worth lingering in

Don't rush to enjoy the coast. There are many reasons to make Croatia's capital your next destination.

Looking out over the centre of Zagreb from the vantage point of Lotrscak Tower in the medieval area of Gradec. Lonely Planet Images
Looking out over the centre of Zagreb from the vantage point of Lotrscak Tower in the medieval area of Gradec. Lonely Planet Images

Why Zagreb?

The capital of Croatia has much to offer in the way of art, architecture and history with the grand palaces and leafy boulevards of the Green Horseshoe - a series of seven squares which form a U-shape - and the city's hilly Old Town, which is still lit by gas lamps. However, it's not overrun by tourists - most tourists to Croatia head for the Adriatic coast or Dubrovnik - and Zagreb's pedestrian-friendly city centre has a relaxed, easy-going atmosphere.

The historical centre of Zagreb encompasses two separate medieval villages from the 11th and 13th centuries - Gradec, and Kaptol, home of a neo-Gothic cathedral - which joined forces to repel Turkish invaders forming a new capital, Zagreb, in the mid-16th century. A myriad of political alliances followed before Zagreb became the capital of the modern-day Republic of Croatia in 1991, and a bitter war followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. Now, the city mixes its central European identity and Habsburg-era heritage - much of Zagreb's style and architectural influences come from its nearest neighbours Vienna and Budapest - with more relaxed Mediterranean influences such as the cafe culture from the Adriatic coast and neighbouring Italy. Croatia is gearing up to join the EU next year.

A comfortable bed

With rooms overlooking the 19th century Zrinjevac park, the Hotel Palace (www.palace.hr; 00 385 1 4899600), once Schlessinger Palace, first opened as a hotel in 1907. The Art Nouveau building has an elegant interior and a quiet location right beside the Green Horseshoe. Double rooms cost from €240 (Dh1,110) per night.

Built in 1925 for passengers passing through on the Orient Express, the Regent Esplanade Zagreb (www.regenthotels.com; 00 385 14566666) quickly became the city's most luxurious hotel, with A-list guests including presidents, royalty and film stars. Rub shoulders with the elite on the Oleander Terrace before retiring to your butler drawn bath. Double rooms cost from €140 (Dh647) per night.

Find your feet

Zagreb's city centre is divided between the historical centre in the Upper Town and the leafy 19th century parks and boulevards of the Lower Town. Set between the two, the main square, Trg bana Jelacica (Ban Jelacic Square), is the best place to get your bearings. To explore the Lower Town, cross to the south side of the square, walk along Praška and you'll come to the start of the Green Horseshoe, which is home to many art galleries and museums. You might catch a music recital in the pavilion in Zrinjevac park, and along the way you'll pass the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, founded in 1866 and the neo-baroque Croatian National Theatre (1895).

Back in Ban Jelacic Square, walk north for the Upper Town, with the colourful red parasols of the Dolac open-air food market, the tall spires of the Cathedral and the cobbled streets of the old city Gric, or Gradec. You can take a short funicular from the Lower Town to the Upper Town (from Ilica), or enter through the Stone Gate - the only remaining gate of the four city gates dating to the Middle Ages.

Meet the locals

A daily local ritual is to have coffee along Bogoviceva, just off the main square - either for social or business meetings. There are so many cafes and bakeries here, it's called the "Living Room of Zagreb", and each cafe has its own particular crowd. These terraces are also lively at night for coffees or drinks. Tkalciceva, a pedestrianised street in the Upper Town is also full of bars and cafes.

Shopper's paradise

Shopping in Zagreb isn't divided up into areas or "designer streets" and there are luxury brands and boutiques dotted throughout the city, with most of the shopping centred around the central street of Ilica. Check out Croatian womenswear designer A'marie (Gunduliceva 19) for chic dresses from 3,000 Croatian kuna (Dh1,836). Luxury boutique Maria (Masarykova 8) stocks collections from international designers, and nearby is Max Mara (Masarykova 17).

Around the corner on Frankopanska, you'll find Calvin Klein, Cacharel and Lacoste outlets. In the upper town there are boutiques, jewellers and local handbag designers around Tkalciceva, such as Croatian designers Hippy Garden (Vrbik 4). Prostor (Mesnicka 5) has products made by Croatian designers and artists - with rings made from computer parts (150Kn; Dh92) and handmade leather handbags (1,845Kn; Dh1,130).

Book a table

Zagreb's cuisine is heavily influenced by its Austro-Hungarian heritage and Italian neighbours - don't be surprised to see both risotto and strudel on menus. Štrukli is a popular local dish - boiled or baked dough filled with cottage cheese, fresh seafood from the Adriatic is on most menus and beef, lamb and veal grills or roasts are popular. Pod Grickim Topom's (Zakmardijeve stube 5, 00 385 1 4833607) flower-filled terrace beside the funicular is popular on a summer evening. Starters include shrimp risotto (80Kn;Dh49) or for mains, lamb cutlets with rosemary potatoes (120Kn;Dh73).

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Kaptol quarter, Baltazar (Nova Ves 4, 00 385 1 4666999) serves traditional specialities including lamb from the islands in the Adriatic (95Kn; Dh58). At Restoran Vinodol (Teslina 10, 00 385 1 4811427), dine in the covered outdoor terrace or the main restaurant. Some of the most interesting dishes on the menu are boletus mushroom soup which comes in an edible bread bowl (36Kn; Dh22), or spit-roasted kid goat (260Kn; Dh158 per kilo).

What to avoid

Don't plan on shopping or sightseeing at weekends. Museums and shops close at lunchtime on Saturdays; shops are closed on Sundays and most museums close on Sundays at 1pm.

Don't miss

The Zagreb Archaeological Museum (Trg Nikole Šubica Zrinksog 19) has more than 400,000 exhibits from prehistoric times to the medieval period. Highlights include the so-called Zagreb mummy, which has the longest inscription written in Etruscan on its bandages. In the Upper Town, the Zagreb City Museum relates the city's history, and check out the city walls, found during renovations of the building in the 1990s.

Go there

Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) flies to Zagreb from Abu Dhabi via Frankfurt from Dh4,460 return, including taxes.