Discover Croatia’s Capital By Getting To Know It’s Hidden Secrets. Zagreb Off The Beaten Path Is Dark, Exhilarating, Up With The Times And Just Plain Cool.
Zagreb is often not one’s first choice when we think of Croatia as a destination and travellers always wonder what to do in Zagreb. Synonymous with its stunning coastlines, sailing and beaches as well as being popularised by HBO’s Game of Thrones, we decided that on this girl’s only trip we would give it a miss and head to its capital instead. Zagreb is a city rich in history and is easy to navigate. We were however really interested to see a different side to this city and were so pleased when Iva Silla from Secret Zagreb agreed to show us around. Zagreb off the beaten path enlightened us on so many facets we would otherwise have never known and I was amazed by all the things to do in Zagreb.
Iva is a masterful story teller. We didn’t get a walking tour filled with facts and figures or in depth historical details. For 4 hours, she took us on a journey of contemporary street art, viewing sculptures celebrating prolific Croatians, dark and sinister tales and sights that were simply interesting or funny. Here are some of Zagreb’s off the beaten path highlights, veiled in slight secrecy.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #1
Secret Dragon Society. In the heart of Zagreb, tucked away in the cobblestone streets, exists till this day, a secret dragon society. This Croatian historical and cultural society established in 1905 was banned by the Communist regime and re-established in 1990. Members of this society today are bestowed with the title of Grand Masters and are influential members of society. Conspiracy theorists suggests that it lodges the free masons in Croatia which only made it all the more exciting when Iva showed us where it was.
If your family are fans of dragons, witches, ghosts and all things dark, do check out her Ghosts and Dragons Tour.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #2
Contemporary Art In The Middle of Nowhere. Picasso and Dali are about the limits of my appreciation of “modern art”. I draw the line at Warhol and well yes, some sculptures and installations may be considered “cool” but that’s because I find them pretty, appreciate the difficulty in the assembly or creation process or perhaps technology had some play in it. Other than that, I just don’t get it.
But when Iva took us to check out a giant fish with human eyes surrounded by looming trees and green brushes, I did a “wow!” The fish is painted on an overturned abandoned old boat. Entitled the “Unnatural Habitat”, it was Lonac’s final exam piece for art school. This is a great photo opportunity, especially through the free-standing frame adorned with figures inspired by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. All in all, a surreal experience in a most unusual setting.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #3
Meet a Miniaturist and Illuminator. What is a miniaturist? A miniaturist is an artist who specialises in small, discrete works and Croatia’s most famous miniaturist is Giulio Clovio. Not only was he a miniaturist, he was also an illuminator, a painter of ornamental decorations. In meeting this man, I learnt of 2 new professions.
And have a good guess what tiny painting this man does on what “ornamental” object. In this instance, it’s a body part! Ask Iva and she’ll show you!
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #4
History Making Funicular. I am a sucker for a funicular because it denotes to me that it will lead to a higher place I’m unable to view from where I am. For me it also means that it is heading to somewhere so special that a dedicated mode of transport was commissioned to transport us there. Just like the funicular that takes us up to Sacre Couer in Paris, the steepest funicular that goes to the alpine resorts of Stoos in Switzerland or my very first experience when I was a child, heading up to The Peak in Hong Kong.
So why is the funicular in Zagreb Old Town history making? It’s the world’s shortest funicular! We had wanted to take it up to the Upper Town but upon exploring the city on our own, we stumbled across the funicular, from the top! I had a good laugh albeit being disappointed. We did however discover a great vantage point to view it from and is definitely a quintessential Zagreb tourist attraction. Iva will show you where this great spot is.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #5
A Walk In the Forest. When Iva confirmed our tour, I actually had no idea where she was going to take us. I just told her that I wanted to see Zagreb in a different light that perhaps only the locals would be aware of, patronise or experience. So, imagine my delight when the first port of call was a forest. Yup, a forest! In the middle of the city! Although Tuskanac is neither hard to navigate or too far from the hub of the city, it certainly wasn’t in our radar.
And what a fascinating walk it was! She showed us an open-air cinema for dogs in the middle of nowhere, grand houses being built by some very rich Croatians, an abandoned park project turned police sleeping headquarters and folklore associated with the area. It was such a nice respite from the city and to be amongst the trees and nature.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #6
Frolicking With A 19th Century Poet. Antun Gustav Matoš was a prominent Croatian poet in the 19th century that helped to shape the country’s modern literature. I have come to understand that it is a popular sculpture on Strossmayer’s promenade, with a stunning view. We didn’t know about the sculpture until Iva brought us here but it’s her story of why he was really placed there that cemented our liking for him.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #7
Viewing the Solar System, to Scale. “Nine Views” is an installation in Zagreb which together with the sculpture of “The Grounded Sun”, makes up a consistent model of the Solar System.
The system is at scale 1:680 000 000. The sculpture of the sun which was erected first, became the epicenter of the installation. Artist Davor Preis then placed 9 models of the planets of the Solar System around Zagreb. The models’ sizes as well as their distances from the sun sculpture are all in the same scale. Earth’s model is about 1.9 cm in size and at 225 m distance from the sun’s model, while Pluto’s model is 7.7 km away from it. Of the few that Iva showed us, we had walked straight past on numerous occasions in the day’s prior. This is such a cool installation! It would be such a fun thing for the kids to try and discover all 9 planets. I can assure you they were not easy to spot.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #8
Meeting Prolific Croatians All In One Space. Street art and murals are becoming a prevalent part of Zagreb’s cityscape and we went to see one of the coolest ones. Don’t ask me where it is, not because I’m being evasive, I simply have no idea where Iva took us! Not sure I would have found it even if you gave me an address. Had Hannah been with me, we would have been stuck there for ages trying to get the perfect photo. I thought it made for an interesting history lesson about famous Croatians and the kids would have found it fascinating. Here you’ll meet:
- Slavoljub Eduard Penkala (1871 – 1922) who was an engineer and inventor. He created the mechanical pencil, the first solid-ink fountain pen and the hot water bottle.
- Nikola Tesla (1856 – 1943) was an engineer known for designing the alternating-current (AC) electric system, which is still the predominant electrical system used across the world today.
- David Schwarz (1852 – 1897) who was famous for the construction of the world’s first directable all-metal airship.
- Faust Vrancic (1551 – 1617) who invented and tested the parachute and actually experimented when he was a tender age of 65 and only ending up breaking a thigh bone.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #9
Witches of Croatia. Its no wonder that the Game of Thrones chose Croatia as its major filming destination. Its insatiable appetite for dragons and witches make it a natural backdrop for the show. Until the middle of the 18th century, witch hunting in Zagreb was rife and it was legal back then to place a woman on trial if they were suspected for practising the dark arts.
Iva will take you through many stories of Baba Roga, the hideous old lady who made potions using little children as a main ingredient and how Baba Roga’s evilness was used on her all the time to keep her quiet when she was a child. Then there’s the snake witch and the infamous Black Queen. The Black Queen is said to have sold her soul to the devil, and ever since, she’s been wandering the underground with her ravens, guarding her cursed treasure. If you’re lucky, you’ll survive Iva’s trip to the mouth of this so called underground and how street art has transformed folklore into modern day times.
ZAGREB OFF THE BEATEN PATH #10
So Many Other Cool Things. The walking tour had so many more other highlights that if I mentioned them all I’d be giving away all her trade secrets! But here is a quick mention of some of the other Zagreb things to do which Iva showed us:
- Best observation deck for star gazing.
- 15th century medieval wall still in existence.
- The only remaining water well in Zagreb.
- A replica of a legal written monument in ancient Croatian Glagolitic Script.
- Ability to meet a well-known Naïve Art artist in her own gallery.
- Evidence of underground activities of the old days.
Throughout the tour, there was a lot of “oohhs!”, “aahhs!”, “no ways!” and “that’s so cool!”. All signs of a tour well received! When we met Iva, we already had 3 days in in this great city and had literally seen and done all the top things to do in Zagreb. And yet, Iva was able to show us a side of Zagreb we hadn’t explored.
One of the reasons we selected Zagreb as one of our destinations for an adult girl’s trip was because we didn’t think there was too much for the kids to do. How wrong I was! They would have enjoyed everything we did, and I encourage all families to add it to their Croatian itinerary as there are simple so many things to do in Zagreb!
I hope my obscurity has sparked some intrigue and excitement. Whilst you can Google your way to all these places, its just not the same without a local telling you tales from the past, intertwined with her personal accounts from growing up in this city. Thank you, Iva, for your generous time. We will be back with the kids next time and will take them on your walking tour of Zagreb!
Luxury: Esplanade Zagreb Hotel
There aren’t many 5 star hotels in Zagreb but what they do have is splendid. This hotel is a wonderfully restored historic hotel with great service, a very convenient location for sightseeing and accommodating, professional staff. You would feel like you have stapped back at a very grand time in history. Very classy, impecabble service, lovely restaurants and very quiet.
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Hostel: The Dots Hostel
The location is incredibly central, easy to walk to any and all sights in Zagreb. The place is very clean and bright whilst the staff are very friendly and helpful. The shared bathrooms are also clean and the breakfast is considered generous by hostel standards. Suitable for families.
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Affordable: Hotel Jagerhorn
The greatest advantage of staying in this hotel is the location. Located just off Ilica Street, you are a stone’s throw away from every major attraction in the lower and upper towns. The rooms are a bit on the smaller side but the staff are very friendly. Breakfast is good enough and they have a gorgeous courtyard area that looks straight up to the upper town. This hotel was cheap so we spent the rest of our money on shopping!
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Apartment: Main Square Residence
You are at the heart of the city centre, amidst the action, at Ban Jelačić Square, the main square of the capital of Croatia. The 24 apartments are luxurious, immensely comfortable with handmade beds. The location is second to none, rooms are big and bathrooms are newly renovated. It comes with a small kitchenette and good wifi.
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