Despite being named as the best destination in Europe by travel guide publisher Lonely Planet in 2017, Zagreb was the target of a scathing and, at points, hilarious review in the German weekly news magazine Der Spiegel last July.
The review not only claimed that Zagreb is the most boring capital in Europe, but also said that its highway to Croatia’s famed Adriatic coast was the best thing about the city.
After laying into the city’s nightlife and its many outdated lounge-cafes, the author also dismissively compared its well-preserved old core to German provincial cities.
Incidentally, the last insult is also often lobbed by Belgraders at Zagreb in the long rivalry between the two cities, which spans almost a century and covers everything and anything from culture, fashion and sports to who got McDonald’s first (for the record, Belgrade won that last one).
Despite my local patriotism to Belgrade, I must say that calling Zagreb a boring provincial town is to be blind to its many subtle charms and thrills.
Like its best stand-alone attraction, the diminutive but heart-breaking Museum of Broken Relationships, Zagreb is all about wonderful details, hidden in a wonderfully romantic setting.
Its old core, spread over two charming hills and overlooked by a fairy-tale bone-white cathedral, has many wonderful nooks, from the atmospheric shrine in Kamenita Vrata to Mestrovic Atelier, a gallery/studio previously occupied by Ivan Mestrovic, the most famous Croatian sculptor of the 20th Century.
Then, of course, there are the wonderfully romantic views over the city from the top of the Gric hill.
Those who are not immune to old-world romance can walk around Zagreb and admire its art-nouveau palaces, wonderful fin-de-siècle parks and last but not least, the ivy-covered arcades of Mirogoj, the city’s majestic cemetery.
Zagreb’s picture-perfect side shines brightest during the city’s pre-Christmas, advent season when you can stroll around with a mulled wine in hand, stopping for snacks at the many stalls dotted around the city centre.
Much of this, of course, can be found throughout Mitteleuropa, but Zagreb mixes its Germanic grace with Mediterranean (or dare I say Balkan?) liveliness.
Every Saturday morning you can enjoy the sight of stylish Zagreb natives dressed to the nines going for a leisurely stroll around Dolac, the bustling open-air farmers’ market, and people watching from cafés around Cvetni trg.
Even on weekdays, cafes, bars and drinking dens alike are brimming with life. There is something for everybody, from elegant wine bar/restaurants (Triologija), hipster outlets (Najgora kafa u gradu), stylish cake shops (Fine torte) to craft beer halls (The Beertija).
Most importantly, although stylish and proud of their city, Zagreb natives are open-minded and warm to their guests.
The nightlife, while admittedly not as lively compared to Belgrade, has its moments. Parties at Lauba – an art gallery/club in a disused factory – are usually standout, while there are plenty of clubs to spend the night in playing anything from Balkan folk-pop (cajke) to commercial electronic dance music
Then there is the city’s regionally famous cultural life, from the ambitious production of major plays and operas in the stately Croatian National Theatre, to great independent films in the wonderfully refurbished Kino Europa (which I wrote about previously).
This cinema is not only the heart of the Zagreb Film Festival, which takes place every November, it was also given a prize for best programming in Europe last year by Europa Cinemas, a continental network of cinemas dedicated to promoting European films.
The list of things to see and do in Zagreb is, of course, much longer, however these are just the places that I, as a proud Belgrader, can admit to loving in Zagreb, where I am always happy to stop by for a few days, and not just on my way to the coast.