By Andrea Pisac
Travellers visiting Zagreb meet 5 challenges to having a true experience. But where’s challenges, there’s also solutions. Exciting, isn’t it?
#1: Zagreb is not a touristy city
Paris – the city of light, New York – the city that never sleeps, Rome – the eternal city, Tokyo – the city of the future, Zagreb – you tell me.
Zagreb is not a touristy city – it doesn’t even have a proper nickname recognised by travellers. Sometimes it’s called Little Vienna, but this description doesn’t give it due credit. Zagreb can be an interesting 3-day city break but its obvious tourist sights are not as famous or instantly recognised as those of London, Berlin or Moscow. If you judge it on first impressions, you’ll be disappointed. Because Zagreb is a city that needs unravelling.
An American expat working in the American International School of Zagreb said that
‘Zagreb’s main attraction is its attitude — a sophisticated laid back cool that puts life on pause in favor of friends and family […] if Zagreb has taught me one thing, it’s how to relax.’
Nickname that fits Zagreb best is the slow city. Visiting Zagreb for longer than a typical 3-day break will make you slow down. It could be a challenge at first, especially if you’re used to rushing around. Or if you’re the kind of traveller who simply must see everything. But after covering ‘things to see’ and ‘places to be’ from guidebooks, you’ll realise that the best things are not packaged here. It’s a similar philosophy to the slow food movement, which teaches us to know where our food comes from. Zagreb highlights will come to you from the people you meet, much less from travel guides.
SOLUTION: come to Zagreb to rest; forget a tourist itinerary, don’t burden your downtime with ‘to do’ lists
#2: Zagreb guides don’t capture the whole picture
It’s a valid plan to read a guidebook before visiting Zagreb. What could be wrong with it? Nothing particularly, it’s just that official guidebooks have a copy-paste model they apply to cities universally. 10 best restaurants, 5 must-see places, you know the drill. They categorise your experience into formulaic chunks – for example sights, nightlife, cuisine – making you believe this is all there is to a place.
Well researched guides to Zagreb (Zagreb in your pocket, Timeout Croatia, Rough guide to Croatia) can help you enjoy established places. But well-known is not always the most interesting. There are also online guides revealing what Zagreb locals love and do, sometimes before these sights become the city’s must-dos. Check out these 2: Zagreb like a local, Zagreb spotted by locals. I’m a huge advocate of picking a local’s brain for the best time in Zagreb. I do fault the approach some of these ‘tourism through locals’ brands have: they start in one place and soon clone to encompass the whole world. Personally I don’t believe a city’s local knowledge is formed and spread in the same way globally.
Then there’s useful tips from expats living in Croatia. There aren’t many but a few write really interesting blogs. Check out these 3: Zablogreb, Chasing the donkey, Frank about Croatia. You’ll get good suggestions about what to do and where to go. Their biggest value? Their insights relate to what you as a foreigner could experience in Croatia. What might be a cultural shock to you, how to interpret what appears as weird Croatian behaviour, etc.
Taste of Croatia is my favourite local knowledge source. Run by a group of enthusiasts – food bloggers, chefs in their spare time and most of all Croatia connoisseurs, it’s a treasure box of everything you can taste in Croatia. Be sure that a restaurant they recommend has nothing to do with paid advertising and everything to do with the best locally sourced food prepared with love. Connect with them and you’ll learn about food and wine events and venues before they enter official guides. It’s a Croatian culinary pop up.
SOLUTION: explore different types of guides – official, local, expat – and keep an open eye for things that aren’t yet listed.
#3: Zagreb hotels are overpriced
Majority of Zagreb hotels are not the best value for your money. You might spend around 100 Euros a night for a room that looks the same in every city. OK, it comes with breakfast, but you can always buy pastry around the corner and have it in your local coffee shop. Until a couple of years ago Zagreb was only a place you’d pass through on the way to the Croatian coast. Today, it’s become more of a tourist destination in its own right.
So the private accommodation offer has increased. Zagreb Tourist Board has around 900 listed apartments. This is 60% more compared to last year. While the number of tourists to Zagreb rises all the time, vacation apartments offer is still larger than the demand. I’d always recommend renting privately, but how do you choose from thousands of great looking places? Booking, Flipkey and Airbnb feature amazing apartments for as little as 30 Euros a night – all centrally located. Many of these properties have been turned from long-term lettings into tourist apartments. I believe that whoever chooses tourism as a serious job needs to create a service that offers more than a place to sleep. I’d always recommend Airbnb as a rental agency because you can find out a lot about a person you’re renting from. Look for someone who shares your interests.
Read people’s biographies. If you’re into art, a host with similar interests will give you great tips about the Zagreb art scene – even if they are not a professional tourist guide. Rental agencies also list Zagreb hostels. There is now a large number of them and they are very affordable. The biggest advantage of staying in a hostel is that you meet fellow travellers who’ll share tips someone else shared with them. Make the most of the word of mouth knowledge about Zagreb. Check out Frank’s comprehensive guide to the best accommodation in Zagreb, including: hotels worth staying at, best private apartments with an added value, and funky hostels offering private rooms.
SOLUTION: private apartments are the best value for money, even more so if you find a host who is a good ambassador or the city.
#4: Zagreb is not an authentic place and that’s a great thing
You’re visiting Zagreb and you want to find out what’s authentic there. Food, drinks, crafts – I know where you’re coming from. But your search for the authentic might confuse you a bit. The best thing about Zagreb is that most that’s authentic here has been influenced by different cultural heritages. The great-tasting apple strudle dates from the Austro-Hungarian times. If you tried cevapi, you’ll recognised the Turkish kofta kebab as its sibling. Lightly steamed vegetables seasoned with olive oil, garlic and parsley – a staple food in Dalmatia – is a yummy offspring of the Italian cuisine. And medjimurska gibanica – a delicious filo pastry cake with 4 fillings – is also recognised as a Slovenian national dish.
There certainly are authentic Croatian dishes (strukli, purica s mlincima, soparnik), but the point is something else. Zagreb, and Croatia as a whole, offer such rich varieties of all kinds of culinary influences. You’ll enjoy most when you start recognising how these influences have been adapted locally. Just take filo pastry as an example. Zagreb is the place where you can find both Central-European sweet strudel and Turkish-style savory burek – both made with the same dough. Delicious!
SOLUTION: enjoy the global influences that mix and match in Zagreb. It’s the place where East meets West.
#5: Zagreb customer service sucks but Zagreb friends make up for it
When you travel, you are basically a customer – at least most of the time. Visiting Zagreb could become a true challenge, because customer service is not a very developed concept. Here you’ll really need to keep your Zen.
Last year I visited the Zagreb Christmas fair. Among many colourful goodies, I decided to buy a horseshoe-shaped chocolate. I paid the saleslady and while I was still stuffing the change into my wallet, she handed me the bag with chocolate. I took it clumsily and immediately dropped it to the ground. ‘Could I have another one, please’, I showed her the broken pieces. She replied: No. ‘But you could easily mould it back together’, I reasoned with her. “It fell from your hand, not mine’, she grunted and turned to the next customer.
Many foreign travellers experience Croatians as rude. I agree. The way that saleslady treated me was rude. But Croatian people are not really rude by nature. They just haven’t been taught basic customer service principles. In Western countries the way products are sold has been just as important as what is being sold. A successful sale is mostly based on whether the customer is made to feel good. Which is why smiling and the ‘customer is always right’ attitude are part of every salesperson’s education.
If you encounter abrupt and stroppy salespeople in Croatia, know that they haven’t been taught to treat you otherwise. It’s one of the remains from how things functioned during socialism – a time with little competition. But if you approach a stroppy waiter, for example, in a friendly and personal way, expect change. The moment you cross the line from being a customer to becoming a friendly face, you’ll experience a different side to most Croats – they’ll walk an extra mile in order to help you.
Remember this: Croatia is a country where many exchanges are not monetised. For example, what I’ve been used to paying for as a service in the UK is often done as a personal favour in Croatia. In London I’d pay for a cat-sitting service, whereas in Zagreb I have friends do it as a favour. You’ll be pleasantly surprised when you discover how much your Zagreb friends can help you. (Photo / Pogled by Er-vet-on – Wikicommons)
SOLUTION: Keep cool in cases of shitty customer service; approach stroppy salespeople in a friendly way and see how they transform into helpful strangers.