Zagreb: Not high on the tourist list, but well worth a visit

Posted on by Kevin Armstrong

Zagreb is not your typical tourist magnet. Indeed, compared with the more familiar cities of the old, Western Europe, it is something of an unknown for most people. Yet Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is well worth a visit. I was there in the winter of 2015/16 and explored the Upper Old Town and Lower Old Town which sit at the feet of the Medvednica mountain with the Sava river and new town beyond.

The Austro-Hungarian buildings and the curving footpaths up to and down from the Upper Old Town provide many interesting backgrounds, ‘stage sets’ if you like, for street photography. Combine that with a coffee culture and, well, what’s not to like?

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My routine, having driven from Plitvice Lakes where I was staying, was to park beneath the Upper Old Town and then walk up to see what was happening, perhaps capturing an interesting shot or two with the X Vario, stop for coffee and then walk down to the Lower Old Town for dinner and to prepare for the drive back. 

Even in 2016, the city maintained its gas lamps, lit by hand every evening by, I assumed, employees of the city council travelling around by scooter or on foot. They seemed to have the lighting of the lamps down to a fine art and were at each post generally for only a few seconds. A brief pause in their brisk walk or a momentary slowing of the scooter, a swing of their lighting pole and they were off to the next one. Once I got to know where the lamps were, I could wait for the lamp-lighters to arrive and, with a quick burst of a few frames, hope to capture an expressive pose. And as I write I wonder — does the gas stay on all the time?

In the Upper Old Town the Museum of Broken Relationships, the exhibits of which seemingly devoted to failed love affairs, had a pleasant café which proved to be a convenient watering hole. I confess I didn’t look at the exhibits, only at the chocolate cake, but noticed the street sign opposite and sat around waiting for a suitable couple to pass under it. 

Continuing to the Lower Old Town, one footpath descends from the upper station of the funicular railway opened in 1890 and operated by Zagreb Electric Tram. Said to be the shortest cable car in the world, it does, however, save a steep climb. 

Colourful umbrellas are a feature of Zagreb. Groups of Korean tourists are led around the Upper Old Town, each with their brollies protecting them from the rain, before descending to meet their tour buses and being transported off to the next sightseeing opportunity.

The umbrellas cheer the place up, especially when the grey clouds combine with the stone buildings to make the city a bit gloomy. It’s an excellent place to buy a reasonably priced quality one and, if you are so minded, a pair of handmade shoes. 

While the Upper Old Town contains the parliament and other government buildings, the Lower Old Town is the location of the main shops and offices. I particularly liked the statue of Stjepan Radić, a Croatian politician, on the corner of Petrinjska Ulica and Jurišiceva Ulica, and his gesture just waiting for a matching pedestrian to pass beneath. 

Zagreb is not a city one would typically think of visiting, but it’s worth doing so if you are able — especially as part of a visit to Croatia. A word of warning though, try to avoid being mown down by the free-range cyclists in the arcades.

All pictures by Kevin Armstrong using the Leica X Vario