After an injury that sidelined me for several months, Zagreb Marathon marked my return to running. My participation in the three-race event also makes Croatia country # 34/50 conquered on my quest to run the world and my 50×50 pursuit.
Zagreb is often overlooked in favor of Croatia’s other more high-profile cities Dubrovnik and Split, and though the appeal of the other cities can’t be denied, Zagreb is an excellent choice for a city break. Here’s my “run down” of the event and things to do in the city.
Zagreb marathon was a relatively small event, with 3300 people participating in three races; the marathon, half, and 5K. The race was one of those out-and-back deals where we basically ran in circles. And while I hate those, you know what I hate probably more? Hills!
Despite Zagreb’s Gornji grad (Upper Town) consisting of two hills, the race was very flat. We started at the main square, Ban Josip Jelačić Square – the main square – went out for about 5 miles (8 kilometers) before turning around, passing the main square and going out for another mile (2 kilometers) and back before coming back to the main square for the finish. The half marathoners (that would be me!) ran one lap, while the marathoners (God bless ‘em) did two.
The rather boring course (I would rank it in the top 3, along with Milano City and North London, of the most visually unappealing courses I’ve run) and virtually non-existent crowds beyond the first kilometer of the main square was balanced by the near perfect weather we were blessed with that day and the overall jovial mood of the runners. The finisher’s medal served as a nice consolation prize for the boring course. The awesome bling is bronze with an image of the iconic Zagreb Cathedral and colored accents hanging from a matching ribbon (blue for the marathon and red for the half).
If you’re interested in participating in the Zagreb Marathon in the future, get more information on the event and how to register on the marathon’s website.
Zagreb, Croatia’s capital is known as the “City with a Heart”. Zagreb has a look and feel that is very different than other cities in Croatia, thanks in large part to the 18th and 19th century Austro-Hungarian architecture that permeates the landscape, and thus is more reminiscent of other Central-European capitals like Vienna, Budapest, and Ljubljana.
The city is divided into 2 main sections, the previously mentioned Gornji grad (Upper Town) and Donji grad (Lower Town) where you’ll find the main cultural and tourist sights, as well as most of the restaurants, cafes, and pubs. Upper Town is the medieval area of Zagreb and was once two separate towns – Kaptol, the seat of the church, and Gradec where tradesmen and artisans lived – that were merged in the 18th century. Zagreb further expanded south of what is today Ban Josip Jelačić Square, forming Donji grad (Lower Town).
What I Did and Saw
Basically, what I did in Zagreb when I wasn’t running was walk, and what I saw was quite a lot starting with Zagreb Cathedral on Kaptol in Gornji grad.
Zagreb Cathedral is one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks, thanks to its prominent twin spires which can be seen from almost anywhere in Zagreb. The cathedral is also the tallest building in Croatia, and one of the most important sacral buildings in the region. The inside of Zagreb Cathedral is impressive as well, with beautiful statues, altars, stained glass windows and an impressive organ considered to be one of the 10 finest in the world.
Also take note of the massive candelabra chandeliers at the entrance of the cathedral, which were donated to the cathedral by a Croatian businessman who bought them from a soon-to-be-demolished casino in Las Vegas. Nothing like mixing the scandalous with the sacred.
Another church to see while strolling around Gornji grad is St. Mark’s. The church, which was built in the 13th century, has a stunning colorful tiled roof with the medieval coat of arms of the Triune Kingdom of Croatia (Croatia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia) on the left side, and the emblem of Zagreb on the right. I absolutely loved St. Mark’s. I can’t tell you how many times I walked around the building admiring the roof and taking pictures from different angles.
The church hours are limited to Mass times, but Saturday and Sunday at noon from April to October there is a changing of the guard ceremony adjacent to the church at the parliament building.
The Museum of Broken Relationships is an unexpected find in the City of Hearts, but a popular attraction nonetheless. The museum displays an ever-growing collection of items that represent love and loss. Slightly irreverent, extremely poignant, it is a couple of hours and a few kunas well spent.
Admission to the museum is $6.00 /€ 5.50 for adults, and $4.50/ € 4.00 for students (full-time with ID) and seniors (65 +). The museum is open daily, though hours vary according to the season
When in Zagreb, you will find yourself “under the tail” at least once. No need to fret. It’s not as ominous as it may sound. “Under the tail” refers to the statue of Josip Jelačić riding a horse that sits in Josip Jelačić Square central square and heart of Zagreb. Jelačić is a popular meeting place, an ideal location for people watching and is often the site of specialized, artisanal markets.
Walking away from Jelačić Square took me downtown or to Donji grad, where I took a walk (and one morning, a short run) around Lenuci Horseshoe, a series of seven parks and green spaces which frame downtown Zagreb in the shape of a horseshoe.
Along the Lenuci Horseshoe is the breath-taking Art Pavilion. Painted a bright pineapple-yellow, the exquisite Art Nouveau-style building with the massive glass-topped dome is one of Zagreb’s most cherished landmarks, and its origins are almost as fascinating as the art it houses.
Originally constructed for Croatia’s art contributions for Budapest’s Millennial Exhibition in 1896, the building was taken down piece-by-piece and transported via train from Budapest to Zagreb where it was reconstructed. The Art Pavilion was purpose-built to specifically accommodate large-scale exhibitions. The oldest gallery in Southeast Europe specializes in one-off solo and group exhibitions, thus there is no permanent collection.
The Art Pavilion is surrounded by beautiful gardens and is adjacent to the train station, which is another wonderful piece of architecture.
Admission to the Art Pavilion is $9.00/€8.00 adults, children/students $4.60/€4.00, seniors $6.00/€5.30. A family ticket for up to 2 adults and 2 children is $2.10/€1.80. The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday 11 am – 7:30 pm, Friday 11 am – 9 pm, Last Friday of the month at 10 pm.
Zagreb Botanical Garden is part of the green space that comprises Lenuci Horseshoe. The garden has more than 10,000 plant species, both indigenous Croatian flora, and exotic imports. The garden is very small, but considering it is in the middle of the city, quite peaceful.
The National Theater is another grandiose, yellow building with Austro-Hungarian architecture and a fabulous dome (albeit this one is cooper). The interior is equally as opulent with marble, frescoed ceilings, and gilded columns. I would have loved to go to a performance. I can imagine it would be unforgettable.
What I Ate
Zagreb has a wonderful gastro-bistro culture and the city is filled with small, affordable cafes and restaurants, many serving local specialties.
Ćevapi is a Croatian national dish made of grilled minced meat with onions and bread. For the best ćevapi in town, I was directed to Kitchen & Grill PLAC. No frills, nothing fancy. Just simple, delicious food.
Another traditional Croatian dish is štrukli. An authentic dish from the Zagreb area, štrukli are baked dumplings made with a variety of fillings, and the restaurant La Štruk specializes in this dish. Specializes as in it’s the only thing they make. Savory štrukli. Sweet štrukli. Štrukli with cheese. Štrukli with truffle. Štrukli with pumpkin. Štrukli with….whatever. I had a savory one with cheese, which reminded me of lasagna.
While Hemingway Lounge Bar doesn’t serve much in the way of regional specialties, it does serve pretty decent food and drinks and is pretty popular with locals. Another plus is that it’s adjacent to the National Theater, and on the awesome autumn afternoon I was there, I sat on the terrace taking in this view.
Le Bistro Esplanade, the upscale bistro located in the city’s top hotel, Hotel Esplanade. The menu offers classic French bistro fare such as soups, salads and meat dishes, however, their signature dish is the štrukli, which has been on the menu since 1951. The dress for the Michelin recommended restaurant smart casual, and though it is more expensive than most Zagreb eating establishments, but still relatively inexpensive when compared to other cities.
Oh and wine. There are over 200 indigenous grape varieties in Croatia and as a result a lot of wonderful wines to choose from. I made sure to sample as many as I could.
Where I Stayed
The Palace Hotel was my accommodation of choice while in Zagreb. The Palace Hotel is a majestic old hotel, and though the décor is slightly dated, its location, smack in the center of Zagreb, is superb.
The Palace Hotel overlooks a beautiful park on the Lenuci Horseshoe and is a 5-minute walk to the Jelačić Square in one direction, and the train station in the other.
What I Didn’t See
Time did not allow for more than a quick walk-by and look at the Mimara Museum. The imposing building with its neo-Renaissance façade showcases several centuries of European art and decorative pieces and is the city’s largest and most important art museum. With less than an hour until closing when I got there, I knew that I didn’t have enough time to make a dent in a museum that houses nearly 4,000 pieces of art. So, it goes to the top of the list for my next visit.
How To Get To There
Zagreb is easily accessible since it’s home to the both the country’s largest airport and railway station.
Most international carriers fly into Zagreb Airport, which is located 10 miles (17 kilometers) from the city center. An airport bus goes from the airport to the city center in 30 minutes.
Zagreb Glavni kolodvor, located less than a mile from the city center, is the main hub of Croatia’s railway system and offers several national and international connections.
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