Nestled between the tranquil southern slopes of Medvednica mountain and the gently flowing Sava River, lies Croatia’s bustling capital city, Zagreb. While this cosmopolitan enclave enraptures lovers of architecture, history and excitement of all varieties, it also has an unmistakable spirit of ease, ideal for those looking for a reprieve from life’s day-to-day stresses. As visitors meander the winding roads of Lower Town, or pop into any number of squares and parks, they may catch a distinctly Mediterranean flair to the pace of life here, favoring long breaks for excellent coffee, cuisine thoughtfully sourced from the freshest ingredients, and a lifestyle that incorporates daily time in nature and proximity to wellness (including world class spas and excellent medicine). In fact, Zagreb has a long tradition of prioritizing health, and with centuries-old wellness traditions, there is truly something for everyone seeking rest and rejuvenation here. Read on to learn more.
Coffee & Lounge Culture
Zagreb’s coffee culture is world-famous, and for good reason. On a stroll through the city, visitors will instantly notice the streets lined with cafés and carefree patrons slowly sipping their drinks at almost any time of day. As with many aspects of Zagreb’s culture, the tradition of sitting at coffeehouses came centuries ago by way of Vienna; but what makes the scene even more eclectic is the intersecting influences from both Italy and the Ottoman Empire—meaning that whatever style of coffee you prefer, it can likely be found on the menu here. To try it for yourself, grab a cup and enjoy it on the terrace of a lively local café. There’s no hurry to finish—in fact, coffee is a somewhat of a social phenomenon here, with the phrase, “let’s have a coffee” representing an invitation to gather and often talk for hours. On Saturday mornings, join in the weekly local custom known as špica, during which throngs of people flock to Cvjetni trg to catch up on the week’s happenings before making a stop for farm-fresh produce at local market (like Dolac Market in the city’s center).
When it comes to Zagreb’s cuisine, the mindset, as much as the food, comes to define it. Here, the catchphrase, “domaće je domaće” or “local/homemade is the best” reigns supreme with fresh, locally-sourced produce being a high priority to residents' sensibilities. Luckily, just beyond the city’s limits lie acres of lush countryside and verdant farmland producing everything from seasonal fruits and vegetables to wine, meat and dairy year-round.
While a blend of influences contributes to the cuisine here, none have had more of an impact on the contents of a typical family meal than the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. For a taste of some authentic staples, start with štrukli; similar to a white lasagna and filled with cheese, the dish comes boiled or baked and can be savory or sweet, depending on the recipe. For a sweet treat after the meal, pop into any number of bakeries or cake shops for a bite of kremšnita, a famous cream cake from the nearby town Samobor.
Outdoor spaces are quite literally at the heart of Zagreb’s history. Up until the mid-19th century, the capital city remained a relatively small town. After the railway expanded in 1862 to connect Zagreb to other central European capitals, the city began a rapid phase of development. However, the town planning maintained a strict scheme, dictating everything from the size and width of buildings to the incorporation of parks, public squares and gardens. Today, over 75 percent of Zagreb is dedicated to green areas, with every neighborhood including at least one of the city’s 45 parks, perfect for a picnic, people watching, or joining an impromptu game of pickup soccer.
In the city’s center, seven elegant parks and squares form a neat U-shaped park network called the Green Horseshoe, of which the Botanical Garden is the crown jewel. Founded in 1889, the garden includes elements of an English landscape park, including everything from fishponds with tiny bridges to a massive three-hectare arboretum. Beyond the parks downtown, more treasures lie within the city limits. For water-lovers, a visit to Jarun, or the “Zagreb Sea”, is a must. Once the backwaters of the Sava River, the park now is a revitalized lake serving as the largest and most popular outdoor public area on the western side of the city. In the warmer months, the city constantly plays host to open-air events like concerts, public art installations, and impromptu street performances and Jarun is no exception, hosting the popular Inmusic Festival.
Just outside the city limits, the Green Ring of Zagreb provides visitors with plenty to do, whether that includes an active, adrenaline-pumping zipline adventure, or a slow, mindful stroll through the forest. Horseback riding is popular, as is fishing, and the calm, rural atmosphere is one that encourages visitors to embrace the simple life, be it for a weekend, or just an afternoon.
Wellness Within Reach
A capital for health tourism, Zagreb is well known for high quality services in ophthalmology procedures, dental medicine, aesthetic surgery and other procedures. Even before its modern reputation, Zagreb has had a long tradition of prioritizing health and health related innovation. In the mid-14th century, the city opened its first pharmacy on Kamenita Street—which still remains open to this day. During the pharmacy's early tenure, it's believed that the great-grandson of Dante Alighieri, the famed Italian poet, worked within the building. Predating these early pharmacological interventions even further are the area’s more natural wonders—thermal hot springs. The springs have been sought after for their healing properties since before Roman contact during the Middle Ages. Today, visitors can expect to experience the same centuries-old restorative properties retooled with the luxury features of a 21st-century spa.
To get the water at the very source, visit Tuhelj Spa. Located in the picturesque countryside just 25 miles from Zagreb, the spa is a year-round destination for the mineral-rich water and an assortment of treatments including medicinal mud therapy. Also within easy reach of the city is Aquae Vivae waterpark located in the quiet town of Krapinske Toplice. In its earliest days, the spa included a single pool; by 1703, reports of the water's therapeutic nature started to spread, and the public began to seek out its waters. Today, visitors can take their pick of numerous pools, a dip in the thermal waters, or a relaxing experience at the spa’s wellness center. Terme Jezerčica, in Donja Stubica, is less than 30 miles from the heart of Zagreb, and its multiple pools of varying temperatures, saunas, and steam rooms are a fantastic treat for feet that have been walking the city’s charming cobblestone streets.
For those looking to try an unconventional treatment, Naftalan Special Hospital in Ivanić-Grad offers baths of naftalan, a rare petroleum mineral oil only found in Azerbaijan and Croatia. Though only recently utilized for commercial and medical purposes, the therapeutic benefits have extended back in history as far as Marco Polo.