Dobro jutro (good morning) and welcome to Zagreb! The city is a delightful combination of rich history, quirky museums, good food and charming architecture. If you’re short on time and wondering what to see in Zagreb in one day, hang on to your hat. You’re in for a very fun day in the capital of Croatia.
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What to see in one day in Zagreb
Try the best štrukli in town
I hope you’re waking up in the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, because it’s the nicest hotel in town and you are certainly worth it! The Esplanade was built in 1925 to welcome guests traveling on the Orient Express. Since then, its welcomed presidents, celebrities and now you!
Head downstairs for breakfast where you can enjoy the best štrukli in town. A roll of flaky pastry dough encases an egg, cottage cheese and sour cream mixture that is the perfect way to start the day.
Join an Old Zagreb Tour
Since you only have one day in Zagreb, I recommend you make the most of it by joining a private tour. The Old Zagreb Tour is conducted in a electric replica of a Model T. You’ll be cruising around town in style (and with a charming and knowledgable guide).
Croatian National Theatre and The Well of Life
Stop off at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, the oldest theater in the country. Admire the architecture of the building that hosts opera, ballet and theater performances.
Just outside the theater is The Well of Life, sculpted in 1905 by Ivan Meštrović. The bronze sculpture is encased by low walls, ensuring that unsuspecting onlookers are not overcome with astonishment at the sight of naked bodies depicting different stages of life.
Welcome noon with a bang
Take the Model T to the Upper Town, passing the Grič Tunnel on your way. Built during WWII as a bomb shelter and promenade, it reopened in 2016 as a pedestrian tunnel. Chug along to the Upper Town, where the Lotrščak Tower hides a secret with a bang. Since January 1, 1877 the Grič cannon is fired daily at noon. Depending on who you believe, the cannon is either a signal to the bell-ringers at the churches to mark noon or a commemoration of Zagreb’s victory over the Turks. Either way, it’s worth securing a spot below the cannon to take part in this “only in Zagreb” tradition.
Continue on along the Strossmayer promenade for some of the best views in Zagreb. Little old ladies queued to take a photo of this sculpture, taking turns sitting in the space next to Antun Gustav Matoš on the bench. Matoš is a famous Croatian poet and journalist whose stories about the bohemian life in Zagreb and wholesome poems about love have earned him an eternal spot looking out over the city.
A little further along the promenade is an excellent spot for photos of the Zagreb Cathedral. The Gothic-style cathedral is the tallest building in Croatia and free to visit if you have the time. Just be sure to dress conservatively.
If you love street art, look for the murals depicting some of Croatia’s greatest inventors. Do the names Nikola Tesla, Slavoljub Penkala or Juan Vucetich sound familiar to you? Tesla invented the alternating-current (AC) electric system, Penkala invented the pen and Vucetich pioneered the system for fingerprinting.
Stop at the site of a miracle
Hop back into your trusty Model T for a cruise through the streets of the Upper Town. Hop out and look at the last remaining wall of the city, now a shrine. When the fire of 1731 tore through the town, it consumed the wooden frame containing a portrait of the Virgin Mary, but left the painting untouched. To this day, locals come to pray in this shrine and notes of thanks to the Virgin line the walls of the Kamenita vrata (stone gates).
Visit the oldest pharmacy in Zagreb
Some may say that a visit to a pharmacy is boring… but this historical icon is nothing to sniffle at. Founded in 1355, K Crnom Orlu (At the Black Eagle) is the oldest pharmacy in Zagreb. Inside, you can see glass vials of tinctures past or buy modern-day medication. Not impressed yet? Documents show that Niccolo Alighieri, great-grandson of Dante Alighieri, worked here as a pharmacist.
Check out the beautiful tiles of St. Marks Cathedral
Say goodbye to your Model T and driver at St. Marks Cathedral. This iconic building’s tiled roof displays the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia on the left side, and Zagreb’s emblem on the right. If you’re visiting on a Saturday or Sunday from April – October, be sure to check out the changing of the guard ceremony at noon.
Devour tales about Zagreb’s witchy history
From the church to something a little more sinister… As early as the 14th century, Zagreb was holding witch trials. That’s 3 centuries before the infamous Salem witch trials. Records indicate that 248 women died as a result of the witch trials in Zagreb before Queen Maria Theresa put an end to the practice in 1757. Being “light as a feather” is cause for a guilty verdict, so you’ll probably want to eat something soon! Bistro Vještica offers traditional Croatian food with a nod to the city’s witchy past. Be sure to try the Witch of Grich, a pork cutlet filled with bacon, cottage cheese and pickles, pan fried then oven baked.
Wallow in heartbreak
Now that you’re feeling full… it’s time to think back to your greatest heartbreak at the Museum of Broken Relationships. Full of artifacts from failed relationships, some of the stories will shock you. Others will make you smile. Some will make you want to give up on ever finding love while others will leave you full of hope. My favorite exhibit was an empty Chef Boyardee Pizza Maker box with a goodbye letter to pizza, explaining that after a lovely 45 year relationship she had to say goodbye due to gluten and casein intolerances. She implores pizza to “stay hot and tasty” and vows to always love it.
Say hello to the lamplighters
Each evening, the lamps in Zagreb are lit one by one. The 214 lamps in the upper town take 4 hours to light and 4 hours to extinguish. The lamps have been here for more than 200 years as has the tradition of lighting and extinguishing the lamps by hand each day. One man did it for 40 years before retiring. Now, he’s passed the torch (get it?!) to two young guys.
If you want to take a photo, you’d better be quick! The pilot light of each lamp is always lit, and gas flows through the pipes. The lamplighter uses a long pole to flick the cover off the valve to light the lamp and covers it to extinguish it. Blink and you’ll miss it!
Ride the funicular
As the sun sets, take the funicular or take the stairs back to the Lower Town. Walk through Ban Jelačić Square, where you’re sure to see street performers and musicians entertaining tourists. The statue of a man on horseback depicts Josip Jelačić, Ban of Croatia from 1848-1859 and a national hero, known for his military campaigns and abolition of serfdom.
Enjoy typical Croatian food
During the month of December, Zrinjevac park is transformed into a winter wonderland. The Christmas market offers ice skating, kuhano vino (mulled wine) and lots of different food options. It’s a great option for a dinner on the go so you can continue exploring as you eat.
Visiting during the other 11 months of the year? Check out these awesome restaurants in Zagreb.
Leaving so soon? Catch a ride back to the airport and start dreaming about your next trip to Zagreb… hopefully you’ll spend more time here next time!
Looking for other awesome things to see and do in Croatia? Check out these tours!