There is a new spirit in Zagreb, a city that was regarded as a stopover rather than a destination as far back as the days of the Orient Express. No more. To be sure, Zagreb's attractions aren't as famous as Paris's, or as numerous as Rome's, but it's nonetheless difficult to experience all the city's delights on an overnight stay. It takes patience to discover Zagreb, and its soul.
Zagreb has always played a pivotal role in the life of Croatia, mostly because of its location, at where Western and Eastern Europe meet. Today's Zagreb is far more tolerant and easygoing than it was when its forerunner settlements of Gradec and Kaptol were founded in medieval times, but it still is a dichotomy of old ways and new, of tradition and progress.
This is not a glitzy city, but rather a city of history, culture, and purpose informed by war and natural disasters. Zagreb is still finding itself after nearly a millennium of foreign domination, but it is changing, growing, and emerging as a destination in its own right. In the summer of 2007 there was scarcely a square block in central Zagreb that didn't have scaffolding or construction shrouds covering a renovation in progress. Squares were filled with people speaking a variety of languages, including English. New restaurants, attractions, and entrepreneurial ventures were sprouting everywhere. In some ways, contemporary Zagreb's personality is in transition from dour socialist to carefree socialite and it is subject to being misunderstood. On any rainy Sunday, Zagreb is deserted: Stores are closed, restaurants are empty, and museums are without patrons. If a visitor has just a day to see the city from under an umbrella, Zagreb can be interpreted as a sad, gray place. But if that same visitor is lucky enough to walk to the city center on a sunny Saturday, Zagreb is a city pulsating with color and buzzing with energy. On such a day Zagreb hums with chatter as fashionistas dressed to the nines haggle with wizened old ladies in babushkas at the colorful Dolac market. On such a day, Zagreb is a comfortable backdrop for friends sipping wine at sidewalk cafes, for curious tourists, and for anyone listening to street musicians who fill Trg Ban Jelicica with beautiful noise.
Weekdays, Zagreb is alive with serious hustle and bustle with what seems like endless hordes carrying briefcases or bags of bread and flowers past a perpetual gallery sipping coffee at sidewalk cafes. Evenings, Zagreb is all softness and laughter as diners linger over dessert in Gornji Grad, head for nightclubs to listen to jazz with friends, or stroll the cobblestone streets.
How visitors see Zagreb depends largely on the color of the sky and the day of the week, but the city's blend of old and new, of country and cosmopolitan, is somehow a yin-yang combo that works. This is not a city that instantly takes your breath away, but -- given enough time -- Zagreb will wiggle its way into your heart and tempt you to unpack your bags and stay awhile.