CROATIA’S VIBRANT CAPITAL is constantly reinventing itself. Restaurant menus change seasonally, parking lots play host to trending bike sports, and cobblestone streets alternate between pedestrian thoroughfares and late-night party strips. Gallivanting gourmands flock to Park Bundek for the annual Oktoberfest, while eager shoppers sniff out its remarkable design stores. And there is nary a vacant lot or blank wall that a pop-up bar or street artist hasn’t already discovered.
It’s all-change in the Croatian capital. While the urban fabric of the city might look the same as it was ten, 20 or maybe even 50 years ago, life on the streets is beginning to dance to a new set of tunes. To start with the most obvious sign of change; a new breed of cafes, bars and bistros are threading their way along the central thoroughfares, heralding a new going-out culture that is slowly stretching further and further into the suburbs. Elsewhere, the evidence is more subtle; a new fashion boutique here, a Croatian design store there, and an organic delicatessen shop opening up just around the corner.
When Croatia joined the European Union in 2013 people expected the country’s high streets to adopt a more globalised look. In fact, almost the opposite has happened, with Zagreb not so much preserving its unique identity as adding to it, with a well chosen selection of image-enhancing tweaks. The quality of the eating, drinking and shopping experience in Zagreb has gone up, not because the city is becoming more internationalised, but because there is more focus on what’s local – local wines, local ingredients, local products and a typically local emphasis on the good things in life.
By far the biggest change to overtake the city is the year-on-year increase in tourist numbers, turning Zagreb from Central Europe’s best-kept secret to a veritable regional tourism tiger. The booming popularity of Croatia’s Adriatic coast has certainly helped. Zagreb, despite being a couple of hours away from the sea, is an obvious entry point for beach-bound vacationers. But that is far from being the whole story. Global travellers increasingly want to visit cities with an authentic pulse – and Zagreb, with its relatively tourist trap-free landscape of street markets, pavement cafe terraces, quaint courtyards and gritty-but-not-too-grungey alternative nightlife, fits the bill admirably.