Top 10 Little Known Free Things To Do in Zagreb
When you visit Zagreb, get off the beaten path and discover its hidden corners. I hope this collection of 10 free little known things to do in Zagreb will inspire you.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD…
…and the first document ever that mentions the word Croatian in Croatian language in unique Croatian letters… is right here in Zagreb. It’s a legal document known as the Baska tablet. Baska is a small town on the island of Krk, and the document was found nearby. Don’t expect a yellowish piece of paper. It’s 2-meters-long, 800-kilos piece of stone as old as this city. More than 900 years.
It’s in Croatian, but don’t let that discourage you. After all, not even Croats can read it. The letters are something you’ve never seen before. It’s glagolitic, a historical Croatian script.
An anegdote says that the residents of the island of Krk tried to steal the Baska tablet when it was being transported to Zagreb. They were afraid people would have no reason to visit Krk anymore once the plaque moved to Zagreb. So funny, if you consider the fact that Croatian islands are much more crowded with tourists than the capital is. In fact, here in Zagreb, there’s a great chance you’ll be all alone in front of the monument. So, step inside the beautiful building of the Academy of Sciences and Arts on Zrinjevac square and see one of the most important Croatian monuments live.
VISIT SOME MEMORIAL PLACES AND QUIRKY MUSEUMS
Zagreb is known as the city of many museums. A while ago, some magazines used to state it was the city with the biggest number of museums per square meter. I’m not sure if that’s perfectly correct, but there are dozens.
When they hear the words “quirky Zagreb museums”, most people will instantly think of the unbeatable Museum of Broken Relationships. Or the new stars in town – Museum of Illusions and Tortureum. But we’re talking free-things-to-do at the moment, so let’s consider other fun spots. How about the mushrooms center, which I like to call “every fairy’s dream”? Or the bank museum, psychiatry museum… There are some pretty cool free museums all over the city.
There are also numerous memorial apartments of famous personalities – writers, architects, memorial centers of Nobel winning chemists. Not many people know of them. That makes discovering such places feel so special. They’re sometimes open only a few hours a week, which makes them even more exclusive. To visit them is quite a treasure hunt.
BROWSE THROUGH ART
It’s such an extraordinary privilege, to have so many open-air galleries! I can’t believe that fact is hardly ever mentioned in tour guide books.
The Academy of Fine Arts hides the most beautiful garden full of amazing sculptures. It doesn’t really hide it, to tell the truth. Zagreb still has the power to somehow keep visitors from looking around the corner. Yet all you have to do is enter the lovely yard of the Academy in Ilica street, and enjoy some incredible sights.
One of the most impressive and emotional places in Zagreb is the memorial forest Dotrscina and its Valley of Graves. The place is full of amazing monuments, memory of people who were killed there during WWII.
While you’re in that part of town, try to find the so-called Pionirac or Grad mladih (The city of the young ones). It’s a place where local kids go for their preschool field trips. It’s also a favourite weekend-choice for young families. It’s worth a visit for many reasons, but in this context, let’s just stick to the fact it contains some crazy looking sculptures and totems.
My personal favourite sculpture garden out in the open is part of the colorful Richter collection. It’s a completely unexpected place on Zagreb hilltops that takes you by surprise if you happen to pass by.
If for some reason you wish to stick to only one artist and search for his art through the city, go for Ivan Mestrovic. Without doubt, he’s the greatest Croatian artist ever, and an impressive personality, too. You can get a map with the locations of his artworks in Zagreb in the Atelier Mestrovic. That should help you with your quest.
Needless to say, that’s not nearly all when it comes to great public sculptures in Zagreb. The city is bursting with art.
GEOCACHING… OR EVEN GEOPUMPING!
Zagreb seems to be quite a discovery when it comes to geocaching. Even if you haven’t tried geocaching yet, Zagreb is a perfect place to start. How about finding the old water pumps that went through a special makeover by the most interesting street-art initiative called Pimp My Pump? Someone made sure to indicate the positions of all the pumps. Passionate geocachers aren’t overexcited with that particular task. It’s too easy for them and sometimes, the pumps get back to normal or even get a new makeover before it’s noted on the map. But hey, it’s streetart, it’s subject to changes by definition. When in Zagreb, try to find at least a few of the imaginative pimped pumps. If you’re a serious cacher, find the pumps just because they’re awesome, and then continue with more difficult caches, they can be found throughout the town.
If none of the above is gamified enough for your taste, don’t worry! There are some Ingress portals here in Zagreb, just as well. You’re bound to have fun!
POSE WITH ART
Zagreb is amazingly photogenic. Taking photos can be great fun, too. Forget Santa! Get a photo of your kid sitting in Nikola Tesla’s lap. Give a big hug to a poet sitting on a bench in the upper town as my friend Andrea suggests… Pose with statues, it makes fun travel memories, doesn’t it?
FIND TRACES OF ZAGREB BEFORE IT EXISTED
There is an interesting project called Zagreb dok ga jos ni bilo (Zagreb while there was none- before the year 1094). Project authors took the exhibits from the museums back to the streets. They created replicas of interesting exhibits on the spots where they had been discovered in the first place.
It’s sometimes hard to notice those items, but when you do, it suddenly strikes you: the history of this area is so much longer than the story of Zagreb as we know it. Romans were here, Celts were here, woolly mammoths walked the nowadays streets of Zagreb! Remains of a prehistoric whale were even found – millions years ago, we would be under the surface of the Pannonian sea!
All those objects, no matter how small they sometimes are, serve as mighty time-machines, ready to take you on a journey thousands of years back to the past.
REACH THE BORDER OF THE NAPOLEON’S LANDS
Napoleon’s French empire’s province went all the way to river Sava, and you can now find an obelisk commemorating that spot. Zagreb was not a part of those lands, it was on the other side of the river. Now that the city has expanded and crossed the river – the border of the former Illyrian Provinces is within the very city.
While you’re there, make sure to take a look around. You’re going to spot a steel railway bridge painted green. It has been informally called the Hendrix bridge for some time now. All thanks to a persistent graffiti that simply says Hendrix. Every time the authorities tried to erase the word, the graffiti crew returned and painted it back on. So legendary, that it’s close to become official.
ENJOY THE STARRY NIGHTS
The observatory recently got the brand new telescope and guess what? They don’t charge entrance fee. Why don’t you spend your evening in Zagreb – stargazing? They point the machinery in the most interesting direction of the evening. I recommend a visit on a full-moon-night when you can clearly see the craters on the moon’s surface. The observatory is more than 100 years old and it’s placed in an old medieval tower.
CATCH THE LAMP-LIGHTER
Just before the sun sets, stroll through the streets of Kaptol and Upper town, two centrally located historical neighborhoods. Try to spot the lamp-lighter. It’s a guy whose job is to light more than 200 gas lanterns. This entire historical area is full of 150-years-old gas lanterns that are still lit by hand every single evening and turned off in the morning.
It’s not so easy to spot people who do that. It’s not even a touristy thing. They don’t wear uniform. In fact, they sometimes walk around in their undershirt, or ride an old moped. Here’s a hint: they follow a certain order and they start from the lantern Number 1 (there’s a small number under each lantern), near the cathedral. You can wait there before sunset to spot them. If you’re late, and the lanterns in that area are already on, hurry up to the upper town area. Find the lantern that is still not lit, and follow the numbers backwards until you meet the lamp lighter.
BELIEVE IN THE MAGIC OF ZAGREB
Say a little prayer at Kamenita vrata, make a wish by the fountain, or drink some water… it all works in a mysterious way!
The Stone gate (Kamenita vrata) in the upper town area is a passage that hosts a miraculous painting. The whole passage looks like a little church, and you can often see people quietly sitting inside, or saying a little prayer in front of the altar. They light a candle and make a wish. It’s a wide range of wishes – anything from curing a sick relative to passing an exam. You don’t even have to be religious to do that, so why don’t you try it and make your wishes come true with the help of the Virgin Mary of the Stone Gate, the patron-saint of Zagreb.
If you prefer to wish upon a fountain, there’s a luck-bringing fountain on the Jesuit square near the Stone Gate. You will recognize it by the sculpture representing a fisherman who fights a long snake. Simply make a wish and throw the coin. There are not that many coins on the bottom anymore, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It’s just that most people decided not to believe in magic anymore and stopped passing by that spot. Well, I never miss my chance to give it a try.
If you don’t plan to come back to Zagreb, make sure not to drink the tap water! An old story says, if you have some water from a fountain in Zagreb, you are bound to come back. Since most of the fountains contain the same drinking water you can have at home, prepare to be enchanted by this lovely city.
For a selection of must-see-free-things, enjoy my article Top 10: Best Free Things To Do in Zagreb on Like a Local.