Navigating through COVID restrictions to visit Zagreb
Beautifully set at the base of Mt. Medvednica, Croatia's capital city Zagreb is located in the northern mountains not far from the Slovenian border. The extraordinary coastal towns of Rovinj, Zadar, and Split are a short drive away and usually inhale the huge numbers of western tourists that visit Croatia each year. This leaves Zagreb’s unique atmosphere of cafes, public parks, and cobblestoned historic districts lightly touched by those who would rather try and glimpse Jay-Z’s yacht along the coastline.
This year has impacted Croatia and its crucial tourism sectors just like the rest of the world, with over 50% of tourism from 2019 not being able to return. In late summer 2020 Croatia made the dramatic decision to break with the rest of the EU and allow Americans to travel there with a few regulations in place for safety. Here is my experience getting to Croatia in Sept. 2020 and my first few days in beautiful Zagreb before I too went looking for HOVA on the coast.
The first rule about getting into Croatia during a pandemic is figuring out if Croatia will allow you to enter Croatia during a pandemic. The US Embassy in Croatia provided all the necessary steps that I would have to follow to enter the country, the biggest requirement being a negative result on a PCR Covid-19 test.
Croatia’s time frame is a little bit tighter than most countries allowing Americans in right now, 48 hours from a swab in the brain to landing in Croatia. This is pretty tight when you factor in 10ish hours of travel and sleep, leaving just 36 hours to figure out if I’ve got the Vid.
Through an hour or two of googling I was able to locate a testing facility in Queens that for a little extra cash ($200), could get a test turned around for me in 24–48 hours. I got the results first thing Monday morning after a restless sleep the night before, leaving me ready to embark.
My ticket was from JFK to Zagreb and then my return flight was Split to JFK and it ran me about $700 a few weeks before the trip. Navigating JFK on a Monday afternoon in a pandemic was a breeze, the airport was slow and the boarding procedure from Delta was quick, organized, and sanitary. Maybe 1/3rd of the plane was full, the crew was pleasant and social distancing was very welcomed for this man to stretch out and relax on his way to Europe.
I connected in Paris which felt pretty normal by non-pandemic standards, early morning hustle and bustle taking place while European travelers fought to find their connecting flights. If it weren’t for the occasional full-body hazmat suit, I would’ve forgotten the pandemic was going on at all, which is both concerning and kind of nice at the same time. After switching terminals, I was on a full flight from Charles De Guille to Zagreb.
Customs in Croatia
Once we arrived it became pretty clear how the pandemic had affected Croatia and its vital tourism industry. We were the only plane to pull into the capital city at 10 am on a Monday and we deplaned quickly without any extra precautions. The Croatian government asks for proof of accommodation during your stay along with a travel announcement approved by the Ministry of Tourism. These, along with your negative test are meant to be shown while moving through customs.
Customs itself seemed slightly hectic as students coming back to classes, a soccer team from the Middle East, and people trying to visit their families for the first time in months navigated new regulations and documentation standards. I had all my documents ready to hand over, but when I got to the helpful Croatian man behind the glass he only asked for my passport and my test results, and all of a sudden I was pushed through the gates and into the EU.
Idemo u Zagreb!!!
Alright, now what? Enterprise is located right outside the arrivals door and makes things pretty darn easy for us Americans (automatic transmissions and no extra charge to drop the car in Split). The check-in process is a breeze and the guy behind the desk handwrites me some park, restaurant, and museum recommendations while he processed my paperwork (the generosity and hospitality of Croatians is a constant theme throughout this journey).
I quickly found my Renault outside, plugged my Airbnb into the GPS and I’m off towards the heart of Zagreb. Little side note here, the highway system in Croatia is seriously top-notch and very easy to navigate, tollways connect the main hubs but are cheap and credit is accepted at all of those.
I’m downtown in under 20 mins and find a parking spot right outside my apartment. The parking system is just like what you find in the US, a kiosk that you plug your plate # into and ‘boom!’ you go about your business. It takes about 2 seconds to translate the machine into English and you can even pay your parking tickets at the machine.
Just in case you say ‘f — it, I wanna just get unpacked and no way they ticket me’ and then ‘whatever I’ll go for a walk first, doesn’t look like anyone is worried about my little whip over there’. Anyway, parking tickets aren’t too expensive ($15 USD), easy to pay, and actually pay for your spot for 24 hours after you theoretically get a ticket.
Home Sweet Home
My Airbnb was a small apartment with everything I could ask for and ran me about $40 a night. Located just off of Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera, I’m between downtown, old town, lower town, and any other town that fancies my interest. The park is the middle of 3 which runs north to south through the city and is a perfect little oasis from the hustle and bustle of the town around me.
While I was there a movie festival and a burger festival were taking place there which were surrounded by live music, beer stands, cafe stands, and plenty of other food options as well. Locals seemed to stop there for a drink after work or bring their families out for an evening of community interaction. Overall a well managed, fun, clean area of town.
I started my first afternoon by walking north through the park until I hit Ban Jelačić Square, which felt like the epicenter of Zagreb. Students congregated after school, folks from work hurried to trams zipping through the square, and panhandlers panhandled. I moved north into Old Town and found a cafe for a quick coffee pick me up. Big side note on coffee:
Here’s the thing about Croatians and coffee, specifically the people of Zagreb (Zagrebians, Zagrenites, Zagreboians?). They like their coffee a lot. I guess that statement isn’t complete, they like the act of having a cup of coffee with others. The city slogan is essentially ‘let's go for a coffee’ which can entail everything from a business meeting to a social visit among friends. The streets are filled with cafes and the pace is gentle as folks buck the American, drive-by pick up a 64 oz nitro fuel on your way to your next big life event. The act is very communal and a great way to take a break and recenter yourself.
It seems like every barista is skilled to execute any type of drink that you may be looking for, personally, I stuck with a cappuccino in the morning followed by 5–8 espresso shots throughout the rest of the day (I still got the red, white and blue running through me).
If you are looking to satisfy that ingrained need for quick kava I suggest Mlinar. They are all over Croatia and serve quality pastries, deli sandwiches, and coffee quickly and cheaply. Not to say that coffee is expensive, Croatians respect the essential nature of it and keep it cheap no matter the cafe you meander into ($1-$2 USD).
After my coffee break, I walked past the beautiful 12th century Zagreb Cathedral and found myself stopping to read for a bit in Park Ribnjak. It was quiet there as people walked dogs, played with their children, and enjoyed the beautiful early fall day. The old town is set on ridgeback hills that allow for great exploration and the added advantage of building up quite an appetite while you explore.
I found myself through my day and a half there just walking up the next street, taking a turn, enjoying the view, and then finding the next experience at the bottom of the hill. I moved west after the park and stopped at Otto & Frank for lunch. Their lunch special hit right with traditional stuffed peppers and was priced at about $10. Otto and Frank is located on a great pedestrian street that is lined with cafes, bars, and restaurants. There is plenty of people watching and it’s a great place to start a day or unwind after bouncing around Old Town for a while.
After lunch, I went up through the historic cobblestoned streets and eventually ended up at the Zagreb Observatory which offered perfect views of the old and modern city of Zagreb. Back down the hill from the Observatory is the Museum of Broken Relationships, a hot spot among tourists and locals and something you will see referenced often while there. It's a collection of keepsakes from failed relationships, a bit of a cleanse yourself of that teapot you bought together and maybe the Museum will display it.
Near there is Park Grič which offers a relaxing view of the city, cafes to grab a coffee, and a bench to rest your feet. Right underneath me is the old WWII bomb shelter now know as Grič — Tomićeva Tunnels. There are various entrances throughout the city and serves as a nice cooling walk from one area of town to the other.
I emerged from this underground lair and made my way to La Štruk for dinner, which was right around the corner from Otto & Frank. La Štruk is known for serving the big guy in terms of local dishes of the region: Kuhani Strukli. The preparations and ingredients can vary but my takeaway was its basically a huge baked ravioli with mac and cheese inside, so I liked it quite a bit. The courtyard at La Štruk was cute, quiet, and spaced out well, perfect to enjoy an intimate date with a large helping of hot cheese and butter.
On my way back to my apartment for the night, I stopped for a minute in the park by my place to people watch and get some ice cream from a street vendor. Folks were out with their families and getting their socially distanced spots to watch a showing of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ for the Food Film Festival (Don’t ask me how that fits into the theme, but good flick). A young guy spun some EDM from the rotunda in the middle of the park while everyone hung out with beers and coffees waiting for the movie to begin, it was a perfect Croatian end to a big day in beautiful Zagreb.
I got up the next morning and found a quiet cafe for a cappuccino, a little catching up on the news from across the pond, and a look at the rest of my day. I walked through the Dolac market on my way home to watch dozens of vendors hawking fruits, veggies, and local knick-knacks. In non-apocalyptic times I was told it was a much busier place than what I experienced (another constant theme that was great for my trip but left a bit of sadness down deep).
After paying my parking ticket I shot up to Mt. Medvenica hiking trail #9 just outside of town (20 min drive). Parking is just off the street in a residential neighborhood and when I arrived there was plenty of it. The hike was uphill through a pretty heavy forest and took me about an hour to reach the top, which revealed outstanding views of Zagreb and the surrounding hills. Scampering back down past hikers and dog walkers I jumped in my car and headed back towards the city for lunch, this time Burger Festival!
The set up was pretty hip and the burgers looked and smelled delicious. It seemed to be the place to be as people hung out in small groups, another dude played EDM from a DJ booth in broad daylight on a Tuesday and a local news crew took turns interviewing chefs from the different booths. From a quick look around some of the bigger, hip restaurants in town were represented and offering burgers of all different varieties (meat and non-meat based). Each burger was about $7 and the portion size was legit, I went with the Smokehouse Burger from Submarine Burger and did a decent job of not embarrassing myself as I inhaled it in front of the locals — ‘look daddy an American, I think he’s choking’.
I needed to walk off the burger and took the short walk over to the beautiful Croatian National Theater, turned south to walk past the other ornate national buildings lining the blocks long promenade before I ended up outside the gorgeous Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, my chariot awaited and I had to run, but from walking the outer perimeter the Gardens have been added to my list for next time.
One last stop at Spar for a red bull and some gummy bears and me and the Renault were on our way to watch the sunset in Rovinj with beautiful Zagreb behind us for now.
The city and people of Zagreb were kind, generous, relaxed, and conscious of necessary safety precautions due to COVID-19, while still going about their daily lives. The food was innovative and delicious, the coffee was constant and strong and the walking and site seeing was all I could ask for from a city that wasn’t completely open to its amazing full capacity. I look forward to returning soon to explore the rest of the iceberg.
follow travel writer T.H. Lee on Medium