Why I Spend My Croatian Summers in Zagreb These Days

Paul Bradbury

Photo Zagreb Tourist Board/M Gasparovic

June 27, 2023 – As peak season approaches on the Croatian coast, why Croatian summers in Zagreb have become more appealing.

Zagreb is divine right now. A little warm, perhaps, but there is a nice buzz around town, with many outdoor events. Tourists are aplenty, but rather than dominating a destination as they do in summer on the coast, they seem to blend in well with the locals.

There are open-air concerts in the parks and squares, food and wine festivals, a lot of cultural events, parks and lakes to escape to, as well as all the trappings and conveniences of a European capital city. And soon things will get even more pleasant, as many locals decamp to the coast for the summer holidays, leaving the capital emptier than usual.

I discovered Zagreb in the summer last year, and it quickly became my favourite time of year in my new home city. After years of writing about – and travelling all over – the coast during peak season, last year I decided to pretend I lived in a country called Croatia which had no coast or tourism in the summer, and to focus on everything else here. Apart from the opening of the Peljesac Bridge, I didn’t visit the coast from mid-June to mid-September.

It was a revelation. While the rest of the country gets into predictable discussions and debates about the state of tourism (they are all exactly the same each year, I have come to discover), I have found that switching off from all that noise and enjoying the charms of a temporarily underpopulated city is infinitely better.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the coast, and after 13 years living on Hvar, it is now part of my DNA. It is just that the summer is not the best time to enjoy it anymore – at least for this 54-year-old TikToker.

Kotor, Montenegro in January

I do make sure that I get my Adriatic fix, however, and I have been blessed more than usual in the first half of this year. Overcrowded Montenegro? Not if you go in January and base yourself around Lustica and the Boka Bay. Zero crowds, incredible nature, most things open, and as good a culinary selection as you will find on the Croatian coast in the summer.

Easter on Hvar

Easter on Hvar. The weather shone this year, and it was probably the most enjoyable stay since I moved back in 2016. The shoulder seasons are so underrated in Croatia. The locals have time, the prices and not crazy, and the relaxed pace of life is in direct contrast with the mayhem of peak season.

May in Istria – another slice of a different heaven. Coastal towns awake for the season, but not overrun. And exploring the joys of inland Istria in greater detail than ever before was one of the highlights of my time in Croatia. You can read more in Inland Istria, Croatian Tourism’s Greatest Success Story.

Green Future Conference in Split in early June, a fantastic few days

Back down to Split in early June for 3 nights at the excellent Green Future Conference, probably the latest I would spend time in the Dalmatian capital these days. And what a glorious three days it was, a much cleaner city than it has been for years, nicely filled with tourists – the calm before the storm.

And then safely back to Zagreb until September, enjoying delights such as the first Asian Street Food Festival, stunning classical concerts in Zagreb Classic, and niche movies such as the History of El Shatt in the open-air theatre in Tuskanac.

Coexisting with tourists, rather than being dominated by them.

In previous years, the reporting cycle has always been the same. It starts with reports of how many workers are needed for the season but can’t be found. Then come the first reports of expensive prices and the debates on whether or not Croatia has become too expensive. Then come stories of the June ‘rupa’, or hole, empty apartments when they should have been full.

Then comes the story of party tourism destroying destinations, with shocking footage of young and drunk tourists urinating, vomiting, fornicating and sleeping on streets and benches. Then come the stories of gridlock on motorways (while Schengen has removed the Slovenian border problem, the motorway tolls remain). Hours sat in traffic and then long queues on the ferry.

Then comes the celebrity stories on their yachts, and a little more on prices and party tourism. Then come the announcements of yet another record season with a gazillion overnight stays. No mention, of course, of that buzzword ‘sustainable tourism’, for we are still a destination which is all about numbers, numbers, numbers.

Walking down Tkalca in Zagreb last night after a quiet drink with my nephew visiting from the UK, I was struck at how Zagreb is so different in terms of nightlife compared to the images coming out of Split. The Split party debate is becoming a national debate, but the destination only has itself to blame.

Marmontova used to be one of the most stylish streets in all Croatia, with quality stores lining the way. In recent years, they have given way to cheap booze stores, more fast food, an Irish pub, and now a large nightclub. The historic Diocletian’s Palace is now full of pub crawl offers offering ‘the best night you will never remember.’ And the availability of toilets and enforcement officers to follow through on the signs with threats of fines?

Truly sustainable tourism.

Tourists will behave as destinations allow them to behave. You don’t see such behaviour in places like Singapore or Dubai, for example. For a reason. And if a destination is offering up its best street to cater to this cheap tourism, and its UNESCO World Heritage Site for pub crawls, is it any wonder that Split in peak season is where it is? As for how to improve things, Ultra Europe founder Joe Basic said it all in this TCN interview last year.

A few years ago, I would have written at length on such subjects (as many in my inbox are urging me to do), but there is little to add to whatever has been said before.

And besides, for the next couple of months, I live in Croatia, a land which for me has no coast or tourism until September. My car is in the garage for the summer, and I am roaming the streets of Zagreb enjoying a relaxed pace of life with friends who have also discovered the Zagreb summer secret.

Croatian coast – let’s meet again in September.


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