Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Weekend Adventures {Zagreb, Croatia + Plitvice Lakes}

I recently took a long weekend trip to Croatia with friends -- while Trevor and Serafina stayed home.  It was amazing -- the food was yummy, the wine was so good and the people were extremely nice!  We stuck to Zagreb (the capital of Croatia) but also took a day trip to the Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Getting to Croatia from southern Spain is not always easy -- we had an 18-hour layover in Madrid on the way to Zagreb.  We flew into Zagreb airport which is not large but very nice (and seemed quite new).  We took an Uber to and from the airport in Zagreb as it was inexpensive and easiest.  We actually didn't take any public transportation while in Zagreb (except taking the bus to the the lakes -- more on that later in the post).  Zagreb was very walking friendly and nothing was far; it was often faster and easier just to walk.  Everyone we encountered spoke English and all places had English menus which made everything a lot easier.  Cash was much easier to use and widely accepted -- in Croatia they use the kuna so you'll need to get cash at the airport (or another ATM when you arrive).

Zagreb is the capital city and the largest in Croatia so it has an interesting mix of tourists, business people and a young/university crowd.  It is a small big city and was wonderful to just wander around -- and of course stop occasionally for coffee or a glass of wine.  There are quite a few things to do in Zagreb, many small museums.  We only had one full day in the city so we stuck to the items that were most interesting to us --

Things To Do
The Museum of Broken Relationships is one of the top tourist attractions in Zagreb and I highly recommend going -- it is located in the upper part of the city so a ride up the funicular or a walk up all the stairs is also worth it for the gorgeous view of the lower town.  The museum is small but amazing.  It showcases items from all over the world that pertain to break-ups of any kind (with objects, people, and more), but note that while the objects are not to be touched, they are at perfect toddler height with no barriers to stop little curious hands.  The museum also has a decent cafe.  While you are in the upper part of Zagreb, wander around -- go past St Mark's Church to see the gorgeous tiled roof.  And then make your way slowly back down to the lower part of town, walking along Ivana Tkalčića street (a pedestrian street with so many good places to eat lunch or have a drink).  Wander through the main square Trg Bana Jelačića which has the big statue of Jelačić (famous governor/army guy) on horseback.  Near the main square is also the Dolac Market, an amazing farmers market.  We also went to the Muzej Iluzija (Museum of Illusions), another small museum and not quite what we expected, but still really fun and interesting.

We ate really well in Croatia -- first because they have good food and also because things are much cheaper (we tended to pay no more than $20 per person for dinners that included dessert and many drinks).  Vinodol is a great place for modern Croatian food -- a really gorgeous restaurant and an extensive menu.  Otto & Frank is on the main restaurant street (Ivana Tkalčića) and was also really good.  It has a smaller menu but also serves a good breakfast.  Eggspress is an amazing breakfast spot right -- the menu was all breakfast and all eggs but it was so yummy (and the portions were huge).  Pupitres is a great wine bar serving a lot of wonderful Croatia wines.  The owners were so nice and had great recommendations for what wines to try.  The Craft Room is a good place to try Croatian beer.  The Garden Brewery is another great place for beer -- with beer made right in Zagreb.  You can go outside the city to the actual brewery or you can go to the tasting room in the main area of Zagreb.  Zagreb is known for their coffee culture and cafes/coffee places are everywhere.  I highly recommend having coffee whenever you can -- it is some of the best I have ever had outside of Seattle (and being from Seattle, I feel like I can claim being a coffee snob!).

Just a random note about Zagreb -- the smoking culture is heavy and everywhere.  It was by far the most smoking we had ever seen in all of our travels.  The inside of many restaurants and cafes (and for sure bars) seemed to be the smoking areas, while the outside were the non-smoking (but still very smokey).  We weren't sure if that was because it was cold or what -- but it made for some rough evenings out.  The places I recommended were not smokey (especially compared to many other places we went to).  My friends who I traveled with have been to other parts of Croatia and they said it was not smokey at all -- so maybe it was just Zagreb.  Either way, we were all pretty surprised by it.  While Zagreb had SO MANY playgrounds and seemed very kid friendly, I would avoid this city with kids only because of the smoking.

Plitvice Lakes
We also took a (long) day trip to the the Nacionali Park Plitvička Jereza (Plitvice Lakes).  The national park is known for a series of 16 lakes connected by waterfalls and between a limestone canyon.  The park has many trails and over the water walkways taking you through the gorgeous scenery.  Sadly because of the time of year, the upper lakes were closed but we still had an amazing time hiking in and around (and above) the lower lakes.  The park was simply amazing and breathtaking and well, just plain awesome.

The lakes are a little over two hour drive from Zagreb, heading south further into Croatia.  We took public buses directly to the lakes as there is a bus stop right outside one of the entrances into the park (and it was much cheaper than doing a tour).  I recommend going directly to the bus station in Zagreb at least a day in advance to buy your tickets.  They will only sell you the one way to the lakes, but you can buy your return ticket to Zagreb on the bus back (there is a bus schedule posted at the entrance to the park so you know when you need to catch the bus back).

Because the lakes are a big tourist destination, there are restaurants around the entrances and also a few within the park.  However, we brought our own food and we were glad we did -- just allowed us to eat whenever and wherever we wanted.  And because some of the trails are quite long, I recommend bringing your own food, or at least snacks.  The trails are very well marked with various signage and maps along the way.  Your ticket to the park includes entrance to the whole park, a boat ride across the largest lake and a train ride that takes you most of the way between the two entrances.

We hiked around for roughly five hours, taking our time and enjoying various lookouts and the boat ride through the partially frozen big lake.  We went off the main paths a few times, but stayed on marked trails and everything was gorgeous.  We went during the off season so the park was not packed at all and we often had trails to ourselves -- and more importantly, some of the lakes were partially frozen making it even more magical.  But this also meant snow on the ground and slippery pathways at times.  Highly recommend wearing good walking/hiking gear no matter what time if year you go!

Sadly, the whole park is not the most young kid friendly place with over the water walkways and no barriers/railings for much of it.  I could see Serafina wanting to take a flying leap into the clear, pristine blue/green water!  But still worth a trip, just be prepared.

Overall we had such an amazing weekend -- Croatia is gorgeous and I can't wait to see more of the country!

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