I have never stayed in a city like Zagreb before.
The majority of the surrounding area, even what I would call the walkable part, felt almost suburban – plenty to do, but not terribly dense, pleasant to walk in, easy to drive around. The true city part of the city was quite small. Despite that, it managed to be very modern in very functional ways. It actually reminded me of Amsterdam in some ways (the abundance of bikes and clearly delineated bike lanes, a plethora of public transit options, and the beautiful older architecture all played a part there, of course). I’m actually kind of amazed when I think about how prevalent all those things are given how small and how old the main city is, actually. And that’s already very cool – I’ve been to big cities with amenities like this, and to other small, older ones where that integration is less smooth, but I’ve never seen this before.
That said, when I think about what makes Zagreb unique, what I’ll remember fondly five or ten or twenty years from now, that’s hardly the standout point. Something else hit me deeply every time I walked through town.
There’s a certain human-mindedness in Zagreb’s infrastructure which I adore. There are parks everywhere, beautifully maintained, clearly not an afterthought of the city’s design – and there are regular festivals and beer gardens held within them, to really bring that point home. There are water fountains throughout the city, and on those all-too-frequent uncomfortably hot days, it’s as common to find someone drinking from one as filling a water bottle. There are many squares and wide streets where restaurants set up large, inviting patios to sit on – often bigger than the space available inside the eatery, in fact. And, less romantic but equally delightful, there’s good signage, benches, and bathrooms everywhere.
These may not be the most instantly attractive things about a city. They’re the oft-unconsidered background elements. (Nobody researches water fountains when they’re planning a vacation destination, I know that.) But these are the things that affect the flavor of a place, the things that shift a city’s tone between all the gallivanting that leads you to museums and events and the like. And these are the things I think about most as I travel, because between adventures I live daily life, and I like to go to a park for four hours and draw and not worry about whether I have enough money on me to afford a soda because this god-forsaken wasteland seems to feel about water fountains the same way that it feels about unicorns (here’s looking at you, Berlin).
There’s plenty more I could say about Zagreb, from the weather (beautiful but moody) to the food (delicious, but rarely vegan) to the local sights and activities (of which there are many). Knowing me, I could go on and on about any and all of them. But they are not the things I thought were most unique to Zagreb, nor the things I’ll remember most fondly looking back on it.
That distinction is reserved for Zagreb’s daily life, and how quietly human the city is. It’s all the moments in between the noise.