Scene of wild celebrations after Croatia’s heroic run to the World Cup final in 2018, national capital Zagreb has always been a football-centric metropolis. Home to flagship club Dinamo, the city’s main stadium of the Maksimir shares international duties with the Poljud in Split, hosted the Euro finals in 1976 and lost out on the vote to perform a similar but more substantial role in 2012.
It was in 1912 that Zagreb, then under Austro-Hungarian rule, was chosen as base of the football branch of the newly formed Croatian Athletics Federation. Nine years before, the first club, HAŠK, had been founded by students and academics. Other clubs soon followed as the Sokol movement blossomed. Linked to similar movements in Prague, Scout-like Sokol encouraged sporting activity and, though not openly, Slav nationalism.
Three main clubs HAŠK, Građanski and Concordia played each other in friendlies at the Maksimir Park, the city’s main green space where the stadium of the same name stands today.
When the South Slavs – Yugoslavs – broke from the Habsburgs after World War I, a league was set up, originally based in Zagreb. The three Zagreb clubs took eight of the 17 titles up to 1940, but already, ten years earlier, internal disputes had the league HQ moved to Belgrade.
As a Nazi state in World War II, Croatia had its own national team and league, again dominated by the big three.
Under Tito, in the post-war Republic of Yugoslavia, Građanski, HAŠK and Concordia were disbanded as one on June 9, 1945 – and Dinamo Zagreb were founded in their place. The best players joined them, including Franjo Wölff, who would become top league scorer for two seasons running. Dinamo later took over the Maksimir ground from HAŠK, while Concordia ceded their ground to the club that would become NK Zagreb.
Građanski carried the nickname of ‘Purgeri’, one still granted to all citizens of Zagreb today. Dinamo also inherited their colours, fan base and, for three years, their stadium, the Koturaska. Abandoned in 1948, it was later demolished.
Dinamo became one of the Yugoslav big four, Zagreb’s Maksimir a regular host of Yugoslav internationals.
After 1991, in the considerably weaker independent Croatian league, Dinamo dominated and even NK Zagreb, previously only occasional participants in the all-Yugoslav one, shone.
Meanwhile, top-flight Lokomotiva, a feeder club for Dinamo, have recently enjoyed a rare dip into Europe. As Viktoria, then Željezničar, Lokomotiva were the city’s fourth club before World War II, surviving the post-Tito era in their current guise. With the demise of NK, Lokomotiva have not only taken over their stadium, but are the capital’s de facto second club, and the only other city-based one in the current top flight. Just outside town, near the airport, Gorica represent the suburban community of Velika Gorica.
Of the Zagreb clubs in Croatia’s lower tier, NK Hrvatski Dragovoljac, the ‘Black Warriors’, were reformed and renamed in honour of those who volunteered to fight in the Croatian War of Independence. Challenging for a place in the top flight, Rudeš also play at the NK stadium. HAŠK still exist, though much more modestly than pre-1945.
Zagreb’s Franjo Tuđman Airport is 17km (10.5 miles) south-east of the city centre. Half-hourly buses (30mins journey time, 30kn, pay on board) run to Zagreb bus station. A taxi should cost about 200kn.
The transport network comprises trams, night trams and buses for outlying areas. Tram Nos.2 and 6 run three stops from the bus station to the train station, the No.6 going on to the main square, Trg bana Josipa Jelačića. A ticket costs 12kn from a newsstand (stamp on board), 15kn from the driver. A day ticket is 40kn. One journey using new smart cards is 10kn.
Taxis are parked outside either station or call +385 1717.
Near the Maksimir, the best option is the three-star of the same name ten minutes’ walk from the stadium, tucked inside a courtyard off the main street two tram stops closer to town. Doubles are charged at an across-the-board 500kn, rooms for four 800kn. On the other side of the road, on the sidestreet of Dragolja Kušlana, the Zagreb Soul Hostel offers doubles and dorm beds in comfortable, modern surroundings. Also nearby, the Funk Lounge Hostel on Rendićeva can also provide cheap doubles walking distance from the stadium.
Close to the NK stadium, and within easy reach of the station and main square, the Laguna is a pleasant three-star with bar and restaurant. Halfway between stadium and the main station, the Garden Hotel on Valentina Vodnika comprises 36 sleek rooms, a bar and restaurant.
In town, the recommended TABAN marries Japanese interior design with an urban youth hostel concept, at B&B prices – and right on the main bar drag of Tkalčićeva. The nearby four-Academia impresses with its four-star rooms and bistro.
On the other side of the main square, the landmark Hotel Dubrovnik offers doubles for around 900kn. Also close, on the main street of Ilica, and affordable, is the Jägerhorn, upgraded from pension to hotel.
For upscale gatherings, the football fraternity prefer the equally central Sheraton at Kneza Borne 2, while the Palace is an Art-Deco classic dating back to 1907. It’s also conveniently located by the Zrinjevac tram stop, halfway between the main square and the train station. On the other side of the Art Pavilion, the Astoria is a handy mid-range option.
The most famous lodging in town is the Esplanade, built by the station to serve the Orient Express, and host to royalty and film stars. Orson Welles was a famous regular here. Nearby on main, tram-lined Branimirova, the functional Hotel Central stands almost as close to the station.
To stay close to the bus station, almost opposite, the No.9 has boutique pretensions with three floors of different colours. Just behind on Supilova, the Hotel National can provide a comfortable, affordable stay while behind that, on Ivana Bunića Vučića, the Sliško does the job with 49 ‘budget’ and ‘comfort’ rooms. Also close, on the main street of Vukovara, the DoubleTree by Hilton is a different category altogether, with a panoramic gym, pool and sauna.
Down on Rudeška, the Admiral offers upscale luxury around a large casino, sports bar, spa centre and restaurant. It’s run by a major betting company so gambling opportunities abound, but you won’t need to go far to watch the match – any match.
On the main bar street of Tkalčićeva, winding the other side of the market from the main square, you’ll find the Oliver Twist (No.60) and the Pivnica Mali Medo (No.36), with its in-house beer, alongside several spots with football on large outdoor TV screens. The Sunčani Sat (No.27) and Ožujsko (No.16) are old favourites, History Village (Nos.57-68) has a wider culinary remit.
Also close, on parallel Radićeva, the Pinta appeals to local football fans with its homely atmosphere, TV and lack of tourists. A few buildings up, the MK Bar, known as ‘Krolo’ after the writer Miroslav Krleža who lived here, is equally lived-in. By the market, Harat’s is the extremely popular local branch of the successful Russia-wide chain of sports pubs.
The other side of the main square, Boban is an upstairs café with an affordable Italian restaurant below, set up by the Croatian football star of the same name. This is another little bar hub, comprising Charlie’s (Gajeva 4), pub/club/restaurant Bulldog and the Golf. The Alcatraz is a lively spot, always full of locals. American-style Brewbites at Gajeva 10 is lined with TV screens showing sport, decked out in memorabilia and takes no prisoners where burgers are concerned.
Towards the station, the Čeh (‘Czech’) Pub serves Bohemian beers amid old music posters – though doesn’t open Sundays or Saturday lunchtimes – while across this junction of Hebrangova and Preradovića, the Old Pharmacy Pub makes a decent attempt at authenticity. Sheridan’s on Savska, towards the NK stadium, does better than that – it’s Irish-run, but favours GAA over soccer.
By the Zagreb Arena just over the river, Dribbling would clean up in the city centre – here on Lanište, it’s a superior sports bar filled with Croatian football iconography, used by locals who call this burgeoning part of town home.
Right by the main square on the corner with Petrinjska, Budi ponosan (‘Be Proud’) (Tue-Sat 10am-8pm) tells the story of Croatian football, from its beginnings to the World Cup final of 2018. The emphasis is on these recent triumphs but you can still pick out newspaper reports from the early 1990s when the newly independent country was forming its first national side, with details of famous players through the ages. Although in a prominent location – with a Dinamo Zagreb store next door – the space isn’t big enough to cover much more. Admission is free, and it’s well worth a look around.