Croatian Road Trip Part 1: Exploring Zagreb and the Ancient Capital of Varazdin

Note: This post is the first installment of a multi-part series about the week I spent road tripping through Croatia with my little brother. In this chapter, I talk about how I ended up in Croatia and about my adventures in the central region of the country. Read on to learn about my first impressions of Croatia during COVID times.

Before I begin to tell you all about my time in Croatia, let’s quickly review my COVID travel timeline. As you know, I spent the first part of the worldwide lockdown in Mexico while the country remained open during the month of April. In May, as soon as Mexico started locking down, I made my way to Europe’s freest COVID country where I spent nearly a month road-tripping from north to south.

This brings us to June, the month where most of Europe began to open up and slowly come out of lockdown. One of the earliest adopters of a less restrictive approach in the face of the pandemic was Croatia. So, chasing my freedom, I decided to plan a road trip along the Dalmatian coast and a week-long sail trip on the Adriatic Sea – the body of water that separates the Italian Peninsula from the Balkans.

Stockholm Arlanda ARN – no muzzle constraints for pilots? Boarding was also possible without a mask. Only compulsory from June 8th.

From Sweden to Croatia with a stopover in Germany

After leaving Sweden, my brother and I decided to make a quick stopover in Germany to see family and regroup. We flew from Stockholm to Frankfurt, and At the airport, I rented a modest car – an old Insignia. However, according to Sixt, all their budget cars were rented out, and because I’m a valued customer, they gave me a fantastic upgrade.

I love Corona (and Sixt) <3- Apparently, these are the last cars left. Rented a boring Opel for 50€ a day , got a BMW M8 convertible.

I got a BMW M8 convertible with 650HP and a top speed of 300 km per hour. Sadly, I didn’t really get an opportunity to test it out properly, although I did manage to drive 220 km/h for a few short spurs. I have actually driven the same route (Frankfurt to Herford) hundreds of times, and it’s always clear and a joy to ride on the autobahn.

This is my nice convertible for just 50€ a day, but unfortunately, the weather is so bad. 325km Autobahn to Frankfurt with 625 HP now, at least 🙂

This evening, however, there were two significant car accidents on the road, so I had to leave the highway and take the scenic route by driving through the beautiful northern Hessian landscape. First, I brought my brother to see his girlfriend in her home town of Giessen. From there, I continued to my hometown of Herford and arrived late in the evening.

The next day I spent it working and catching up with my mom. Funny story, my stepdad was afraid of me and all my travels, so he escaped with the caravan in order not to be infected with COVID. So, I didn’t see him at all during my stay, but my mom did wait for me. She even washed my clothes before I continued on my journey the following day 😉

Happy that I am in Germany only for one day. Being spoiled by mom is nice, but I am happy to be keeping my distance from Germany in the future!

I made my way back to Frankfurt to meet a German friend of mine, and then I went to visit a girlfriend of mine who would actually be coming to see me in Croatia the following week. I enjoyed my time with her and had a beer with my Ukrainian friend. It was a short trip to Frankfurt since the next day, I was already reuniting with my brother and greeting my business partner at FRA airport to fly to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia.

At Frankfurt airport, no masks were required, however, on the flight to Croatia, we had to wear our masks for the entire duration of the flight. It was quite uncomfortable, but thankfully it was a short-haul, just 1.5 hours to Zagreb.

Let me take a moment to give you some quick facts about Croatia and its history.

Zagreb Croatia, Dobra večer Hrvatska

Croatia 101 🇭🇷

If you don’t already know, Croatia can be found in south-central Europe and the Mediterranean region, east of Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Slovenia borders it to the northwest, Hungary to the north, Bosnia, and Herzegovina to the southeast, Serbia in the east, and Montenegro to the south.

There are three distinct areas of Croatia: Lowland Croatia, Littoral Croatia, and Mountains Croatia – and these can be neatly split into five travel regions:

Istria: is the peninsula in the northwest, bordering Slovenia.

Kvarner: encompasses the seashore and highlands north of Dalmatia.

Dalmatia: is a strip of mainland and islands between the Adriatic Sea and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Slavonia: includes the subregions Slavonija and Baranja northeastern area of forests and fields, bordering Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Central Croatia: is where you’ll find the central highlands and Zagreb and were my trip through Croatia Began.

There’s hardly a person in the world whose wanderlust is not triggered by the images of Croatia’s sun-kissed, crystalline coast. The country has many amazing sites, most of them listed as Unesco-protected heritage. In this article, I regale you with the first part of a weeklong road trip from the capital to Dubrovnik.


When we arrived at the airport in Zagreb, we were pleased to see that once again, no masks were required. After landing, we got through immigration reasonably quickly; we still had to fill out some COVID-related forms, but that only took about a minute.

Zagreb Great freedom in Croatia. The streets are full, cafes crowded. Less than 0.5% of people wear masks. No restrictions whatsoever in shops, restaurants, etc. Now and then you get hand sanitizer, that’s it, basically.

Outside of the airport, hardly anyone wore masks. In Zagreb, you could see around 1.5 percent of the people (mostly elderly) wearing masks. All establishments were open and full of people with summer vibes in full effect.

Zagreb #coronaparty

By the time we left the airport, it was late afternoon, so we went straight to the hotel to quickly change and go for a walk through the town. It was a beautiful Saturday night, and the streets were bustling.

Zagreb – Nice City. One of my last missing European capitals.

At the time we left the hotel, we still had at least 2 hours before sunset, so We explored the Upper Town, Zagreb’s oldest and irresistibly mystical quarter. We walked along its winding gas-lit alleyways, admiring the sights of the town and marveling over the delightful array of beautiful buildings. We also made sure to catch the sunset.

More of Zagreb

Eventually, we became ravenous (we actually hadn’t even had lunch), so we went on a search for food. The first place we went to didn’t sell dinner, so we just had a beer and continued searching for an open spot. Shortly after we continued our search, we found a great place that served us some wonderful Croatian dinner.

Say what you will, I really like Croatian cuisine – a lot of people find it boring, but I rather like it. I should note that Croatian traditional food varies a lot from one region to the next. And while there are some dishes you’ll find throughout Croatia (Hello sarma!), many dishes found in one region aren’t probably even known in another.

So, when I say I like Croatian cuisine, I’m speaking of the common things you’ll find in all the regions. Like good ham, delicious cheese, and meats of all kinds. At this restaurant, we had a lovely lamb dinner with kebabs.

Beautiful buildings

After our feast, we took a brief stroll to explore the famous Croatian nightlife. We were surprised to see that there was already a nightlife going on. We walked along the buzzy Tkalčićeva street – Zagreb’s famous nightlife strip, and we found this big outdoor park dotted with a bunch of open bars and thousands of people not really engaging in any form of social distancing.

We had a drink at this place and savored the atmosphere for a bit before going back to our hotel and calling it a night. It was fascinating to see that in Croatia, it’s as if COVID never happened.

Zagreb Old Town – Party time again

The next day, we checked out of our hotel relatively early and took a cab to a Sixt car rental center. We had some trouble finding the place since it was in an old abandoned hotel, but after running around the entire building, we eventually made it.

And again, I was lucky enough to be upgraded. We had booked a small car, and they gave us a beautiful Alpha Romeo convertible. The car was pretty sporty, and we were glad to drive it for a week going from Zagreb to Dubrovnik and then back up to Szybenik, where we would finally board the catamaran I chartered for a week.

This series of posts will focus on the road trip before setting sail, but spoiler alert: somehow, we ended up boarding, not one, but two boats before our own catamaran trip started. 🙈

Starting our road trip from Zagreb was convenient and illuminating. It was nice to see that the city that was once a stopover to the more popular Croatian coast has now blossomed into a year-round cultural hub.

Before heading southeast, we decided first to go north and drive to Sljeme, the peak of Medvednica mountain; this is a vast mountain range just north of Zagreb. We made a stop in Bedekovcina to enjoy panoramic views of Zagreb from above, check it out!

Bedekovcina – Zagreb from above

These mountains are around 3000m above the town, so we had to drive up these very snakey and winding roads. It was pretty wild to drive this route of very narrow streets with lots of 180-degree curves leading all the way to the top.

This was one of the most fun drives.

Croatian countryside

Throughout the entire drive and while at the top, we enjoyed the beautiful landscapes and the fresh mountain air. Eventually, we came down equally, winding roads on the other side and continued to drive to Varaždin.


Varaždin is one of the most famous tourist centers in northern Croatia. It is an ancient Croatian capital, and it is located quite close to the Slovenian and Hungarian border. Varaždin is a beautiful baroque town with many fascinating things to see.

Varaždin – Castle of Varaždin

The center of the town has a very pronounced Austrian-baroque feel to it. Clear examples are all the baroque buildings located in the old city. The old town is a medieval castle and the most famous monument in Varaždin.

Nice little town

Its construction began back in the 14th century and lasted for over four centuries. This is because it was built and rebuilt several times in different architectural styles, undergoing many transformations.
Since 1925, it has hosted the Varaždin City Museum, which was closed during our visit.

The town is pretty small, so we just walked around for half an hour, taking in the sights. At some point, we tried to get some food, but since we were pretty much the only foreign tourists, there weren’t many restaurants really opened yet. You should know that Croatia has a revered coffee culture, so all the places that were opened only served drinks.

Mostly empty, but not for long.

We almost didn’t find anything to eat, but thankfully, when we were on our way to the car, we found a nice little restaurant that was opened, and we enjoyed some delicious pork ribs. From Varaždin, we drove back east past Zagreb and continued on to our next destination. But I’ll tell you all about that in my next post.

Click here to read all about our drive through the green and rugged Plitvice Lakes, a stop we made before swerving towards the Adriatic to continue driving down the coast. I’ll also tell you all about our stops in Zadar, Sibenik, Split, and many other points on the way to Dubrovnik.