April 7th-12th – Croatia 🇭🇷 – Trip#5 of 2023

Following 6 days in Austria and Slovenia as covered in Part 1, the next 6 days of our Big Trip of 2023 were spent in Croatia – firstly in Varaždin then the capital Zagreb!

Day 1 – Ptuj 🇸🇮 to Varaždin 🇭🇷 – Rail Replacements on Good Friday?

Unlike the almost seamless border transition by train between Graz 🇦🇹 and Maribor 🇸🇮, crossing the border from Ptuj 🇸🇮 into Croatia 🇭🇷 looked wooly to say the least. One of the spectacularly pointless elements of nationalism is making larger settlements that are in close proximity poorly connected – the Balkans is a particularly bad example. A 7am train from to Čakovec 🇭🇷 looked like the only option. Then, on inspecting the information online it appeared the train would go no further than somewhere called Ormož 🇸🇮 due to staffing issues and Good Friday. Unfamiliar with the reliability of Croatian rail replacement services, but aware all our eggs were in one basket, we had to try it.

In the end, the switch to the replacement bus was well choreographed by the train conductor, but the bus trundled along, getting us to Čakovec later than planned. A connecting train to Varaždin appeared to be horribly delayed, and the passengers listlessly kicking dust around the station concourse didn’t seem promising. The ticket officer also assured us it wouldn’t be coming and we could only get the next train 2 hours later. Resigned to that, we set off into Čakovec centre to have a look around and kill some time. Except – what is that on the horizon? As the station disappeared behind us, a train emblazoned with Varaždin approached. Running full pelt with full rucksacks, we got back to the platform in literally the nick of time, as the guard was about to blow his whistle. Off we went to Varaždin!

A northern city with an impressive central castle and beautiful Austrian-era old town, we first visited Varaždin in September 2014 where a 10-day festival Špancirfest was in full swing. Memories of cheerful crowds, bunting, huge barbecues, live music on the street and magical courtyards like Julijan’s Apartment 🇭🇷 left rose-tinted spectacles.


It is to be expected that any town goes through its highs and lows, and perhaps being Easter we could hope for something similar. We were wrong – on this year’s visit. Grey, quiet, with a hint of rain in the air, the experience was initially like after the Lord Mayor’s show, the air had been sucked out of the balloon somewhat. Still, after a café stop-off, castle visit and lunch, it was time to inspect the bars – bars we resolutely failed to visit in 2014, 3 years before this site was founded.

The first stop off, one we had recommended to us, was south east of the old town near the park. Medina Škrinja Pub 🇭🇷. Tucked around the rear of the building, you’ll find a pretty unremarkable set of patio furniture used by smokers, and uPVC type entrance, none of which sets off any great vibes. Hang in there though as the interior space opens out into a historic vaulted room, vast and dark. The ‘Bear’s Chest’ is decorated with a large ceiling centrepiece, the eponymous bear with a chest of treasure chained to it. Around the brick interior there are medieval sigils and a general acknowledgement that this is a very old building. The bar enjoys a decent beer selection – only a few that would get any beer geeks purring, but still clearly above average, and even during the afternoon there was a decent clutch of people and plenty of activity at the bar to create adequate atmosphere. We are confident the evening would be even better, and it was an easy inclusion to our guide.


Finally, it had rolled around to 3pm allowing us to check in our apartment, drop off our luggage and have a rest. Our next stop was on the fringes of town, around 25 minutes walk, Picabia Pub 🇭🇷. One of Croatia’s persistent issues is a lack of a pub type feel to its communal social drinking venues. While this place wouldn’t make our guide, it was pleasingly pubby in feel and appearance, the complimentary nuts made it reasonable value and it is basically a spacious neighbourhood hangout of a kind that are in fairly short supply in provincial Croatia.


After a stop for dinner, we looked around the centre in efforts to find Julijan’s Apartment 🇭🇷, only to find that it was closed (for the day, not permanently). Pretty gutting when you average 1 visit to Varaždin every decade.

This left 2 venues remaining, the first being only a semi-promising looking bar called Medonja 🇭🇷. Some places perhaps don’t photograph well, and this is one of them. It is true that the main lounge is unnecessarily green, and the bar area is pretty unremarkable. And yet two elements entirely compensated for that. Firstly the surprisingly good beer selection – you are not starved for decent choices, both Croatian and International. Secondly, it is a very effective social space that was on our visit buzzing with people.


A last stop of the evening was to the imaginatively titled Craft Beer Bar 🇭🇷. This guesthouse has converted its entrance hall into a café bar. It’s all done on a budget, with portable keg machines lined in a row below the stairs, the 1 member of staff gamely trying their best to cover orders, but nevertheless a long wait on a Friday night. There is a good social scene here, some interesting local craft beers on offer too, but the bare bones of the bar are somewhat lacking.


Day 2 – Arrival in Zagreb 🇭🇷

Varaždin to Zagreb by train involves a scenic, but very long journey around the villages, so we made the call to get a coach (not exactly quick either). The bus journey, mainly along single lane roads passes along rolling hills and villages, many of which have simple little farmsteads, a few chickens, goats, the odd pig here and there. It’s a good reminder of how fast the Balkans slides into simple rural life outside of the cities.

We spent 3 days in Zagreb on our previous visit, mainly staying rigidly around the old town and the boulevard towards the train station. It is curious looking back how much more closed and conservative our urban exploration was. This time, 5 nights would allow us to explore the city’s suburbs and its different sides.

As per usual, the dead time while waiting to check into our apartment was filled by bars – firstly Swanky Monkey Garden 🇭🇷, a hostel with an attractive modern tiered courtyard and bar – a fairly well executed bit of funkiness.


After that, a beer at the Ilica branch of Pivovar Medvedgrad Illica 🇭🇷 Tucked away off the street in a shopping mall, this is more of a traditional beer hall, with a large garden at the back. It had been a while since our last beer of theirs, back in 2017. What is noticeable is what strides forward they have made with both the traditional and modern beers. This operation is equipped and future-proofed, as far as beers go. In terms of the venue, it is a little too drab in terms of décor and atmosphere, not a place I would want to spend a long time in unless I was eating.


After check-in and a rest, we visited the fun, tragic, disturbing and amusing Museum of Broken Relationships which is worth a first time visit for any tourists.

The evening started with a walk along the Strossmayer boulevard, a treelined route overlooking central Zagreb with a great view of the cathedral at one end, through the old town to Tolkein’s House 🇭🇷, which was shut. We learn it has been closed a while, but may reopen soon. Oddly, the extension to it, Veliki Tolk 🇭🇷 was open. A little sparse on decoration and people, the drinks were fine, service also friendly enough, but we didn’t linger long.


One of the joys of exploring European cities is the prevalence of trams. Zagreb residents seem rather modest about their service. Perhaps theirs may seem inferior to some neighbours but trust the view of this English person with our generally awful urban transport: it’s still damn good. Affordable and comfortable, allowing to whoosh around the city. The pink line heads into the hills, and halfway up towards the cable car is the pubby mini-brewery Pivovara Mlinarica 🇭🇷 (possibly translates as Miller Brewery?). This roadside pub isn’t typical of Croatian drinking venues, with an interior similar to some English or American pub-restaurants. Their beers are really nice, the food and service seems appropriately pubby and my partner really liked it. I’d say it was decent, but it just misses something. We returned later in the trip for a second try, and it still just didn’t cut it. One of the clear disappointments is that the bar area, which should in theory be a social magnet, is far too small. Being tucked away from the main seating areas loses whatever atmosphere it may generate. Yes, these are the careful considerations we make when reviewing bars.


Seeing as we were taking a tram back down the hill, we allowed it to drop us off in the commercial centre, which is a largely familiar, unremarkable set of shopping streets you could place anywhere on Earth. There are plenty of bars and eateries of course, most of which are unremarkable so far as the bar guide is concerned, but we had passed one by chance that looked very different. Another venue we hadn’t found on our research but found out in the wild! Orient Express 🇭🇷 has an eye-catching train theme, a small narrow bar you enter straight off a shopping street. Wood fittings, leather upholstered seats and booths, golden age ephemera on the walls, this is noteworthy, particularly in a country with a famously ‘who cares?’ approach to decorating its caffe bars. Drinks are fairly stock and predictable, but complimented with some local craft beer options. Service is very friendly and used to touristic custom, and the place does a familiar kind of city centre trade, perhaps not a place with regulars in the evening as such, but well worth a look while in Zagreb given it goes the extra mile.


Back in 2014 we may have visited this place (but there is no evidence to prove it) – Čeh Pub 🇭🇷. This very directly-named pub is situated on the run between the station and central square, and has been a fixture of the city nightlife and social scene for a long time. Very smokey, noisy and vibrant venue with layers of event posters plastered along the wall and, it must be said, excellent Kozel and Pilsner Urquell on tap. It remains one of my favoured spots in the city. Yes, your clothes will end up stinking of smoke and your eyes streaming, but that applies to the majority of Zagreb bars anyway, in a nation where smoking inside pubs is still permitted.


There was time for a last stop of the night, and this was a place I remember we attempted to visit in 2014, but being timid little… *checks* 29 year olds, weren’t brave enough to explore. Bacchus Jazz Bar 🇭🇷 . This was a time when we may have still relied on paper maps, I can imagine us missing this place, tucked around the corner inside an alleyway. Neon-signage beckons you through but you still have to keep going until the stairs to the basement are visible. In summer months the courtyard is a popular place, but the weather was still a bit iffy so there was only the usual few smokers outside chatting. Indoors, you’ll find a cosy little underground bar with curved ceiling and warm lighting. They host occasional live music events but it is very much an attractive, social venue regardless of if an event is taking place. Some of the drinks options may be a little last gen, but this is also one of Zagreb’s longer-running city institutions, so deserves a bit of leeway. Even if they still hadn’t taken the Christmas decorations down! After an enjoyable nightcap it was very much time for bed.


Day 3 – Easter Sunday In Zagreb 🇭🇷

Croatia is a religiously observant country and there was a good chance Easter Sunday may have been a washout for bars. In reality, there was a very slow start with a lot of closures before the nightlife gradually got going in the evening time. An appropriate activity, and largely chosen because nearly everything else was shut, was the incredible Mirogoj Cemetery. Yes, spending time in a cemetery is not everyone’s holiday activity, but this is a colossal site with a mile of domed towers facing the street, and inside rows of porticos and beautiful headstones. Easily worth the tram ride and 15 minutes walk out.

After some lunch we returned to town to Carpe Diem 🇭🇷, which is one of those versatile café/bar/pub/anything tourist places with an uncanny valley appearance between Czech pivnice and English theme pub. Despite these sneery remarks, that’s not such a bad thing, and with a reasonably interesting drinks menu you could do far worse. It is versatile for a reason and does a good job, as reviews will attest to.


Next stop in the old town was our only surviving Zagreb inscription, Pivovara Medvedgrad’s old town pub Mali Medo 🇭🇷. On a sultry summer evening in 2014 we were treated to live music from the upstairs window onto the street and a great terrace atmosphere. Inside was the typical trad beer hall look. A refit has spoilt the interior which lacks a focal point, while it wasn’t exactly buzzing so early on an Easter Sunday. Still, it is a typically reliable option.


Another open attraction was the 80s Museum. Most Eastern-Bloc countries have their own version of these, and this leans straight into nostalgia and interactive exhibits rather than torturous captions about ideological repression. A fun time exploring Yugoslavian commercial and domestic life. Kudos to whoever donated the pornography.

Quite a few recommendations had come in online to visit Valhalla 🇭🇷 which was our next stop. One of Zagreb’s strongest beer specialists, combining a great range on tap and in the fridge with a venue that is itself worth hanging out in even if the beers weren’t there. A pubby understated space just off one of the main tourist streets, the Nordic signage is unmissable, though not over-the-top and leads into a two room pub with a mixed crowd. While this isn’t somewhere you’d go for a wild party, there is a social atmosphere around the bar and in the backroom, which all combines effectively to make this somewhat of an obvious choice.


After a rest and dinner (Sri Lankan food – go out with a vegan, interesting things happen!) we visited another old town circuit pub we had walked past the previous evening, Kvazar 🇭🇷. This small bar picks up the pace a little, with sport on TV, free popcorn, louder music and a younger crowd, but it’s a pretty well put together pub with some nice music memorabilia, leather upholstered bench seating, and a range of Croatian craft beer that goes beyond the norm too, a nice surprise. The atmosphere is friendly rather than brash, and it’s good enough overall to warrant an inscription to the guide. As we left, walking to the centre we noticed a man shouting, repeatedly, seemingly trying to get our attention. Then, as he approached he signalled, and we noticed a dog he was trying to chase down. The dog seemed to think this was a game so would wait until he got close then run away again. This scene continued to the central square, by which point it had descended into farce. Did he eventually grab his dog? Who knows!


I remember the day really sliding away, and somehow we ended up back at Swanky Monkey Garden 🇭🇷 barely getting in a round of cocktails (which are not amazing) for last orders.

Day 4 – Monday, Monday In Zagreb 🇭🇷

On the continent nearly all museums and attractions close on a Monday, so it is worth targeting what to do in advance, as neurotic as that may seem to some people. Zagreb Zoo, in Maksimir Park seemed a nice Monday morning activity, particularly as the weather was beginning to improve. Very good value for money attraction (for context about 15% of the cost of Chester Zoo with about 80% of the contents). Another opportunity for a tram ride, and to see Dinamo Zagreb’s battered stadium en route.

After that we paid a visit to a suburban pub Pivnica Budweiser 🇭🇷 which promised – and delivered – lots of chunky wooden rustic furnishings and a Krčma pub-restaurant experience. Not overly distinctive enough to be worth including but not an unpleasant experience either. The Budweiser was Budvar, not the US tosh, btw.


As we were in the vicinity, we paid a visit to neighbourhood pub Legend Riders 🇭🇷 On approach, it was one of those slightly intimidating ‘Am I really going in here?’ moments, and on entry we found a small pub with a large friendly dog blocking the path to the bar. Distinctly local, we expected a Hell’s Angels type theme, but instead it was classic rock with guitars on the wall, TV churning out rock videos and enough Eric Clapton memorabilia that it moved from a feeling of ‘that’s quaint’ to ‘that’s slightly disturbing’. Well reviewed, and you can see why, because this is unpretentious, local, has far more to the décor than the average Zagreb caffe bar and a bigger surprise, has decent beers – including local craft on tap from Nova Runda. It wouldn’t make our guide but it sticks in the memory, and is a good indicator that if craft beer has permanent taps in a place like that, it is making a breakthrough in a land dominated by Karlovačko, Ožujsko & Pan.


Running out of Monday activities, a trip to Muzej Marmaluka, aka Hangover Museum (yes, Zagreb’s speciality is wacky museums) killed an hour, with anecdotes and props – some hilarious, some moronic about drunken escapades with possibly ankle breaking tests for you to conduct, followed by a shot of herbal liqueur.

We returned to the city centre for a rest before any evening activities, but would be targeting the bars dotted along the epically long Savska cesta, which is also frequently serviced by passing trams. Running from south west towards the city centre north east, this is a transect of regular Zagreb life. Hi-rises, arcades, precincts, mainly dated, but life goes on.

The first target venue goes by a few names, but Hendrick’s Garden 🇭🇷 seems to suffice. Images of a fairylit treehouse and painted frontage are eye-catching, particularly given how few places are remotely like that. On arrival anticipation rose, only to find it wasn’t open. Everything shut! At least there was time to return.


Fortunately it wasn’t far to the substitute venue, Vintage Industrial Bar 🇭🇷. Modern, with a typical enclosed courtyard area with tactical graffiti and festooned lights, with a repurposed interior. Most Westerners will be familiar with this format. Given this is less usual here, I was confident this would be an inclusion to our guide, but somehow it managed to miss the mark. The seating is not very collected and communal at the bar area, everything feels overly dispersed, and there is an absence of something lovable, something quintessential about it that would have got it over the line. Oh well. It’s there if you fancy it.


With an appetite for something less corporate, the next stop delivered. Woody Beer Bar 🇭🇷 is everything Vintage wasn’t. Ad hoc, honestly priced, free of beer tie, neighbourly and local, raucous and generous. Unvarnished, but packed to the rafters with people visiting for the live music and deli spreads put on by the owner. The beer options were very good with a well chosen balance of Czech lager, Croatian craft and some international classics. We can’t guarantee it will be like this every time but it provided what we were looking for and deserved an inclusion.


The next choice, buried in Zagreb’s labyrinth of hi-rise, was Sunshine Inn 🇭🇷. Following on from the unpretentious experience in the last place, this was local, busy and considering how far off the beaten path – quite friendly too. More of a retro café with parquet floor, but music memorabilia and a pool table in the backroom underlined that it is still ‘a local’. It didn’t do enough to merit and inclusion but was worth visiting as a sample of real life.


If only there had been any life, real or otherwise at Medvedgrad’s 3rd venue, Fakin 🇭🇷. Well-financed, this large venue is built for volume, but didn’t have any. No-one was there. Given the array of beer taps including guest options (in this case Garage Brewery 🇪🇸 from Barcelona ) a lot of beer was going to waste, but if so many people prefer the likes of Woody and Sunshine, that should probably set off some soul searching. A venue without an audience, seemingly.


The evening ended where people actually were, underlining a distinct pattern for the evening, the corporate venues shut, quiet or dead, the neighbourly down to earth venues lively, vibrant and raucous. Take note, craft beer world. Krivi put 🇭🇷 is a large venue with huge courtyard hangout in summer and a barn like interior. Smokey, lively, another venue showing how frequently in Croatia there is little division between where the alternative crowd and the posers hangout. It ended up being a great choice to end the evening, concluding with the classic Imbiss kebab by the tram stop!


Day 5 – And then there was one. Zagreb 🇭🇷

My partner was due to return home mid-afternoon, leaving me (how dare she!) to myself for the rest of the trip. The flight was not until the afternoon though, and we had pencilled in a trip to The Garden Brewery 🇭🇷 around lunchtime. Way out of town, you’ll need a bus or tram, which takes around half an hour each way, dropping you off on some industrial scrubland. A major, well-funded operation with an international distribution network, this is no tinpot operation, but it does do legit craft beer, focusing on porters, pales and sours (quelle surprise). Enormous premises with a greenhouse type building housing the brewkit, large beer garden, tall plants and street food vendors. There’s something obnoxious about its utter predictability (although for some reason they don’t offer a taster set) but you can’t quibble with the quality of produce and amenities available. We’re sure it’ll continue to be an appealing venue for many and it just squeaked onto our guide, all things considered.


As we said our goodbyes I found myself just south of Kvaternikov trg, which wasn’t all that far from Caffe Bar Croatia 🇭🇷, a venue I’d researched in advance as it appeared to be a tiny old battered bar that had virtually fallen off the map. It felt like the ultimate counterpoint to the demographic led corporate brewery tap we’d visited. On entry, that classic head-turning as a stranger arrives occurred, but the young bar staff didn’t bat an eyelid and that gave me sufficient welcome. With basic drinks and zero glamour, the experience of visiting this pub is about authenticity. Local life, way, way off the tourist trail in Stara Peščenica, an old working class district near the railways. Smoking, drinking and banter at the bar in surroundings more personalised than most, with wood fittings and unexpected nautical nik-naks.


Rather than heading home to the safety of the old town, we kept going further out to try Hub Cooltura 🇭🇷. A neighbourhood café bar, versatile hangout spot with pleasant beer garden and vintage furnishings in the interior, this attracts a young boho crowd. It’s a likeable place with a very snug backroom, a bit of a diamond in the rough.


It was time to return to the apartment and sleep off some of that booze. On the route back we popped our head in a bar we would return to later. The evening started with a return to Mlinarica 🇭🇷 to try and understand why we hadn’t given it an inscription on the guide. One lovely beer later, we still weren’t fully sold on it. Not that it’s bad, it’s just that our inscriptions need to possess a certain something. The challenge is to reach 7.5/10. This is the most 7.4 place we’ve been to. Maybe in a year or two this fussiness will seem mad.

Back down the hill to a 2nd stop at Kvazar 🇭🇷 and found another busy, buzzy environment with a football game on, and then headed into the centre for a first visit to an intriguing venue, The Beertija 🇭🇷. A courtyard with a hint of ruin bar to the environment, ideal for lounging in summer, very useful in an area of the city without much outdoor bar space. However it is also a basement bar, reasonably mainstream and very ‘worn’, clearly hosting a few too many nights out for its own good. Overall though, it ticked plenty of boxes to warrant an inclusion.


The night ended with a 2nd trip to Čeh Pub 🇭🇷 which was starting to wind down for closing time, but that helped to appreciate another side to what had always otherwise been a bustling bar. Once the beer was sunk it was time to get some late night scran at Pingvin, a cult fast food kiosk in the centre.


Day 6 – The final day in Zagreb 🇭🇷

After a well-earnt lie-in, we rose to a warm, sunny day. It had been a while since one of those. Taking the tram out to Jarun with its swimming lake and park was a nice way to get ‘out of the city’ (while still essentially being in the city). The fresh air and sunshine was welcome, but as always, the next bar visit wasn’t far away. Jazz Café 🇭🇷 is set in a pleasant neighbourhood, and the interior is a labour of love from someone who appears to be a water polo medallist. We didn’t enquire further! Quite a way ahead of the typical interior décor you’d expect from a Caffe Bar, with a few nice bottles available to drink. It was too early for that business though, so we made do with the Balkans classic – Cockta!


In the vicinity of Hendrick’s Garden 🇭🇷 this represented the final opportunity. Google said it was open so this seemed an appropriate time to visit, with the sun blazing. Well, what a waste of time. A 15 minute wait in a near empty bar for the staff to take my order, and no sign of the drink 15 minutes hence. After sitting on the patio furniture clicking my fingers, the novelty of the treehouse was no longer enough, I just left. This venue had the biggest gap between expectation and reality.


Referring to the remaining venues we had yet to visit, the next nearest bar was Ero 🇭🇷, a knackered old wooden boozer in a square, fairly brutalist complex. The staff were friendly, it was fairly quiet, fairly priced and photographs reasonably, but let’s be real – there’s nothing much to the place overall other than basic provision for locals.


Working my way up Savska cesta, en route I was advised to pay a visit to Le Petit Belge 🇭🇷 This Belgian café in a modern complex is a very good option when in Zagreb and was instantly likable. While there’s no point going too over the top, it covers drinks, decor, atmosphere, amenities and reasonable value, the service was nice and the environment is friendly, day or night. Not the worst place to drink Czech/German lager or Belgian ales.


After a break, it was time for some final drinks in Zagreb before my flight onwards. One of our followers on Twitter invited me to meet up, which I eagerly accepted. It’s great to meet some locals and help understand the local scene. Better still, the place he chose was another first time visit and one that ended up on our guide afterward. Cajt 🇭🇷 is located a short walk from the old town and its unprepossessing exterior appears to successfully deter tourists. Inside, a typically battered café layout with wood partitions and old patterned upholstered seats are opposite the bar. This is a place where everyone knows each other, a pleasant feeling, rare to find in a city centre, and certainly not something you’d find so centrally in a city like London. Cajt’s big draw is beer, which covers local craft to international classics both on tap and in the fridge. We worked our way through several before moving on.


The final venue ensured that the wake-up for the flight the following morning would be hungover and unpleasant, but those are the sacrifices you make sometime. Modern bottleshop and taproom Ambasada 🇭🇷 was recommended by our friend, and is walkable from Cajt, if not exactly close by. The offerings here are not so much vast as extremely well curated, with each beer style represented by particularly strong brands. The atmosphere was also jocular, local, with plenty of banter between people that knew each other, and the fact they were willing to switch to speaking English was very generous too. The venue itself is painted in warm ochre and furniture is the typical ‘does the job’ utilitarian approach. So somewhere that is full of pretty familiar generic elements is elevated to an inclusion by virtue of its friendly atmosphere and excellent beer.

And that was that! The final stop, after which we staggered home to bed ahead of a 4.45am start to Zagreb airport.

Conclusions:

5 days is a pretty good amount of time to spend in a city the size of Zagreb and it would have been a poor performance by us if we hadn’t done a thorough search. After visiting 30 venues, we’re pretty confident there isn’t some world-beating bar that’s slipped our net. In truth Zagreb has a number of good, likeable if flawed bars but very few that breakthrough as being among the very best. You won’t run out of options, and nightlife is overall pretty lively too, with the old town, the commercial centre and Savska cesta offering three quite distinct districts to explore. Zagreb has a number of varied activities making the city well worth a visit in general, never mind the bars. We didn’t get time to head into the hills, which are full of other excursion possibilities. Aside of one or two streets in the very centre of the old town, Zagreb still feels refreshingly local and not over-saturated with tourists most of the year.

Where next? Join us for Part#3 – April 13th-18th as we journey to Czechia 🇨🇿 and the Borderlands of Germany 🇩🇪 & Poland 🇵🇱 !

Azimut, Šibenik

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 Obala palih omladinaca 2, 22000, Šibenik, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Going out for a drink on the Dalmatian coast invariably involves choosing from a selection of Caffe Bars, which may have amusingly goofy names such as ‘TURBO’ or in one real life instance ‘KUM’, but in practise provide a nearly identical offering that defines the term Generic. After a few days anyone interested in good beer and good pubgoing will be tearing their hair out in frustration (I’m bald, so have to improvise) trying to find somewhere characterful.

Sibenik’s nightlife offerings are in the main, no different. There’s a beautiful Riva with patio furniture so you can relax by the calm seas and people watch – fine for a while. When it gets colder and darker, venturing inside becomes necessary, and it is then where the particularly poor beer selection, poor music choices and absence of interesting décor or atmosphere starts to grate.

Azimut is Sibenik’s alternative antidote to all that, a club and live music venue of sorts, with offbeat décor inspired by Hungarian ruin/garden bars making the most of its cellar situation nearly underneath the main square. I have recently been informed the basement used to be the town’s well/reservoir for water which explains the high ceilings very well! (Thanks to Azimut’s Facebook group for providing that information)

As with a lot of places on the Croatian coast, it doesn’t really get going until the summer, but even out of season there is a core crowd you’ll find lining the bar chatting and messing around, and a side room which is geared up for live music but also has games involved. The eventual end feel is relaxed, open, fun feeling and the sort of space you want to hang out and could make friends in.

Despite the basement situation there are tall warehouse-style ceilings which makes me wonder what the place used to be used for. However, they’ve done a good job with the décor, with impossibly high shelves, hanging umbrellas, books and bric-a-brac making it feel homely whether it’s busy or quiet, meaning the venue is quite versatile, capable of coping with live music performances and bustling custom in summer or acting as a down to earth neighbourly bar off-peak. Perhaps their slogan ‘Find Your Way’ has this in mind.

Another good thing is Azimut’s opening hours, carrying on until the early hours of the morning, which is long after the rest of the city has gone to bed, meaning there’s no need to feel obliged to shape your evening around arbitrary time constraints.

There’s what counts for an interesting selection of beers around this end of Dalmatia, with some imported bottled English ales making an appearance, however it was short on Croatian craft beer at the time of writing – only Tomislav was available, which is tasty but too strong to spend all evening on. Again, this is a fairly low bar to pass given most places in Croatia serve 3 or 4 awful beers at most. Azimut’s prices are a few kuna more than elsewhere, but given it’s a distinct venue and slap-bang in the centre of town, that’s unsurprising.

Edit (9.7.18) I have recently been advised by the management they now stock Croatian craft beer –  happy days! Until my return the score for drinks provisionally goes up to 7/10.

Given young Croatians enjoy going out in the evening, and Sibenik is starting to attract the attention of Western tourists you would think there would be more than one venue like this, but so far the nightlife remains largely bland obsessed with creating modern aspirational lifestyle bars to create that ‘summer vibe’, but ultimately blend in to one and project mediocrity and cheapness rather than glamour.

Hanging out in Azimut is like breathing fresh air given those otherwise stale options. It’s clear that quite some imagination and bravery obviously went into creating it, and any stay in Sibenik by anyone desiring a beer and a good time in the evening must involve a visit here. As TimeOut point out, every Croatian town should have an Azimut. I’d extend that to every town full stop.

Pivnica Mali Medo, Zagreb

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Tkalčićeva 36 Street, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

The ‘Little Bear’ is located in the centre of Zagreb’s old town and offers by far the best example of a pub around these environs. Otherwise, your options are identikit café terraces or the odd raucous rakija bar. To be honest, a night out spent solely Zagreb’s old town would be pretty bland unless you dedicated yourself to drinking shots, or visited this place.

Mali Medo acts as brewery tap for Pivovara Medvedgrad (translates as Beartown), named after an old fortress in the hills North of the city which has undergone a rather appalling renovation, but is worth seeking out for the view over the city.

The brewery, operating since 1994 precedes the craft beer craze and concocts a range of different beers – including their own attempt at Kriek – highly peculiar by Croatian standards where anything outside Euro Lager seems to be regarded as otherworldly. Their beers aren’t unpleasant but they’re some way short of the wider standard these days and a bit ‘last generation’. Nevertheless, a couple of the more traditional styles are competent enough to put away a few of, and the extra flavour and freshness will come as a relief after drinking the likes of Karlovacko everywhere else.

They operate a number of pubs, but the best of the lot is, in my opinion Mali Medo in the centre of town.

The pub itself has a typical pivnica look, dropping down off the main cobbled street to a large half-basement area with a curved ceiling, and some partitioned niches with bench seating (one of my favourite pub features) along with the typical long tables you’d expect of a central European cellar pub.  Mostly, the décor is in-keeping with inn-keeping, wooden framed artwork on the wall, and traditional furniture, a step above bland. It’s suitably cavernous in order to cram in the many hundreds of people who flock to it daily – worth a reminder at this stage that it is the number one venue slap bang in the centre of town.

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As there is a beer terrace out front with much coming and going the atmosphere is very noisy and lively, sometimes pierced by live music performances. The upstairs area serves as a stage, with performers opening the windows to serenade people on the street. Very unusual and atmospheric. You  get the picture that this is one of the cultural hubs of the city. Be warned, if you’re after peace and quiet, this isn’t the place for you.

As with most pivnicas there is food available. Sometimes this can turn a place too much like a restaurant, but here it blends in with people turning up for a drink of beer better than some others, and as the evening progresses you can tell this is chiefly a drinking spot – good.

Considering the hustle and bustle, service is actually not too bad until it comes to the point of paying, where you almost have to grab the staff by the lapels and shove the money into their pockets. As per usual, table service slows up the whole arrangement. This is a very inefficient method when you compare it to those mega-brauhauses in Germany and Austria where a tapster and a token system means hundreds can be catered for by just a few people, or simply an English pub with a big bar where you can walk up to the bar staff and order – sort yourself out rather than relying on others to carry a glass for you. Unfortunately in Eastern Europe there appears to be an unwritten rule that one must never ever approach the person pouring the beer, or expect them to be able to operate a till.

Any place, city, town or village automatically feels enhanced by a centrally located brewery and/or its taproom, and this is certainly the effect Mali Medo has had on Zagreb old town. There is some work to do on the beers themselves, and it would be nice to see a few more pub touches, just slightly, to add character. It wouldn’t be an 8/10 unless there was some constructive criticism to encourage improvements. Aside of this, it still remains an essential, indeed desperately vital place to go for a beer in Zagreb.

Leopold’s Delicatessen, Split

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Ujevićeva poljana 3, 21000, Split, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Although I am about to praise this bar and urge you to visit, I should firstly state that I really hate its name. Yes, Leopold is a nice guy who knows his stuff, and that’s a cool name but ‘Delicatessen’ seems sickly sweet for a beer bar. The quicker it is reduced to Leopold‘s or even Leo’s the better! Get in touch with Leo and tell him yourself!

There have been some comments made online that alternative beer is now mainstream in Split, which may be well-intentioned to promote the place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that isn’t the case at all. Most of the time you’ll be stuck drinking Croatia’s terrible trio of crap lagers or Staropramen if you’re lucky. Yes, Split remains by far the best city for drinking good beer in Croatia, but even then, you could count the number of good bars also selling good beer in the old town itself on one hand, and some of those are not especially good value, leading to a loss of local custom – the net result is they become touristy and lose their charm. Those that manage to retain local custom and offer something worth visiting rather than a generic Caffe Bar experience are thin on the ground in Split, and pretty much non-existent across most of Croatia.

Leopold’s is certainly one of the standout bars in the city centre, not just for beer but for atmosphere and somewhere you must bookmark to visit while in Split. This place is a beer bar, first and foremost – you’ll see some ad hoc meat and cheese slicing going on at the bar, sure, but the reason everyone is here is to try Croatian craft beer, perhaps taking a dip into the fridge for a reasonable interesting array of bottle offerings.

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On tap are some really beautiful tasting Croatian beer which will seem like you stepped into a parallel universe after spending your days in Croatia drinking their depressingly bad mainstream brands Karlovacko, Pan and Ozujsko.

There are 4 taps on rotation, all with Croatian beer from small breweries across the country, (though they also sold the way over-exposed mainstream beer Punk IPA too, which may pass for interesting in Croatia but not for a British traveller).

Thankfully the Croatian beer I tried was pretty good, one by Nova Runda and a single hop version of L.A.B’s Barba the standouts. They have brewed these beers carefully so as to not scare the locals, not over-hopped, but with enough punch and unfiltered flavour to be comfortably superior to all the mainstream Croatian beers. Good for a session, you might say, that milder drinkability that suits Mediterranean summer drinking. Thanks for not going the Polish/US craft route of slamming as many bitter hops in there as possible. The place is also interested in scotch whisky and bourbon if you are too.

The bar itself is pretty interesting to look at, with some nice mosaic-tiled patio furniture and vinyl records stuck to the ceiling. There’s also a swing seat in the middle of the bar which is a bit of a novelty, and a classic ‘dive’ bar layout that will instantly appeal. Leopold’s also seems to have a slightly annexed looking terrace which was well-appointed but the surroundings feel featureless (like a parking lot) – not the best from the options available.

However, the splicani prefer to congregate outside (this is common practise in the country and probably why there are so few Croatian bars with interest interior décor), and at some point as the evening progresses you will probably find yourself sharing space with some annoying American backpackers. Leopold seems to arrange tastings in advance with large groups – unfortunately halfway through my visit 20 Americans darkened their doors and the staff immediately began catering for them, seemingly exclusively. Perhaps that was bad timing but being moved from my seat and then having to listen to them droning on left a sour note, and not the good kind you get from a quality lambic.

They organise events such as live music on the terrace, barbecues (don’t miss out on these if you get the chance!) and seasonal beer like Oktoberfest, another excuse to skip past the bad macro lager in Croatia.

I have every confidence if you can dodge the worst excesses of the passing tourist trade Leopold’s is one of the best, certainly in the top 3 bars in the old town of Split. Agree? Disagree? Join the chat on facebook