I spent some time in Prague recently and it got me thinking about some - perhaps unfair - comparisons between Zagreb and Croatia as a whole.
Prague and Zagreb do have some obvious similarities, namely Slavism and a shared history as regional capital cities within the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. But aside from that, things are quite different.
Prague has been undeniably richer and much more important throughout history. It was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire for a few hundred years and was largely - if not wholly - spared the devastating effects of both the First and Second World Wars. Therefore, wealth and beauty remained intact. Communism did introduce some grey concrete monstrosities to the city but they were luckily relegated to the suburbs. And the neglected facades of the old town core were easily restored to their former glory after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
Zagreb, on the other hand, was never quite as important. It took a back seat to the grand cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire such as Vienna, Budapest, and, of course, Prague. The old town is far smaller than Prague’s and drab post-war buildings had plenty of room to take over a greater portion of the city.
Prague hosted some 7.6 million tourists in 2017; the vast majority of whom were foreign visitors, while around 1 million came from within the Czech Republic. And with a year-round population of some 1.2 million citizens, it’s no wonder that one is hard pressed to see many locals in the centre of town.
Zagreb, in comparison, a city of some 800 thousand, had 1.3 million visitors last year - with a significant portion coming during a two-week period around Advent.
Prague is undeniably more attractive than Zagreb but I feel like it’s become a caricature of itself. In my humble opinion, it’s too beautiful and way too crowded for it to feel like a real city. At the same time, it’s far from being a dead shell of its former self like Venice but it lacks the simple authentic charms of Zagreb. Locals have been pushed out of the centre due to crowding, high prices, and gentrification, leaving it hard to interact with locals or even observe them from a comfortable distance.
Prague’s popularity, coupled with its reputation as a beer-soaked haven for expats from the UK and America, definitely cheapens the experience of visiting the city. And with Thai massage parlours, shisha lounges, and Irish pubs on nearly every corner, they’re catering to the lowest common denominator.
Zagreb should continue to improve itself and its image, but not at the expense of its identity. Zagreb’s a great small city with lots to offer. There are too many places on the Croatian coast which have sold out to cheap mass tourism: Zagreb shouldn’t follow suit.