When we think of Croatia, we tend to think of pristine beaches and charming small towns along the Adriatic Coast. Dubrovnik, Split or Plitvice Lakes are without doubt worth a visit, but if you want to get away from the crowds and inflated prices, they are best to be avoided during the summer months. Yet, Croatia has much more to offer and some of its attractions are closer than many people realize.
I recently took a day trip to Northern Croatia to explore the cities of Varaždin and Čakovec. They are both located about a one-hour drive away from Zagreb, or just a little over 90 minutes from my hometown Graz, Austria. While many people in Graz would raise their eyebrows when I suggest a day trip to Northern Croatia, I like to remind critics that this trip involves less driving time than going to the other end of Styria at Schladming or to Vienna – places that locals here like to choose for day trips.
Varaždin is a city of 45,000 inhabitants in the north of Croatia. It is known for its well-preserved Baroque old town and can be considered the historically most interesting city in continental Croatia. First mentioned in a document in 1181, Varaždin is one of Croatia’s oldest cities. The city soon became an economic and military center. Varaždin was the capital of Croatia from 1767 until the year 1776, when a fire destroyed much of the city and administrative institutions consequently moved back to Zagreb. The city was rebuilt and extended during the 19th century and flourished once again. As crafts and trades developed, the city gained importance. In the 20th century, Varaždin became an industrial center. The city was almost unaffected by the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995. It is among Croatia’s most competitive cities and is home to a number of major corporations, including the food manufacturer Vindija and the textile company Varteks.
The city’s old town is small enough to be explored on foot. Below, I will list some of the most interesting places of interest in Varaždin.
The Varaždin Castle complex is located in the north-western part of the city center. Throughout the centuries, it served as a defense fortification. In the 16th century, Varaždin was located within the Military Frontier, the southern borderland of the Habsburg Empire, which served as a buffer zone against Turkish attacks. Varaždin Castle was called the “Gate to Styria” and had an important role for the defense against attacks from the Ottoman Empire. It was modernized, extended and turned into a fortification with low defense towers connected by galleries with openings for firearms.
The castle itself was reconstructed multiple times by the various noble families who owned it: the Counts of Celje, the Vitovec family, John Corvinus, the Ungnad family as well as the Erdödy family. The latter remained owners of the castle all the way from the late 16th century until 1925, when it was purchased by the City of Varaždin. Since then, the castle hosts the Varaždin Municipal Museum.
Today, Varaždin Castle is the number one tourist attraction in town, which should not sound as a threat. The area is never really overcrowded, but rather peaceful and quiet. It is also a favorite place for locals to take wedding photos. I loved walking around on the fortification wall and laid down in the grass for half an hour or so, enjoying the spring breeze and the warm temperatures.
There are a couple of street cafés just outside of the entrance gate to the castle. On a sunny day, there is probably no better place to enjoy the view and admire the beautiful castle than My Way (Trg Miljenka Stančića 1). I stopped here for a bit before exploring the rest of old town.
Croatian National Theatre (HNK)
This building was designed by the renowned Austrian architects Hermann Helmer and Ferdinand Fellner, who also built the Stadttheater and Volkstheater in Vienna, the Graz Opera and many other theatre buildings all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany. Built in 1873 in neo-Renaissance style, it was Helmer’s first theatre project. Plays were performed in German and Croatian. Today, almost 150 years later, the HNK is a highly regarded theatre with a
Vatroslav Jagić Park
This small park is located next to the Croatian National Theatre. It was named after Vatroslav Jagić, a professor of Slavic Studies who was born here. The park was founded in 1838 by the local physician Dr. Wilhelm Bernhard Müller who began decorating the area with plants and flowers. In 1897, Count Rudolf Erdödy, then also the owner of the castle, donated 150 palm trees and other exotic plants. A bust of the Austro-Hungarian Queen Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissi) was installed in the park. In the mid-20th century, the park got its present appearance, resembling an English garden.
Other points of interest
Most buildings in old town are from the 18th and 19th century. Some of them might not be of historical significance, but together they make Varaždin’s well-preserved, largely renovated and colorful old town so attractive.
Crossing the bridge across Drava river to Međimurje
Međimurje county is an agricultural, rural part of the country with rolling hills of only up to 350 meters above sea level. Mura river (German: Mur) runs along the border to Slovenia in the north, while Drava river (German: Drau) forms the county border between Međimurje and Varaždin counties. Vineyards and lush green meadows characterize the landscape.
However, agriculture is no longer the only dominant economic sector. The region has profited heavily from its geographical proximity to Slovenia, Hungary and Austria and the accession of Croatia to the European Union. Today, Međimurje hosts a growing number of industrial parks. The average income of Međimurje’s 114,000 inhabitants is still lower than in Zagreb or neighboring Slovenia, but the region still seems to be better off than many other parts of Continental Croatia or nearby rural Hungary. This also becomes apparent when driving through the vineyards north of Čakovec: many of the houses are freshly painted and renovated. Local roads are in pretty good shape. In fact, they are in much better condition than in neighboring Slovenia.
Međimurje’s tourist industry has also grown over the last few years. Bike trails have been created along Mura and Drava rivers, as well as across the vineyards in the northern part of Međimurje. The hot water springs of Sveti Martin attract numerous visitors from all over Croatia and the neighboring countries.
Čakovec, the capital of Međimurje county, is located a 15 minute drive north-east of Varaždin. It is small and compact, but definitely worth a visit if you are interested in history and culture. Even a short two-hour stopover should be worth it, if you just want to walk around the old town and have a coffee.
The city’s main attraction is Zrinski Castle (Stari grad Zrinskih). A wooden tower was built here by Count Dimitrius Csák in the 13th century. It later became known as Csák’s tower and gave Čakovec its present name. The Hungarian Csáktornya and the outdated German Csakaturn are also word-by-word translations of Csák’s tower. A fortification wall was built around the tower as a defense structure. Over the centuries, the castle frequently changed owners but the most notable period was the time of the Zrinski noble family.
Nikola Šubić Zrinski, the Ban of Croatia between 1542 and 1556, was a crucial figure in the battles of the Habsburg Empire against the Ottoman Empire. He saved the Habsburg army from defeat before Pest in 1542 and became Ban of Croatia. For his achievements, Emperor Ferdinand I. granted him all of Međimurje including Čakovec.
In 1566, he defended the fortress of Szigetvár with a small army of just 2,300 soldiers against an Ottoman army of more than 100,000 soldiers, led by Suleiman the Magnificent. The Ottomans won and Zrinski and almost all of his 2,300 men died in battle.
Although the battle ended with an Ottoman win, a further advance towards Vienna could be averted and Vienna was not threatened again by Ottoman forces until the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Today, Nikola Šubić Zrinski (Hungarian: Zrínyi Miklós) is still considered a hero in both Croatia and Hungary.
Zrinski’s successors developed the city of Čakovec around the castle. Nikola Šubić Zrinski’s great-grandson Nikola VII Zrinski was a famous poet and was appointed Ban of Croatia between 1647 and 1664. From his castle in Čakovec, Zrinski was in contact with famous contemporary intellectuals.
Together with his brother Petar, he was involved in battles with the Ottoman Empire. He was unsatisfied with the outcome of the wars and the Peace of Vasvár of 1664 that divided the lands between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. The two brothers initiated a plan to overthrow Habsburg rule over the lands of the Hungarian Crown and entered into secret negotations with other nations. Nikola was allegedly killed by a wild boar while hunting in 1664, but rumor had it that he was killed by Habsburg agents who saw him as a threat.
Nikola’s brother Petar Zrinski then became Ban of Croatia. Together with his brother-in-law Fran Krsto Frankopan, they continued with their conspiracy plan. The revolt failed and the conspirators were arrested. On April 30, 1671, they were executed in Wiener Neustadt. In Croatia, the two conspirators are now remembered as heroes and martyrs and were even featured on the 5 kuna banknote (withdrawn in 2008).
In 1738, an earthquake caused severe damage to the castle. After that, a Baroque palace was built inside the fortification walls. The castle’s look has barely changed since then. The palace now hosts a local museum and is a popular place for weddings. However, the fortification and tower are in urgent need of renovation, as some parts are already falling apart.
Zrinski Park connects the castle with the main square and main pedestrian street of Čakovec. It has been part of the fortification since the 13th century and contains a number of statues and monuments. The Monument to Nikola VII Zrinski is located at the entrance to the park.
Other points of interest
Main square has its fair share of Socialist-era eyesores, but is home to a prime example of Hungarian Art Nouveau style architecture. Built in 1903, the Commercial Casino (Trgovački kasino) was designed as a a gathering place for merchants and wealthier citizens. The 18th and 19th century buildings in the adjacent main pedestrian street, Ulica kralja Tomislava, are also well preserved. Locals like to hang out, chat and read a newspaper at the various street cafés around main square. The Baroque style Church of Saint Nicholas is located halfway down Ulica kralja Tomislava.
If you do decide to stay overnight, Čakovec has a surprisingly good nightlife. Considering the size of this small town, there is a nice variety of clubs and bars. Even years later, I like to remember a crazy night out in Čakovec while visiting friends from the area. Back then, our izlazak started with traditional Croatian tambura folklore at Paladin, continued with EDM at Podroom and ended with too many drinks and contemporary folk (cajke) at Taboo. The latter place was terrifying and fascinating at the same time. I somehow was not surprised when my friends told me a few months later that it ceased operations. New ones have opened in the meantime, the genuinely fun places are still there and can keep you more than entertained on a Saturday night in this town of just 15,000 inhabitants.
This time, I was limited to a day trip, though, but this was definitely not my last visit to Northern Croatia. If you want to see a non-touristy Croatia away from the coast, make sure to check out Varaždin and Čakovec.
How to get there
I would strongly suggest going by car, especially if your trip starts from outside of Croatia. From Austria and Slovenia, it is advisable to travel via Maribor and Ptuj towards Zavrč/Dubrava Križovljanska border crossing (Croatian state road D2) all the way to Varaždin. From Varaždin, cross Drava river to get to Čakovec. When you are ready to go back home, there is no need to return to Varaždin: cross back into Slovenia at Mursko Središće/Petišovci border crossing and follow A5 motorway towards Maribor. If you have time, you can also drive across the vineyards towards Štrigova and Banfi/Razkrižje border crossing – a scenic, yet time-consuming alternative.
All views expressed in this blog post reflect my own personal opinion. This personal blog is designed to share information about my hometown as well as my travels around the globe. I am not associated with any of the service providers mentioned in this article and did not receive any compensation for writing this blog post.