Little Vienna. A hub for culture. One of Croatia’s best kept secrets.
These are only some of many praising attributes given to Varaždin. And rightfully so.
This town less than hour and a half away from Croatia’s bustling capital city is slowly, but confidently emerging as the newest addition to Europe’s scene of irresistible towns with authentic traditionsand striking architecture, wrapped in an aura of quaint sophistication.
Varaždin has a thriving history. Tracing its origin to the 12th century, the city became the capital of Croatia in 1756. Varaždin was home to Sabor – Croatian parliament, and the Royal Croatian Council founded by Empress Maria Theresa.
If it weren’t for the catastrophic fire that destroyed a large part of the city 20 years later, it might have stayed the governing centre of Croatia even today. Instead, that honour was given to Zagreb.
Nevertheless, those 20 years were more than enough to transform Varaždin into an architecturally endowed masterpiece as we know it today. A unique collection of Baroque, Rococo, classicist and Secessionist buildings, palaces and villas line the town’s core, coupled with elegant gardens and dreamy parks.
Let’s begin our enchanting adventure.
Things to see
The best place to start is at King Tomislav Square, Varaždin’s main square popularly known as Korzo. Choose one of many charming cafes jostling for space to sip on your morning coffee and nibble on klipič, Varaždin’s authentic – and incredibly delicious – bread roll.
On your tour of the town a must see is the 14th century Old Town fort – Stari Grad – a medieval fortress which with its whitewashed walls and orange rooftops became Varaždin’s most recognizable landmark.
What was once an impenetrable military fortress and the centre of Varaždin life, today hosts the Varaždin City Museum. Its imposing presence extends to the impressive interior.
Enter via a drawbridge and go on a journey through time with vintage furniture, historical paintings, insignia and weapons gathered throughout centuries from the fort’s many owners.
2015 just may be the best time to visit as this whimsical museum is celebrating its 90th birthday! Stari Grad was open for public in November 1925 and since then has managed to attract thousands of visitors with its rich displays in six departments and numerous exhibitions. One of the most popular is the Entomology Department in the Herzer Palace. It hosts one of the most beautiful exhibitions of insects in Europe.
Varaždin is known as the city of bell towers, which comes as no surprise considering the vast amount of picturesque churches adorning the town.
One of the most striking is the Varaždin Cathedral, built as the church of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in the 17th century. It is a place where for the past 45 years Varaždin Baroque Nights have been taking place. It is a concert of classical music that warms up coldish late September nights by giving tribute to Varaždin’s vast cultural heritage.
Varaždin is home to one of the most exquisite examples of natural landscape. If you liked the Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb, then you’ll love the Varaždin Cemetery!
This striking monument of garden architecture is a perfect place for a leisurely walk, an oasis for quiet contemplation and a valuable inspiration for botany enthusiasts.
In case you travel to Varaždin on a Sunday, make sure to visit Varaždin’s City Hall. Not only is it one of the oldest city halls in entire Europe – but it is also the place where the ceremonial changing of the guards takes places. Varaždin has its own civil guard, known as Purgari, who have been watching over the city for the past two and a half centuries.
One of Varaždin’s most distinctive features are many Baroque palaces adorning its historic core, built by noble Varaždin families from the 17th until 19th century. One of the most beautiful and the oldest is the Drašković palace where the Croatian Parliament would convene.
The story not many know
One of many striking architectural structures adorning the town’s core is the Croatian National Theatre. It was the first independent project of the renowned Austrian architect Hermann Helmer, the man who stands behind some of the most exceptional theatres in Central Europe, such as Staddtheater and Volkstheater in Vienna, Deutsch Smetanovo Divadlo in Pargue and Theater unter der Linden in Berlin.
While working on the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin, Helmer met and fell in love with his future wife Filipina Levanić, the daughter of a shoemaker from Varaždin.
Not only did they always find their way back to Varaždin throughout the years, but they hung a photograph of the Croatian National Theatre in Varaždin above their writing desk to remind them of how they fell in love.
The Varaždin way of life
In addition to picturesque architecture, one of Varaždin’s most appealing attributes is that the city is completely walkable. Since cars are permitted from entering the historic city core, the people of Varaždin as the primary means of transportation use – bicycles.
They are everywhere.
The cycling season never ends. Old and young, cheerful teenagers or people rushing to work – it is never a bad time to paddle down the cobbled streets and along the historic buildings.
Varaždin could also easily be referred to as the city of flowers. Every spring and summer the city blossoms under the flowers adorning balconies, parks and promenades. Varaždin’s blooming beauty has secured the town numerous prestigious awards. Some of them include the Green Flowerawarded by Croatian Tourist Board to the most beautiful Croatian towns, as well as the award from the Entente Florale Europe Project for achieving a high life quality.
A festival of good emotions
Each year in late August the streets of Varaždin become the playground for hundreds of artists, street performers, theatre groups and musicians.
Špancirfest, the largest street festival in Croatia, occupies Varaždin for ten days and brings contagiously fun atmosphere, scrumptious street food and happy people from all corners of the world.
We visited Špancirfest last August – read all about the wonderful time we had here.
Explore beyond Varaždin
Varaždin’s location makes the town an ideal starting point for the exploration of the surrounding places, such as the storybook region of Hrvatsko Zagorje.
There visitors can explore picturesque Trakošćan. This 19th century castle is often considered to be one of the most beautiful castles in entire Croatia. Another popular castle is the 12th century Veliki Tabor, known for the tragic story of Veronika Desnić, who was enclosed in the castle’s walls by her lover’s father.
Learn more about the castles of Hrvatsko Zagorje.
Zagreb is only a heartbeat away from Varaždin, rich is historic monuments, cultural sights and fascinating history. It promises great dining, fantastic shopping experience and superb sightseeing. You cannot miss out on the Zagreb Cathedral, the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships or heart-pumping role-playing game at Roomescape.
With so many similar European places being overrun with tourists, Varaždin’s storybook atmosphere and priceless beauty will leave you with a lasting impression. Quaint, sophisticated and ravishingly beautiful, it is a place where history comes alive.
Author: Petra Škofić
Photos are the courtesy of Varaždin Tourist Board
Have you visited Varaždin before? What did you enjoy the most?
Do you like Baroque architecture?
What is your favourite historical town you’ve visited, in Croatia or beyond?