Zagreb has never been more accessible. Flights into the new Zagreb airport from European and international cities now include an ever-increasing number of non-stop long-haul flights into Croatia’s capital. With so many flights, it’s clear that many people will be looking for things to do in Zagreb. And, there is plenty on offer. Though, once you’ve seen the city and hiked Medvednica, it’s time to explore beyond the city limits.
But where to go? Of course, there is Plitvice Lakes National Park, which is probably the number one day trip from Zagreb; you could also check out Varazdin and/or Trakoscan Castle. Moreover, did you know that even destinations like Budapest and Venice are accessible from Zagreb!? If you’re like us, you’ll love to head off the beaten track and explore those less-known but equally as exciting places. We recently visited one of these towns, which has a fascinating history and one of Croatia’s Top 100 Restaurants. Interested?
Then, you need to set a course from Zagreb to Ozalj.
Ozajl is a town located on the picture-perfect Kupa River. It has a rich and glorious past, which becomes evident as soon as you gaze upon the Ozalj Castle. The Old Town of Ozalj sits under the County of Karlovac, just 55 kilometers from Zagreb, and an easy day trip by car, train, or even public transport. Perched on a cliff above the river, you’d be surprised to discover that the area has a history dating back to 3,000 BC.
Ozalj was first mentioned in 1244. However, after a visit to the museum in the Ozalj Castle, you will soon discover that archaeological artifacts from the city date back to prehistoric times. The artifacts on display include clay utensils and tools and ceremonial jugs from the Bronze Age. When it comes to Ozalj’s history, its most famous period was in the Middle Ages, when the noble Zrinski and Frankopan families shaped history.
Ozalj has a long, complicated history, worthy of its own blog post, but I will note that prosperity for Ozalj began in the middle of the 16th century. In the 17th century, Ozalj was an unofficial Croatian capital, owned and run by the Zrinski and Frankopan families until Ban Petar Zrinski and Count Fran’s execution Krsto Frankopan for conspiracy against the Viennese in 1671.
After much turmoil following their deaths, the city was rebuilt in the 18th century and converted into a castle with Baroque elements. Ownership of the castle changed several times. The castle is managed by the Congregation Brothers of the Croatian Dragon, who arranged part of the castle to be renovated in its current (and ongoing) form. The castle is now the most complete in Karlovac County and is a key tourist attraction in Ozalj.
Things To Do In Ozalj
We visited Ozalj for the day as guests of the tourist board, who kindly provided us a local guide, accommodation and showed us the local gastronomy. That said, that in no way impacts our suggestions for things to see and do in Ozalj. We visited and found several great places you should check out (including not one, but two lunch and dinner pit-stop options all foodies will relish).
Ozalj Castle & Heritage Museum
The Ozalj Fortress is located on a cliff perched high above the Kupa River. This castle is one of the best-known fortifications of this type in Croatia. Because it was built on high on solid rock, it has panoramic views from all angles, especially the terrace.
What is on display at Ozalj Castle?
The Museum tells of the history of the area and contains prehistoric, old Roman, and medieval archaeological finds. The museum entry fee is about 3 euro. A total bargain, in other words.
There is a stack on display, but the stand-out pieces for us were:
- Part of a Mammoth
- Burial pots found in someone’s backyard and dating back to 1,000 BC
- Huge collection of military weapons from the Middle Ages
- Fragments of Roman pottery
- A wide variety of Slava Raškaj art.
Slava Raškaj was a Croatian artist who was born in Ozalj, and there is a splendid wall of her art in the museum. Living a short life from 1877 to 1906, her watercolors are worth many thousands of euro nowadays. She was born mute and deaf, but that did not stop her. Slava’s works were exhibited across Europe. Sadly at the end of her life, she was diagnosed with a mental illness and was institutionalized for the last three years before succumbing to tuberculosis.
St. Vitus Church
Leave the car parked at the castle, and walk a short distance to the St. Vid church, where you can pay respects to Slava Raškaj’s grave. View the church and climb the bell tower to enjoy more panoramic views of Ozalj below.
Ethno Park Trg
Just one kilometer from the town of Ozalj, you’ll find the Ethno Park om Trg. Sat in an open field, you can easily park and see what life in Ozalj was like in the pre-industrial era. On display are old cottage homes with traditional architecture.
The cottages’ roofs are covered with rye-straw (škopa) and are rare examples of traditional village buildings in Croatia.
The Wine Roads Of Ozalj-Vivodina Vrhovac
The small wine region of Vivodina-Vrhovac is made up of 26 villages, which are nestled on the sun-drenched slopes of the Zumberak Mountain and Kupa Valley. A drive through this picturesque area, with a few pit stops for wine tasting, is an absolute must. The wine road is about 30 kilometers long. In this region, you’ll find Graševina, Pinot Sivi, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Portugeiser Frankovka, and Cabernet with some other usual continental Croatia grape varieties.
A great place to stop for lunch is the little Čulig Rural House & Winery, perched on a hill in Vrhovac overlooking their lovely vineyard below. The restaurant is beautifully decorated in a traditional style with all the furniture and fittings created by a local craftsman. Take a close look at the doors made from barrels and the light fittings!
The food is traditional, hearty, and delicious. Some of our favorites were the nettle gnocchi with ragu and tasty wood fire-roasted duck. While there, you must absolutely head down to their tasting room and sample their excellent wines.
Another great winery to visit in the region is Šoštar. Make sure to try their delightful Frankovka and Lešćanec wines while enjoying arguably the region’s best vistas.
Čulig Rural House& Winery – Vrhovac 68 L, 47280 Ozalj, Croatia
Oh, what fun! This small but seriously cool fence kept my Little Donkey amused for some time. And okay, I’ll admit that I had some fun playing on it, too.
Just 10 kilometers from Karlovac and a stone’s throw from Ozalj is the small village of Jaškovo. It’s in this unassuming village that you’ll find one of Croatia’s best lamb restaurants, Žganjer. Most famous for their spit-roasted lamb, there is no doubt that lamb is king at Žganjer.
Despite Jaškovo having plenty of space to raise lamb, they are all sourced from Pag and Krk’s islands. Why? This is where Croatia’s best-tasting lamb is found. On these islands, sheep eat a diet of wild herbs and grass covered in a salt spray, which enriches the lamb’s unique flavor.
Also, every lamb is hand-selected by the restaurant owner, several times per week, and transported to Žganjer from the islands, and then humanely slaughtered onsite in the Žganjer abattoir. This is to ensure the lamb is fresh and at its best before being cooked. It’s entirely clear that these people are serious about delivering the best lamb in Croatia. I love the restaurant because they have a real nose-to-tail philosophy, ensuring there is as little waste from each animal as possible. As such, you’ll find liver pate, tripe, and fried liver on the menu, which, by the way, are exceptionally good.
I should also note the menu has a wide variety of other foods, including poultry, pork, beef, game, and some outstanding charcuterie, which is also prepared by the restaurant using local produce. My personal favorite was the delicious devenice (blood sausage). In fact, almost everything the restaurant serves is sourced locally. The wines are from the Vivodina wine region, fruit and vegetables come from their garden or other producers in Jaškovo, and they even have locally milled polenta.
What Did We Eat For Dinner?
After a massive lunch at the winery, we really thought a light meal was in order. But nope, the Žganjer’s put on a full spread. Lucky for us, our fantastic guide stayed to dine with us and the co-owner.
So what did we eat? Or, should I say, what didn’t we eat?
- A huge charcuterie plate including local cottage cheese, špek (bacon), pršut, local herbed cows cheese, unbelievably good lamb liver pate, homemade sausage, and bread.
- Marinated lambs fry. Some of you may be put off by this but trust me, this is absolutely delicious.
- Nettle dumplings, fried chicken, and pork chops
- Cakes and cheeses galore.
Upon arrival at the restaurant, I noticed a grand yellow/orange cake, which I had been eyeballing the entire evening. There was no way I was leaving this place without trying it. I discovered the cake is aptly named the Katarina Zrinski cake.
This cake is a concoction of several 16th-century cake recipes from Ozalj, put together by a local history and food enthusiast. The cake is impressive and consists of 12 layers, 30 ingredients, and 5.5 hours to make. WOW! Although being completely stuffed after dinner, I managed to squeeze in a slice of this monumental cake. Let’s say the cake tastes just as good as it looks. You can taste all the little subtleties from each of the different ingredients.
If you are ever in the Karlovac region, pencil in a meal at Žganjer for one of the best lamb meals in Croatia, and be sure to leave some room for the opulent Katarina Zrinski cake.
Local Tip: Book a night onsite, so you can just stumble up to your room as we did lay down and digest it all.
Restaurant Žganjer – Jaškovo 51, 47280 Ozalj
Munjara – Old Hydropower Plant
During your visit to Ozalj, if you are a lover of architecture, you certainly should stop by the second oldest (and still working) hydropower plant in Croatia, built in 1908. The power plant is in a Neo-Renaissance style and a grand example of industrial architecture that looks like a castle. The hydro-plant was designed by Herman Bolle, the same gentleman who designed the Zagreb Cathedral and Mirogoj Cemetry.
Though we never explored these options on our visit, there are many opportunities for active holiday enthusiasts, including cycling, hunting, fishing, and hiking.
If you love sweet delights and strudel, in particular, you should mark early September in your diary to join in the Strudel Festival in Jaškovo (near Ozalj). This small central Croatian town entered the Guinness Book of Records in 2015 for the world’s longest strudel, which came in at a whopping 1,479.38 meters long!
Accommodation In Ozalj
After a day of sightseeing and enjoying the gastronomic specialties, you could drive back to Zagreb. However, we recommend you stay and rest. We stayed at Restaurant Žganjer & Hostel (don’t let the name fool you, it’s really a B&B) and while it’s modest accommodation, it’s comfortable. The food there is to die for, as we talked about elaborately above!
You could also stay at Hotel Korana or choose a more local experience from any guest house.
Ozalj Fun Facts
Ozalj is home to the Jalba, a lace cap worn up until WWII by women in villages along the Kupa River between Ozalj and Karlovac. The Jalba is made of the porous structure’s elastic material, made using a unique lace knitting technique on an upright wooden arch called a Lucanj. Each one takes a couple of months to complete.
How To Get To Ozalj
By far, the easiest way to get to Ozalj is by car. From Zagreb and Rijeka, you can take the A6 highway and take the Karlovac exit.
Another terrific way to arrive is via train! You can check out the offers and times here. You can get the train for 7 euro each way, and it takes just 40 scenic minutes. In fact, each month, from Zagreb, you can go to Ozalj via Karlovac on a special excursion train known as a Rumobil. Special tickets include guided tours in the Ozalj area, a card into the Heritage Museum Ozalj, and special seasonal thematic events and presentations delivered by local producers.
Now you know what things to do in Ozalj, where will you go first?
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