While Croatia is known for its beautiful stretching coastline that attracts millions of tourists every year, the real gem of the country is the humble capital of Zagreb. Unlike almost any other European capital, Zagreb is unique in the way that many tourists opt to skip the city in favour of others on the coastline. The advantage of this is that you end up with all of the benefits of a capital city, without the over-crowding and the constant rush that is often associated with other capitals. On top of this, the city centre of Zagreb is relatively small, which allows students living in the area to get very familiar with the city in a way that makes you feel like you’re a local.
Living in Croatia
The way of life in Croatia is relatively laid-back, and no matter what time of day or year, you’ll always see people relaxing in cafes drinking coffee. This reflects the nature of Croatia in general, where being 10 minutes late is the norm, and you never feel like you’re in a rush. While there’s a range of restaurants in Zagreb, the main theme among most of them is abundance of hearty foods such as breads and meats, and the absence of salad or vegetables. However, if you’re a vegetarian then don’t be scared off. There are less options in Zagreb than Brisbane, but there are still plenty of good ones if you look around. There’s also a good range of food delivery options, with the best service being ‘Wolt’ that delivers for $1.
An interesting thing about the previously mentioned coffee shops is that they double as bars, and the same place you’ll be having your coffee at noon, you might also be having some beers at during the night. If not beers, then you’ll likely be having Rakija, which is a fruit-based Brandy that is extremely common in the Balkans (during meals as well in some places).
While about 2/3 of people in Zagreb speak English to conversational level, it tends to get better depending on how young they are. This means that everyone at university tends to speak English really well, but you may struggle with some of the older people at markets or stores. Don’t be intimidated by this, as everyone is still friendly to English speakers, and you’ll be able to get by without knowing conversational Croatian. However, it’s still important to know the basics of hello (‘Dobar Dan’), thanks (‘Hvala’), and a few other common words to be polite. There is a language course (for credit if you have electives), but it is fairly basic and won’t get you fluent by any standards.
The first thing you’ll notice about the university partner in Croatia, the ‘Zagreb School of Economics and Management’, or ZSEM, is that it’s quite small. With well under 1000 students, it is comparable to a high school in size, and most classes are held in two or three main buildings. One benefit of this is that the class sizes are small (ranging in 10 to 30), and you get better interaction with the teacher. Most units only have one class per week that ranges from 2-3 hours depending on its credit value, and are a mixture between a lecture and a tutorial.
The courses range from 2-6ECT, which means you’ll need to take at least five classes to get a full four QUT units worth (~30ECT). However, the courses are proportionately easier and have less coursework so that you won’t be overwhelmed. The courses can also be chosen from across 1st to 4th year units, which gives a wide variety of choice in terms of subject and timing.
The assessment tends to come in lots of smaller pieces (such as reports culminating into a final presentation or several small presentations), and most classes have one or two mid terms rather than a large final exam. Additionally, although about half of classes have group assignments, they are not too heavily weighted. These mid-terms are scattered throughout the semester, which means you won’t be piled up with assessment at once, and that the last week of the 15-week semester might only have one assessment piece. While there is the option for a final catch-up exam after the semester (January for QUT Semester 2) for exams that you missed or failed, it is recommended to finish everything in the original 15 weeks.
The academic calendars are a bit different from QUT, with Semester 1 in QUT translating to the start of February to the middle of May (or June if you do catch-up exams), and Semester 2 in QUT translating to the start of September until the week before Christmas in December (or January for catch-up exams).
Overall, the classes and assessment are quite easy, with noticeably different standards to what I’m used to at QUT. The classes tend to have a more practical focus, with more presentations and case studies from professors who have more practical than academic experience, but this means many classes can be lacking in the quality of their theory. Due to this, professors tend to mark assessment quite easily. The classes also tend to be fairly evenly split between Croatian and international students. It is also worth noting that classes have marked attendance, with different professors enforcing a 75% minimum to different degrees.
The university itself is located north-east of the city centre, and you can get there in just under a half hour through taking a tram and a bus from the city centre.
Depending on the location and quality of accommodation, you can pay anywhere from 200-500 Euro a month ($350-850). It is recommended to live somewhere between the city centre and the university, as there is a trade-off between worse public transport being closer to ZSEM, but less travel time going there through the day. Your average apartment that is 10-15 minutes between both may be 300 Euro per month, which is about $500.
While there is no on-campus accommodation, there are plenty of ways people find apartments. These include Facebook groups, ‘HomeinZagreb’, or even AirBnB, which ends up being surprisingly cheap because of the 40% discount on extended booking.
In Croatia they use the Kuna (Kn), which works out to roughly $1 = 4.5Kn. Most places also tend to prefer cash, so it is important to always have cash on you. Despite this, most large stores and supermarkets have EFTPOS, so you can still use your card.
While in Croatia, you have the options of opening a Croatian bank account (which is not too difficult), or what I believe is the better option of getting an ING Orange Everyday card. This can be used at any ATM in Europe, and not only refunds all ATM fees (if you’ve transferred at least $1000 into the account each month), but also gives you exchange rates better than anywhere else you’ll find. I estimate I’ll have saved around $500 during my time here because of this card.
The cost of living is quite cheap, with your average loaf of bread being $1, a coffee being between $1 and $4 (at a café), a beer being $3 at a bar, an average meal at a restaurant being $10 and a very nice meal being only $25.
Overall it is worth budgeting $1000-1500 per month depending on your accommodation and your tendency to travel.
A huge benefit of Zagreb is how easy it is to get around. As a student, the most important part of the city is the street that runs horizontal through the old town and the Main Square across the whole city. Living anywhere on or within walking distance of this street is good, as there is a tram line which runs all the way along and connects with other tram lines that can take you most places in the city. Above this old town area is a hill sloping upwards (in the Eastern part of this hill is ZSEM), and you’ll need to take a bus to get up it. A trip on the tram costs less than $1, and as a student there is the option of paying 100Kn a month (about $22), to get unlimited travel until the end of that month. This makes it very affordable to get around.
However, there are still other ways to get around. The easiest is walking, and a lot of the city can be walked (particularly when you are closer to the Main Square). While Zagreb isn’t the bike-friendliest city, it is still possible to bike, and it can be a good option.
Catching an Uber in Zagreb is very common, and between Uber and ‘Bolt’, another ride-share app, you can get around at very low cost. The average ride of 10 minutes may only cost you $5, and you don’t often get surges.
Like any city in Europe, winter can get quite cold, with there being a good chance of snow in either December or January when the temperature ranges between -5C to 10C. Despite this, it only begins to get cold at the end of October/early November, and warms up again in late March. During summer it can even get hot, with some weeks being above 30C. Although you’ll have plenty of months with perfect weather sitting at just below 25C, you’ll still need to pack a range of clothes to cater to all temperatures.
Living in Zagreb
As most of the time you spend in Zagreb will be in the upper part of Town, it’s rare that you’ll cross the river south, which is mainly just residential.
The benefit of this is that there is always something happening in this upper town area. Every weekend in the main square they have a different type of festival, and every single day they have markets of all different kinds at different spots across the city. When you combine this with the small size of the city, it makes it a very vibrant and active place to live. On top of this, there is also the famous Christmas markets, which have been named as the best in Europe several times over the last few years.
While there is plenty to do within Zagreb, there is even more to see throughout the rest of the country. You can reach the coastline in as little as two hours by bus, where there are amazing beaches (clear water rock beaches, unlike Australia). The best way to do this is through bus companies such as Flixbus, Nomago, or GetByBus, with Flixbus being the best of the three.
Outside of Croatia, you’re only a short drive from the neighbouring countries of Italy, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Hungary, and even Austria. These make for some great day trips, or even short trips with friends over the weekend. Again, busses will be your friend here, as Croatia distinctly lacks a good train network. The roads however are quite well kept, so you can enjoy a smooth ride.
In terms of flying, Zagreb has a newly upgraded airport, but it lacks in flight options. There are some decent flights to the likes of Amsterdam and London, but there are only few cheap options due to the absence of a budget airline like RyanAir. Your closest budget airlines will be in Vienna and Budapest. Each of these are a 5 hour bus ride, and it is common to drive to these airports where you can then take a flight for as cheap as 10 Euro ($16).
Croatia as an Exchange Destination
Overall, Zagreb is an underrated exchange destination for those who want to live it up in a low cost of living area while enjoying themselves. ZSEM isn’t too academically rigorous, and everyone can find something to love about Zagreb. I’d recommend going on exchange to Croatia to anyone!