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Zagreb has emerged as a tourist destination in recent years, and much of its success has to do with the country's spectacular Adriatic coast—beautiful medieval towns, crystal-clear azure waters, and, of course, well-developed tourist resorts. It's all too easy, however, to overlook the fact that much of the country's natural beauty and cultural heritage is rooted in places well inland from the sea. Unless you arrive overland from Slovenia, by boat from Italy, or by one of the few air routes that deliver you straight to the coast, chances are that your first encounter with Croatia will be Zagreb, an eminently strollable city of attractive parks, squares, and museums. Instead of high-tailing it to Dalmatia or Istria, stay a few days to explore the capital's historic centre and pastoral environs. You'll be in for a pleasant surprise and will go home with a fuller, more satisfying appreciation of what this alluring country is all about.

Above all, there's Croatia's quietly lovely capital. With its historic centre on the northern bank of the Sava River, Zagreb has the walkability of Prague. Spacious, friendly public spaces, grand Austro-Hungarian architecture, and a rich array of churches and museums will lure you down small side streets—as long as it's not raining.

With the exception of the vast plains of Slavonia that stretch to the east, the rest of the inland region, with Zagreb as its approximate centre, can be divided into two parts, north and south. To the north is the hilly, castle-rich Zagorje region; the smaller, often-overlooked and yet likewise appealing Medimurje region; and, just a tram and cable-car ride from the city centre, the hiking trails and ski slopes of Sljeme. To the south is the relatively busy route to the coast that includes Karlovac, an important regional centre, as well as Croatia's most visited national park, Plitvice Lakes; and a second route along the less traveled banks of the Sava River to Lonjsko Polje, known for its natural beauty, a 16th-century fortress, and historical reminders of Croatia's role in World War II.