Osijek (pronounced OSS-yek) is a small city in far eastern Croatia, near the Serbian border. It is the largest city in the Slavonia region and the 4th largest in Croatia with a population of around 120,000. Unlike Croatia’s famous Dalmatian Coast, Osijek is relatively unknown to foreigners. Is it worth a visit? Maybe. I found it to be a pretty peculiar place.
The city center is pretty typical of Europe–lots of old buildings, some cobblestone streets, and shops/bars/cafes. The one notable difference is that many of the buildings are marred with bullet holes. Definitely eyebrow raising, but the violence that created them has ended. However, it’s a stark reminder that only 20 years ago there was a brutal conflict going on here. Osijek sustained heavy damage during the War of Croatian Independence.
Food is pretty notorious in Slavonia apparently, although I didn’t find it to be too different from other nearby regions (lots of sausage and hearty meals). Burek is one of their signature dishes–a flaky pastry filled with meat or cheese, originating in the former Ottoman Empire.
Drinking is where it gets good. Slavonia is a big wine producing region, famous for it’s Graševina white wines. It may not be as well-known as France or Napa Valley, but there are plenty of good wineries in the area to explore. If beer is more your style, Osijek has the oldest brewery in the country. A cold one will run you no more than 1-2 USD at a bar. Even cocktails are usually under 5 USD at bars and clubs. These prices are significantly cheaper than Zagreb and are more akin to neighboring Belgrade, Serbia. The nightlife itself has parallels to Belgrade as well, with large boats permanently moored along the river functioning as nightclubs. Between the river and the nearby old fortress district called Tvrđa, there are lots of cool nightlife venues…but with one catch. Although Osijek has a population of over 100,000 and a numerous bars and clubs, don’t try to go out on any day that isn’t Saturday. I was told that nobody goes out except for on Saturdays, but I didn’t really believe it. I tested my luck and visited a popular club in Tvrđa on a Friday night. My hosts told me that on Saturdays the venue is packed so tightly that you can’t move. But this was a Friday. We were the first and only people there for quite some time. When we left, the number of patrons had ballooned to somewhere around ten. We tried a boat venue on the river. Dead. Again, we were the only ones there. This time, nobody else joined us during the hour we were there. I found this extremely odd for two reasons:
1) Why doesn’t anybody go out on a Friday night? Nobody?!
2) Why on earth do these bars/clubs bother to open on nights when less than ten customers will show up the whole night?
There really isn’t a ton to do in the city itself, however there are some areas of interest within a short drive. The war-torn city of Vukovar is 22 miles Southeast of Osijek. Vukovar sustained the heaviest damage from the war in the early 90’s; it’s said to be the worst destruction of a city since World War 2. Also nearby is Kopački Rit, the largest natural wetlands in Europe. The area is famous for bird watching, but there isn’t much in the way of tourism. Apparently there is a company that does guided tours, but all of the park information is in Croatian. Lastly, there are natural thermal spas in nearby Bizovac that are cheaper and less crowded than those in Zagreb.
The locals don’t speak a ton of English, but were all very nice. They seemed to be thrilled to have visitors come to their neck of the woods and were excited to show us anything and everything that their city had to offer. I was invited into a family’s home I had never met for three nights, a free private wine tasting, a full winery tour by the owner, and an offer to stay with another winery owner across the river in Serbia. Talk about hospitality. Overall, Osijek is never going to become the next must-see place in Europe. However, it’s not too far from Zagreb and has a totally different (more Eastern European) feel. Combine that with friendly people and cheap prices; how can you go wrong?