Capital of an independent Croatia since 1991, Zagreb has served as the cultural and political focus of the nation since the Middle Ages. The city grew out of two medieval communities, Kaptol to the east and Gradec to the west, each sited on a hill and divided by a (long since dried up) river. Zagreb grew rapidly in the nineteenth century, and many of the city’s buildings are well-preserved, peach-coloured monuments to the self-esteem of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nowadays, with a population reaching almost one million, the city is the boisterous capital of a self-confident young nation. A number of good museums and a varied and vibrant nightlife ensure that a few days here will be well spent.
Despite a fair sprinkling of Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings, Zagreb is not the kind of city you fall in love with at first sight, and certainly can’t compare with Dubrovnik (or even Split) in the glamour stakes. What the city does offer is a uniquely vivacious café life and a year-round programme of heavy-duty art exhibitions and at least one genuine cultural flagship in the shape of the recently opened Museum of Contemporary Art. The Croatian capital’s growing reputation for arty fun also extends into its nightlife, with cutting-edge clubs, live gig venues and summer festivals that would put many a central European city to shame.
Zagreb is a disarmingly easy place to find your way around, with almost everything of importance revolving around the city’s central square, Trg bana Jelačića. Occupying the high ground north of the square, the Upper Town (Gornji grad) comprises the two oldest parts of the city, Kaptol and Gradec, the former the site of the cathedral, the latter a peaceful district of ancient mansions and quiet squares. Beneath them spreads the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Lower Town (Donji grad), a bustling area of prestigious public buildings and nineteenth-century apartment blocks.
Beyond the centre, there’s not much of interest along Zagreb’s suburban boulevards save for the Lauba House art gallery in Črnomerec to the west, and Maksimir Park to the east. Across the River Sava is Novi Zagreb, site of the sleek new Museum of Contemporary Art. Maksimir apart, the main green spaces to aim for are the artificial lakes at Jarun, southwest of the city, and Bundek on the edge of Novi Zagreb. Obvious target for hikers is Mount Medvednica, served by bus from Zagreb’s northern suburbs and an easy trip out from the centre.
Just one word of advice: don’t expect too much excitement in August, when locals head for the coast and the whole city seems to indulge in a month-long siesta.
Despite evidence of Iron Age settlements on top of Gradec hill, the history of Zagreb doesn’t really start until 1094, when Ladislas I of Hungary established a bishopric here in order to bring the northern Croatian lands under tighter Hungarian control. A large ecclesiastical community grew up around the cathedral and its girdle of episcopal buildings on Kaptol (which roughly translates as “cathedral chapter”), while the Hungarian crown retained a garrison opposite on Gradec. Following the Mongol incursions of 1240–42, King Bela IV declared Gradec a royal free town in order to attract settlers and regenerate urban life.
The communities of Kaptol and Gradec rarely got on – control of the watermills on the river dividing them was a constant source of enmity. The biggest outbreak of intercommunal fighting occurred in 1527, culminating in the sacking of Kaptol by the Habsburgs – who were now in control of Croatian lands. Henceforth the separate identities of Kaptol and Gradec began to disappear, and the name Zagreb (meaning, literally, “behind the hill” – a reference to the town’s position at the foot of Mount Medvednica) entered popular usage as a collective name for both.
Under the Habsburgs
By the end of the sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire was in control of much of Croatia, reducing the country to a northern enclave with Zagreb at its centre. Despite hosting sessions of the (largely ceremonial) Croatian parliament, Zagreb increasingly became a provincial outpost of the Habsburg Empire, and the Croatian language was displaced by German, Hungarian and Latin. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the growth of a Croatian national consciousness confirmed Zagreb’s status as guardian of national culture. The establishment of an academy of arts and sciences (1866), a university (1874) and a national theatre (1890) gave the city a growing sense of cultural identity, although ironically it was a German, the architect Hermann Bollé (1845–1926), creator of the School of Arts and Crafts, Mirogoj Cemetery and Zagreb Cathedral, who contributed most to the city’s visual profile.
Yugoslavia into the present
With the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918, political power shifted from Vienna to Belgrade – a city that most Croats considered an underdeveloped Balkan backwater. Things improved significantly after World War II, when Croatia was given the status of a socialist republic and Zagreb became the seat of its government. A major period of architectural change came in the 1950s and 1960s, when ambitious mayor Većeslav Holjevac presided over the city’s southward expansion, and the vast concrete residential complexes of Novi Zagreb were born. The city survived the collapse of Yugoslavia relatively unscathed, despite being hit by sporadic Serbian rocket attacks. Life in post-independence Zagreb was initially characterized by economic stagnation and post-communist corruption, but in recent years the capital has benefited from an upsurge in business activity – acquiring a stylish and optimistic sheen as a result.Read More
Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)
Nikola Tesla (1856–1943)
Born the son of a Serbian Orthodox priest in the village of Smiljan, just outside Gospić, Nikola Tesla went on to become the Leonardo da Vinci of the electronic age. He studied in Graz and Prague before working for telephone companies in Budapest and Paris, and in 1884 emigrated to the US where he found work with Thomas Edison – the pair allegedly fell out when Edison promised to reward Tesla with a US$50,000 bonus for improving his electricity generators, then failed to pay up.
After working for a time as a manual labourer, Tesla set up his own company and dedicated himself to generating and distributing electricity in the form of alternating current – a system which is now standard throughout the world. With financial support from American company Westinghouse, Tesla demonstrated his innovations at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, becoming an international celebrity in the process. In 1899 Tesla moved to Colorado Springs, where he built an enormous high-frequency current generator (the “Tesla Coil”), with which he hoped to transmit electric energy in huge waves around the earth. Photographs of Tesla’s tall, wiry figure using the coil to produce vast electronic discharges helped turn the inventor into one of the iconic figures of modern science.
Tesla also pioneered the development of long-range radio-wave transmissions, but failed to demonstrate his innovations publicly and was scooped by Giuglielmo Marconi, who successfully sent wireless messages across the Atlantic in 1902. The US patent office credited Marconi as the inventor of radio – a decision overturned in Tesla’s favour in 1943.
Official recognition was something that eluded Tesla throughout his career. In 1915 the Nobel committee considered awarding their science prize jointly to Tesla and Thomas Edison, but abruptly changed their minds on discovering that the pair were too vain to share it. Tesla’s failure to capitalize on his inventions owed a lot to his secretive nature. His habit of announcing discoveries without providing any supporting evidence led many to see him as a crank. During his period at Colorado Springs, he claimed to have received signals from outer space, and in later life, he claimed at various times to be working on a death ray and an “egeodynamic oscillator”, whose vibrations would be enough to destroy large buildings. On Tesla’s death in 1943, the FBI confiscated some of the scientist’s papers, prompting all kinds of speculation about the secret weapons that Tesla may or may not have been working on.
Tesla remains the subject of fascination for Croats and Serbs alike (indeed he is one of the few historical figures whose legacy they share), and Tesla-related museum displays in Zagreb, Belgrade and his home village of Smiljan are becoming ever more popular.
Zagreb’s impressive menu of cultural events includes a range of festivals that attract prestigious international participants. Most of these have their own websites; otherwise, advance information can be obtained from the Zagreb tourist office.
Zagrebdox Late February/early March w zagrebdox.net. Impressive survey of international documentary films, with five days of screenings in venues across the city.
Festival of the European Short Story (Festival Evropske kratke priče) May w festival-price.profil.hr. Readings, panel discussions and drink-fuelled party evenings involving top authors from Croatia and abroad. Some readings are in English; others come with big-screen English translation.
Contemporary Dance Week (Tjedan suvremenog plesa) late May/early June w danceweekfestival.com. Varied, often challenging programme of modern choreography from around the globe, held in various venues across the city.
Cest is de best Late May/early June w kraljeviulice.com. Week-long festival of street performers augmented by a big range of live music, taking place on outdoor stages positioned throughout the city centre.
Animafest Late May/early June w animafest.hr. Zagreb was a major centre of animated film in the 1950s and Animafest helps to put the city back on the map, with a review of the year’s best animation from Croatia and abroad.
Strossmartre (Ljeto na Strosu) Late May to early Sept w ljetonastrosu.com. Season of open-air concerts and events in Zagreb’s Upper Town, with nightly happenings all summer long.
Dan D (“D Day”) June w dan-d.info. Weekend-long design festival with stalls, shows and DJ events, held in the postindustrial splendour of the Stara Klaonica (Old Slaughterhouse).
Eurokaz Theatre Festival Late June w eurokaz.hr. Challenging avant-garde drama with an impressive roster of international guests.
In-music Late June w inmusicfestival.com. Three-day rock-and-pop fest on the shores of Lake Jarun with three stages, early-morning DJ tents and plenty of food and drink. Guests in recent years have included Kraftwerk, Franz Ferdinand, Arcade Fire and many more. Camping available.
Fantastic Zagreb Late June/early July w fantastic-zagreb.com. Fantasy, sci-fi, noir and cult trash cinema, celebrated with screenings in outdoor locations.
International Festival of Puppet Theatre (Međunarodni festival kazališta lutaka) late August w public.carnet.hr/pif-festival. A great chance to catch some of the best puppet productions from all over central and eastern Europe, with shows for both kids and adults.
World Theatre Festival (Festival svjetskog kazališta) mid-September w zagrebtheatrefestival.hr. Big names in international contemporary drama.
Perforations October w perforacije.org. Festival of experimental drama, contemporary dance and performance art that showcases pretty much everything that matters in the current Croatian board-treading scene.
Zagreb Film Festival October w zagrebfilmfestival.com. Initiated in 2003 and attracting outstanding documentaries and art movies from around the world.
While Zagreb is well served with medium- and top-range hotels, budget choices are relatively thin on the ground and should be reserved well in advance. There is a growing number of backpacker hostels, many of which offer private double rooms as well as bunk beds in dorms. Zagreb tourist office has a list of locals offering private rooms or apartments in the city centre; a couple of dedicated agencies can also help (see Hostels). There’s no decent campsite in the city, but you can pitch a tent in the garden of Ravnice Youth Hostel for 60Kn per person.
Whatever your budget, there’s no shortage of places to eat in Zagreb. While most restaurants concentrate on the Croatian repertoire of grilled meat and fish, there is a growing number of establishments offering modern European cuisine. Ethnic restaurants are still thin on the ground, but decent Italian pasta is widely available, and there’s a surfeit of pizzerias around Trg bana Jelačića and Tkalčićeva. Some of the best restaurants are to be found in the northern suburbs – worth the trek out if you want to observe the local bigwigs at play. Note that quite a few restaurants are either closed or have limited opening hours on Sun, so always check the details given below before setting out. Cafés are absolutely everywhere in central Zagreb, and although most of them only serve drinks, there are several that also offer light meals, cakes and ice cream. For snacks, there’s a good number of bakeries and sandwich bars in the central area, while picnic supplies can be purchased from the stalls of Dolac market, just above the main Trg bana Jelačića.
There’s a wealth of café-bars with outdoor seating in central Zagreb, especially in the pedestrianized section around Bogovićeva and Preradovićev trg. The other main strolling district is Tkalčićeva, just north of Trg bana Jelačića, which, with a watering hole every few metres, takes on the appearance of a vast outdoor bar on summer evenings. Saturday morning is the traditional time for meeting friends and lingering over a coffee, although downtown areas remain busy day and night, seven days a week, if the weather is good enough for alfresco drinking. Things quieten down by mid-autumn, although the more inviting café-bars retain their clientele through the winter. Larger cafés may offer a range of pastries, ice creams and cakes, but the smaller establishments focus squarely on drinking – so don’t expect to find much in the way of food.
Nightlife and entertainment
Nightlife and entertainment
Zagreb offers the rich and varied diet of entertainment that you would expect from a metropolis of one million people. There’s a regular diet of classical music, theatre and club culture throughout the year, and top international performers are increasingly drawn to the city’s ever-expanding range of high-profile festivals. Note that arts events tend to thin out in July and August, when there’s more in the way of cultural activity on the coast. Extensive entertainment listings appear in the free monthly English-language pamphlet Events and Performances, available from the Zagreb tourist office (or on their website, w zagreb-touristinfo.hr).
You can find international brands aplenty in the brash suburban shopping malls girdling the city, but the real pleasure of retail culture in Zagreb lies in trawling the markets, with fresh food at Dolac, bric-a-brac at Britanski trg and flea-junk at Hrelić. In addition, the alleys and courtyards around Ilica, Radićeva and Tkalčićeva harbour all manner of craft stores, jewellery shops and kooky designer boutiques.