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.

Brief history

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.

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