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Cities in the Spotlight: Zagreb, Croatia

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

Today we are taking another trip to Europe. This time we are looking at Zagreb, Croatia.


Zagreb City Information

Zagreb is the capital and largest city of Croatia. It is in the northwest of the country, along the Sava river, at the southern slopes of the Medvednica mountain. Zagreb lies at an elevation of approximately 122 m (400 ft) above sea level. The etymology of the name Zagreb is unclear. It was used for the united city only from 1852, but it had been in use as the name of the Zagreb Diocese since the 12th century and was increasingly used for the city in the 17th century. The name is first recorded in a charter by archbishop of Esztergom Felician, dated 1134, mentioned as Zagrabiensem episcopatum. The older form of the name is Zagrab. The modern Croatian form of Zagreb is first recorded in a 1689 map by Nicolas Sanson. An even older form is reflected in Hungarian Zabrag (recorded from c. 1200 and in use until the 18th century). For this, Hungarian linguist Gyula Décsy proposes the etymology of Chabrag, a well-attested hypocorism of the name Cyprian. The same form is reflected in a number of Hungarian toponyms, such as Csepreg.


Zagreb Historical Significance

Zagreb is a city with a rich history dating from Roman times. The oldest settlement in the vicinity of the city was the Roman Andautonia, in today's Ščitarjevo. The name "Zagreb" is recorded in 1134, in reference to the foundation of the settlement at Kaptol in 1094. Zagreb became a free royal city in 1242. In 1851, Zagreb had its first mayor, Janko Kamauf. The oldest settlement located near today's Zagreb was a Roman town of Andautonia, now Ščitarjevo, which existed between the 1st and the 5th century AD. The first recorded appearance of the name Zagreb is dated to 1094, at which time the city existed as two different city centers: the smaller, eastern Kaptol, inhabited mainly by clergy and housing Zagreb Cathedral, and the larger, western Gradec, inhabited mainly by craftsmen and merchants. Gradec and Kaptol were united in 1851 by ban Josip Jelačić, who was credited for this, with the naming the main city square, Ban Jelačić Square in his honor.

During the period of former Yugoslavia, Zagreb remained an important economic centre of the country, and was the second largest city. After Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, Zagreb was proclaimed its capital. The history of Zagreb dates as far back as 1094 A.D. when the Hungarian King Ladislaus, returning from his campaign against Croatia, founded a diocese. Alongside the bishop's see, the canonical settlement Kaptol developed north of Zagreb Cathedral, as did the fortified settlement Gradec on the neighbouring hill; the border between the two being the Medveščak stream. Today the latter is Zagreb's Upper Town (Gornji Grad) and is one of the best preserved urban nuclei in Croatia. Both settlements came under Tatar attack in 1242. As a sign of gratitude for offering him a safe haven from the Tatars the Croatian and Hungarian King Béla IV bestowed Gradec with a Golden Bull, which offered its citizens exemption from county rule and autonomy, as well as its own judicial system.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, Zagreb was badly devastated by fire and the plague. In 1776, the royal council (government) moved from Varaždin to Zagreb and during the reign of Joseph II Zagreb became the headquarters of the Varaždin and Karlovac general command. In the 19th century, Zagreb was the center of the Croatian National Revival and saw the erection of important cultural and historic institutions. In 1850, the town was united under its first mayor – Janko Kamauf. The first railway line to connect Zagreb with Zidani Most and Sisak was opened in 1862 and in 1863 Zagreb received a gasworks. The Zagreb waterworks was opened in 1878. After the 1880 Zagreb earthquake, up to the 1914 outbreak of World War I, development flourished and the town received the characteristic layout which it has today. The first horse-drawn tram was used in 1891. The construction of the railway lines enabled the old suburbs to merge gradually into Donji Grad, characterized by a regular block pattern that prevails in Central European cities. This bustling core hosts many imposing buildings, monuments, and parks as well as a multitude of museums, theatres, and cinemas. An electric power plant was built in 1907.

During the 1991–1995 Croatian War of Independence, it was a scene of some sporadic fighting surrounding its JNA army barracks, but escaped major damage. In May 1995, it was targeted by Serb rocket artillery in two rocket attacks which killed seven civilians and wounded many. In 2020 the city was hit by a 5.5 magnitude earthquake. Various buildings in the historic downtown area were damaged. The city's iconic cathedral lost the cross off of one of its towers. This earthquake was the strongest one to affect the city since the destructive 1880 Zagreb earthquake.


Travel to Zagreb

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Zagreb is made for strolling. Wander through the Upper Town's red-roof and cobblestone glory, peppered with church spires. Crane your neck to see the domes and ornate upper-floor frippery of the Lower Town's mash-up of secessionist, neo-baroque, and art deco buildings. Search out the grittier pockets of town where ugly-bland concrete walls have been transformed into colourful murals by local street artists. This city rewards those on foot. Afterwards, do as the locals do and head to a cafe. The cafe culture here is just one facet of this city's vibrant street life, egged on by a year-round swag of events that bring music, pop-up markets, and food stalls to the plazas and parks. Even when there's nothing on, the centre thrums with youthful energy, so it's no surprise that Croatia's capital is now bringing in the city-break crowd. Zagreb is the little city that could.


Must See Sites

Museum of Broken Relationships; From romances that withered to broken family connections, this wonderfully quirky museum explores the mementos left over after a relationship ends. Displayed amid a string of all-white rooms are donations from around the globe, each with a story attached. Exhibits range from the hilarious (the toaster someone nicked so their ex could never make toast again) to the heartbreaking (the suicide note from somebody's mother). In turns funny, poignant and moving, it's a perfect summing-up of the human condition. The innovative collection toured the world until it settled here in its permanent home.

Mirogoj; A 10-minute ride north of the city centre (or a 30-minute walk through leafy streets) takes you to one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Europe, sited at the base of Mt Medvednica. It was designed in 1876 by Austrian-born architect Herman Bollé, who created numerous buildings around Zagreb. The majestic arcade, topped by a string of cupolas, looks like a fortress from the outside, but feels calm and graceful on the inside. The lush cemetery is criss-crossed by paths and dotted with sculptures and artfully designed tombs. Highlights include the grave of poet Petar Preradović and the bust of Vladimir Becić by Ivan Meštrović.

Archaeological Museum; Spread over three floors, the artefacts housed here stretch from the prehistoric era to the medieval age. The 2nd floor holds the most interesting – and well-curated – exhibits. Here, displays of intricate Roman minor arts, such as decorative combs and oil lamps, and metal curse tablets, are given as much prominence as the more usual show-stopping marble statuary. An exhibit devoted to Croatia's early-medieval Bijelo Brdo culture displays a wealth of grave finds unearthed in the 1920s. The 3rd floor is home to Bronze and Iron Age finds as well as the museum's Egyptology collection, which includes a delicately beautiful Ptolemaic funeral mask, while the numismatic exhibit on the ground floor holds some 260,000 coins, medals and medallions and is one of the most important in Europe.

Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; This cathedral's twin spires – seemingly permanently under repair – soar over the city. Formerly known as St Stephen’s, the cathedral has an original Gothic structure that's been transformed many times over, but the sacristy still contains a cycle of frescos dating from the 13th century. An earthquake in 1880 badly damaged the building, and reconstruction in a neo-Gothic style began around the turn of the 20th century. Inside, don’t miss the baroque marble altars, statues and pulpit, or the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac by Ivan Meštrović.

Lotrščak Tower; Lotrščak Tower was built in the middle of the 13th century to protect the south city gate. Normally you can enter and climb up to the top for a sweeping 360-degree view of the city, but it was closed for extensive restoration work in 2018, with no date set for reopening. Directly across the street is the funicular railway, constructed in 1888, which connects the Lower and Upper Towns. For the last 100 years a cannon has been fired from the tower every day at noon, allegedly to commemorate one day in the mid-15th century when the cannon was fired at the Turks at noon, who were camped across the Sava River. On its way down, the cannonball happened to hit a rooster, which was blown to bits – according to legend, this was so demoralizing for the Turks that they decided not to attack the city. (A less fanciful explanation is that the cannon shot allows churches to synchronize their clocks.)

Trg Bana Jelačića; Zagreb’s main orientation point and its geographic heart is Trg Bana Jelačića – it's where most people arrange to meet up. If you enjoy people-watching, sit in one of the cafes and watch the tramloads of people getting out, greeting each other and dispersing among the newspaper- and flower-sellers. The square’s name comes from Ban Jelačić, the 19th-century ban (viceroy or governor) who led Croatian troops into an unsuccessful battle with Hungary in the hope of winning more autonomy for his people. The equestrian statue of Jelačić stood in the square from 1866 until 1947 when Tito ordered its removal because it was too closely linked with Croatian nationalism. Franjo Tuđman’s government dug it up out of storage in 1990 and returned it to the square.

St. Mark's Church; The 13th-century St Mark’s Church is one of Zagreb’s most emblematic buildings. Its colourful tiled roof, constructed in 1880, has the medieval coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia on the left side, and the emblem of Zagreb on the right. The Gothic portal, composed of 15 figures in shallow niches, was sculpted in the 14th century. The interior contains sculptures by Ivan Meštrović, though the church is open only at Mass times. From late April to October there's a guard-changing ceremony outside the church every Saturday and Sunday at noon.

Katarinin Trg; One of the best views in town – across red-tile roofs towards the cathedral – is from this square behind the Jesuit Church of St Catherine. It's the perfect spot to begin or end an Upper Town wander. The square is also home to Zagreb's most famous street art; the Whale, gracing the facade of the abandoned Galerija Gradec building, is a 3D work by French artist Etien. The building was covered in scaffolding in 2018 and the artwork couldn't be seen; it's expected to be unveiled again in the future.


Must Try Food & Drink

Zagrebačka kremšnita; Zagrebačka kremšnita is just one of many cremeschnitte varieties. It is a specialty of Zagreb, hence the name. This decadent cake consists of a thin layer of puff pastry that is topped with vanilla custard cream, a layer of whipped cream, and a top layer of chocolate glaze that separates this variety of cremeschnitte from the rest. It was invented during the early 1980s by Stjepan Vincek, the owner of Slastičarna Vincek, who claims that more than 300,000 of these treats are sold per year from his establishment.

Zagrebački odrezak; Zagrebački odrezak is a Croatian meat dish consisting of veal cutlets that are pounded, filled with cheese and ham, rolled, breaded, then fried until golden and crispy. Nowadays, the dish has many variations and some cooks prepare it with pork, chicken, or turkey. It is important that the cheese melts well, and the ham should have minimal fat. Once prepared, this succulent meat dish is typically accompanied by lemon wedges, rice and peas, potatoes, and green salads.

Ajngemahtec; Ajngemahtec is a nourishing chicken soup traditionally prepared in northern Croatia, especially in the area around its capital, Zagreb, whose cuisine was strongly influenced by its Austrian neighbors. The name comes from the German word eingemacht, which could be roughly translated as all in one, due to the fact this simple one-pot dish indeed has a little bit of everything: various vegetables, chicken, a delicious broth and hearty dumplings. Ajngemachtec is often served at the beginning of the Sunday family lunch, but it also has a status of an ultimate home-remedy - whether it is a cold, flu, or a hangover, a plate of hot ajngemahtec always seems to make things better.

Abšmalcane mahune; Abšmalcane mahune is a Croatian dish prepared with green beans, garlic, butter, and breadcrumbs. The green beans are halved and boiled until tender, while butter is melted and combined with garlic and breadcrumbs in a separate pan. Before serving, the cooked green beans are covered with the fried combination of garlic and breadcrumbs. Bacon can be added to the breadcrumbs and garlic for extra taste, but its addition makes the dish unsuitable for vegetarians. The word abšmalcane is derived from the German word abschmalzen, meaning fried with butter, while mahune refers to the green beans. This tasty concoction is traditionally served as a side dish accompanying meat or fish.

Šestinska pečenica; Šestinska pečenica is a Croatian meat dish originating from Zagreb. This simple dish is prepared by skewering three pieces of a pork cutlet, then cooking the meat on a grill. The meat is seasoned only with salt. After the meat has been grilled, it is traditionally served with raw onions and a tasty relish based on eggplants and peppers, called ajvar.

Prigorska pogača; Prigorska pogača is a Croatian bread made with a combination of flour, yeast, oil, eggs, sugar, milk, and salt. The dough is then brushed with a mixture of egg yolks and milk, and the bread is baked in the oven. It is recommended to serve the bread while it is still warm, although it is also delicious when it cools down.

Maraschino; This clear cherry-flavored liqueur dates back to the 16th century when it was first made by Dominican monks in Zadar. It is produced from the fruits (including the pits) of Marasca cherries, which give Maraschino its unique, intense aroma, and subtle bitterness. The commercial production started in the 18th century by Francesco Drioli, while Dalmatia was still under the rule of Venetian Republic. In the mid-20th century, during political turmoil, the production was abruptly stopped, and the Yugoslav government later unified it under one enterprise, which would later be named Maraska. Present-day Maraschino is now produced in other regions and countries, namely Italy. It is usually enjoyed as a digestif, served neat or mixed with tonic water or orange juice. Maraschino also works well in cocktails, and it easily blends in a variety of desserts.

Slavonska šljivovica; Slavonian plum brandy is the most popular drink in eastern Croatia. It is distilled from locally grown fresh and ripe plums such as Bistrica, which have been cultivated in the region for centuries. This clear drink can range from light yellow to amber in color, depending on whether it is aged in Slavonian oak. It is characterized by harmonious aromas of plums and a long finish, while its alcohol content may range from 37.5 to 42.5%. Slavonian šljivovica is not merely a drink, it is deeply integrated into Slavonian tradition, and no special event or gathering is complete without a shot of well-chilled šljivovica. Traditionally, this plum brandy was served in small-sized bottles called čokanjčići.

Gračanska tenka gibanica; Gračanska tenka gibanica is the city of Zagreb's version of gibanica—a traditional dish that typically combines phyllo pastry, cheese, and eggs. The dish is associated with a part of the city called Gračani, hence the name. It consists of thin dough that is filled with fresh cow's cheese, eggs, wheat grits, heavy cream, and salt. The dough is made with flour, eggs, salt, and oil. When assembled, the whole thing is traditionally brushed with eggwash and butter before baking. What makes this pastry special is the fact that it is open-faced, and only a small layer of dough can be seen on its edges. It is recommended to let tenka gibanica cool down for a few minutes before serving it sliced and still slightly warm.


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