Zagreb – the city of a million hearts
Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, and is located in Continental Croatia, between the mountain Medvednica and the Sava River. It has a population of about 790,000, roughly a quarter of the country’s entire population.
The first written mention of Zagreb is in 1094 CE, when the diocese of Zagreb was founded on the Kaptol. In 1242, Zagreb became an autonomous city, thanks to the Hungarian King Bela IV, who gave the city its new status via a document known as the Golden Bull. Zagreb was frequently mentioned as a major city throughout the Austro-Hungarian period, but it became the capital of Croatia on the 25th of June 1991, when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia.
Gradec and the Kaptol
Zagreb as we know it today began its history on two small hills – the western Gradec and the eastern Kaptol. The Medvešćak Stream divided these two settlements and it still runs today, beneath the pavements of Tkalčićeva and Medvedgradska Streets.
Gradec, which is today known as the Upper Town (Gornji Grad), is at the heart of modern Zagreb. From 1242 to 1266 CE, the Upper Town was a separate settlement surrounded by high walls and watchtowers. Of these old fortifications, only the Stone Gate (Kamenita vrata) has survived. Today, the Gate is a shrine to the Virgin Mary, where locals still come to offer prayers. On display in the shrine is a picture of the Virgin Mary which survived a fire in 1731 CE.
The central square of Gradec was St Mark’s Square (Markov Trg), which is today home to the highest institutions in Croatia – the Croatian Sabor (parliament), government buildings, and the Supreme Court of Croatia – and whose crowning glory is St Mark’s Church, with its distinctive colourful roof mosaics and Gothic portal.
The Upper Town is also known for the Kula Lotrščak, which is also a symbol of Zagreb. Originally a defensive tower, today it is a tourist attraction, offering wonderful views of the city.
The Upper and Lower Towns are joined by the Zagreb Funicular, which is 66 metres long, and which began operating in 1890. Below the Upper Town is the Grič Tunnel, which has recently been re-opened as a tourist attraction. Used as a shelter for citizens during the Croatian War for Independence, it is today the site of art, cultural, and fashion events.
The Upper Town’s charming streets and beautiful buildings make it one of Zagreb’s most impressive attractions, and from its heights it offers spectacular views over the rest of the city. It is also home to several museums, including the Zagreb City Museum, the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, and the innovative and moving Museum of Broken Relationships.
Opposite Gradec is the Kaptol, which was established at the same time as the diocese of Zagreb. The Kaptol was primarily the property of the bishop of Zagreb, and in 1500 CE a large cathedral was built on the hill. In 1880, the cathedral was hit by a powerful earthquake, and large sections of the cathedral subsequently burnt down. The remains of the cathedral were restored, and the rest of the structure rebuilt, by the Franco-German architect Herman Bollé, and it his his cathedral, with its glowing white spires, that is visible today.
The Kaptol was not originally surrounded by defensive walls, but at the end of the 15th century, when the city was under attack by Ottoman forces, a defensive wall was built around the Kaptol, parts of which are preserved today.
The Lower Town
The Lower Town was built following the union of Gradec and the Kaptol in 1850. Zagreb’s central square – Ban Jelačić Square (Trg Bana Josipa Jelačića) – is located in the lowland area between Kaptol and Gradec, and has been used as a fairgrounds since 1641. The Square is today decorated with a statue of Ban Josip Jelačić, a Ban (nobleman and servant of the Habsburg monarchy) who led several military campaigns and was noted for his involvement in the abolition of serfdom in Croatia in the 19th century. The statue was installed in 1866. The Square is also decorated with a fountain on the location of the source of the Manduševac Stream, which is now buried underground.
Today, the Lower Town is known for its many parks, and for its stunning Austro-Hungarian buildings, many of which were designed by Herman Bollé. One of the best-known is Zrinjevac, a large, leafy park a few steps from the main square, which is crowned by a beautiful musical pavilion at the heart of the park.
The lower town is also home to numerous museums, including the Gallery of Modern Art, the Archaeological Museum, the Art Pavilion, and the Museum of Illusions. It features countless bars, cafes, and excellent restaurants, and at night it becomes the backdrop for Zagreb’s exciting nightlife.
Christmas in Zagreb
Aside from its arts scene, its history, and its excellent food, Zagreb has in the past few years become one of Europe’s favourite Christmastime destinations. During the Advent season, Zagreb’s squares and parks are transformed into a winter wonderland. The main square is home to a Christmas village and dozens of tiny stalls selling delicious and warming winter specialities, such as fritule, tiny doughnuts with a light and fluffy texture, and traditional wintertime drinks including spiced wine. At New Year, the main square is the heart of the celebrations, with a large public concert featuring live music.
Zagreb’s parks and squares are also given a wintertime makeover – the beautiful Tomislav Park, in front of the city’s central railway station, is transformed into a large skating rink, and visitors can follow the weaving skating paths around the park’s central fountain, or enjoy the romantic atmosphere of the park from the sidelines.
Wherever your Christmastime wanderings take you in Zagreb, you are sure to find live music, tasty food, and an unforgettable seasonal atmosphere.