Croatia: Regions and Cities

Geographers often divide the world and its various areas into regions. A region is an area that is united in some way by one or more elements. In the United States, for example, people often speak of the “South,” or the “Midwest.” Croatia is divided into several regions. Chapter 2 discussed Croatia's three basic land regions and two regions defined by climatic differences. Croatia, by world standards, is a rather small country, yet it can be divided into several distinct regions. This chapter presents five regions—each of which has its own unique characteristics. They are central Croatia (Zagreb and its surroundings); eastern Croatia (including Slavonia, Baranja, and Srijem); the mountains (Gorski Kotar and Lika); the north Adriatic (Hrvatsko Primorje and Istra); and the south Adriatic (Dalmatia). Each region has at least one dominant city. Since the 1990s, the country has been divided politically into 20 counties. But these political regions do not always coincide with the geographic regions discussed below.

Central Croatia

Central Croatia is the country's geographic heart. It is the most densely populated region of the country and also is the nation's economic, political, and cultural center. This core region is sandwiched between Slovenia to the west, Hungary to the north, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the south. It is home to several important urban centers, including the country's capital and largest city, Zagreb, and smaller regional provincial cities, including Varazdin, Karlovac, and Sisak. The physical landscape is a combination of mountains and river valleys.

Each of these cities is located on a major river, yet Sisak is the only city that can be linked by water to other locations in Europe. River barges and boats can travel on the Sava River, which is navigable to Sisak, into the Danube. And from the Danube, much of Europe is accessible by a tight network of rivers, canals, and seas.


Zagreb grew from a position on the foothills of Medvednica Mountain overlooking the Sava River Valley. The area now occupied by Zagreb actually was settled during the Roman Empire. The town of Andauntonia existed during the early centuries of the Christian era on the banks of the Sava River at a site now located within Zagreb's city limits. Zagreb, itself, was first mentioned in the late 11th century. At that time it was just a small town known for its Catholic dioceses. At the dawn of the 12th century, the area in which Zagreb is located changed political hands, with control shifting from Croatia to Hungary.

With the transition, Zagreb's geographical location helped it become an important crossroads, rather than an isolated cultural backwater. Through the centuries the city expanded greatly in size and importance. Ultimately, it became the capital of the ethnic Croat people. Since the mid-19th century, Zagreb has experienced rapid population growth, exploding from 10,000 people in 1850 to nearly 1 million in 2002.

In the former Yugoslavia, Zagreb was the country's primary industrial and cultural center. Even though the city suffered greatly during the decade of the 1990s, it is still one of the leading East European urban centers. It is an important transportation crossroad between western and southeast Europe and Asia Minor. After the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, countries could participate in free trade with any country. This greatly increased Zagreb's importance because of its ports on the Adriatic Sea and because it is located on the main highway and railroad between the landlocked countries of Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. The city is an important business and manufacturing center and home to some of Croatia's biggest companies.

Zagreb has long been the country's most important educational center. The University of Zagreb, established in 1669, is one of the oldest institutions of higher education in southeastern Europe (Harvard University, the oldest in the United States, was established in 1636). Throughout its history, numerous scientists studied and worked in Zagreb. Some of them, such as Lavoslav Ruzicka and Vladimir Prelog, became Nobel Prize laureates. The university began as the Jesuit Academy of the Royal Free City of Zagreb, but in 1669 the Habsburg emperor signed a document that upgraded the academy to university status. The University of Zagreb's modern history began in 1874 when the Croatian Parliament produced a document that finally changed the name from academy to university. Today, the University of Zagreb has over 40,000 students. The Ministry of Science has been trying in recent decades to decentralize higher education and to establish branches of the university in smaller towns such as Varazdin.

Zagreb has many attractions and is developing as a tourist destination. The city is divided into three major sections—ancient Upper Town, the century-old Lower Town, and the more recently settled areas. Upper Town is the original town site, or historical core. It is located on two hills overlooking the Sava River. During the Middle Ages, two hills were settled, each with its own particular groups of inhabitants. First, Kaptol (one of the hills) was a residence of the Roman Catholic bishop and other Catholic clergy. The opposite hill, called Gradec, was reserved for everybody else. The bridge that connected the two parts of town was called the Blood Bridge. The name is a legacy of the often-bloody conflicts that took place between the early Catholic clergy and other residents of the city. The Gothic style Cathedral of St. Stephen was built during the Middle Ages. But it got its present monumental character when it was restored in neo-Gothic style in the 19th century. Today it represents not only an important landmark in the city of Zagreb, but it is also one of the world's tallest buildings made of rock. Herman Bolle, the German architect who restored the cathedral, also designed the monumental arches at Zagreb's main cemetery, Mirogoj, another historical landmark. The old observatory and Museum of the City of Zagreb are located on the neighboring hill that was home for ordinary citizens.

Lower Town is noted for its distinctive Secessionist (art nouveau) architectural style.Many of its buildings are of this unique architectural design that was popular within the Habsburg monarchy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A number of museums and art galleries were built during this period. So were the buildings of the Croatian Academy of Arts and Science and the Croatian National Theater. These structures are located in the so-called green horseshoe, a complex of parks built in the same period. The Ante Topic Mimara Museum, located nearby, is one of the most popular in Zagreb, and resembles London's famed Buckingham Palace in design. Zagreb is proud of its many parks and recreational sites. In fact, so much space within the city is wooded that it is one of Europe's greenest cities. The largest and most popular park is Maksimir. It is located several miles east of the town center.

Woodlands, lakes, trails, an adjacent zoo, and other amenities attract thousands of visitors on pleasant weekends and throughout the year. Citizens also enjoy hiking in the hills of Mt. Medvednica. It was on this 3,380-foot high (1,030 meters) and nearly 20-mile long (32 kilometers) mountain that Zagreb was built. Today, the mountain offers a striking panoramic view of the city and surrounding valleys below. Hiking and mountaineering are popular in Croatia. There are many clubs devoted to these activities; people plan trips, join together in outdoor ventures, and share experiences with others.

Medvednica's highest peak is Sljeme. On clear days from atop this peak it is possible to see the Austrian Alps, located almost 100 miles away. In the winter, many residents of Zagreb are drawn to Sljeme's slopes, several of which have trails and ski lifts. Croatia Television's transmission tower rises above the peak. During the military conflict of the 1990s, the tower was heavily damaged due to a direct hit from a missile, but it was later repaired.

Across the Sava River is New Zagreb. This is a modern area, built mainly during the past 40 years. It is popularly called “the bedroom,” because most of its residents work or study in the city during the day and go home to their apartments in New Zagreb in the evening. During the 1960s, industrialization was developing rapidly in Croatia. Zagreb needed to provide additional living space for thousands of workers who were moving to the city. New Zagreb was built under the then Socialist controlled urban planning system. Today more than 100,000 people live in New Zagreb.

One of the seemingly never-ending problems in Croatia's capital is the city's outdated infrastructure—the various networks, including streets, bus lines, water mains, sewage and gas pipelines, electricity, communications, and other things that allow a city to function. Old cities may offer wonderful history, scenery, and culture to the tourist, but they can be very difficult to keep functioning. In Zagreb, the sewage system and gas pipelines must be improved in older neighborhoods; many roads need to be rebuilt, or repaired; and tram and bus lines must be expanded. If Zagreb is able to update its infrastructure, it will be one of Europe's most impressive cities.

Several smaller communities around Zagreb belong to a group of so-called satellite towns. These towns include Samobor, Zapresic, and Velika Gorica. People live here and commute to Zagreb on a daily basis, most using the public transportation system. Vrbovec, 20 miles east from Zagreb, is a meatpacking center. PIK, a company from Vrbovec, is one of the major food suppliers in Croatia.

Touring the Region

The economy of central Croatia is based on a combination of agricultural and industrial production. For many people who live in villages near urban areas, farming represents an additional source of income. The province of Hrvatsko Zagorje is between Zagreb and Varazdin. Until recently, it was a beautiful, though economically little developed, region that supported only a small and scattered population. During recent decades, however, its economy has shown marked development and the population has experienced sharp growth. Small family-owned businesses with a few employees are the core of that development.

This has helped to stabilize migration out of smaller rural communities toward Zagreb and Varazdin. Zagorje also has the potential to become an important tourist destination. Mineral springs in Krapina, Tuhelj, Donja Stubica, and Varazdin have been used as spas for a long time. Every year, thousands of people enjoy the health benefits afforded by the spas located in these cities.

The region also has a rich history. Zagorje may have more hilltop castles than any other area of comparable size in the world. For centuries, beginning in medieval times and continuing well into the 19th century, nobles built castles, towers, and towns. Today, these intriguing bits of history reflected in stone and timber are scattered about the region's landscape for tourists to see and enjoy. Some of them are restored as museums; others, such as the Bezanec Castle, have been converted into modern hotels.

Varazdin is a town on the Drava River that at one time was the Croatian capital. Today, it is the main city in far northern Croatia, the area near the border with Slovenia. Home to some 50,000 people, present-day Varazdin combines old charm and modern style. Baroque architecture and a large medieval castle (old town) dominate the center of the city. The city often hosts events such as culturally inspired “Baroque Evenings.” Varazdin's economy is based on several large manufacturing companies and numerous smaller businesses. Its most important industry is Varteks, which, among other textile products, makes Levi's jeans. The beverage producer Vindija is the second largest company in Varazdin. It is among the leading Croatian beverage producers and employs hundreds of people.

The old historical crossroad, Sisak, is best known as the location of Croatia's victory against the Turks in 1593. Today it is a center of oil refining and steel production. The city, located at the juncture of the Sava and Kupa Rivers, has a population of some 60,000 and has become an important regional center. The meat company Gavrilovic is headquartered in the neighboring town of Petrinja. It is one of Croatia's largest and most popular food producers, with many of its products being made for foreign markets.

When passing between northern and southern Croatia on the country's major highway, travelers must go through the city of Karlovac. The strategic importance of this location—on Croatia's five rivers and at a point where the country narrows between its northeastern and southwestern regions—was recognized long ago. In the 16th century, the Habsburg Archduke Karl decided to build a military fortification there.

The role of this fortified castle, built in the shape of a six-point star, was to prevent intrusion and attacks by Turks from neighboring Bosnia. The importance of the castle to people then living in this part of Croatia is indicated by the fact that the city's name, Karlovac, celebrates its founder. With around 70,000 inhabitants, Karlovac is the second largest city in central Croatia. During the war, some of Karlovac's suburbs experienced heavy damage. Rebuilding of these suburbs began in the mid-1990s and continues today.

Eastern Croatia

Eastern Croatia includes the provinces of Slavonia, Baranja, and Srijem. It is a large area that occupies approximately onethird of the country's total land area. Agriculture is the primary economic activity in the region. Western portions of Slavonia are mostly hilly to mountainous. The six dominant upland areas are Papuk, Psunj, Krndija, Pozeska Gora, Dilj, and Bilogora. In its eastern part, between the mountains and the Danube River, the land is quite flat. Here, fields of corn, wheat, sunflowers, and sugar beets dominate the landscape.

The economic, administrative, educational, and cultural center of eastern Croatia is Osijek, a town of 130,000.Modern Osijek was built near the remains of Mursa, a town established during the Roman period. Osijek, which is still developing into a modern European city, has some impressive architecture. The Church of St. Peter and Paul dominates the town's skyline with its 300-foot (91 meters) spire. Most of the landmark buildings date to the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; yet, some Baroque architecture can be seen in old parts of town. The most important company is Belje, an agricultural giant (by local standards). It has processed local agricultural products for centuries and is the best example of the region's economic orientation.

Smaller, yet important, regional centers include Vinkovci, Vukovar, Slavonska Pozega, Virovitica, Koprivnica, and bordering Bosnia on the Sava River, Slavonski Brod. The food processing company Podravka is recognized as one of the first Croatian multinational corporations. The company employs thousands of people from Koprivnica and the surrounding towns. Its most famous product is Vegeta, a mix of more than a dozen vegetables that is considered to be an essential component of central European cuisine. Before the war, Vukovar, a town on the banks of the Danube, was one of the wealthiest and most beautiful places in Croatia. Sadly, armed conflict in 1991 led to the complete destruction of Vukovar.

Hardly any buildings survived without major damage. Once a prosperous town, it is now undergoing a long and costly rebuilding process.

Mountains (Lika and Gorski Kotar)

A region of extensive mountains serves as a barrier between Croatia's inland northeast and its Adriatic coastal area. This rugged, remote, and sparsely populated area is the country's least developed. With its breathtaking natural beauty, the mountain region has tremendous potential for tourism. But this development will not occur in the foreseeable future. The area was ravaged by the conflict of the 1990s. And today more people are leaving the mountains than are moving into the region, and its economy is in decline. The government believes that its meager resources must be spent in developing other parts of the country.

One of the region's primary attractions is the Plitvicka Jezera (Plitvice Lakes) National Park. It attracts tourists who come to see its 16 lakes and dozens of spectacular waterfalls. Many Westerners used to come to the park to celebrate weddings at the base of the waterfalls, but this popular practice was discontinued during the war years of the early 1990s.With the political situation now somewhat stabilized, tourists are once again returning. The park is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The Bjelolasica mountain resort is the main Croatian winter sport center. Risnjak National Park, located between Delnice and Rijeka, is a popular hiking destination, and the only area in Croatia with elements of alpine authenticity. The traveler can experience one of the most beautiful sunrises in Croatia by standing atop Mt. Risnjak. Many other places of interests are connected with Premuziceva Staza (Premuzic's Path), a highway for hikers that winds throughout Gorski Kotar for more than 30 miles. Major towns in Croatia's mountain region are Gospic, Ogulin, Otocac, and Delnice. Industrial production is limited and employment opportunities are few, factors that contribute to a drain of young people who are drawn by opportunities in larger cities.

North Adriatic

Croatia's Adriatic coastal region differs greatly from the country's interior. In many respects, the entire coastal area is quite similar. Yet Croatians think in terms of two coastal regions—the North Adriatic and the South Adriatic, or Dalmatian Coastal Region. The North Adriatic focuses upon the dominant city of Rijeka. It is an old city whose history dates back to the Roman times. Today, Rijeka is the country's third largest city. It is Croatia's main port. Major industries in the area surrounding Rijeka include shipbuilding and oil refining.

The nearby city of Opatija is one of the oldest tourist centers in the country. Tourism here began during the second half of the 19th century, primarily as a resort for the Austrian upper socioeconomic class. Today, it is still a top-notch resort that attracts many West Europeans to the Adriatic shores. Well-preserved ruins from the Roman age—such as a large amphitheater, a triumphal arch, and the temple of Augustus and Roma, all from the first century A.D.—are in the city of Pula at the southern edge of the Istrian peninsula.

Pula is the largest city in Istrian county. From its beginning nearly 2,000 years ago, it has always benefited from its strategic location. Modern Pula is an important industrial and tourist center. The main economic activity on the Istrian Peninsula is tourism. Because of its proximity to Italy, Austria, and Germany, no county in Croatia receives more foreign tourists than does Istria.

Brijuni National Park occupies several islands located a few miles off the southwest coast of the Istra Peninsula. These islands have been inhabited since Neolithic times. One might imagine that these early settlers were attracted to the islands thousands of years ago because of the pleasant climate, strategic location, and scenic beauty. Later, during the first century A.D., Romans settled in the region, perhaps for the same reasons. About a half-century ago, the late President Tito of the former Yugoslavia recognized the same qualities and, as a result, chose to build his summer residence there. As recently as the 1990s, the late Croatian President Tudjman made the same decision, enjoying his summers on Brijuni. Several years ago paleontologists discovered dinosaur foot prints on Brijuni's seafloor. It seems that even Jurassic creatures enjoyed the island's beauty.

South Adriatic (Dalmatia)

Dalmatia perhaps is best known to many Americans as having been the home of the popular breed of dog seen in the film, 101 Dalmatians. Travelers to the region are rewarded by its spectacular natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. After Slavic peoples migrated from central to southeast Europe during the seventh and eighth centuries, Croats permanently settled in Dalmatia. The region became the cradle of their nation. Today it is a major tourist destination. It offers some of the world's most spectacular examples of karst topography (landform features) and some of the clearest seawater in the world—all backed by a range of mountains. The region's splendid architecture and many monuments are a legacy of the South Adriatic's rich cultural heritage, some of which dates back to the Roman Empire and the beginning of Christianity. Split, the biggest town and the unofficial regional “capital,” serves as an excellent example of Dalmatia's fascinating physical, cultural, and historical geography.


When Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruled at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth century, grew tired of tormenting Christians, he liked to relax in his palace. That magnificent structure was built on the shore of the Adriatic Sea not far from the town of Salona. Later, when Avars attacked, Salonians took refuge in the palace and started building a settlement from which grew modern Split, a town of 200,000 people.

Diocletian's palace today occupies a large area of downtown Split. The famous site is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The city's cathedral, once part of the emperor's mausoleum, belongs to the group of oldest Christian churches in the world. The Cathedral offers evidence of nearly 2,000 years of history, and it is the pride of the city of Split. Riva, a walkway near the sea, and Marijan Park are places where the citizens of Split can enjoy walking, recreation, and the easy-living Mediterranean lifestyle. Because of its geographic location and dominance over Dalmatia, Split is one of the fastest growing cities in Croatia and today ranks as the country's second largest. The local university attracts students from all over Dalmatia and the rest of the country as well. Split also has several museums and an excellent oceanographic institute.

The southern Croatian city of Dubrovnik is known as the “Jewel of the Adriatics.” Because of its beauty, and cultural and historical importance, the entire old town part of the city is listed as one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. For centuries, Dubrovnik was an independent republic, a status it retained until 1797 when it was conquered by Napoleon's forces. Later, it became part of the Habsburg Empire and Croatia. During its period of independence, Dubrovnik played an important role as a major center of trade between Asia and Europe. Wellpreserved fortresses and city walls rise above the old town.

Beautiful 14th-century Franciscan and Dominican monasteries were totally destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1667, but they were later rebuilt. Inside the Franciscan monastery is the famous Dubrovnik pharmacy, built in 1317. This is the third oldest pharmacy in Europe and is the oldest still open. The city also has the third oldest synagogue in Europe. During the war some of Dubrovnik's monuments were heavily damaged. But the government has helped to repair damage and to return some of the old shine to this beautiful city. Today, Dubrovnik once again is a regular port of call for most Mediterranean cruise ships.

Zadar and Sibenik are another two important towns in Dalmatia. Both of them have many monuments. The best known are the church of St. Donat, built in the 9th century in Zadar, and the 15th-century St. James cathedral in Sibenik. The later represents a unique blend of Gothic and Renaissance architectural styles. Not far from Sibenik is Krka National Park. Breathtaking waterfalls created by water cascading over limestone deposits make Krka a wonderful destination. A short boat ride from Sibenik is Kornati National Park. The park is a group of almost uninhabited islands that offer outstanding scenery.