A small country that's remarkably easy on the eyes, Croatia attracts millions of visitors annually to its stunning Adriatic coast. Still, it's not yet a household name - but even if you think you haven't heard of it, chances are, you have. Among other claims to fame, Croatia gave the world the necktie (or cravat), the fountain pen, and the first functioning parachute, and scientific genius Nikola Tesla.
Zagreb, the capital city of Croatia, is often described as "Vienna's little sister," thanks to its neo-baroque architecture, lush city parks, numerous cake shops and open-air markets, and a café culture that rivals that of Paris. The people of Zagreb love to socialize, and any time of day will do for an hours-long chat over coffee or a drink.
It's also a culturally rich city, with numerous museums and galleries that host events and exhibitions every week. Allegedly, Zagreb has more museums per square meter than any other city in Europe. Despite increasing numbers of tourists and expats, however, Zagreb isn't particularly diverse.
Like the rest of Croatia, Zagreb is experiencing economic challenges and rising unemployment rates. A relatively new country having gained its independence in 1991 and come out of a devastating war less than 20 years ago, Croatia is still struggling to find its footing, and Zagreb with it.
Croatia is bordered by Slovenia and Hungary to the north, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the east, and Montenegro to the south. The Adriatic Sea lies to the west, between Croatia and Italy. Croatia's peculiar crescent shape and long, narrow coastline make it easy to pinpoint on the map. Croatia covers an area of 56,594 square kilometers (21,851 square miles).
Croatia may be on the smaller side, but its topography is notably varied. The so-called flat Pannonian plain stretches east of Zagreb towards Hungary. Gently rolling hills characterize the area northwest of Zagreb, while moving toward the coast; the landscape becomes increasingly rocky and mountainous.
The Dinaric Alps stretch from Slovenia down through the regions of Gorski Kotor and Lika and into Dalmatia, creating something of a geographical division between mainland and coastal Croatia. The tallest peak is Dinara, at 1, 831 meters (6,007 ft.), followed by Biokovo and Velebit, visible from many Dalmatian towns.
The Adriatic coast is mostly rocky and punctuated by numerous capes, bays and inlets. Croatia has over 1,200 islands, with the largest being Cres and Krk, each covering just over 400 square kilometers (156 square miles). Altogether, islands included, Croatia has around 6,000 kilometers (3,728 kilometers) of coastline.
The Sava River is the longest in Croatia, with a length of 562 kilometers (349 miles), followed by the Drava and the Dunav. Vrana is Croatia's largest lake, covering 30.7 square kilometers (11.9 square miles), but it's most famous body of water is Plitvice Lakes, a network of some sixteen small lakes and cascading waterfalls that has been designated one of Croatia's seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
One surprising thing about Croatia is how culturally varied its regions are, despite their geographic proximity. Each has its own customs, its own cuisine, and its own dialect. (Sometimes, one region has multiple dialects!)
Officially, Croatia is composed of twenty-one counties, including the city of Zagreb, but these divisions mostly serve administrative purposes. Its major cultural and geographic regions are Slavonia, Zagorje, Gorski kotor, Kvarner, Istria, Lika, and Dalmatia, with Dalmatia being the most familiar region internationally.
Zagreb is both Croatia's capital and its largest city, with a population of just under 800,000. Split, on the Dalmatian coast, is the second largest city in Croatia, with a population of about 180,000, and Rijeka, a port city in Kvarner, ranks third with a population of around 130,000.
Croatia has three major climatic regions. The eastern and northern regions, making up most of the country, have a typical continental climate, with hot, humid summers and cold winters. The mountainous, forested region of central Croatia has an alpine climate. The Adriatic coast has a Mediterranean climate characterized by cool, rainy winters and hot, dry summers.
While Zagreb experiences gray winters, the coast is known for year-round sunshine, with some islands getting more than 2,700 hours of sunshine per year.
Croatia is in the Central European Time Zone, one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. Croatia does observe Daylight Savings time, so it switches to Central European Summer Time from the last Sunday of March to the last Sunday of October.
Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and its largest city. It is located in the northwest near Slovenia, and it sits just south of the Medvednica Mountains at 122 meters above sea level. Some neighborhoods situated on Medvednica's southern slopes are hilly, but overall the metropolitan area is flat.
To the south of the city center, the Sava River intersects the city. The neighborhoods south of the Sava are collectively known as Novi Zagreb (New Zagreb).
Zagreb's population is about 800,000, but the entire metropolitan area numbers over one million, so it's sometimes called the city with a million hearts. (Hearts are also a traditional symbol of Zagreb.)
The cultural and social center of the city is the main square, Trg bana Jelacica, the bustling pedestrian zone just southwest of it, and a nearby network of city parks and cultural buildings. This area of Zagreb, called Donji Grad, features colorful neo-baroque architecture common to Central European cities that were once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Areas outside the center, and especially in Novi Zagreb, are characterized by socialist-era apartment buildings and tower blocks. There are few high-rise buildings in the city.
Residents of Zagreb enjoy a number of city parks and recreational areas, among them a botanical garden in the city center, a sprawling park and zoo called Maksimir, which was the first public park in Southeast Europe, and Jarun, a large manmade lake that draws picnickers, swimmers, joggers, and clubbers alike.
Zagreb has a typical humid continental climate, with hot, humid summers and cold winters. Snowfall is common during the winter months, while rain can fall throughout the year. Zagreb averages 137 days of rain and 1,913 hours of sunshine annually, and the average temperature is 3.1 degrees Celsius (37.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in January and 26.7 degrees Celsius (80.1 degrees Fahrenheit).
For up-to-date weather information, consult Vrijeme.net.
The Sava River divides Zagreb into two major zones. Historical Zagreb is located north of the river, along with the city's cultural and administrative center. The area south of the river, known as Novi Zagreb, is mostly residential and grew rapidly after World War II.
The city is officially divided into 17 districts, each with even smaller neighborhoods. Districts that are important to know are:
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