The capital of Croatia, Zagreb has a population of roughly 1 million and is situated at the extreme edge of the Pannonian Plain, between the north bank of the Sava River and the southern slopes of Mt. Medvednica. Its early years are shrouded in mystery, though there are indications of a Neolithic settlement on this site. The Romans are said to have established a municipality of sorts that was destroyed around AD 600, when Croatian tribes moved in.
Like so many other notable European cities, Zagreb started out as a strategic crossroads along an international river route, which was followed much later by north–south and east–west passages by road and rail. For much of its history the city also served as a bastion on a defensive frontier, pounded for half a millennium by thundering hordes of invaders, among them Hungarians, Mongols, and Turks.
From the late Middle Ages until the 19th century, Zagreb was composed of two adjoining but separate towns on the high ground (Gornji grad): one town was secular, the other expressly religious. In 1242 the secular town, named Gradec (Fortress), was burned to the ground in a wave of destruction by the Tartars, after which it locked itself up behind protective walls and towers. It is from this time that the real Zagreb (meaning Behind the Hill) began to evolve; it was accorded the status of a free royal city in the same year by the Hungarian-Croatian king Bela IV. In the 15th century the ecclesiastical center, named Kaptol (Chapter House), also enclosed itself in defensive walls in response to the threat of a Turkish invasion.
When Zagreb became the capital of Croatia in 1557, the country's parliament began meeting alternately in Gradec and at the Bishop's Palace in Kaptol. When Kaptol and Gradec were finally put under a single city administration in 1850, urban development accelerated. The railway reached Zagreb in 1862, linking the city to Vienna, Trieste, and the Adriatic. It was at this time that Donji grad (Lower Town) came into being. Lying between Gornji grad and the main train station, it was designed to accommodate new public buildings—the National Theater, the university, and various museums. Built in grandiose style and interspersed by wide, tree-lined boulevards, parks, and gardens, it makes a fitting monument to the Habsburg era.
The Tito years brought a period of increasing industrialization coupled with urban expansion, as the new high-rise residential suburb of Novi Zagreb was constructed south of the Sava. In 1991 the city escaped the war of independence relatively unscathed, except for an attempted rocket attack on the Croatian Parliament building in Gradec. Zagreb did, however, suffer severe economic hardship as the country's industries collapsed, post-communist corruption set in, and an influx of refugees—mainly from Bosnia and Herzegovina—arrived in search of a better life.
Since 2000 public morale has picked up considerably: trendy street cafés are thriving, numerous smart new stores have opened, and the public gardens are once again carefully tended. However, underlying this apparent affluence, unemployment remains a lingering problem. That said, unlike in Budapest, the much larger capital of neighboring Hungary, obvious signs of economic distress—such as panhandlers and homeless people—are relatively rare, and the casual observer will probably notice a general atmosphere of prosperity (fueled in part by coastal tourism). Croatia's accession to the European Union in July 2013 holds the promise of continued economic vitality.