Thanks to Croatia’s strategic position between the historical Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, it has an impressive number of fortifications: almost every city on the coast and many on the mainland boast city walls or a fort or two. Over the centuries, Croatia’s lords and noble families were also busy building forts and palaces. Indeed, there are many castles in Croatia.
The distinction between these various structures is sometimes a little blurred, but generally, castles provided both protection and housing for a specific lord or noble family, while forts were not generally private residences, and palaces were not fortified.
Of Croatia’s castles, many are now in ruins, but several have been well preserved or recently restored and have opened their doors to the public as museums or venues for events such as plays and musical performances. You could spend days hunting castles in Croatia, but if you’d just like to visit a few, this is a great place to start. Here are four picturesque castles that are all an easy drive from Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city.
Trakoscan Castle is the most famous and, unsurprisingly, the most photogenic of Croatia’s castles. Sitting atop a hill above a pond, its white towers reflected in the water below, Trakoscan is as close to fairy tale as you can get in Croatia. It was built in the late 13th century and initially served as a small fortress and observation point.
The first recorded owners of Trakoscan were the Celjksi family, who ruled over the entire region, including Zagorje, Mudimurje, Varazdin, and parts of Slovenia. After the Celjski family died out, Trakoscan had several owners, and eventually came to rest in the hands of Ban Juraj Draskovic in 1584. His family remained Trakoscan’s owners until World War II.
After a period of neglect during the 18th century, the castle was renovated between 1840 and 1862 in a romantic style. Trakoscan is now a museum, and its rooms hold opulent furniture spanning centuries, a collection of firearms from the 15th – 19th century, and a group of portraits depicting some ten generations of the Draskovic family.
After taking in the interior decor, head outside for a refreshing walk on the well-kept footpaths winding through the forest and around the lake. Trakoscan is, without doubt, one of the most popular castles in Croatia.
Another one of Croatia’s most well known castles, Veliki Tabor, like Trakoscan, sits majestically atop a hill above a lush valley. There is some uncertainty as to when exactly Veliki tabor was built. The general opinion is that the oldest parts of the castle were built during the 12th century, and later, in the 16th century, it was extensively renovated and expanded.
The earliest known date regarding ownership of the castle is 1502, when Ban Ivanis Korvin granted the castle to Pavao Rattkay as compensation for battling the Turks. The Rattkay family, hailing from Hungary, continued to live in the region until the late 18th century.
After that, the castle changed owners often, and among other functions served as a prison during World War I and an orphanage under the direction of the nuns of Clarisses (St. Claire). After years of archaeological excavations and restoration work, the castle is finally open to the public. The museum collection includes paintings, ethnographic artifacts, and replicas of medieval weapons.
The court chapel of St. Peter houses a particularly mysterious artifact – a skull thought to have belonged to Veronika Desinic, a beautiful local woman who caught the eye of Frederick, the son of Hermann Celje II, who lived at Veliki Tabor in the mid 15th century.
According to one version of their story, Frederick and Veronika attempted to run away together, but Hermann’s army caught them both. Hermann locked Frederick in a tower for several years, and he ordered the execution of Veronika. Legend has it that her body was sealed in one of the castle walls. The skull of a young woman was found during excavations, and many believe it to be hers.
Every Saturday events, workshops, and performances focused on medieval life take place at Veliki Tabor, and each June, the castle is the site of the Tabor Film Festival.
If you’ve perused our guides to Varazdin, you’re already familiar with its Old Town, most of which was built during the 16th century. The history of the complex begins much earlier, in the 12th century, when Varazdin’s first leaders lived at the same site in a Romanesque castle.
In 1209, Varazdin became the first royal city in northern Croatia, and the castle was owned by some of the region’s most influential families, including the Celjes and the Frankopans. In 1585 it came into the possession of the Erdody family, and it remained their residence until 1925.
Over the centuries, the castle has undergone a series of transformations. Today, the square tower, built at the beginning of the 15th century, is the oldest existing part of the castle. In 1544, work to renovate the castle in a renaissance style began. During this period, it acquired round towers and a moat that was filled with water from the Drava.
The moat has long been filled in, and now, the castle is an easy stroll across a grassy park from Varazdin’s baroque center. Since 1925, it has housed the Varazdin City Museum. The collection includes historical documents, weapons, glass, ceramics, and other crafts, as well as rooms furnished according to a number of styles, including Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo.
Here is another addition to our list of castles in Croatia. The town of Cakovec is located in Medimurje, the northernmost region of Croatia. In 1546, Ban Nikola Zrinski built his family’s residence within the existing walls of a medieval fort that had been constructed in the 13th century by Count Dmitar Cak – the town’s namesake. Cakovec Castle, also known as Zrinski Castle and Old Town of the Zrinskis, has been renovated numerous times over the centuries, like many castles in Croatia. Following an earthquake in 1738, much of the castle was rebuilt in a baroque style.
Since 1954, the castle has housed the Museum of Medimurje Cakovec. On display, you’ll find portraits of the Zrinski family along with archeological, ethnographic, and cultural collections. If you’d rather spend your time outside, take a relaxing stroll through the the surrounding park, where, for centuries, a moat circled the castle. While wandering, you might catch a glimpse of the Zrinski Guards, a historical military unit dressed in characteristic red and black uniforms, who to this day strive to honor the memory of the Zrinski family.
There are many more castles in Croatia that you can visit and tour. The country has plenty of these localities, and is a gem to fans of historical architecture.
Written by: Elaine Ritchell
Feature Photo: Andrek Svoger