The earliest evidence of man´s presence in the Rijeka region of today date back to the Palaeolithic and Neolithic ages, while the ruins of the prehistoric hill-forts (Solin overlooking Martinscica, the Trsat Hill and Veli Vrh – Gradisce overlooking the Rjecina River) date back to the bronze and iron ages. Such a settlement dominated the Rijeka Bay and secured the port in the time of the Illyrian tribes (Liburnia) as well.
The Romans relocated the town centre closer to the sea, on the right bank of the mouth of the Rječina River into the Adriatic Sea, at the site of today´s Old Town. Numerous archaeological sites (the foundations of Roman fortified walls, walls of dwellings, thermal bath ruins, the Roman portal) give evidence to the urban level of Roman Tarsattica. Given its location on gentle slopes and a narrow coastal zone, abundant with fresh water springs, secluded by a bay having the properties of a natural port, this settlement possessed all the predispositions required for development into a major seaport and trading town.
Flumen Sancti Viti – Rijeka of St. Vitus
This prompted the newly arrived Slavic nation – the Croats – to overtake Tarsattica and to commence building a new settlement. The first original document on this medieval settlement dates back to the first half of the 13th century. However, historical sources speak of two settlements: TRSAT on the hill on the left bank of the Rječina River at the site of the previous Liburnian settlement TARSATA, and RIJEKA on the shore-line at the site of Roman TARSATICA. Rijeka of that period was a small fortified town, enclosed within the town walls which had several defense towers. The town was divided into two parts: in the upper part, there was a medieval castle and the church of St. Vitus (thus the name Flumen Sancti Viti), while the lower part – the popular, commercial and trading center – was commonly known to its inhabitants as Rika or Rijeka.
In the beginning, as well as towards the end of the 14th century, Rijeka was owned by the counts of Duino (Tybein), the Princes of Krk (the Frankopans), and subsequently by the family of Walsea and finally, from 1466 it was owned by the Habsburgs. At that time Rijeka counted about 3,000 inhabitants.
A significant economic upswing began in the 16th century with trade in iron, coal, wood, wool, cattle and leather.
In this century the town also possessed a printing press with Croatian glagolitic script. No settlement (Sušak) existed yet on the left bank of the Rječina River below the Trsat settlement, which formation happened only in the 18th century. The golden age of Rijeka trade suddenly weakened in the second half of the 16th century. Frequent attacks by the Turks, wars between the pretenders to the Hungarian thrown, as well as long struggles between the Uskoks and Venice serve only to disrupt trade routes. The normalisation of war conflicts began in the second half of the 17th century.
The arrival of the Jesuits in Rijeka and the establishment of a grammar school considerably improved its educational and cultural life and strengthened Romanism to the loss of the Croatian language and the Glagolitic script. The Rijeka economy began to flourish again in the 18th century. At that time, the Emperor Charles VI proclaimed Rijeka a free port. Shortly after, however, Hungary, a rising power within the Habsburg Monarchy, began to perceive Rijeka as its gateway to the world.
At the turn of the 18th into the 19th century Rijeka was under French rule and then again under Austrian rule.
The turbulent 20th century
In 1848, the year of civic revolutions, Rijeka was united to the Bans (Viceroys) Dominion of Croatia and the Vice-roy Josip Jelačić became the governor of Rijeka.
The struggle for Rijeka between Croatia and Hungary continued to escalate. With the Croatian-Hungarian Deal of 1868, known as the Rijeka Patch, a provisorium was established according to which Rijeka came under the direct rule of Hungary and Rijeka rapidly developed into the largest Hungarian maritime and seaport emporium.
Upon the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1918, Rijeka and Sušak became a part of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs with Zagreb as its capital, but shortly afterwards, it was occupied by the Kingdom of Italy.
Since Italy had not, prior to this event, made any demands on Rijeka, but had instead forgone it in favour of Croatia, a transitory period evolved: the rule of D’Annunzio, the independent State of Rijeka and the inevitable fall of Rijeka to Italy in 1924. The economy of Rijeka deteriorated rapidly and Rijeka was transformed into a small provincial town. Sušak, which had become a part of the Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs with Belgrade as its capital, enjoyed at that time prosperity through the broad hinterland with which it was united.
Rijeka, together with neighbouring Istria, was the first in the world to give resistance to fascism and during World War II, it was a part of the anti-fascist front. Following the capitulation of Italy in 1943, Rijeka and Sušak were occupied and held by the Germans until liberated on 3 May 1945.
According to the Peace Treaty of 1947 held in Paris, Rijeka was once again reunited with the mother country Croatia within Yugoslavia. In 1948 the towns of Rijeka and Sušak were joined to form the single town – Rijeka, which began to develop vigorously in various fields.
After the reconstruction period, Rijeka emerged as the mayor sea-port of socialist Yugoslavia. The traditional industries of Rijeka were revived: the shipbuilding industry, the paper mill, the oil refinery, the production of ship equipment and engines, the cokery, the clothing industry, hydro-electric power stations and thermoelectric power stations. Shipping companies expanded. Five main roads leading towards Zagreb, Ljubljana, Trieste, Pula and Zadar, together with the railways enabled the development of the tertiary sector.
The expansive social and economic growth of Rijeka caused the number of inhabitants to increase. Today Rijeka with its suburbs has about 200.000 inhabitants.
Parallel with its industrial growth, Rijeka transformed into the centre of Western Croatia (Istria, the Croatian Coast and Gorski Kotar). The beginning of the 60s saw the emergence of new town quarters and the development of suburban villages.
In short, towards the end of the 20th century, Rijeka was a developed urban and industrial centre, as well as the centre of various growth initiatives vital to the overall development of the Republic of Croatia. Rijeka also became the seat of the newly founded Archdiocese and metropolis of Rijeka and Senj, as well as the seat of the University.
The striving of Croatia to reach the democratic and liberal horizons of the western world brought about profound changes in the state and social system.
Although no armed skirmishes took place in Rijeka, as a part of the war for the homeland, the consequences of the war were economic stagnation, redirection of the economy to war production and aiding the supply of the front throughout Croatia.
Many volunteers from Rijeka could be found on the Croatian fronts. Rijeka sheltered and cared for numerous refugees from all parts of Croatia. Democratic changes and the shift towards the market economy have in turn brought about other changes: they have prompted a boom in the work of political parties and encouraged investments of private capital in the development of the economy; the transformation of state-owned enterprises is now underway and has, momentarily, resulted in a large number of unemployed workers and Rijeka has become the centre of the Primorje – Gorski Kotar County.
On 24 March 2016, Rijeka was awarded the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture 2020 for its programme “The Port of Diversity”, aimed at creating a city of culture and creativity for Europe and future.