‘Why would you spend Christmas in Zagreb and not Vienna?’ I was recently asked by a journalist. The famous Vienna Christmas market has attracted visitors from all over the world, but this year Zagreb won the best Christmas destination title.
I made my elevator pitch for Zagreb – I named one reason why Zagreb and not Vienna. But as I parted with the journalist, more reasons popped up. Soon I had a bagful of exploding popcorn: more correctly, 40 reasons why Zagreb.
Zagreb welcomes a Xmas buff and a Xmas grouch
1| If a Christmas market town is your typical travel destination, you probably love all that comes with the end-of-year festivities. But what if you’re a Xmas grouch? And all that happy-go-lucky cheering and twinkling really gets on your nerves?
Zagreb has you covered. Advent festivities are so tastefully set up, you can easily turn down the festive volume and still enjoy an intimate celebration at one of the less crowded locations.
2| Zagreb’s Christmas decorations are elegant and classy. The city looks peppy and joyful but you will never feel as if you’re trapped in a theme park.
3| You can easily pick and choose between the glamorous and bustling Zrinjevac Park and a subtle, but still festive street or a courtyard.
4| All Advent events and locations are within an easy stroll. There’s an amazing variety of fun around the city but you’ll still feel everything is happening just around the corner.
Don’t miss a single location with my Advent map!
5| People are out and about having fun: chatting, eating, sipping wine. Advent in Zagreb is more than a Christmas shopping frenzy.
6| There’s fun for everyone’s taste and for people of every age. It’s children, even babies friendly.
7| Events range from sport activities, art shows, workshops, education to outdoor music gigs and dancing.
8| The fun goes from morning till midnight. But still, as the night falls, the city is at its most magical.
9| Streets are full of people wearing smiles on their faces. It’s contagious.
10| There is a perfect buzz on the streets: they are busy enough to make the city alive, but breezy enough to never feel overcrowded.
Advent Locations: festive but never over the top
11| For the urban Christmas vibe (think eating, drinking and swaying to music) nothing beats the European Square – the heart of Zagreb Advent.
12| Zrinjevac Park is for the lovers of fairy-tale magic. Centuries old plane trees are decorated with delicate blue lights. Central music pavilion hosts traditional Christmas music and charming white huts sell artisan souvenirs. More magic? Hop on a horse-drawn carriage for a ride around the Park.
13| Open-air ice rink on the Tomislav Square is not only for skaters. Gastro fun and music will cheer anyone up. If you’re not brave enough to glide into the night, just watch the joyful faces of those who do. The young and the old, twirling on the glittering surface.
14| ‘Fooling around’ – a quirky take on Christmas festivities – started out in Tomićeva Street. Everyone loved it so much it had to spread out to the second location: Kurelčeva Street, just off the European Square.
15| Oktogon – a beautiful old passage off the Flower Square – makes a perfect stage for the live music of Johann Strauss. Head over there on Fridays (4, 11, 18, 23 Dec, 6pm) and Saturdays (5, 12, 19, 24 Dec, 11am) to see young music enthusiasts play – all dressed up in period costumes.
16| Watch ice sculptures carved live on the Gradec plateau, near St. Catherine’s Church in the Upper Town. The work of art is amazing, intricate and even see-through, revealing the stunning Zagreb vista behind.
17| Artomat is the real gem for art-lovers. Hosted in the Home of Croatian Fine Artists (HDLU, Trg Žrtava Fašizma), this selling exhibition of unusual art objects will unleash the festive spirit of even the biggest Christmas grouch. No corporate shopping, only pure hand made unique pieces.
18| With Christmas concerts from Zagreb balconies, classical music reaches new heights. Don’t miss these graceful performances at two locations. Croatian National Theatre (13, 27 Dec, 7pm) and Tkalčićeva Street 33 (6, 20 Dec, 7pm).
19| The all important Christmas Sweets finally got an exhibition of their own. Get these sweet delights into your belly at Gallery Karas (Praška Street 4), buy some to take home or take your little ones for a baking workshop.
20| Live Nativity Scene in front of the Cathedral is breath-taking. The scenography, the actors, the atmosphere, all will transport you back to Betlehem and sprinkle special stardust on your Christmas mood.
21| And why not stay in the old days a bit longer? Go and see ‘Christmas of old Zagreb’ at Klovićevi Dvori (Jezuitski Square 4) to enjoy some historic nativity scenes from the turn of the century. You’ll also see typical Christmas artisan products from that period.
22| Opening Zagreb hidden courtyards has delighted countless locals and visitors. It started with ‘Dvorišta’ [courtyards] summer festival but now continues as one of the most charming features of the city.
Throughout Advent, four more Down Town courtyards were spruced up with Christmas decorations and a schedule of events. The events are now over, but I can tell you – they were superb. If you missed out on this one-of -a-kind experience of intimate celebration, one more reason to visit Advent in Zagreb next year!
23| Traditional Christmas fair is stylishly spread out in the streets between the Ban Jelačić and the Flower Squares. You will simply love the pretty wooden huts offering all kinds of souvenirs and knick-knacks. All of them are made in the same white design, but each is unique in the range of things they sell.
Food and drinks variety
24| Sausage and mulled wine combination has been a Christmas classic for many years. Sausage continues to steal the limelight, but from this year a gastro variety impresses too.
25| For the absolute best Christmas sausage, head over to the Oktogon passage to the newly opened ‘Kralj kobasa’ [sausage king] – a high-end street food joint.
26| This year vegetarians won’t end up hungry. There is the classic dessert ‘fritule’ (a donut-like pastry with a variety of dressings), pancakes, and a new must-try addition: German-style germknoedel (sweet fluffy dumplings with jam, vanilla and poppy seeds). Also, don’t overlook the humble roasted chestnut at almost every street corner.
27| The new ‘Fooling around’ location in Kurelčeva is lined up with stalls representing different cities from around the world. Head over there for global street food varieties.
28| I myself don’t like mulled wine. So this year I’m especially enjoying the range of different punches, or the option to be alcohol-free with a cup of tea or hot chocolate.
29| With all the walking in the crisp winter weather, you can actually eat and drink more. This is not a small bonus with all the delicacies on offer.
Xmas grouch guide on how to do it all
30| Aimless strolling from one Advent location to the other will fill you with enough festive spirit. There is always something going on and if you get overwhelmed, just turn around the corner to a quieter street. Or climb to the Upper Town to enjoy charming dimly lit streets and beautiful city vistas.
31| Download the mobile application Zagreb Be There and let Mr. Alojz guide you through the best Advent locations. The trails include: Advent Zagreb, Christmas Heritage, Foodie Zagreb and Hidden Spots.
32| Book Zagreb Christmas Carol – an exciting storytelling tour that will reveal Zagreb Christmas traditions in a whole new light. Your guide Iva is one of the best authorities on Zagreb and its lesser known facts. She also wears intriguing costumes!
33| Pick up your free copy of Zagreb 4 You – the new funky guide to Zagreb. You can get the Advent edition (with the Advent map included) at the Main tourist office on the Jelačić Square, or in museums and cafes around the city.
34| Climb up to the Zagreb Eye Observatory just off the Jelačić Square and see the lit up city from a different perspective.
And my tips to spice it up even more
36| Go to the midnight mass on Christmas Eve in the Church of Sv. Blaž [St. Blaise] in Primorska Street and carry on celebrating in the nearby cafe Kinoteka.
37| Witness the special New Year’s Day edition of the Changing of the Guard in the Upper Town. 1st January, 11.40-14.00.
38| Hike to the Sljeme mountain top. It’s what Zagreb locals do to enjoy nature, get exercise and get ready for more feasting.
39| Watch out for the first snow. On that day the pop-up poetry festival ‘50 Poems for Snow’ will do their traditional gig in the Tuškanac forest. Follow them on Facebook so you don’t miss the show.
40| If you haven’t booked your ticket for Advent in Zagreb in December, don’t worry. The program continues until 10 January so it’s still not too late to enjoy the atmosphere in the early days of 2016.
I hope you have a great and merry Christmas. My writing time is up now. Off I go to bake my Christmas cakes. Let me know how your Christmas goes. And if you’ve visited Advent in Zagreb – what do you think?