Zagreb: A Croatian Christmas

Zagreb Christmas Market

WHEN holidaying in Croatia people often think about Dubrovnik or Split and the glorious views off the Dalmatian Coast, but it’s lesser-known capital, Zagreb, is often overlooked.

Admittedly it wasn’t the first destination that came to mind for a festive trip and it was only when I saw it had been voted the Best European Christmas Market for the last two years, I was convinced to see what it had to offer.

I then faced weeks of telling people where Zagreb was!

Arriving in the city at night it looked magical. Buildings were lit up, music rang out from markets which were in every square, trees were covered in fairy lights and it was bustling.

Seeing the same sights during the day, though, it seemed like a completely different city.

Zagreb lit up at Christmas

The city came alive at night and during the month of Advent there was everything from carol singing, live nativity scenes, an outdoor ice rink and art displays .  But rather than just being something to draw in tourists it regularly features in the calendars of Croatians too, and with this comes a special kind of atmosphere – one that I’ve never experienced at UK Christmas markets.

Eat (and drink) your heart out

I love a Christmas market though. They’re perfect for bringing out the festive excitement in you, even for a Scrooge like me. But those in Zagreb had a different feeling about them with some added character.

Tram decorated with Santa hat and festive ights

You could easily walk through the city feasting on varieties of hot dogs and kebabs at different food stalls, finishing off with a some frituelle (a local doughnut-type delicacy smothered in melted chocolate) while drinking as much mulled wine you can stomach.

During our stay we drank amazing pure hot chocolate and listened to traditional carols in the main Ban Jelacic Square, danced in Zrinjevac Park and stopped in a fairy lit Strossmayer Promenade for some mulled wine and a Jack Daniels hot chocolate to keep ourselves warm.

Last year the city opened up the Gric Tunnel, a huge underground WWII shelter, as a tourist attraction. For Advent one section was transformed into an arty, wintry scene with 3D installations and sculptures. It was beautiful, like a modern version of Narnia had landed in Zagreb, and gave us shelter from the cold for a little while.

It was little details like this that added to the spirit of Christmas in Zagreb, and fulfilled all my expectations of holidaying at this time of year.

decorations inside the Gric Tunnel

Other than the markets, there are more things to see in the city – the cathedral, St Mark’s Church with its infamous tiled roof, the Lotrscak Tower and more museums than you can think of. Including a Museum of Torture if that appeals to you.

Within a few days we had walked the length and breadth of the Old Town and of all the museums we only chose one to explore – the Museum of Broken Relationships. Having read about it in several guides I thought it sounded quirky and different. The concept is interesting, but after reading through about 10 stories, I felt I had seen enough. In such a small space it holds a huge amount of personal stories and memories of past relationships, and despite the information being volunteered, I still felt like an intruder peering into their lives. It was quite exhausting and draining absorbing all their stories.

Full of festive spirit

Most of these sights we discovered on a free city walking tour which gave you an insight into the city, its residents and their customs. Within two hours we had got our bearings and had spotted some good places to eat and drink for the next few days, and decided where we would go back to for a more detailed look around. It’s a good idea to find these free tours when you can as they’re usually pretty thorough and a great way to save some money.

My visit to Zagreb left me wanting to see more of Croatia and I left the city feeling well fed, well cultured and full of excitement for the Christmas holidays. I’d been gripped by the festive spirit and had been converted to going away in the holiday season.

View of Zagreb cathedral

Where we stayed: Esplanade Zagreb Hotel – Beautiful hotel overlooking a botanical garden and was close to the ice-skating rink during this time of year.

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