Up until more recent years, Croatia really wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a winter or festive destination. The Croatian capital was also merely the city Zagreb International Airport happened to be situated in, and not much of a tourist magnet in its own right.
Everything changed not so long ago in both of these regards, and Advent in Zagreb, which was voted Europe’s best Christmas market for three consecutive years (2016, 2017 and 2018) on the European Best Destinations’ travel portal, firmly placed the charming capital of a primarily summer tourism country on the competitive winter tourism map.
Zagreb made CNN’s list of best Christmas Markets last year.
Having beaten festive classics like Switzerland, Austria and Germany, here’s just a small glimpse into bustling Zagreb and its unconstrained infectious Christmas spirit.
Kobasice, fritule and Zagreb’s iconic smoke-infused chestnuts roasted over a charcoal fire
Starting with kobasice (sausages), we’ll delve into what makes Advent in Zagreb heaven for the tastebuds. Croatian sausages are consumed year-round, but they soar in popularity when purchased from endearing little festive huts (known as little cottages, or kućice in Croatian) which line the capital’s streets and squares. Packed solid with rich pig meat and doused in senf (mustard), strolling Zagreb’s foggy alleyways with the hanging scent of roasted chestnuts from street vendors is atmospheric to say the very least.
Make room for some fritule (Croatian dough balls) for dessert and wash it down with kuhano vino (mulled wine) or warm up with a few shots of Croatia’s answer to every conceivable ache, pain, illness or sniffle – rakija.
One thing not to miss is the beautiful ice rink at King Tomislav Square. It’s easy to find, nestled between the main train station and the art pavilion sits an imposing statue of Croatia’s former king on his horse, and behind him – a fairy tale-like winter wonderland.
The ice rink at Park Tomislavac is popular among children and adults alike, and the sound of laughter as kids struggle to stay upright (and the accompanying adults are usually performing even more poorly) fills the crisp air as the daylight dies, making way for Zagreb’s gorgeous Christmas lights to twinkle in the mist-laden glow.
Experience Croatia’s warm heart by purchasing the famous licitar hearts, sold across the city as a special decoration for your tree. You’ll notice giant ones hung proudly on Ban Jelačić Square’s enormous Christmas tree – deep red love hearts bordered with delicate white frames, with intricate patterns and usually – a mirror in the middle.
While not always in the form of hearts, sometimes made to depict birds, Christmas trees, religious symbols, horseshoes and bells, licitar (pronounced “lee-tsee-taahr”) hearts are a quintessential festive symbol of Zagreb, and they’re sold in all sizes across the capital. What’s fascinating about them is that you can actually eat them, although most people don’t, using them as Christmas decorations for years on end.
Made of sugar, food colouring and flour, they’re a staple baking custom as Santa’s impending arrival draws near in Croatia. The little mirror you find in the centre of so many of them is intended to reflect love, as when the person you’ve purchased it for looks into it – they see their own reflection and are reminded of how much they mean to the sender.
Lasting for many years, licitar hearts are a “must buy” when experiencing Advent in Zagreb.
Performances across the city echo through the beautifully decorated parks, streets and squares as the capital prepares for everyone’s favourite time of year. Brass ensembles are reminiscent of times gone by, and seeing groups of local school children sing Croatian Christmas songs that generations have held dear is enough to warm the souls of even the most Scrooge-like curmudgeons.
The energetic Croatian capital city abounds in culture and is absolutely always worth your time, but the highly awarded Advent in Zagreb outshines every other time of year.
This delightful city that was so wrongly overlooked for decades truly comes into its own when the temperatures drop. Held this year from 2 December all the way until 7 January next year, you’ve got plenty of time to plan your trip to “Europe’s Best Christmas Market’s” three-year champion.
Lauren is the editor of Total Croatia News, the largest English language portal in Croatia. She lives in Zagreb, Croatia, and is a translator, content writer, interpreter and the co-author of Croatia - A Survival Kit for Foreigners, which was published in 2022.