Christmas in the Croatian capital: why Zagreb should be your next festive trip

From its markets to its medieval centre, the streets and squares of Croatia's capital sparkle with festive cheer. Here's why you should be planning a long weekend in Zagreb this Christmas.

Head to one of Zagreb’s squares — Ban Jelačić, St Marks’s or King Tomislav — and you’ll be surrounded by Christmas tees festooned in thousands of fairy lights.

Photograph by Julien Duval
By Zagreb Tourist Board
Published 11 Nov 2021, 17:40 GMT

If you’ve never considered heading to Croatia for Christmas, you’re missing a trick. During advent, Zagreb becomes a full-on winter wonderland, with frosty temperatures and plenty of festive sparkle in its parks, plazas and medieval centre. Sip kuhano vino (mulled wine) while wandering around the markets, where you might spot colourful wooden toys, exquisitely handcrafted in the country’s remote hills according to traditions handed down over generations.

Croatia for Christmas markets? Don’t you mean Germany?

Zagreb beat Germany at its own yuletide game when it topped European Best Destinations’ Best Christmas Markets charts in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Why? Look around. Come advent, a festive wand is waved to light up the Croatian capital. Besides a sprinkling of Christmas markets, you’ll find events full of seasonal cheer, from craft workshops to concerts and carolling. All this plays out against the dashingly handsome, historic backdrop of the Lower and Upper Towns, with architectural wonders like the city’s twin-spired gothic cathedral. 

Advent, you say? 

That’s right. The Christmas markets get into full swing from the last weekend of November until 7 January. Even with Covid-19, you needn’t worry about crowds being an issue, as the markets are well spaced — and if one gets too busy, you can simply wander across to the next. 

Sold. So what shouldn’t I miss? 

Head to one of Zagreb’s squares — Ban Jelačić, St Marks’s or King Tomislav — and you’ll be surrounded by Christmas tees festooned in thousands of fairy lights and loomed over by enormous festive ornaments, each 10ft tall. Wooden cabins sell handcrafted decorations, toys and gifts, all to the merry soundtrack of local brass bands. Alternatively, walk to Upper Town, where views from the Strossmayer Promenade stretch out across the twinkling city.

The Christmas markets get into full swing from the last weekend of November until 7 January.

Photograph by Julien Duval

I’m hungry. What’s there to eat?

Nibble on hot chestnuts, sugar-dusted fritule (fritters) and festive cookies like honey-and-pepper-flavoured paprenjaci (Croatia’s riff on gingerbread), all of which you'll find all over the city. Kuhano vino (mulled wine) is another must-try, and comes in both red and, lighter, sweeter, white varieties.

What’s the deal with licitars?

You’ll see these bright-red, elaborately decorated honey-dough cookies hanging from Christmas trees. These Unesco World Heritage-listed sweets are pretty special, actually, hailing originally from Northern Croatia and with a tradition rooted in the medieval craft of gingerbread making at monasteries. These beautifully painted, iced cookies are most commonly shaped like hearts, but you’ll also find horses, trees, birds, mushrooms, wreaths, stars and other naturalistic motifs. Perfect stocking-filler material? You bet.

What else should I be buying?

Intricately handcrafted and painted wooden toys from Hrvatsko Zagorje region. Traditional tools are used to whittle soft maple, willow, beech and lime into form. The toys are then painted in red, yellow, blue, white and black, and decorated with a floral or geometric flourish. The toys range from horses, birds and spinning dancers to doll’s house furniture and simple instruments. Some are pushed along on wheels or by stick.

Zagreb's beautiful national theatre is a Baroque masterpiece; shows run all year-round, from ballet to opera.

Photograph by Julien Duval

Three wooden toys to look out for at Zagreb's markets

1. Horses
Mounted on wheels, the wood-carved horses from Hrvatsko Zagorje are a toy-box classic. Some are embellished with folk motifs like flowers, leaves and hearts.

2. Birds
All kids love klepetaljka, birds that clap their wings when they are pushed along by stick.

3. Instruments
Keep an eye out for the brightly painted jedinke (one-pipe whistle), žvegla (flute) and tamburica (a stringed, lute-like instrument used in Croatian folk music)

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