Oftentimes, Americans, and travelers from countries throughout the world, daydream of Europe’s famed Christmas markets which have enough charm and spirit to make a believer out of a non-believer, or send a Christmas-lover into fits of pure joy and happiness. They plan trips to Germany, Austria and other countries that are known for their festive seasonal offerings, but rarely look elsewhere to see what’s brewing. Though I have visited Christmas markets and Advent celebrations throughout Europe myself during many Christmases past, I’ve never come across one quite like that of Zagreb, Croatia’s. Zagreb’s Advent celebration, which runs from November 26th through January 8th, is a monumental surprise that has enough magic to keep you in the holiday spirit for the entire year ahead.
I spent four days in Zagreb soaking-in what has become one of the biggest and most looked-at holiday celebrations in Europe. Landing from New York, I was eager to see exactly how the Croatians interpreted the idea of the Advent or a Christmas market in general. What I found was that they not only interpreted it well, but enhanced it, and thought beyond the usual stall selling handicrafts and food. There had been thought and execution that collided so well, it almost seemed as if the Croatians were planning to steal Christmas and own the entire concept themselves.
The entire city is transformed into a winter wonderland with small markets set-up throughout every corner of town. You’ll find areas dedicated to food, wine, Croatian delicacies like sarma (stuffed cabbage), desserts or produce. You’ll find stalls that have been designed by architecture students, to not only to be functional, but beautiful. You will find stages throughout the city that are graced by talented modern and traditional performers who sing and dance for spectators. Strolling through both the Upper and Lower towns, you can take photos with city landmarks, interact with street performers or indulge in a glass of warm kuhano vino (mulled wine).
I shopped for local handicrafts at many of Zagreb’s open market stalls, I sampled the delicious sarma which had been made fresh by the vendor’s grandmother that morning and even watched a traditional Croatian dance troupe take the stage in King Tomislav Square. You can feel the energy in the city bubble, like a glass of freshly poured champagne. The fizz sits at the top, and created a buzz for locals and visitors alike.
If you choose to visit Zagreb’s Advent celebration, I have a few tips. You will want to spend a long time outside so dress warmly. Take the funicular from Lower Town to Upper Town so you can see the view of the city and all that Upper Town has to offer in terms of sights. Don’t miss dinner at the beautiful Esplanade Hotel – indulging in their famed Štrukli (hot cottage cheese pie). Stop-in to the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships as well as Museum of Illusions. And, above all else, don’t pressure yourself to see it all – that is impossible. Take a little chunk each day, and let the holiday magic take you over.
*Zagreb Advent celebration photograph provided and owned by the Croatia National Tourism Board