Iiiiii’mmmm dreaming of a whhhiiiiiiiite Christmas…. Right now we’re doing a lot of travel dreaming. Obviously it’s not a good time to travel as we all hunker down at home to ride out this pandemic. But a girl (and boy) can dream! Last year we had the incredible opportunity to visit Christmas markets in Croatia, and it was a spectacular way to kick off the holiday season. So I’m re-sharing this story now for dreams, entertainment, education and maybe even some future planning!
There is really nothing like being in a European Christmas Marketing during Christmastime. You’re all snuggly in your warm coat, hat and glove. Snow is falling softly around you, sparkly lights decorate the trees, and you’ve got a warm drink in your hands. There is so much to see and do.
Croatia Does Christmas Right
And wow, Croatia knows how to put on a good Christmas Market. Great ones, actually. So great that the Christmas Markets in Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb have been named THE top Christmas Market in Europe. For three years in a row!
I love Christmas no matter what, unlike my brother Ebenezer Scrooge – but that’s another story. My mom passed along some wonderful traditions from my childhood that I still carry out today for my own family. In Croatia, I got the firm sense that everyone feels like I do because they are PUTTING. IT. ON.
In Croatia as in many parts of Europe, Christmas Markets are called Advent Markets. Whichever name you choose to use, this country throws amazing Christmas parties in their city squares and streets. I’ve never seen anything like it and have some recommendations about places to go and things to see when you visit the Christmas Markets in Croatia.
Visit Croatia at Christmas
Let’s face it – Christmas is just a really beautiful time to visit Europe. Sure it’s cold and sometimes even snowy, but that just adds to the overall atmosphere. People strolling through the streets all bundled up and carrying brown paper packages tied up with strings and well, you know how the rest goes. These are a few of my favorite things.
Being near the place where Christmas began and the areas where it has been celebrated longest may have something to do with it too. Or it may be the historic buildings and ancient architecture that adds a sense of authenticity to the whole experience. It might also be the child-like joy and wonder expressed by citizens young and old. The way the Croatians do Christmas is just epic. And living in a country nearly 90% Catholic makes them quite committed to celebrating this holiday.
First A Little About Croatia
Croatia may be one of the least understood countries to Americans. Most travelers have been to or have dream of visiting Dubrovnik. This historic walled city is truly gorgeous and has become even more popular as a primary seaside location for HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones. (It plays a pivotal role as King’s Landing, seat of the Iron Throne.) But Croatia is so SO much more. Its cities, towns and villages are breathtakingly beautiful, each unique in its own right.
An independent country for 29 years now, Croatia is in the process of fully entering the European Union. Prior to this, the country and its surrounding neighbors were all known to us as Yugoslavia. When communism ended here in 1990, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia all returned to their own democratic independence. Greatly desired for its coastal beauty and important port cities, Croatia had been continuously occupied for centuries. Italy, Germany, Austria and Hungary had all laid claims to this land, some repeatedly. This multi-cultural timeline contributed to Croatia’s diverse spectrum of people, languages and customs.
But one thing they all share? A love of Christmas!
Christmas Markets in Croatia
I’ve never been anywhere that loves Christmas so much. These guys must have been decorated their cities for months, putting up intricate displays of twinkling lights, Christmas trees, Santas and more.
Here are some must-see spots to enjoy the Christmas Markets in Croatia.
Zagreb Advent Markets
The largest concentration of Croatians live in Zagreb. In a country of some 4 million people total, nearly one million live in Zagreb. It’s long history of multiple occupations and strengthening independence makes Croatia an ideal background for Christmas pageantry. And Zagreb is all over the Advent Market offerings.
In the Old City where the history of Zagreb and Croatia began way back in the 11th century, there are many Advent Markets. Starting in Ban Jelačić Square- the main town square and gathering place – the festivities branch out to other city park, squares and streets. Over the course of several days, we tried to visit as many as we could. Each had its own special character, but the one thing they shared was a healthy dose of Christmas love.
Main Town Square
Surrounding the impressive statue of Josip Jelačić on his horse in his namesake square, the Christmas Markets in Croatia were born. Now there are stages with live music, play areas for the kiddos, cute little huts all dolled up for Christmas mingle with plenty of opportunities to sample the local grappas and hot mulled wines.
Spreading out from Main Town Square, several of the surrounding streets are closed to host yet more stands selling locally made Christmas crafts.
In the Upper Town near the Castle and the Cathedral, the Advent Markets are colorful and lively. When we visited this area, it seemed popular with the younger crowds and we didn’t see many families with kids. Even the Santa Claus set-up was appealing to adults, who posed for photos with Santa and his elf. In fact there were dozens of Christmas scenes set up specifically for photos – an Instagrammer’s heaven.
The call it the Upper Town because it is located high on a hill overlooking the city, and the views from here are really spectacular. If lots of steps are not for you, there is a funicular (cable car) that can transport people up the hill too. It’s really worth it to come up this way for view photos, day or night.
The food and drink here are also plentiful, and there are plenty of stands selling delicious things of all kinds. We sampled the local specialty sausage, with mustard and sauerkraut of course! This dish seems to be one of the great unifiers about Christmas Markets in Croatia. They were plentifully available in every market we visited in every Croatian city. Well that and mulled wine, which I will explain more about below.
In the Lower Town, Zagreb stretches down towards the main visitors’ areas. There is an enormous Green Horseshoe (yes they really call it that) of parks that makes a giant U shape through this part of the city. Within these parks just below the Main Square are another set of Advent Markets organized along the grid stretching from the Park down towards the train station.
In one park, a giant gazebo stands at center stage where local performers were playing traditional Croatian Christmas songs. There was less food here and more local crafts, and some of the offerings were handmade and quite charming. I bought a couple of Christmas ornaments here to bring home, and I could almost image someone’s grandmother making it at her kitchen table in a housecoat.
More in Lower Town
In the next park area located a block up, a vast outdoor food hall is set up. This was like gourmet cuisine, with all sorts of famous local chefs cooking up interesting dishes. There was curry, chicken kebabs, barbecue and more. Of course, we had to sample the designer sausages on a bun – this time mine was topped with my choice of spicy mustard and aioli, sauerkraut, jalapeños and crispy fried onions. Deeeee-lish!
Of course all this had to be washed down with something. First we started with a local digestif called Medica, made from honey-infused brandy and sipped in small glasses. The mulled wine was also a treat, and here you can choose the red or white variety. I chose the red, which was served hot with lots of sugar, cinnamon and other spices. On a cold winter night (or day) it’s just the ticket to warm you up from the inside out.
Ice Skating in Zagreb
In just the next block towards the train station is yet another Advent Market, located in King Tomaslav Square. This one is incredibly picturesque with a huge figure-8 ice rink as centerpiece. With all the Christmas lights and festive music, this was one of my favorite scenes of all. Behind the ice skating sits an impressive state building, also lit for the holidays as the ideal backdrop for many photos.
Ice skating in Croatia is a big deal. In fact while we were visiting Zagreb there was a huge figure skating competition. For us Regular Joes, we can rent skates and get on the ice for about $5 USD.
Where to Stay in Zagreb
Our little group stayed at the fabulous Palace Hotel, the oldest hotel in Zagreb dating back 112 years. Originally built as a royal palace (get it? Palace Hotel?) it is an elegant building now converted into 116 hotel rooms and suites. There are really charming sitting areas and a sweet little corner café when you are ready to come in from the winter cold.
And did I mention everything is very affordable in Croatia? Rooms at the Palace Hotel start at $106 USD, breakfast included.
Rijeka Advent Markets
Croatia’s third-largest city, Rijeka (pronounced rye-eee-kah) has a population of just 120,000 people. We had the opportunity to visit on a Friday night, and it seemed like nearly all of the locals were out and about to visit the Advent Markets. Even so, crowds were not packed the way Americans might expect. People flowed freely, stopping to enjoy something beautiful and then moving on. Everyone we encountered was so polite and respectful – perhaps Christmas brings out the best in us all? (I bet there are always this nice any time of year.)
High on a hill that is too many steps to walk (561 to be exact) sits the picturesque Trsat Castle. During the rest of the year, it is an impressive place to visit as one of the early fortifications that protected the city of Rijeka. As with all Christmas Markets in Croatia, the one at the Castle served all the favorites including the delicious Fritule. These are fried dough balls similar to doughnut, served in a paper cone with a long stick for poking and popping in your mouth. They are served topped with powered sugar, chocolate sauce or caramel sauce – or all three. We had to sample these at each market too, of course. You know, research and all.
However the highlight of Trsat Castle is really the lights. The whole place is covered with strings of little white Christmas lights – 10 miles long! If you’ve never seen a castle turret completely draped in thousands of Christmas lights, you need to see this. The historic structure is dotted with booths selling food and wares, and I put a dent into one booth selling beautiful wooden ornaments 1,000 times more charming than those fragile little ones from China that we were always afraid the dogs would eat.
And of course because this is Croatia at Christmas, there is an ice skating rink up here too!
The Korzo is a giant pedestrian promenade that arcs from Rijeka’s seaside up through town to a main square. Lined with shops and restaurants, it’s a place to see and be seen. At Christmas time however, it is transformed into a magical Advent Market filled with interesting locally made things. Our group descended like locusts, buying up local honey, crocheted ornaments, lavender essential oils and more. Of all the markets we visited, this one had the best scores on shopping for unique gifts and things to bring home to my family.
The Korzo Christmas Market also offers great food options, but we did not eat here so I cannot say how the sausages and fritule stacked up against the other markets.
Where to Stay in Rijeka
Our hotel could not have been better located. The Bonavia Hotel is situated right the head of the main square and steps from the Korzo. As one of the tallest buildings in Rijeka, the upper floors offer views looking out over the city and down to the Adriatic Sea. I’m told on a clear day, guests can see well out to sea, watching the fishing boats bringing in their daily catch.
Rooms at the Bonavia Hotel start at around $105 USD.
Fun Fact About Rijeka
Rijeka is poised for next year, as it is the European Capital of Culture 2020 and the city has tons of events and activities planned for the upcoming year. You can find out more about the schedule for all those events here.
Opatija Advent Markets
This seaside village is quite small, and is really one of the more charming destinations on our tour of Croatia. Opatija (pronounced “oh-pah-tea-ah”) was built in the time of Austrian occupation of Croatia, so almost all the villas, hotels and buildings all from that period. Quite ornate and colorful, these building line the main street through town and are now filled with interesting shops, restaurants and hotels. There is a particularly picturesque promenade along the seafront, built long ago for the Austrians that came here to “take the sea air”. Opatija was (and still is) a popular spa area where royalty and privileged built manor houses to escape from Vienna and other places for some clean air and healthy foods.
Although much smaller than the others we visited, the Advent Market in Opatija was positioned right along the sea. Really sweet and chill, this example of Christmas Markets in Croatia was uncrowded and friendly.
Chocolate in Opatija
One big reason to visit Opatija during Christmas is their fame for their chocolate. There are several chocolatiers in the downtown area, some making small-batch chocolates by hand in front of visitors. Of course, we had to sample several.
During the first week of December each year, Opatija hosts its annual Chocolate Festival. Now in its 14th year, the Festival brings chocolatiers from all over Croatia to display their wares to the public. Free to attend, the Festival offers these chocolates for sale – and there is more variety to choose from than Godiva ever dreamed. Plus when we visited, little girls from a local ballet studio danced in the festival lobby. It was such a slice of Christmas, I was really touched by their performance amid this avalanche of chocolate choices.
Where to Stay in Opatija
Our hotel in Opatija was right on the seaside promenade. The Gardenija Hotel is just a short walk to the Christmas Market, main street, gorgeous city park and the performing arts center where the Chocolate Festival is held.
My room was ocean view with gorgeous balconies for taking in the fresh sea air, along with views of boats and people watching (my favorite sport!). Rooms at the Gardenija start at $88 USD and include breakfast.
Things About Croatia You Need to Know Before You Go
Language – The Croatian language is a tough one. Only spoken in this tiny country, it sounds to my ear like Russian mixed with Portuguese. All I learned in Croatian was DA (yes) and NO (no) and some swear words I will not repeat here. (It’s my solemn duty to learn at least one swear word in every country I visit, and this was no exception.) But the good news is that everyone speaks English! Of all my travels throughout the country, I only met one person who did not speak English – and that was at the Zagreb Airport of all places.
Money – Although Croatia is on its way to becoming a full member of the EU, the currency here is still the Croatian Kuna. They will not accept Euros or Dollars, and convenience shops, bars and cafes only accept cash. Finding an ATM in Croatia is your best bet for getting kunas – you will likely get better exchange rate than the Currency Exchange places. I got 3,000 kunas, which is about $450 USD, and it lasted me all week (even buying all those gifts in the Christmas Markets in Croatia).
Prices – The prices in Croatia are extremely visitor friendly, even in the tourist areas. I paid less than $2 USD for a giant cappuccino, and fuzzy Christmas socks at the Rijeka Advent Markets were about $5 USD. Average price for a three-course dinner came in around $20 USD per person, and that included many (many) glasses of wine!