Where can you find the best Advent Festival in Europe, you ask? Probably in a place that you’d least expect: Zagreb. That’s right, Croatia’s inland capital brought home the title of Best Christmas Market in Europe by European Best Destinations for the third year in a row.
Although other Christmas markets like Prague, Strasbourg, Berlin and Brussels may be more popular, the Advent in Zagreb takes an eclectic approach to the holidays season. Of course you have the traditional hot wine and sausages as well as ice-skating under a canopy of twinkling Christmas lights. Yet, the added touches of retro decor and interactive holiday displays are what makes this festival stand out amongst the crowd.
The Best Time to Visit Zagreb
For full disclosure, Zagreb is my favorite capital city in Europe. The city’s quirky yet elegant character is vastly underrated. The modest prices make most budget-friendly European cities seem expensive, and is a more affordable alternative to Vienna. The city is a combination of university students and professionals, most of which are Croatian. And there’s something about winter in Zagreb that make the Austro-Hungarian architecture and cobble stone streets come to life.
Ask any Croatian: they will also attest to that December and early January are the best time to visit Zagreb. The growing Advent Festival draws in a larger crowd of foreigners each year. However, there is something charming about the fact that most visitors are Croatians.
Here’s what else I love about winter in Zagreb:
Cozy coffee culture
Aside from the festival, winter is also one of the best times to experience the “coffee culture” in Zagreb. Unlike other fast-paced capital cities in Europe, Zagreb moves at a slower pace. Locals sip lattes at funky cafe bars with friends, usually no laptops or smart phones in sight.
While many café bars in coastal Croatia close their doors during the winter, Zagreb adapts to the season. People gather under heat lamps, or sip hot chocolate in faux fur blankets. You could spend a week in Zagreb finding the cutest coffee shops around the city alone. Some of my favorites are Sjedi 5, Velvet, and Vis a Vis.
I’ll be the first to admit that Zagreb locals kill it with their winter fashion game. The city center is filled with women effortlessly dressed to the nines, many of whom somehow managing to walk in stilettos along the tiny cobble stones. It’s one of favorite places in the world to people watch and get my own style inspiration. Also, for a relatively small capital city, there’s a lot of great shopping in town. There’s a ton of unique boutiques, souvenir shops, and of course designer brand shops tucked away in all of the side streets.
Advent in Zagreb Attractions
If there’s one thing I hope I highlighted in my Youtube video above, it’s that there’s so much to see at the Advent in Zagreb, some of which you’d never find unless you were looking for it. Here are the unmissable attractions to see throughout the town:
Upper Town Advent in Zagreb
Zagreb’s city center divides into lower and upper town, the latter being my personal favorite. Cobble stoned streets leading to panoramic views over the entire city cover the upper town. Klovicevim Dvorima is one of the most popular, and during Advent the area turns into a winter wonderland. You’ll find outdoor concerts here at night, and a few fun photo displays. The white pine trees and Christmas lights against the colorful background look even more idyllic in person.
Caffe De Matos
Just down the stairs from Klovicevim Dvorima you’ll land in the heart of Caffe de Matos, the most eclectic area of the Advent in Zagreb. Trees are draped with a string of light bulbs and dangling ice skates are tennis shoes. Paisley rugs and juxtaposed next to vintage bikes and decorated coca cola bottles. And of course, the entire area is full of wooden huts selling hot wine and local sausages from the Slovonia region of Croatia.
I have to say that this was my favorite area of Advent, because you can really feel Zagreb’s character and retro charm.
If you walk a little bit down from Klovicevim Dvorima you’ll find yourself at the Straossu area of the Advent. This has more areas to sit and sip hot wine, and you can also explore around the area or climb the Lotrscak Tower.
The Gric Tunnel in Zagreb takes the cake for being the most unique attraction within the Advent in Zagreb. The tunnel goes underneath the historic Gric neighborhood, and was used as a bomb shelter during WWI. Today, it’s used as a walking tunnel, and each year at advent they decorate it with a new theme.
This year, the theme was a Christmas Carol, and it felt like a children’s storybook come to life. If you watch my Youtube video above, you can see how decorative and colorful this unique attraction was. It’s even more unique in person.
Lower Town Zagreb Advent
Ban Jelacic Square
At the center of the city and the cross roads of Upper and Lower town you’ll find Zagreb’s main square. You can’t miss this area, as you’ll find a large Christmas tree, a concert stage, and dozens of Christmas houses selling souvenirs, food and drinks. If you wander down any of the side streets, you’ll also find several other wooden huts with crowds of people listening to one of the various live performances.
If you follow the road of twinkling trees, you’ll find yourself in the best place for live music in Zagreb. While the music around Ban Jelacic square is usually more upbeat for a younger crowd ready to party, music in Zrinjevac Park is more in the genre of acoustic covers of holiday classics. The area also sells a lot of souvenirs, and of course, more wooden houses with hot wine, drinks and food. It’s truly 10 times more beautiful in person.
Scattered throughout lower town, there’s several other advent hotspots along the side streets, such as the Advent in European Square. However, if you follow the crowds you’ll see that most people are making way for the Ice Park in Ledeni Park. The area has an ice rink and then an entire ice skating circle around the perimeter of the park. For only 40 kunas each (about $5), you can rent ice skates for one hour.
Though a visit to Zagreb during the holidays is a no-brainer for Croatians, other more populous European cities often over-shine Zagreb. The Advent in Zagreb is the not only an authentic way to experience the holidays, it also shows that Croatia has much more to offer beyond being simply a summer getaway.
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You can learn more about the Advent festival in Zagreb here.