Right before travel to Europe became difficult, we had the incredible opportunity to visit Christmas markets in Croatia, and it was a spectacular way to kick off the holiday season. This holiday season, Croatia is back in full force to welcome guests from around the world. And now is the time to start planning that holiday getaway!
There is really nothing like being in a European Christmas Marketing during Christmastime. People often think of Germany and Austria for Christmas markets. But did you know that Croatia’s capital city of Zagreb have been named THE top Christmas Market in Europe? For three years in a row!
So unpack your warm coat, hat and gloves. Think about walking the cobblestone streets of Croatia, snow falling softly around you. Imagine the sparkly lights decorating the trees, and the warm drink in your hands. There is so much to see and do at the Christmas markets in Croatia, and now’s the time to plan that holiday trip.
Visit Christmas Markets in Croatia
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. I’m here to share some recommendations about places to go and things to see when you visit the Christmas Markets in Croatia.
Croatia Knows How to do Christmas
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. 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 because of 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 30+ years now, Croatia is in the final stages 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 folks must have been decorating 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. 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 stages with live music, play areas for the kiddos, and 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. It was an Instagrammer’s heaven.
They 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 coming 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 among all Christmas Markets in Croatia. Sausages are 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 was set up. This was like gourmet cuisine, with all sorts of celebrated 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, it is an elegant building now converted into 116 hotel rooms and suites. Charming sitting areas and a sweet little corner café great guests ready to come in from the winter cold.
Did I mention everything is very affordable in Croatia? Rooms at the Palace Hotel started 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 jovial. Perhaps Christmas brings out the best in us all.
High on a hill that was too many steps for us to walk in the cold (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. At Christmastime, it’s supercharged. As with all Christmas Markets in Croatia, the one at the Castle served all the favorites – including the delicious delicacy called Fritule. These are fried dough balls similar to a doughnut, served in a paper cone with a long stick for poking and popping them in your mouth. Here Fritules are served topped with powered sugar, chocolate sauce or caramel sauce – or all three. We had to sample these at each market, 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 that measure a total of 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 holiday items, and I put a dent in the goods at one booth selling beautiful wooden ornaments . They were 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. Visitors milled about, buying up local honey, crocheted ornaments, lavender essential oils and more. Of all the markets we visited, this one had the best shopping for unique holiday gifts and things to bring home for family and friends.
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.
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. Almost all the villas, hotels and buildings in the downtown waterfront area are from that period. Quite ornate and colorful, these buildings 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 their rich friends built manor houses to escape from Vienna 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 famed obsession with 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 16th 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. When we visited, little girls from a local ballet studio danced in the festival lobby. It was such a slice of Christmas. Their performance was really sweet 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 American Dollars, and convenience shops, bars and cafes only accept cash. Find an ATM in Croatia for your best bet at getting kunas, and 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 quite a few days (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. Fuzzy Christmas socks at the Rijeka Advent Markets were about $5 USD. The average price for a three-course dinner came in around $20 USD per person, and that included many (many) glasses of wine!