Christmas markets in Croatia Zagreb

Christmas markets in Croatia: advent trip to Zagreb and Opatija

Christmas markets in Croatia? Of course! You might know the country as a wonderful summer destination, but in December Croatia transforms into a winter wonderland. Christmas markets start popping up everywhere, ice rinks attract playful ice skaters and if you’re lucky you can witness the first snow of the season.

Where can you find all these Christmas festivities? Cities like Zagreb or towns like Opatija spoil their visitors with all kinds of animations spread over different locations. Read on for a detailed advent guide to Croatia!

Note: this blog post was sponsored by the Tourism Board of Croatia. I was invited on a press trip to explore Advent in Croatia with my own eyes. Of course, all opinions in this blog post are my own.

This post contains affiliate links. When you purchase through one of my links I get a small commission (at no extra cost to you). Read more in my Disclosure Policy.

Christmas markets in Croatia: a 4-day itinerary

Day 1: Wellness in Zagorje

My advent trip in Croatia started when the airplane of Croatian Airlines hit the ground at the airport of Zagreb. From all over Europe, planes fly in and out to bring visitors to the advent events in the country, even in December.

After picking up our rental car, we made a first unexpected stop at the first Christmas market we encountered here, the Christmas Market of Velika Gorica. Although small, consisting of a few stands only, a podium for concerts and an ice rink, it is a perfect first encounter with Croatian Christmas traditions. I slid over the ice, tasted my first fritule (a typical sweet Croatian snack you can find at the Christmas markets), and drank my first Croatian schnaps, a honey-flavored liquor called medica.

Although the village is mostly overlooked as everyone hurries to get to Zagreb the moment they land, the Velika Gorica Christmas market is worth a quick stop.

After this first encounter, we drove onto the Zagorje region, just above Zagreb. This region is known for its wellness facilities. Many hot springs are located here which favored the foundation of several spa hotels where you can swim in mineral water and enjoy all kinds of wellness facilities. I checked into Hotel Terme Tuhinj, known as one of the best wellness hotels in Croatia. It is immediately clear why. With 8 different saunas, both inside and open-air swimming pools, it offers all the facilities imaginable you can expect from a wellness resort.

Of course, I couldn’t resist trying all their different saunas and after a few sweating sessions, I was completely relaxed to head to our dinner at the hotel’s restaurant a bit further up the street. I tasted a delicious local Zagorje soup, grilled pork filet and calf shank as well as a traditional strukli for dessert.

Day 2: tasting local delicacies

Exploring Zagorje

After a copious breakfast at Terme Tuhinj, it was time to explore the Zagorje region a bit more. We headed to one of the oldest castles in the region, Veliki Tabor, for a guided tour of this majestic 15th-century fortress. During the tour, you get an insight into how the original royal inhabitants of this castle must have lived and of course, you can admire the impressive structure of the castle. Did you know that people a few centuries ago used to sleep while sitting? It was believed that this would help with digestion. That’s why the beds were so short!

If you’re visiting on a gloomy winter day you might be able to hear the castle’s ghost, Veronika scream. She was drowned and bricked in the castle wall after a tragic love story. Her body must be somewhere in the castle and her ghost still roams around from time to time. The guide will pleasantly tell you the entire story!

After an interesting visit to Veliki Tabor castle, we drove all the way to Villa Zelenjak Ventek, a local hotel and restaurant where they serve the best homemade strukli. This dough-based delicacy is a regional specialty used in all kinds of dishes, from soups to desserts. I was lucky enough to learn how to make my own strukli from one of the chefs. Strukli are surprisingly easy to make if you know what you’re doing! Something to try at home? Maybe.

While rolling the dough for our strukli we also had a wine tasting led by the owner of Winery Sever. This family winery has been making award-winning wines in limited production. For one of their excellent wines, they even revived an ancient grape variety. And I can tell you, the wines are delicious! My favorite one was the half-sweet Sokol wine. Highly recommended! You can book your own wine tasting on their website.

The Christmas markets of Zagreb

When we savored all the strukli we made it was time for a change of scenery and we headed to the capital city, Zagreb. The Christmas market of Zagreb was chosen 3 times in a row as the most beautiful Christmas market in Europe, so I had big expectations!

With 1 million inhabitants, Zagreb is the largest city in Croatia. In 2020 it was hit by an earthquake which is why you’ll see many of the buildings being under reconstruction. This doesn’t prevent you from admiring the beautifully decorated 19th-century buildings though.

Our guide Lea took us past the most noteworthy Christmas locations of the city. Zagreb has more than 10 locations dedicated to the Advent festivities. Think of Christmas markets where local products are sold, a gigantic ice rink, and even an underground light spectacle. Here are the 5 most noteworthy locations you should have passed by:

  • Ban Jelacic Square: the market square of Zagreb where you have to take a picture with the Advent Zagreb sign, walk through the snowy decorations, and drink mulled wine.
  • Park Kralja Tomislava: here you can find an enormous ice rink where you can ice skate wholeheartedly.
  • Park Zrinjevac: lit with thousands of lights, this park hosts local artists who sell their handicrafts and chefs who prepare traditional Croatian Christmas delights. The children will also love Santa’s Workshop where they can write their own letter to Santa Claus.
  • Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera: made me think of a festival rather than a Christmas market. Famous Croatian chefs & restaurants compete to offer you the best delicacies in the city.
  • Grič Tunnel: this underground tunnel used to be a refuge for people during the war, but with this advent it is transformed into a light show in theme of the northern lights. Stunning!

When exploring all these different locations, make sure to taste some more fritule and have some hot gin with apple juice, delicious! Tip: you can taste the best fritule of Zagreb at Park Zrinjevac.

Hotel tip: I stayed at The Westin Zagreb, a large 5-star hotel whose rooms have stunning views of the city. Although I’m usually more into smaller boutique hotels, they really managed to surprise me with a handwritten note and some delicacies upon entering my room. Also, the breakfast buffet is beyond impressive!

Day 3: from Zagreb to Opatija

The cultural highlights of Zagreb

The next morning, I woke up with the most amazing view of Zagreb slowly being covered in a layer of snow. Yesterday, the guide was still complaining about the lack of snow in Zagreb these recent years so the weather gods might just have heard her. After an extensive breakfast buffet, we depart once more with Lea for a tour past the cultural highlights of the city. This time with the gentle company of white snowflakes.

As the hotel is a 10-minute walk from the old city center we pass by a lot of impressive soviet-buildings along the way. A lot of them are under construction but that doesn’t diminish their grandeur. Along the way we pass by the opera house of Zagreb, “around this time of the year people are lining up to get tickets for The Nutcracker”, our guide explains. “Some people are arriving hours before the ticket sale opens, but luckily that’s the exception. For other shows, you can just buy the tickets online.”

When we enter the historic side of the city, we immediately notice the cathedral of Zagreb, all wrapped up in metal constructions. “The cathedral has looked like this for more than 30 years”, explains Lea. Ever since 1991, the cathedral has been under construction. The recent earthquakes didn’t help, because both towers either fell or had to be taken down. By now, the everlasting construction of the cathedral has become a running joke among the citizens.

A bit further we come across the largest farmer’s market in Zagreb. The Dolac market is open every day so many locals come to buy their fruit, vegetables, and meat here. The market actually consists of 3 levels: the open-air fruit and vegetable market, the underground fish and meat market, and the upper-level flower market. It’s a cute stop on a stroll through the city!

The next stop on our tour is the shop Crošara. Here you can come for a free liquor and gin tasting so that’s what we did of course! I had a taste of the local Old Pilots gin and the Teranino, a sweet kind of liquor. The latter was definitely my favorite. After the tasting, you can buy a bottle to take home with you in your luggage, but my tip is to wait until you’re in the tax-free zone at the airport. You can buy the same products there for a significantly cheaper price!

Another highlight of the old town is definitely Saint-Mark’s Square. The colorful tiled roof of the small church with the enormous decorated Christmas tree next to it, makes it a picture-perfect spot. If you continue your walk into the Ćirilometodska street you’ll encounter the most popular and peculiar museum of Zagreb: the Museum of Broken Relationships. Yes, you read that right! The owners started collecting artifacts from all over the world that people donated to them as it made them think of their broken relationship. Today you can visit their huge collection but you can also still donate your own items.

When you continue down the street you encounter an amazing view of the lower part of Zagreb, as well as the oldest medieval tower in the city. Ever since 1877, every day at noon they fire a canon. Can you believe this is still someone’s full-time job?

Christmas festivities at the coast

From Zagreb, it’s less than a 2-hour drive to get to the Croatian coastline. Although it was zero degrees and snowing when we left Zagreb, we arrived in Opatija just in time for a spectacular sunset and a much more enjoyable climate, a difference of no less than 10 degrees Celsius!

Hotel tip: I checked into The Ambassador Opatija, an impressive 5-star hotel at the waterside. Although the building is quite ugly from the outside, it’s incredibly impressive on the inside. The large windows give you a stunning view of the coastline, the outdoor pool and private beach make you want to jump in the water and the rooms with balcony are perfect for mesmerizing with a cup of tea.

At dusk, we started exploring the little town of Opatija. With its 10.000 inhabitants, it’s absolutely not the largest attraction in the region. However, it is the place where in 1844 the first tourists made their way to the Croatian Adriatic coast. But not just random tourists. The town was loved by world leaders from all over Europe. They all built their own impressive villas on the waterside to escape the hustle and bustle of their home country and just rest. The air quality here was also said to be very pure and healing.

Today you can still admire these impressive villas, although most of them have now been transformed into equally impressive hotels. Especially alongside the Marche al Tito street, you’ll find a lot of these buildings. While you’re here, make sure to stop by the Milenij Choco World Museum to taste some delicious chocolate, pass by the Croatian Walk of Fame, and enter Hotel Palace Bellevue to see how they incorporated a cave into their hotel. Also, stop by Café Strauss to taste their homemade pastry.

But of course, I was in Opatija for the Christmas festivities! And they really know how to do that right. Until the beginning of January, they organize advent festivities at the seaside. You can find parks full of light decorations, an open-air ice rink, and lots of performances while you’re sipping from a cup of mulled wine. You’ll encounter most festivities when you walk the Lungomare promenade, but also several hotels join in and beautifully decorate their own places. You can find the most prominent advent festivities at the Market Square, Angiolina Park, and the Open Air Theatre.

Restaurant tip: Restaurant Roko is said to be the best Italian in town. It’s always full though so if you want a spot you better make a reservation beforehand!

Day 4: soaking in the sun at Lungomare

Although the fourth day marked my last day in Croatia, it didn’t hinder me from enjoying the last bit of time I had. After a delicious and way too copious breakfast, I headed down to the sea for a relaxing walk on the Franz Joseph I promenade, also known as the Lungomare. This pathway alongside the Adriatic coastline runs 12 kilometers from Lovran to Volosko. From Hotel The Ambassador I had direct access to the Lungomare, perfect for an early morning stroll with the sound of the waves in the background and the sun on your face.

In 20 minutes, I walked all the way to Volosko, a cozy harbor village much less known than the bustling town of Opatija or the busy city of Rijeka. Here you can enjoy the view of the waterside while having a morning coffee from one of the many terraces. As our guide told us: “this is where the locals go”.

On my way back I passed by several impressive houses from the 19th century, all of which I would like to buy if I could, because… such a view! I walked to Opatija until I saw the statue of the Lady with the Seagull. This statue was placed here after a tragic accident at sea. Originally it was a statue of a Madonna, but when the country became socialist, it was replaced by the current Lady, welcoming everyone back from the sea.

Before driving back to the airport of Zagreb, we had our very last lunch at Hotel Bevanda. The kitchen of their restaurant is beyond delicious. They serve a lot of fresh seafood and make exquisite patisserie. And on their terrace, you can also simply have a drink while seeing the boats floating by. That’s life if you ask me! The perfect ending to a wonderful trip!

If you want to explore more of the country’s coastline, read the recommendations of Trot Op! on where to go island-hopping in Croatia.

How to get to Zagreb

The easiest way to get to Zagreb from Belgium is by plane. Croatian Airlines flies from Brussels Airports while Ryanair connects Charleroi to several locations in Croatia. When you hop on a plane, only 2 hours later you arrive in Zagreb. Another option is to go by train or car. However, it takes at least 2 days to travel one way from Belgium to Croatia.

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