Christmas in Croatia’s Capital, Zagreb

In Travel Guides
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And finally I have entered the world of travel writing!  As someone who is addicted to travel and someone who writes journals about my journeys, I have always wanted to share my travel stories.  Finally, only about five years after my original idea, I have finally decided to turn this idea into reality.  The hardest part was deciding which destination to write about first.  Having quite a bit of traveling under my belt, I had to choose which one would be the appropriate introduction to my travel writing.  Ultimately, I decided on the country which both introduced me to international travel and the country I am currently in: Croatia.

My Connection to Croatia

Growing up, I had two identities: American and Croatian.  My first international trip was to Croatia in 1996, right after the country’s civil war.  At this point, it was not considered “safe” to travel to Croatia.  In fact, during our layover in Prague, a woman yelled at my mom for bringing me, a small child, into a “war zone.”  My mother did not pay attention, as she was desperate to see her family as she was not able to see them all throughout the war.  It was also a good lesson for me, to not be afraid of and to not avoid countries labelled as “dangerous.”  Throughout my youth, I constantly was traveling to Croatia and other Balkan countries, which helped me develop my love for international travel.

Why Zagreb?

Croatia has come a long way since the 1990s.  It is now one of the top Mediterranean travel destinations, competing with locations like Italy, Spain, and Greece.  With (arguably) the bluest sea in Europe and thousands of islands to explore, it is no surprise that it has become one of Europe’s hottest destinations.  Oh, did you know that Game of Thrones is filmed in Croatia as well?  Thanks to the popular television series, tourism has soared in Croatia, especially in the filming location of Dubrovnik.

The location that most people foolishly skip while visiting Croatia is the capital Zagreb.  Most people immediately fly to the coast, without setting foot in the capital.  This is quite a pity, as Zagreb offers a unique mix of Central European and Mediterranean lifestyles.  You will still get the classy coffee and strudel culture like Vienna, but at the same time, the city has a relaxed personality, matching Spanish and Italian cities.  The capital with one million people is big enough to not get bored, yet small enough to not feel overwhelmed.  It is also a surprisingly modern city.  For example, there is WiFi access in the main tourist spots in the city, making it easy to research city sites and to contact loved ones.  December is probably the nicest time to visit Zagreb.  Previously overshadowed by Christmastime Meccas like Prague and Vienna, more and more tourists are choosing Croatia as their wintertime destination.  In fact, in a recent online survey, Zagreb was voted as Europe’s top Christmas market.

Advent in Zagreb

While I was on my way to see my relatives in Croatia, I had a few hours to spare in Zagreb.  As I have mentioned above, the holiday season has made Zagreb increasingly notable, especially with the Advent in Zagreb events.  During the Advent season, Zagreb is transformed into a winter wonderland (even if the temperature does not feel that way… today it was 17 degrees Celsius, and many people were walking around the city without coats!), with the city center decorated with little huts selling sausages and hot wine, and snow covered trees.

If you are coming to Zagreb by bus or plane, you will need to travel to the center.  Zagreb airport offers a free shuttle bus to Zagreb bus station.  From the bus station, you will need to take tram number 6 to the stop “Trg Bana Josipa Jelacica,” which is the main square in the city of Zagreb.  There are many Christmas decorations and markets on the square itself, and most of the other Christmas attractions are a short walk away.  If you are arriving to Zagreb by train, there is no hassle– you are already in the city center, and there are signs of the Christmas spirit right outside of the train station.  Most noticeable is the park with the unique skating rink on King Tomislav Square.  The skating rink is unique in that you skate on a line of ice and you are surrounded by the park’s greenery.  It goes back to Zagreb’s theme of mixing a winter wonderland with Mediterranean warmth.  I must admit, that I am not the bravest skater, so I did not skate, but it looks like a really unique rink, and I would recommend it to anybody who loves ice skating!

After the ice skating rink, you will come to Zrinjevac Park.  You will see more stands there, selling mulled wine and traditional Croatian treats.  There is also a gazebo in the center, providing live entertainment on a daily basis.  When you continue walking ahead, you will enter Ban Josip Jelacic Square, the same square I mentioned before in the post.  There, you will see more stands selling traditional Croatian goods.  The town Christmas tree is also there, overshadowing the statue of Josip Jelacic, one of the main attractions of the square.  My favorite feature, though, is how the city designed an advent wreath from the fountain on the square.  There are four candles around the fountain, and these candles light up at night.  As with the Advent tradition, for each week of Advent, a new candle is lit.  Unfortunately, I was not there in the evening this time, but last year, it looked stunning in the evening time, full of light and people gathering around the fountain to observe the Advent season.

More Zagreb Attractions

So some of you might be thinking about coming to Zagreb, but maybe you are unable to come during the Advent season.  Don’t worry because there is still plenty of things to do in Zagreb!  All of the places I mentioned above are great to see any time of year.  In addition to those sites, I would also suggest visiting these sites:

  • The Museum of Broken Relations: a major hit among tourists.  In 2011, this museum won an award for being the most innovative museum in Europe.  As the name implies, it is a museum filled with items that are reminiscent of relationships gone bad.  I really liked this museum, as I have not seen any other museum like it in any other city (and I am not really a museum person at all).
  • Old Town Gate (Kamenita Vrata): a gate which is now a shrine to the Virgin Mary after her portrait survived a major city fire.
  • St. Mark’s Church: the church with the traditional Croatian checkerboard rooftop makes it one of the most distinguishing buildings in Zagreb.
  • Jarun Lake: an artificial lake used for recreation.  During the summer, you can even go swimming on one of the lake’s beaches.

Of course, there is a lot more you can do as well, but all of the sites I have mentioned above are easy to access and most of them are walking distance from another.  Hopefully, now when you have read this article, you will want to go not only to Croatia’s coast, but to it’s warm and friendly capital too!

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