While you might be forgiven for thinking that deep midwinter might see something of a lull for Croatian tourism, you couldn’t be more mistaken. On the contrary, it has become one of the most rewarding times to visit.
Croatia has undergone something of a Christmas transformation over the last decade or so. Advent markets and festivities bring good cheer, plus significant numbers of shoppers and revellers, to the streets, as well as a party vibe across the country. After two years of drastically reduced celebrations, Croats are now looking forward to Christmas 2022 with renewed relish.
And these festivities are pretty open-ended, giving visitors plenty of time to plan their winter trip. Most Advent celebrations begin at the end of November and keep going right up until January 6, Epiphany in the Catholic calendar. The day on which the Three Kings arrived to bestow their gifts on the infant Jesus is also Christmas Eve in the Julian calendar, still observed by the country’s Orthodox minority.
The Croatian Christmas
The Croatian Christmas is a traditional family occasion. Families congregate on the evening of December 24 for the festive meal, and children receive their presents. Many folks then go on to attend midnight mass, often followed by fireworks. December 25 is also a family day, spent quietly at home or visiting friends, and inevitably involves a lot more eating.
The traditional Christmas dinner differs from one family to another. For many, something fishy always occupies centre stage, while others might prefer to roast a turkey. One characteristic Christmas dish with which all Croats will be familiar is bakalar, salted cod with is soaked and then boiled (and usually mixed with potatoes) to produce a savoury paste.
A great time for outsiders to observe local social life is around lunchtime or the afternoon of December 24, when cafés are packed with people sharing a final drink with friends and workmates before the holidays start in earnest.
However, the spread of Advent fairs here has turned the festive season into something more inclusive and new to discover. Stroll round the stalls of a typical Croatian Christmas market and you’ll find much by way of local character: boutique wines and spirits, gourmet street food, craft brews and souvenirs fashioned by local craftspeople.
It was the capital, Zagreb, that pioneered this uniquely Croatian take on the Advent theme, inviting local creative teams to curate different street-market experiences in parks and squares around the centre. While attracting increasing numbers of tourists, Zagreb advent has become a crucial season-long social event for the city itself, with animated clusters of colleagues meeting up for drinks, families indulging in night-time strolls to take in the lights, and more dedicated party animals seeking out open-air DJ sets and live bands. Zagreb’s transformation into an all-year outdoor city is something in which Advent has played a huge role.
And in 2022, it looks like Zagreb has once again come up with the goods. This winter, the capital will stage an Advent two to three times bigger than before, with an estimated 350 stalls throughout the city. The enduringly popular ice-skating circuit in front of the train station on Trg kralja Tomislava makes a triumphant return. Zrinjevac, with its atmospherically illuminated trees around a revered historic bandstand, will be the main strolling area for families, while the nearby Fuliranje zone (officially translated as ‘Fooling Around’, with slightly romantic undertones) will attract a younger, more alternative, crowd thanks to stalls run by craft breweries, boutique street-food producers and a selection of DJs.
Europski trg, just off Zagreb's main square, is another space that offers local rakija and other treats, accompanied by DJ decks and an igloo-shaped stage for live music. The summertime hit event Café de Matoš, named after writer Antun Gustav Matoš, whose statue marks the spot, makes a return as a laid-back outdoor drinking zone with a retro theme. The setting is Strossmayerovo šetalište, the panoramic promenade that runs along the rim of Zagreb’s Upper Town. And if all you want is mulled wine and sausages accompanied by traditional Christmassy music, then mainstream stalls line the pedestrianised streets around the main square itself.
The biggest new innovation for 2022 is the Winterland funfair at Park dr Franje Tuđmana, an expansive grassy area some 2km west of the centre a few tram stops away. Attractions include a 36-metre-high panoramic wheel, a toboggan ride, a selection of fairground rides and a mock pirate ship for kids.
One event which lies outside the city’s Advent programme but very much worth investigation is Artomat, the annual arts-and-crafts fair held in the circular headquarters of the Croatian Fine Arts Association (HDLU) on Trg Žrtava Fašizma. Between December 10 to 24, niche fashion items, hand-crafted jewellery, accessories and affordable art all await, making this the perfect place to pick up that unique gift.
Advent in Dubrovnik goes by the name of the Dubrovnik Winter Festival and allows locals to reclaim the streets of the Old Town with gusto. Live pop concerts line the Stradun, the historic pedestrianised street where a New Year’s Day concert by the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra should not to be missed. Other nearby locations include the beach-lined headland of Lapad, where food and drink outlets showcase the specialities of local gastro institutions.
Advent in Split is pretty specific too, with stalls taking over the waterside Riva, the palm-shaded promenade that provides the city with its main outdoor social focus, and a sizeable skating rink set up on the nearby arcaded square known as the Prokurative.
Up in the northern reaches of the Adriatic, there will be plenty going in in Pula and Rijeka, while the belle-époque holiday spot of Opatija illuminates its famously sub-tropical parks with a festive display of lights.
Seasonal treats & events
All this Advent action allows visitors to work their way through Croatia’s varied seasonal treats that range from dough-pocket štrukli in the north to sardines and oysters in the Adriatic south.
One winter food you will find everywhere is sarma, the deliciously savoury wads of minced meat and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves. Traditionally enjoyed for lunch on New Year’s Day, sarma are consumed throughout the winter and frequently pop up at Advent stalls.
One other seasonal staple sold everywhere are fritule, the deliciously spongy deep-fried dough balls that are sprinkled with icing sugar or liberally sploshed with chocolate sauce.
And if you fancy seeing in the New Year in Croatia, pretty much major town stages a big open-air concert. Pick of the events this year is Šibenik in central Dalmatia, where diva of the electro-chanson Róisín Murphy will be wowing celebrants on the main square, with the city's fabulous cathedral as the backdrop.
This article is sponsored by The Croatian National Tourism Board: 'Croatia Full of Life'.