When temperatures plummet and the winter ennui creeps in, Zagreb's Christmas extravaganza Advent laps on enough yuletide joy to cheer up any Scrooge. Every year, the best Zagreb attractions are transformed into illuminated winter wonderlands, decked in acres of fairy-lights and huge Christmas trees; ice-rinks, nativity scenes: if it's Christmas-themed, you'll find it here.
Uniquely, a city break in Zagreb can double up as a skiing holiday. Mountain Medvednica is just a twenty-minute drive from the city, and its Sjleme ski resort is never overcrowded. If skiing terrifies you even more than ice-skating, you should still take a day to walk up Sjleme. Arguably, it's at its most beautiful under a thick covering of snow - brilliantly white and magnificently silent. Eat at a cosy mountain-top tavern before catching the bus back down to town.
With lakes freezing over, thick coverings of snow, and perfectly-sculpted stalactites, Plitvice Lakes is truly spectacular in winter. Take a day trip to Plitvice Lakes to enjoy the lakes and waterfall in their frozen winter glory.
Jump a cab or tram Nos.6, 7 or 8 over the Sava river to Novi Zagreb and the Sunday morning flea market at Hrelić. Many of the goods here are cheap – clothes, CDs, sports shoes – but you’ll also find piles of oddities and rarities from all over the Balkans.
The fairytale street of Tkalčićeva, which snakes up from focal Jelačić trg, was once the flowing stream of Medveščak. The little sidestreets leading off it, Splavnica (from splav, raft) and Krvavi most ('Bloody Bridge'), link to its watery origins and colourful past as the flashpoint in local disputes over the centuries. For two decades, this atmospheric thoroughfare has provided Zagreb with its prime bar crawl, a constant current of revellers moving from spot to spot. Venues move in and out of fashion, but you're pretty much guaranteed a good time at the Funk Club, a regular café by day, a lively DJ basement by night. The buzz around the horseshoe bar, as thumping beats come up from the cellar, is as sassy as anywhere on Tkalčićeva.
Had a miserable year? Cheer yourself up at the Museum of Broken Relationships by reflecting on how it all went wrong for other people too. Housed in one of the Upper Town's finest Baroque mansions, the thematic display takes visitors through a series of different emotions associated with break-up, illustrated by objects donated by members of the public.
Tuck into traditional winter fare such as sausages and sauerkraut or sarma (stuffed cabbage leaves) at a traditional Zagreb restaurant such as Vinodol or Stari Fijaker.
Show off your triple-salto jumps with a circuit of the outdoor skating rink on Tomislavov trg.
On Sundays the fruit and veg stalls that fill Britanski trg during the week are cleared away, and an attractive bric-a-brac and antique market is laid out. In total, some 100 stallholders trade goods from first thing in the morning. Paintings, jewellery, old currency, badges, glass bottles, posters, crockery, silver, old farming tools and religious icons are all on display on wooden trestle tables. The morning is also a social occasion, locals gathering at nearby cafés such as Kava Tava and Eli’s Caffè to gossip and show off their purchases.
Rakia is grappa’s sexier, fruitier cousin and is the traditional drink of the Balkans. At 40-80 percent proof, it’s highly alcoholic, and comes in an insanely long list of flavours including blueberry and aniseed, alongside the ubiquitous šljivovica (plum) and tavarica (mixed herb). Medica, the honey variety, is probably the nicest. Be warned: it’s sweet as nectar, and slips down just as nicely. Drive away the winter blues by working your way through the local brandies at Rakhia Bar.
Catch an ice-hockey game at the Zagreb Arena, where local team Medveščak play in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Flanked by mountain ranges covered in snowy evergreens, winter in Zagreb sets the perfect conditions for al-fresco bathing at an outdoor thermal spa. This alpine-esque activity is best experienced in Zagorje, a gorgeously bucolic settlement located on the other side of Medvedgrad mountain - under 50km from Zagreb. The gargantuan spa centre Terme Terje offer a range of treatments and packages, check their website for more details.
Zagreb punches well above its weight when it comes to late-night action. One of the city’s best spots is Medika, a squatted former pharmaceutical factory run by artists, punks and musicians. At the weekend, it goes big on Balkan fun, when its cavernous rooms attract revelers of every stripe. But with a curated programme that includes films, gigs and exhibitions, there’s more to it than just pills ’n’ thrills.
Set in a neo-Renaissance former school on Rooseveltov trg, the Mimara Museum contains the most impressive art collection in town: 42 rooms house 1,700 paintings, statues and archaeological finds, set up chronologically and thematically. This huge trove was gathered by art collector and philanthropist Ante Topić Mimara, much of it during and immediately after World War II. Highlights include a collection of carpets, medieval icons, Chinese porcelain, and paintings by Raphael, Velázquez, Rubens, Rembrandt and Manet. Greek and Roman finds line the lower floors. The collection is vast – only a third is ever on display.
Built in 1924 and still retaining many of its period features, the 500-seater Kino Europa is the oldest still-functioning cinema in Zagreb. The grand auditorium is the main screening house for the Zagreb Film Festival in autumn, and serves as a first-run and art-house cinema for the rest of the year. For those into grappas, good beer, quality coffee and excellent wines, the Europa's other principal attraction is the café that spills from the spacious lobby to a glass-enclosed atrium with big outdoor terrace. Patrons sitting in black directors' chairs are served honey, apple, pear, fig and cherry (to name a few) brandies. Club nights fill the foyer following the final film screenings on Friday and Saturday nights, with DJs spinning an eclectic mix of rock, pop and retro-disco.
The daily market or Dolac, on a raised square a set of stairs up from the main square, has been the city’s major trading place since 1926. Farmers from surrounding villages come to sell their home-made foodstuffs and some of the freshest fruit and vegetables you’ll ever taste. In the covered market downstairs are butchers, fishmongers and old ladies selling the local speciality sir i vrhnje (cheese and cream). Flowers and lace are also widely available.
The biggest event on the Croatian film calendar is November's Zagreb Film Festival, which attracts some 35,000 visitors to watch features, shorts and documentaries, many screened in English or with subtitles. The competition is divided into three categories: features, shorts and documentaries. The winner of each receives the Golden Pram award created by local sculptor Nedjeljko Mikac. Overall the programming is interesting enough without being too obscure and all films are screened with English subtitles.
If Zagreb has an iconic feature, it’s the twin towers of its Cathedral, created by Hermann Bollé after an earthquake struck the city in 1880. Right in the centre of town, not five minutes’ walk from the main square, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary, to give it its full title, is Zagreb’s most visible tourist attraction. Though much of the exterior has long been veiled behind construction sheathing, the neo-Gothic twin towers are visible over the city and are as close as Zagreb gets to a visual identity worthy of calling-card status. They were added by architect Hermann Bollé in the post-1880 rebuild, while the interior received neo-gothic altars, 19th-century stained glass, and a relief by Ivan Meštrović that marks the resting place of controversial Croatian Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac. An effigy of the archbishop rests on a raised platform behind the main altar.
This distant relation of Austrian Strudel and Turkish borek is made from rolled dough, delicious when filled with the traditional cottage cheese and sour cream. Whether cooked or baked, sweet or salty, in a soup or with added poppy, pumpkin or spinach, all versions deserve attention. When taken to try štrukli in a traditional local restaurant, most first-time visitors are impressed by the gentle taste of the soft dough, creamy cheese, the eggs and sour-cream sauce. Many venues pride themselves on their štrukli, although the kitchen at the landmark Esplanade Hotel provides some of the best - if not the best - in town. The more contemporary La Štruk specialises in this local pastry, providing more unusual choices such as cheese-and-nettle and cheese-and-paprika varieties.
Gorgeous scenery and majestic surround the capital, ranging from the stately Varaždin to the marshy wetlands of Lonjsko Polje. If your city break has left you gasping for rural greenery and fresh air, these wonderful day trips are exactly what the doctor ordered.
The largest museum ever built in Croatia and the first to be built in Zagreb for 125 years, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in 2009. It comprises 5,000sq m of exhibition space, a library, a multi-media room, a boutique and a children’s workshop. The MCA, known to Croatians as the acronym MSU, is one of the major cultural institutions to have been located in Novi Zagreb, the little-visited area over the Sava river. With its proximity to the redesigned Bundek recreation park, it represents a new stretch to the famous urban axis of Zagreb’s Green Horseshoe, created in the 19th century.