Croatia's winter festivals are a great way to carouse with the locals. Heavily influenced by folkloric traditions and sacred religious holidays, they're joyously local affairs with plenty of ceremonial pomp. Epic film festivals, religious holidays and magnificent carnivals: we've picked the best winter festivals in Croatia.
RECOMMENDED: the best summer festivals in Croatia.
Zagreb Film Festival
Arguably the one great social event of the autumn season, the Zagreb Film Festival is certainly one of the most informal and enjoyable celebrations of celluloid in this part of the world. It’s also one of the most popular cultural happenings in the country, putting bums on seats in a way that would drive most other festival organisers purple with envy. The deftly curated programme delivers a genuinely global selection of non-Hollywood production, focusing attention on films that wouldn’t normally get a run down at the local multiplex. Prizes are handed out to the best films on the final weekend, but the whole affair is treated with relaxed good humour rather than award-ceremony angst. It’s certainly not a formal affair and there‘s hardly any VIP segregation; you’ll probably see international directors drinking in the same café as the filmgoers themselves. The festival’s main venue is the venerable, Art Nouveau-styled Kino Europa, and it is here that festivalgoers come to enjoy pre-show drinks or hang around in search of an after-party. However, it is also a genuinely citywide affair, with retrospectives, themed seasons and documentary screenings taking place in all manner of venues across town. And with what seems like the entire population of Zagreb going out to watch films that they might not bother seeing if they were on general release, tickets sell out very quickly – so consult the programme carefully, make your choice and book in advance.
The main regional showcase for documentary films, with an international range of the best contemporary work, and prizes for the best submissions. Prizes are awarded in numerous categories, and the winning films are re-screened on the last day of the festival.
Opatija Chocolate Festival
The swish Habsburg-era resort town of Opatija has remained a popular haunt for wealthy holidaymakers for centuries. With its attractive parade of chocolate box houses, it's hard to think of a better place to hold this celebration of the sweet stuff. Domestic producers and international are well-represented here, with plenty of opportunities to nick a free sample or two.
Advent in Split
Surrounded by the snow-blanketed Dinaric Alps, Split looks gorgeous on a crisp winter day, and it's market stalls, quirky shops and cobbled streets are an enchanting place to go Christmas shopping. Split goes big for Christmas - here, you'll find wooden-roofed stalls selling festive food-stuffs, seasonal concerts and a diverse programme of activities to jump into. Split's postcard-perfect setting, twinkly lights, and the smell of mulled-wine lingering in the air is enough to warm the cheeks of any Scrooge.
Zagreb in winter? I bet you never imagined it could be so much fun, what with an Advent programme that embraces pre-Christmas markets and live music in several destinations. Sausage vendors, mulled wine stalls and igloo-shaped rakija bars help to stimulate the senses. Stalls on the pedestrianised streets around Cvijetni trg sell everything from craft toys to traditional sweets, fruit preserves, speciality biscuits and gingerbread hearts. The music programme features a month-long season of outdoor gigs and DJ high-jinks.
New Year's Eve in Split
When New Year comes around, Croatians turn to music. The country’s top live acts and DJs put on special one-night shows at prime locations in all major cities. In Split, the party takes place along the waterfront Riva, where rock band Buđenje and local singer Petar Grašo entertained the masses in 2017.
New Year’s Eve in Dubrovnik
Of all the public celebrations of the new year across Croatia, Dubrovnik’s is usually the most intimate and enjoyable. Locals stride down Stradun, bars and restaurants fill to bursting, and the city’s luxury hotels cater to moneyed guests with slap-up meals. It’s crowded but without the claustrophobic festivities of Zagreb or Split.
Croatia's biggest carnival takes place in Rijeka, culminating in a colourful procession of thousands on the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday. The Mardi Gras tradition here dates back centuries, when it was a festival to welcome the coming of spring and to scare off any lurking Turks. Then, as now, masks were elaborate and ugly, and evil spirits were sent packing by local men dressed in animal skins, the zvončari, clanging huge cowbells.
Always up for a spot of costumed fun, the Habsburgs revived the concept in the late 19th century, before Rijeka got tangled up in too much political torment for street parties.
Then, in 1982, three masked groups walked down Korzo to the bemusement of onlookers. After that, numbers grew. By 2001 there were around 4,000 taking part in the parades. For the 25th anniversary event in 2007, it was nearer 100,000. No wonder locals call it the 'fifth season', in addition to spring, summer, autumn and winter.
Depending on when Shrove Tuesday falls, the Queen's Pageant usually takes place on the third Friday in January, followed by the Zvončari Parade, which takes place the next day. By tradition, the bell-ringers clang their instruments and move in steps according to their village of origin. Then, 13 days before Shrove Tuesday, on the Saturday lunchtime, the Children's Parade runs through the streets of Rijeka. The big event, however, is the International Carnival Parade, which kicks off at noon on the following Sunday. It usually takes the whole afternoon for floats to pass along the main streets. Subsequent celebrations last well into the night, at stalls and tents set up around the canal.