This is the time of year when preparations for the Christmas holidays are well underway; it’s this time of joy and giving we call Advent. During this time of year, Zagreb is full of life, and even the winter season cannot chill one’s heart when the city is aglow with events and happenings on its many squares and cobblestone streets.
Without exaggeration, the Croatian capital’s Advent celebrations and yuletide atmosphere are as good as, if not better than, other Central European capitals which boast a much longer tradition. In fact, Zagreb’s claim as the Advent capital of Europe was solidified at the end of 2016, when Zagreb was first named the city with the best Christmas market in Europe. And Zagreb did not simply rest on its laurels, the Advent program became even more interesting and richer in content; again winning the title in back-to-back-to-back years in 2017 and 2018.
Anyone who has visited Zagreb during the month of December knows that the city is an extra special place to be as Christmas cheer can be felt on every corner by every person from near and from far. And as word spreads and the accolades accumulate, more and more people are drawn to the Croatian capital and the chance to be part of something truly special.
The sound of Christmas bells, the smell of gingerbread cookies, mulled wine, and myriad sweets and savoury treats: Advent in Zagreb offers a treasure trove for the senses that is sure to satisfy even the most discerning visitors. Fun, good food, unique events, art, and a truly festive atmosphere await you on the streets of the Croatian capital. Don't sit at home waiting for Santa Clause or jolly old Saint Nick to saunter down the chimney, get out and walk the streets of Zagreb because the spirit of Christmas is everywhere: on ornate and vibrant squares, promenades and tree-lined parks.
Advent in Zagreb officially gets underway on Saturday, November 30th, lasting all through Christmas and New Years, and goes all the way until after the Epiphany on January 7th. Two massive Christmas trees will adorn the city’s two most picturesque squares, Ban Jelačić Square and St. Mark's Square. The Advent season kicks off in style on November 30th at 5 pm on Ban Jelačić Square when the first Advent candle is lit on the wreath surrounding the Manduševac fountain.
“The leading theme of the 2019 Zagreb Advent is certainly the quintessential Christmas ballet, the Nutcracker,” explains Martina Bienenfeld, the director of the Zagreb Tourist Board. “Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet is not only a remarkable work of art but has become a cultural tradition and a part of the Advent offerings of the city of Zagreb. This year, audiences will be treated to several performances of the Nutcracker at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb by the world-renowned choreographer Vladimir Malakhov. Furthermore, numerous sculptures from the ballet will be erected at specific locations around the city, each one unique and distinct.
The second main theme of Advent in Zagreb this year, according to Ms. Bienenfeld, is ecology and sustainability. “I am very pleased that our organizers this year decided to join our campaign that we started last year and reduce the use of plastic and replace it with eco-friendly glasses.”
“And what we are particularly excited about, this year, together with the Association of Physical Disabled Persons, we have made access ramps for people with special needs, so they can safely access all of our events,” says Bienenfeld.
This year, Advent has an extra special place on the European Square, since on January 1st Zagreb formally becomes the capital of the European Union. The city, she says, is very pleased to have a range of events during Advent on the European Square, as well as the fabulously decorated tunnels below the Upper Town.
There are Christmas markets around the city centre and beyond, including concerts and cultural events, but one of the most exhilarating is the spectacular ice rink on King Tomislav Square, which has been drawing people by the thousands since it was first installed back in 2014.
Meanwhile, the Zrinjevac Christmas market is one of Zagreb's all-time favourites. The Christmas atmosphere on Zrinjevac will leave you breathless and is especially beautiful when covered with snow. So if there’s some white stuff in the forecast, this city park will surely shine even brighter than usual.
The old music gazebo at the centre of the picturesque tree-lined promenade is a place where you can dance to the sounds of live music performances carefully selected each and every night.
Pedestrians and passersby will be able to buy interesting souvenirs and Christmas decorations at Zrinjevac and enjoy some of Zagreb’s time-honoured seasonal delicacies.
"In the Upper Town, we have Advent on Štrossmayer, Café de Matoš, and Advent at the Klovićevi Dvori, which has been the most photographed location of Zagreb’s Advent season in recent years. It has a great view of the Cathedral and provides a panorama of our beautiful city,” explained the President of the Zagreb Tourist Board.
Furthermore, the city is especially proud of the Advent celebrations taking place at Prekrižje, a location which isn’t exactly in the city centre, but one that will feature Christmas traditions from around Croatia.
“In addition to our traditional heritage elements and this year’s special Nutcracker theme, we have several new locations and programs spread around the city. And the cultural elements that one can watch and follow inside the Croatian National Theatre will be made available outside the location as well, in front of the theatre itself on the small stage,” she said.
Last year, organizers began working on welcoming visitors to the Zagreb Advent with less commercial-consumerism and more actual Christmas events. Accordingly, a number of musical and cultural events have been organized in churches, cultural institutions, and public open spaces.
The focus again this year is mainly on classical music, and a total of eight different festivals are planned - from the Christmas Song Festival to concerts in the churches of St. Catherine and St. Blaise to 'Christmas with children’.
“Yet another aspect which the Zagreb Tourist Board is very proud of is the musical offerings at Advent - especially the Christmas music,” said Bienenfeld. There will be several evenings featuring the music of Brahms at the History Museum which will be played on the very same piano owned by Brahms.
“And let’s not forget about 'Advent under the lanterns', a small but charming Advent feature this year. A special choir will sing while following the lamplighters around the Upper Town every Wednesday and Thursday as they light the gas lanterns which line the streets,” she added.
The cultural cooperation with numerous institutions also continues this year, said President of the Zagreb Tourist Board. “We are especially looking forward to working with the Kingdom of Sweden. Professional choirs from Sweden will arrive in Zagreb on December 10th and celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day by performing concerts at the Zrinjevac Park and at Maksimir Park.”
The Croatian National Theatre, as we have learned, has a new performance of the Nutcracker Ballet and, together with the Museum of Arts and Crafts, is preparing a thematic exhibition dedicated to the ballet. The Eighties Museum, for example, is preparing an exhibit as if it were Christmas back in 1980. A collaboration with the Lisinski Concert Hall, the Croatian Music Institute, the Ethnographic Museum, and many other institutions are also on the agenda.
And as Zagreb Tourist Board President Martina Bienenfeld says, Advent features all the best that tourism in Zagreb has to offer. More and more tourists are expected to visit the city during Advent, but perhaps even more still after January 1st when Zagreb becomes the capital of Europe.