In case you haven’t heard, there’s more to Croatia than the Dalmatian coast and its promise of powdery beaches (along with a celebrity sighting or two).
While visitors have typically flocked to the Eastern European country in the summer, it’s now about how the capital city of Zagreb lights up during the winter, a phenomenon that’s captured the attention of locals and globe trotters alike.
I came during Advent, one of the city’s biggest celebrations and most popular times to visit. The season is clearly rooted in religion — Advent is a period in which Christians anticipate the birth of Jesus and, naturally, Christmas — but thankfully, celebrating it is not so formal or constrictive.
In fact, the already beguiling city — imagine cobblestone streets weaving through a visually arresting mix of Austro-Hungarian and Baroque architecture — transforms into a winter wonderland, oozing with Old World charm, without feeling the least bit contrived or corny. And of course, there are plenty of things to see, do, eat and drink.
Given Croatia’s high unemployment rate — last year, it clocked in at 18 percent — tourism generates much-needed revenue and perhaps more importantly, a general sense of happiness and well-being for the country.
To that end, hotels and airlines have stepped up, making it easier than ever to get to Zagreb during the winter.
Europe’s top-ranking airline, Turkish Airlines, offers direct, affordable flights daily from its hub in Istanbul, making a stop in Zagreb a no-brainer if you’re already headed to the area. (Reasonable prices aside, the incredible food and service alone are worth flying with the airline.)
Even hotels like the swanky 5-star Esplanade Zagreb are attracting visitors by offering wintertime weekend packages. This sort of proactive approach to seasonal tourism paid off fast: Last year, Zagreb was voted as top Christmas destination in Europe. (Take that, Strasbourg and Aachen.)
Once you get there, Zagreb is blissfully easy to navigate. English is spoken by most locals, and the city is small enough to comfortably walk everywhere.
Most importantly? Bundle up. Temperatures in December hover in the 30s (Fahrenheit), and you’ll probably be spending a lot of your time outdoors. Here’s a handy guide to nine things you’ve got to try.
Kobasice (homemade pork sausages) here are served as sandwiches. Renovka (a classic hot dog), pečenica (bratwurst) and češnjovka (spicy garlic) are among the most popular; they’re served topped with your choice of sauerkraut, ketchup, mustard and onions. Try to track down a family-run kiosk, where the buns will be homemade, too.
Unlike other regional delicacies you’ll find here in winter, Strukli is enjoyed year-round. It originated in Zagorje, a region just north of Zagreb, and is essentially dough, fresh cottage cheese and cream.
Traditionally, it’s been boiled, but most households now are baking Strukli. Always served warm, it’s a humble, mild-tasting, yet incredibly rich dish.
A holiday favorite, boiled or brined cabbage leaves are stuffed with a combination of beef and pork, rice and assorted spices, then simmered in tomato sauce or broth. Typically, large batches are made in the belief that the flavors get richer with each day.
Štrudla od Jabuka
Imagine Strukli on a fruity sweet streak, and you have Strudla. A flaky, buttery dough similar to phyllo is rolled with apples, sugar and cinnamon — walnuts and raisins can also be added — then baked. The Croatian version is noticeably less sweet than strudels found in other parts of the world.
These irresistible little balls of dough are laced with brandy, flash-fried to golden perfection and dusted with powdered sugar, and finished with chocolate or caramel sauce if you wish. During Advent, they’re heaped into plastic cups with a long toothpick so you can simply spear then pop them into your mouth.
Knedle sa Sljivama
Made with a potato-based dough, these fluffy dumplings are filled with fresh plums, then boiled. Toppings typically include sugar, buttered bread crumbs, poppy seeds, and vanilla custard sauce. Knedle can be served as dessert, a light snack, or even a side dish to something savory.
A typical snack food, these pork crisps are made from cubes of meat that are slowly fried in their own fat with a bit of milk to bring out a rich, golden color. They’re eaten at room temperature with salt sprinkled on top, with onions and bread. The leftover lard is reserved for future cooking.
Literally “cooked wine,” Croatia’s version of the popular European mulled beverage is made of steeped warm spices (like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) and dried fruit peels in red wine sweetened with sugar or honey. A small cup instantly warms you from the inside out.
Croatia’s national drink, Rakija is a bracing clear spirit made from distilled fruits and herbs that is sweetened with sugar or honey. It’s enthusiastically poured and sipped throughout the day, no matter the occasion. Plum is the most popular flavor, and while Rakija made with honey (called Medica) reportedly has medicinal benefits.