When we started planning this year’s Christmas Market trip back in October, we were looking to visit somewhere new. Our daughter suggested that Vienna is a must-see Christmas Market, so we decided that would be a good choice. We didn’t want to limit the trip to Vienna, so with the help of our good friend Google, we saw that Zagreb’s Christmas Market was voted Europe's best for three years running (that according to Croatia tourist website, anyway). We also viewed an number of VLOG’s from folks who visited Zagreb Christmas Market in recent years and these VLOG’s seemed to endorse Zagreb as a good choice. So we added Zagreb to the itinerary and what also helped with that choice is the fact that Zagreb is less than an hour plane trip from Vienna.
When we did our advanced planning, we booked round-trip air with Austrian Airlines and found a conveniently located hotel using Booking.com. Our hotel, the Palace Hotel, was about $300 for 3 nights, which seemed quite reasonable for a mid-city hotel. More about prices below.
After spending 5 days in Vienna, we flew to Zagreb on Monday December 3rd. Flight was on time, Zagreb airport was easy to navigate and we used Uber for the ride to the hotel. Our driver Boris spoke perfect English and he gave us lots of tips about foods to eat and things to do and see. The ride from the airport to downtown is about 16km (10 mi) and it took almost 30 min because of traffic. The Uber fare was $16, pretty cheap! By the way, Croatia does not use Euro’s, the local currency is the Kuna (HRK) and the exchange is about 6.5HRK to the dollar.
I can’t say enough about our hotel choice. The Palace Hotel is a classic hotel in a Art Nouveau palace dating from 1891. The location is perfect, right across the street from Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera and Park Zrinjevac, two of the Christmas Market venues and a 4-block walk to Ban Josip Jelačić square, the main Christmas Market and shopping area.
Our hotel room was ideal, large and roomy (for European standards) and my biggest measure of a hotel room is the size of the bathroom and shower, this one was spot on. Plenty of room in the shower and strong water pressure. Our room rate included breakfast and the breakfast buffet was huge. Plenty of hot and cold selections, fresh fruits, bread and pastries, it was an excellent spread.
The hotel Cafe/bar was a very comfortable space with elegant woodwork, high ceilings and cozy Christmas decorations. It was on the ground floor with large windows facing the park with stunning views of the Christmas Market lights and activities. We would have a glass of wine or cognac and the cost was less than $5.00 per glass!
The hotel had a health and wellness spa and I made an appointment for a one hour massage. That was very relaxing and the cost was equivalent to $38, quite a bit less than what we pay at home.
Getting Around Zagreb
The convenient location of our hotel made it easy to explore the city and Christmas Markets. Everything was within walking distance. Our first morning in Zagreb, we decided to take the Hop-on, Hop-off bus service. This gave us a good overview of the city, plus the audio narration provided some history and context.
We walked to the upper city, some steep roads and stairs to overcome, but we made it. We ended up taking the funicular back down to the lower city, didn’t plan that very well, would have been better going up on the funicular and walking down, let gravity be our friend!
Zagreb has an extensive street tram system, but we didn’t use the trams. There was also a Christmas tram that toured the sights and Santa was the conductor.
Ban Josip Jelačić Square
Zagreb Christmas Markets
The Zagreb Christmas Market is a bit different than what we saw in Vienna or from our previous trips to Germany, France and Switzerland. The vendor booths or stalls are different, all were white, in contrast to the German style which are chalet-like, dark wood. Another big difference is that the vast majority of vendor stalls were selling food and drinks. Not many crafts, clothing or other seasonal items like in Germany or Austria.
It seems that Zagreb is a party city, lots of people, many young adults, out for drinks and food. But there are also families, young and old. Everywhere you went, there was music playing, some Christmas music, as well as pop and rock. The main venues like Ban Josip Jelačić square had stages and bandstands set up where there was always some live entertainment, like local youth choirs, folk groups, traditional and contemporary musicians and artists. The Christmas Market scene in Zagreb is very lively, lots of energy.
Some general impressions and observations about Zagreb and Croatia.
Croatia is very affordable, the US dollar goes a long way. When dining out, even at a more upscale restaurant, we never paid more than $50 for the two of us, that incudes the drinks.
The people are very friendly, most speak good English.
Zagreb seems very safe, we did not feel uncomfortable or threatened even when walking around at night.
There are many smokers in Zagreb. It seems that smoking is very popular with younger people.
Overall, we really liked Zagreb and we look forward to visiting other parts of Croatia in 2020 when we do a Mediterranean cruise.