Beyond the hype of Advent in Zagreb, the Croatian capital is experiencing a little-reported tourism boom, the only Croatian destination with a million overnight visitors in 2015. Once overlooked by tourists heading for the more fashionable coast, it is now becoming a must-visit on the Central European circuit. Leading local blogger Andrea Pisac, from the award-winning blog Zagreb Honestly, tells us a little more about the changes in her city and the impact of tourism on December 19, 2016.
1. Advent in Zagreb – voted best Christmas market in Europe for the second consecutive year. How is the atmosphere in town right now?
One word – electrified! People in Zagreb beam with the same kind of glow as the beautiful Christmas decorations. There’s a buzz everywhere, not only in the central Lower Town. Starting from around lunchtime, which is a great time to visit if you prefer not to queue for a bite to eat, a steady crescendo builds up as the night falls and live music kicks off.
I am especially chuffed that this year Advent locations have spread all around the city. The Upper Town alleyways have never felt so alive. They are never overcrowded but elegantly populated with curious strollers.
I have always loved the signature Christmas huts – those white wooden houses that look like they’ve just emerged from a fairy-tale. But I also love what Zagreb designers have done at the Market in Martićeva with their unique take on Christmas stalls – the sleek-lined wooden constructions lit up with delicate lights really stand out in the city.
Last year when I wrote about Advent, I aimed to cover all the locations and events that visitors could cover in a couple od days. This year, the abundance is so great that I decided to single out only 5 best locations. This, in my opinion, is the biggest change that happened. Zagreb Advent matured so much – offering something great for each type of a visitor – that a curating type of coverage was necessary.
2. Zagreb had over a million overnight visitors in 2015, the only destination in Croatia to do so. How has the city changed from a tourism point of view in the last decade?
Let me start with rental numbers. In 2011, there were only 194 registered private renters. In only five years, the number rose to 1,140 private apartments (information sourced from the Zagreb Tourist Board). This shows that more independent travellers are including Zagreb in their European itineraries.
Zagreb has always been a stop-over destination to the Croatian coast. It still attracts people en route to the sea, but it has also become one of the must-see central European cities. Those who are doing Vienna and Budapest, are now including Zagreb on their bucket list. And with the new airport terminal slated to open in 2017, Zagreb will definitely become an international tourist destination in its own right.
There is a noticeable change in the way the locals think of their city. You could always hear Zagreb people praising their city as a great place to live. But now they are beginning to think about all the things that could be potentially interesting to travellers. Those who are in the service industries, like the restaurateurs, event organizers, the creatives, shape their offer with the tourists’ desires in mind.
The number of international events and festivals has skyrocketed, making Zagreb a truly all-year-round city. Global trends have arrived on the eating and drinking scene. There are more interesting eateries, bars, cafes, all-day lounges, but this diversity has managed to remain beautifully local. I am quite proud that Zagreb remains relatively unconquered by uniform global brands, such as Starbucks.
3. 3. Do you feel the change as a local, and if yes, in what way?
Very much so. For a long time, to be cosmopolitan in Zagreb, one had to travel out into the world and bring the air of novelty back home. Now the winds have changed – the world comes to Zagreb. We have fantastic events and festivals with the world’s leading artists, scientists and speakers from all walks of life.
I remember a decade ago I paid a small fortune to watch the contemporary dancer Russell Maliphant perform at the London’s Sadler’s Wells. But a few years ago, my favourite dancer had a gig at the Contemporary Dance Week in Zagreb! My friends often went to Venice, Vienna or Prague for a dose of culture. We don’t have to do it any more because it’s right here in Zagreb.
4. Are you happy with the direction of Zagreb tourism, and what changes would you like to see?
It takes time for a city to mature into a metropolitan centre. And one of the signs of such places, like London or New York for example, is decentralization. I would love to see the cultural and touristy buzz spread to non-central Zagreb neighbourhoods. We have seen this happen with Kreuzberg in Berlin, Brooklyn in New York or Shoreditch in London.
I can’t wait for the moment when tourists will stop renting private accommodation only on the Jelačić Square and begin exploring outer neighbourhoods. But for that to happen, other parts of Zagreb need to build their unique characters, like the artsy Martićeva neighbourhood has begun.
Another sign of a city’s maturity is promoting its culture, and not only the mainstream one. Alternative art forms, such as street art are a huge thing in cities around the world. Zagreb has actually woken up to that potential, with this summer’s hugely popular Street Art Park. But there are more opportunities.
For example, a few years ago when I visited New York, the Highline (the city’s alternative promenade build on the old train tracks) just opened. This is a great way of promoting an activity which may seem unexciting – I mean where’s the kick in just walking – and a previously neglected area of the city. And Zagreb has loads of places just like that waiting to get a new lease of life for both locals and tourists!
5. Your award-winning blog takes people into another level of life in Zagreb. What three things off the beaten path would you recommend to visitors?
#1 Explore Zagreb’s art in public spaces. This is not a packaged ‘thing to see’ advertised in a guide book. But if you walk long enough around the city centre, you’ll start noticing amazing sculptures at every step. Croatia’s most famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović has a dozen of masterpieces scattered around, such as the Well Of Life fountain by the Croatian National Theatre, the sculpture of Nikola Tesla or the stunning Meštrović Pavilion. Then there is Zagreb’s famous Mirogoj cemetery, which is basically an open-air sculpture park, and so is the courtyard of the Academy of Fine Arts.
# 2 Visit lesser-known museums and the interiors of buildings that house cultural institutions. My favourites are the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art, The Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (with the 900 years old ‘Baščanska Tablet’ on display) and the State Archives building.
#3 Learn about OPG food and search it out at Dolac market or a few other delis around the British Square market. OPG (family farm in translation) is small-scale and artisan-produced food. Look for cheeses, relishes such as ajvar, pickles, jams, bread and dry-cured meet.
About Andrea Pisac
Andrea Pisac is a writer and cross-cultural expert. She writes about everyday ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective on her award-winning blog Zagreb Honestly. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.