Some things change, and some things stay the same.
I have been writing about tourism in Croatia for over a decade now, and each year there is little new to write about some destinations. Many on the coast offer the sun and the sea, as they have for the last 50 years, and the tourists arrive like clockwork.
(Photo J. Duval)
But there are other destinations which are working hard and investing in new ideas to create successful tourism products from nothing. There is no better example of this than Zagreb, which a decade ago was not really rated as a major destination. How times change!
It is not only the new generation of visitors flocking to the Croatian capital – Zagreb was recently named the 5th most liked city in the world for digital nomads – but also the success the city has had in creating tourism at times of the year when none existed previously.
(Photo S. Kastelan)
Ten years ago, the concept of Advent in Croatia as a tourism spectacle hardly existed, and yet Advent in Zagreb grew into a global phenomenon, voted best European Christmas Market three years in a row. But for the pandemic, Advent would have become even more established.
And a second – and very innovative – Zagreb early Spring festival kicks off this week, adding plenty of life and colour to the city, a welcome breath of fresh air and hint of Spring and Summer, as the 4th edition of the Festival of Lights will take place from March 16 – 20, transforming some 30 locations all over the Upper and Lower Town into a myriad of colour and light.
(Photo D. Miloslavic)
Organised by the Zagreb Tourist Board and partners, the city will become a canvas of art by lighting, celebrating art, architecture, design, and outdoor entertainment. The festival will be evenly split between Upper (16 locations) and Lower Town (15 locations), with a total of 32 light attractions in all. Since its inception, the festival has been a part of the Festival of Lights International, along with the likes of New York and Berlin, and that international flavour will be represented by two visiting collaborations from Berlin and Sarajevo, a first for the festival.
(Photo M. Mihaljevic)
An interactive light sculpture called the Heart of Europe will be installed by guests from Sarajevo on European Square. Using 3D mapping, the Heart of Europe will monitor the rhythm of a heartbeat, allowing visitors to write or read their wishes for a better future using AI. Berlin authors will have two installations of Earth and Mars, both over 4m high, on Preradovic Square and Tkalciceva Street.
And the German capital will also be highlighting Zagreb culture, as the famous Berlin Festival of Lights will light up the Croatian National Theatre, Museum of Arts and Crafts, and the Mimara Museum with 3D mapping, representing the city’s historical and cultural heritage.
(Photo M. Mihaljevic)
One of the approaches I like about Zagreb’s approach to tourism is its sense of inclusiveness, bringing together different aspects of the city’s cultural life. For the first time, a theatre will take part in the Festival of Lights Zagreb, with the City Drama Theatre Gavella performing at the Observatory. The UNICEF Museum of Reality at the Zagreb Dance Centre is also worth a visit.
No winter event in Zagreb, it seems, can take place without a healthy aspect to it. The Advent Run, where participants run through the city’s streets dressed in festive costume, has become one of the hit attractions at Advent in Zagreb, and the Festival of Lights has its own equivalent, in what might be the world’s most translucent run. Prepare for a very colourful nighttime run with the themed Glow Run, which will take place at 22:00 on Saturday, March 19, starting on Marulic Square.
Zagreb has a strong tradition of celebrating strong women who have left their mark in Croatian history, and these too will be celebrated. Head to the Zagreb City Museum to see and hear the light-music attractions dedicated to Croatian opera divas, or to the walls of Strossmayer School in Varsavska Street, and see how many women you can recognise who left their imprint on Croatian cultural history.
(Photo S. Kastelan)
The amazing light shows will obviously mesmerise the little ones, but they can also enjoy their own light experiences, as three light playgrounds have been especially prepared for their entertainment – Dubravkin Put, Mazuranic Square, and to the east of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (HAZU).
Quite a programme. And the light celebrations start long before you reach the centre. Zagreb Tourist Board has organised a promotional deal with Croatia Airlines for those coming to the festival, and visitors to Zagreb Airport will be greeted by installations of flowers in two locations.
(Photo S. Kastelan)
It all starts on Wednesday, March 16 at 18:00 by the Croatian National Theatre. As has become the tradition, light performances will be performed nightly for 5 days, from 18:00 to 23:00, a wonderful chance to wander the enchanting streets of Zagreb and see them really full of life. Special attention has been paid to the issue of light pollution, hence the very specific timing per day.
And the best news is that entry to the festival is completely free of charge. You can learn much more about the festival, including a map of all the installations on the official website of the Festival.
It promises to be a very colourful event, as well as a fitting way to say farewell to winter. For soon the clocks will go forward, another hour of natural light, as the days get longer and we head into another magical Zagreb Spring and Summer season. But that is another story.
Winters can be long, but if you are in Zagreb, they can be very colourful and action-packed. To join the Facebook event, click here.
Not quite sure what to expect? Here is a little teaser from the official Festival of Lights Zagreb promo video, above.
And if you are interested to learn a little more about this magical capital city, check out the Total Croatia Zagreb in a Page guide.