Seasoned travelers to the Mediterranean know that the off-season can be as rewarding and enjoyable as the peak tourist months -- perhaps even more so, if you prefer smaller crowds and cooler temperatures. Croatia is especially accessible and welcoming in the off-season.
Where are the best places to visit in Croatia from December to March? Here's a rundown of some of the sights and events you won't want to miss.
The cultural center and capital city of Croatia, Zagreb has art, music and dance events scheduled throughout the year. Whenever you schedule your visit, you'll be able to marvel at the Zagreb Cathedral and tour the Archeological Museum.
If you're the type to start playing carols before Thanksgiving and can't wait to decorate the tree, Zagreb's Christmas Market is a must-see destination. The market, voted the "best" in Europe, fills the streets of Zagreb with crafts, gifts, food and wine in a festive display for the holidays. As you wander the cobblestone streets, you'll likely be able to take in a folk band or troupe of singers as you sample wines and gingerbread.
You'll also want to stop by the Tunel Gric, an old World War II bunker that's normally set up with a presentation on Croatian history. But during December, it turns into a Christmas-themed display with 3D installations on the ceilings and colorful light shows on the walls.
Zagreb is a cultural capital, and it boasts several art museums. But amongst the more traditional galleries sit a pair of small but unique stops: The Museum of Broken Relationships and the Croatian Museum of Naive Art. The Museum of Broken Relationships is open only on weekends and houses a collection of sentimental objects donated by people who had to end marriages and partnerships, along with the story of each. The Museum of Naive Art showcases works by rural residents that tell the story of small-town life in Croatia. The two museums are located directly across from each other, near St. Mark's Church.
Just outside Zagreb, Medvednica mountain has a winter sports center with a chairlift and two T-bar lifts for skiiers. A 1960s gondola lift with views of the mountain promises to begin operation again in 2018 after a hiatus to rebuild and modernize the lift.
Known as "Little Vienna," Varaždin is set in the northern Croatian mountains that was once the nation's capital. The old town is easy to walk and beautiful any time of year.
Varaždin Castle and Museum
This white fortress on the edge of Varaždin was first built in the 14th century, then added to and reconstructed until it took its current form in the Renaissance period. Today, it also houses the city's museum, so you can tour the fortress and see a collection of artifacts, artworks and glass related to Varaždin's history and laid out so it shows you what life in the castle was like. The castle closes early on many afternoons in the off-season, so call ahead for a current schedule.
As a university town, Varaždin's bars and restaurants don't completely shut down as they might in more tourist-oriented cities. You'll be able to sample some of the region's excellent wines as well as order traditional Croatian dishes. Game, poultry, vegetables and especially cabbage are all part of the city's gastronomical heritage.
World of Insects
If you're interested in entomology, the World of Insects collection in Hercer Palace has one of the largest and most varied displays in Europe. The professor who donated the display also gave a lot of his notes and tools that are incorporated in the presentation.
As the longest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, Zadar has a long history. Several churches around the city are open throughout the year so you can tour and appreciate the varied architecture and art. There are also cultural events scheduled all year long.
Dir Po Gradu
Dir po gradu, or "rambling through the city," is a series of events coming after St. Chrysogonus Day in late November that run through mid-January. The goal is to get residents to come out to the shops, restaurants and bars, but you can take advantage of the special dishes, discounts and cultural events that mark the time.
Pasman Island near Zadar hosts a competition in early March where locals climb, jump and make their way however they can over rocky terrain. Skraping comes from "škrapa," which means "sharp rocks." Just watching can get your adrenaline pumping; then you'll be able to celebrate with the locals post-event.
The sea organ in Zadar is a unique destination sure to fascinate you with its hypnotizing, harmonic melodies. The aquatic music is produced by sea waves interacting with a series of narrow channels connected to 35 organ pipes. Each intriguing pipe is tuned to a unique musical chord. The pipes are situated under beautifully stunning marble steps.
This is also a terrific attractions for families and children year-round where you can all enjoy sitting on those steps as you take in the breathtaking island scenery.
Split is the second-largest city in Croatia and the biggest on the Adriatic Sea. During the summer months, it's generally packed with tourists, but it calms down during the off-season.
Advent in Split
From late November to early January, residents celebrate the season with an outdoor market, food and wine and holiday-themed concerts. Advent in Split is held on the grounds of Diocletian's Palace, the one-time residence of the Roman Emperor that's the best preserved Roman palace outside Italy. (While you're at it, tour the excavation in the basement of the palace during open hours, and stop by the St. Duje's Cathedral that was originally built as a mausoleum for the Emperor in the third century.)
If you're a runner seeking a different location to stretch your legs, Split hosts a half-marathon every February. With a gorgeous route that runs through the Marjan peninsula and along the coast before coming back into the town, this setting will appeal to even casual joggers.
Traditionally, Dubrovnik was a sea port and relied on maritime trade as a backbone of its economy. Today, tourism is this Adriatic Sea city's main industry, so it does get a bit quiet in the winter.
Dubrovnik Winter Festival
In December and early January, residents of Dubrovnik celebrate the holidays with a market and beautiful holiday lighting. They also include a grand New Year's party with three days of concerts, highlighted by the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra's great performance on New Year's Day.
Game of Thrones Tours
Fans of the series can tour all the locations in and around Dubrovnik where episodes are filmed. Spots include Mineeta Tower at the city's highest point, which was the setting of the House of the Undying in the show. The Trsteno Arboretum just outside Dubrovnik is where palace garden scenes were filmed. You may need to hire a guide for a private tour as the larger tours are usually held only in the summer.
If you are interested in learning more about Croatia, be sure to download our A Tour of Croatia eBook!