Traditional Croatian culture is characterised by exceptional diversity. Ecological conditions and the influences of the cultures with which the Croats have come into contact through history (Mediterranean, Central European, Ancient Balkan, Oriental, etc.), have resulted in the development of three regional modalities of Croatian traditional culture, that is, three specific regional cultures: Pannonian, Dinaric and Adriatic.
The Pannonian cultural zone has been characterised by the growing of grain, flax and hemp, and breeding larger domestic animals (horses, cattle). The people lived in thatched single-storey houses made of wood or mud and wattle (in the west), or of compacted clay or unfired bricks (in the east), with straw roofs. Along the rivers Kupa and Sava, two-storey houses were prevalent, the successors to pile-dwellings. Furniture was tall. Home crafts that were particularly developed included weaving on a horizontal loom and pottery using a foot-turned wheel. One particularly interesting form of artistic expression was the decoration of gourds. Clothes were made from densely smocked cloth with richly woven or embroidered decoration, and topped off with broadcloth or leather jerkins, wide broadcloth capes or sheepskin coats and broad soft-soled shoes (kapičari), or boots. Women wore necklaces made of coral or glass beads and, in Slavonia, of gold coins. Annual processions of young people through the village on feast days, collecting gifts, were common (jurjaši on St George's Day, kraljice or ljelje at Pentecost, ladarice on Midsummer's Day, betlehemari on Christmas Eve, etc.), as were lavish wedding customs.
Music and dance traditions also varied greatly. In Međimurje, there was a specific form of unison singing based on medieval scales (known as the Old Church style), and the instruments played were the bordun zither, cimbalom and violin, to which couples would dance (the influence of the Alpine zone). The most famous dance in northwest and central Croatia was the drmeš, danced in pairs or small circles to the music of a string ensemble known as guci. Reel dancing was characteristic in Slavonia and Baranja, accompanied by gajde (bagpipes), which by the 20th century had been virtually replaced by the tambura (a stringed instrument).
Gingerbread, a colourfully decorated confection traditionally produced in northern Croatia, usually in the shape of a heart. Gingerbread-makers also make mead and beeswax products. Their craft is inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In the Dinaric cultural zone (highland Croatia and the Dalmatian hinterland), sheep and goat breeding was dominant. Shepherds spent the summers in the mountains with large flocks of sheep, and moved them to the coastal areas in winter, using mobile pens and huts (transhumant pastoralism). In Alpine regions, families would move their flocks in spring from the villages in the valleys to high dwellings, where they worked in the meadows and hayfields, then in the summer months to the mountain pastures. In the autumn, they would gather the meadow produce and return to the villages before winter set in. In highland Croatia, houses were mostly made of wood, often with a stone ground floor section, and the tall, steep roofs were covered in wooden slats. Furniture was low. Home crafts included spinning and weaving woollen fabrics for soft furnishings and clothes, producing rolled broadcloth in mills powered by water, and pottery using a hand-turned wheel. Shepherds were particularly skilled in woodcarving. Women's costumes consisted of cloth blouses, simply cut, with characteristic geometric embroidery on the breast and edges of the sleeves, woollen pinafores and long, broadcloth jackets known as zobun. Men wore narrow broadcloth trousers and jackets in three layers over a shirt, a wide leather belt and several layers of woollen socks decorated with scraps of broadcloth. Girls and men wore low, red, broadcloth caps, while married women covered their heads with white kerchiefs. Light, woven soft-soled shoes were worn on the feet. Clothes for special occasions were supplemented by large amounts of silver jewellery, and men often carried engraved weapons. Social life included specific forms of non-blood kinship (fraternities, godparents, etc.). The musical tradition was characterised by a specific type of singing, ojkanje, which emerged as a refrain in various types of short song (rozgalice, vojkavice, treskavice) and is related to rera and ganga which emerged later. Longer narrative songs describing heroic deeds were performed by guslari, who accompanied their own singing on gusle, single-stringed instruments played with a bow. The typical dance was the nijemo kolo (Silent Circle Dance – also called the Vrlika, Lika or Sinj Circle Dance), which was performed in large steps and leaps with no instrumental accompaniment.
Lace, a netted, ornamental handicraft made from various fibres, at first used to decorate clothes, and later as an ornament in itself. In Croatia, needle-lace is produce on the island of Pag, bobbin-lace in Lepoglava in Hrvatsko Zagorje, and aloe lace on the island of Hvar. All have been inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
In the Adriatic cultural zone, the population was engaged in fishing and cultivating olives, vines, figs and almonds and rearing sheep and goats. They grew vegetables and, to a lesser extent, grains on small terraced meadows. They also used wild plants such as broom (for yarn) and carob. Shipping and trade were also important. Their houses were made of stone, usually tall, narrow buildings roofed with cylindrical tiles or split limestone slates. They had open hearths equipped with range-hoods and typically Mediterranean utensils (gridirons, chains, bellows). Their costumes developed from their urban milieus. Men's costumes were characterised by typical Mediterranean components such as wide trousers, gathered at the waist, short stockings and cylindrical woollen caps. Women's costumes comprised cloth blouses over which bell-shaped broadcloth skirts with shoulder straps were worn, encircled by woollen or silk belts. They preferred jewellery made of precious metals, complemented with coral or pearls, often in the form of filigree work. At Christmas and New Year's Day, it was customary to process through the streets, greeting the neighbours with songs and collecting gifts (koledanje), and Carnival customs were widespread. Klapa singing is considered to be a particular characteristic of Dalmatian folk music – multi-part singing in small groups, klape, with no instrumental accompaniment. Rural dances (the linđo and poskočica) were accompanied by lijerica, three-stringed bowed instruments, while in the towns dances such as the šotić and kvadrilja were accompanied by guitars or mandolins. The traditional music of Istria and Hrvatsko Primorje were characterised by chromatic scales (the best known is the Istrian Scale), upon which songs and music played on sopele, or roženice (woodwind instruments with piercing tones) were based. Often two such instruments were played, one large and one small, producing two-toned close intervals or unison sounds, and ending in octaves. The same two-toned effect was mirrored in singing performed by several singers. The balun and tanac were danced to the accompaniment of the sopela.
In the early 20th century, 80% of the population of Croatia was rural, and to a great extent continued to live along traditional patterns. Although traditional culture began to disappear in the late 19th century, affected by modernisation and urbanisation, this process accelerated in the mid-20th century. Many elements of traditional culture continue today in changed forms and new contexts, and have gained new significance, while some have come to denote national, regional or local identity. These include, for example, the Carnival procession of the bellmen (zvončari) in the Kastav area, performances of a military dance with swords (moreška) in the town of Korčula, the custom called kumpanija in the villages of Korčula, the annual Pentecost procession of the kraljice, or ljelje, in Slavonia and Srijem, the knights' tournament known as the Sinjska Alka, and many others. Traditional music, songs and dances are most often performed at folklore festivals or during various ceremonial events, when the performers usually dress in folk costumes. The best known such events are the Zagreb International Folklore Festival, the Vinkovci Autumn Festival, the Đakovački Vezovi and the Dalmatian Klapa Festival in Omiš. Along with many amateur folklore societies, the professional Lado Ensemble (founded in 1949) is particularly dedicated to nurturing the Croatian folk tradition and performs folk dances and songs.
Croatia has 18 cultural elements inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage:
- two-part singing and playing in the Istrian scale (Istria and Hrvatsko Primorje)
- the Festival of St Blaise, patron saint of Dubrovnik (3 February)
- the annual spring procession of the kraljice or ljelje from Gorjani
- the annual Carnival procession of the Kastav bellmen
- the Za Križen procession on the island of Hvar (Holy Week)
- traditional manufacturing of children's wooden toys in the region of Hrvatsko Zagorje
- the Sinjska Alka, a knights' tournament in Sinj
- the gingerbread craft in northern Croatia
- Bećarac singing and playing from Slavonia, Baranja and Srijem
- the Nijemo Kolo (Silent Circle Dance) of the Dalmatian hinterland
- Klapa singing
- Mediterranean diet in the Croatian Adriatic region, its coast, islands and part of its hinterland
- Međimurska Popevka, a folksong from the Međimurje region
- the art of dry stone walling, knowledge and techniques
Ojkanje singing has been inscribed on the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
The Batana Ecomuseum Project in Rovinj has been inscribed on the UNESCO Register of Good Safeguarding Practices.