The winter months are a great time to visit European cities. Some, apart from the Christmas market rush, are surprisingly crowd free and inexpensive during the colder months. Unlike other seasons, winter can completely transform a city and make it a very different place to visit than at other times of the year.
Winter brings with it some important dates and celebrations, like Christmas and New Year’s Eve, allowing you to experience the cultures and traditions of cities that you’d never otherwise see. Let’s take a look at the best winter destinations in Europe and what makes each one so special.
Tallinn, a snow-covered, gothic fairy-tale and the capital of Estonia, is one of the ultimate winter cities. This walled city on the Baltic Sea is the country’s cultural hub, with contrasts of modern and medieval. Walk through the cobbled Old Town where streets lined with candles light up the darkest time of the year. Skate on the outdoor ice rink before warming up in a cosy café with a coffee or mulled wine, then stroll through the Christmas market for boutique Estonian handicrafts.
Budapest is one of the best city breaks in winter. Visit in December and it’s a feast for the senses, with streets dripping with Christmas decorations, the sound of lively bands and the smell of goulash and mulled wine helping to get you into a festive mood. Visit Buda Castle for a taste of Christmas on a grand scale and attend a Christmas concert at Matthias ChAt otherurch. During the other winter months, if you’re brave enough to strip off in the cold air, soak in the Széchenyi Baths – the thermal waters are the perfect place to relax after a few days roaming the city streets, and they’re particularly atmospheric if you get there first thing in the morning to watch the steam rise in the early dawn light.
Salzburgh in winter is absolutely stunning and in December it’s home to some of the best Christmas markets in Europe. The birthplace of Mozart and the setting of The Sound of Music, the city resembles a fairy-tale village, complete with a castle on a hill. A blend of different architectural styles, it’s considered the Baroque jewel of the Austrian Alps. One of the most famous Christmas carols in the world originated just outside of Salzburg, and there’s no better time than December to learn the local story. On a cold winters’ day, pay a visit to Cafe Tomaselli, Mozart’s favourite café, to sip a very welcome hot chocolate.
With its Baroque architecture, cobbled lanes and stylish boutiques, Prague is a brilliant location for a city break at any time of year, but it feels particularly special in winter. Go during the festive season and relive your favourite traditions from childhood. Visit the Old Town quarter where you’ll find a large nativity scene and a live animal petting zoo, just a stone’s throw from market huts selling everything from hot wine and hearty food to Christmas decorations and handcrafted gifts. Prague is also a fabulous destination if you want to experience opera or ballet, this winter you could find yourself watching Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Tosca.
Switzerland’s biggest city, Zurich enjoys a glorious lakeside setting and with its atmospheric old town and small individual shops is the perfect place to enjoy a winter break. From late November, various Christmas markets take place across the city including an indoor market in the impressive railway station hall. Here a 50ft Christmas tree, decorated with 5,000 Swarovski Crystal ornaments, towers over 160 wooden chalets selling gifts, crafts, food and drink. For those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle, what better way to spend a winters day than with a bit of spa therapy and a soak in the warm waters of the Thermalbad & Spa Zurich. Housed in the vaulted cellars of a former brewery, the Irish-Roman baths are fabulous, but the best part are the amazing views from their rooftop pool!
The capital city of Croatia is a great location to enjoy a winter break. Visitors will find a city centre laden with cafes, museums, galleries and often street musicians. If you don’t fancy strolling around in the nippy winter climate, Zagreb has trams running. Just outside the city is Mount Medvednica. If the weather permits, there is skiing here in the winter but it’s also an excellent location for hiking.
There’s nowhere better visit than Copenhagen in winter if you fancy wrapping up warmly, slowing things down and enjoying a long, hearty meal beneath the soft flicker of candlelight. Visit Nyhavn to snap a photograph of the colourful houses (and walk down Magstræde for a truly instagram-worthy spot) and continue your way around the city as you sample a smorgasbord of Danish pastries. And, seeing as Denmark has the oldest monarchy in the world, there are plenty of fairytale castles and royal art treasures to unearth. Pay a visit to Rosenborg Castle and explore the hallways of a grand old building that has been home to many royal inhabitants in the past, marvelling at the life-size silver lions and the glistening crown jewels.
If it’s full-on winter fairy-tale charm you’re looking for, Bruges is a top contender for the best location. Wrap yourselves up in thick coats and scarves, and wander around the picturesque cobbled streets. Bruges’ popularity is no secret, so it gets busy at Christmas, but in November you’ll find it less crowded – making it perfect to explore its mix of grand old buildings, bars and cafes. There are three things any visitor absolutely must do when in Bruges – sample some of the city’s own-brewed beer and chocolate and walk the 366 steps of the Belfort Tower. The view from the top is breathtaking.