7 European cities that are even better in winter

Jessica Baldwin

Jessica Baldwin

Forget hibernating at home, winter is the perfect time for a European city break. Not only are many of the continent's cities dressed to the nines in the run-up to Christmas, but they're also refreshingly crowd-free and, if you time it right, you'll get far more bang for your buck too.

Find out which are the best European cities to visit in winter
Find out which are the best European cities to visit in winter © Igor Sokolov - Adobe Stock Image

With packed calendars featuring winter festivals, Christmas markets and New Year festivities, the only problem you'll have is how to cram everything in.

From misty mornings leisurely gallery-hopping in Venice to mastering the Danish art of "hygge" in cosy Copenhagen, here are some of our favourite European cities best explored in winter.

Tallinn, Estonia

Cocooned by medieval walls, neatly strung with ancient towers, the Baltic beauty of Tallinn*'s UNESCO-listed Old Town is a bewitching tangle of cobbled courtyards, gothic façades and fairy-tale turrets.

Just when you think it can't get any prettier, winter arrives, transforming the city into a scene worthy of a snow globe. Come December, the brooding town hall is surrounded by light-strewn cabins piled high with hand-knitted woollies and sweet festive treats.

Magical Tallinn, Estonia
Magical Tallinn, Estonia © Grigory Bruev - Adobe Stock Image

At its heart, you'll find a towering spruce, so big it takes 3 km of lights to do it justice, a familiar yuletide sight since 1441, locals claim this was the continent's first-ever public Christmas tree.

The lively market may be a riot of dancing troupes and carol singers, but Santa steals the show each year, rolling in on his sleigh as night descends.

Climate in Tallinn

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Copenhagen, Denmark

Oozing Scandi cool and packed with quirky cultural attractions, picturesque Copenhagen* makes for an action-packed city break, whatever the weather.

In summer, join locals swimming in the Harbour Baths, strolling flower-fringed streets and perusing buzzy markets. But in winter, a visit here is all about seeking out "hygge" (loosely translated as cosiness).

As the frost takes hold, you'll find it in candlelit cafés, world-class museums, Michelin-starred restaurants and on wintery walks along icy waterways with a steaming Danish pastry in hand.

For all-singing-all-dancing merriment, a visit to Tivoli Gardens is in order. By late November, the world's second-oldest amusement park is bejewelled with 70,000 gleaming baubles and 1,000 twinkling Christmas trees.

Climate in Copenhagen

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Bolzano, Italy

Nestled into a scenic alpine basin, pastel-painted Bolzano* has it all; splendid architecture, magnificent scenery and a rich history; it even has its own 5,300-year-old iceman, Ötzi.

Scenic Brixen, north of Bolzano
Scenic Brixen, north of Bolzano © Paolo Maria Airenti - Adobe Stock Image

Found close to the Austrian border, the South Tyrolean city is a vibrant melting pot of languages, traditions and tastes.

Each year, around a million tourists flock to Italy's undisputed "Capital of Christmas", greeted by colourful murals, glorious Belle Époque buildings and spangling market stalls, bursting at the rafters with authentic mountain delicacies like smoky speck and fruit-laden zelten cake.

Lose the crowds by hopping on the city's cable car, for a bird's-eye view of the seasonal spectacle as the sound of barrel organs and folk songs echo up the mountainside.

Climate in Bolzano

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Bruges, Belgium

There's a reason Bruges* is Belgium's most sought-after city break: it's pinch-me pretty! Laced with colourful canals, its looming spires and glorious gables soar high above Europe's best-preserved medieval city.

It's also the undisputed capital of comfort food; think handmade Belgian chocolates, fluffy waffles and the world's best fries (they are so good, the city has a museum dedicated to the humble chip!).

The city's magic is elevated come Christmas, when Winter Glow takes over, bringing with it an ice rink, two Christmas markets and a fantastical light trail which snakes its way through the Old Town all the way to the Lake of Love. Nippy? Warm up with one of the world's finest hot chocolates.

Climate in Bruges

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Salzburg, Austria

Bypass the razzmatazz of Vienna and head to the real Austrian "City of Music": Salzburg*. Singing nuns of Sound of Music aside, this enchanting city is packed with pomp; think grand parks, grandiose palaces and a UNESCO-listed Old Town seemingly frozen in time.

Snowdusted Hohensalzburg Castle, Salzburg
Snowdusted Hohensalzburg Castle, Salzburg © Utamaria - Adobe Stock Image

This jumble of joy is all watched over by one of Europe's biggest castles. Whilst its acclaimed arts festival lures in culture vultures seeking world-class opera and theatre each summer, Advent sees spectacularly beautiful Christmas markets spring up in the city's ancient squares.

If you only visit one, make it Salzburg Christkindlmarkt at the Dom and Residenzplatz. One of the world's oldest Christmas markets, it sells everything from sparkly trinkets and handmade wreaths to fur-lined slippers.

Climate in Salzburg

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London, England

When you think of Christmas in London*, it's often Oxford Street's lights and Covent Garden's carols that spring to mind. But festive cheer hides in every nook and cranny of this Dickensian city.

As frost glistens on the city's ancient cobbles and winter mist engulfs the mighty Thames, royal palaces transform into gleaming ice rinks, boutiques become magical grottoes and Bavarian-style cabins festooned in twinkling lights fill the city's handsome Georgian squares.

But, in true British fashion, there's plenty of eccentricity to compliment the seasonal pomp, from the blue-lipped swimmers competing in Hyde Park's historic Peter Pan Cup to the stampede of cherry-cheeked Santas who sprint through the city's leafy parks in the run-up to the big day.

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Venice, Italy

Being one of the most beautiful cities in the world comes at a price, namely shoulder-crushing crowds and eye-wateringly high prices. But visit Venice* in winter and you'll find this labyrinthine floating city free of its usual tourist thrum.

Sip in style at Caffè Florian
Sip in style at Caffè Florian © Mark Dunn - Alamy Stock Photo

As winter sets in, the lookie-loos are replaced by locals, sauntering past Grand Canal, heavy in a spectral mist, the glittering frost adding even more pazazz to the city's palaces.

Plus, as the temperature plummets; so do the prices. Revel in peace at the neck-creakingly beautiful frescoes and world-famous artworks, pop to Murano to stock up on their famous glass baubles and then celebrate your win in style at glamorous Caffè Florian; well, if it's good enough for Charles Dickens.

For festive fun, join the Venetians at a Christmas concert or pull on your skates and hit the ice at Campo San Polo.

Climate in Venice

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Jessica Baldwin

Jessica Baldwin

Posted on Thursday 21st December 2023 in: City Europe Season

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