Holiday markets and twinkling lights are calling you to these European destinations.
The draw to Europe in the summer may be strong, but winter tends to be even better — particularly for travelers who don’t fare well in the heat or in large crowds. Apart from the peak holiday season, most cities in Europe tend to free up from tourists during the winter. “For me, traveling around Europe in the off-season, and specifically during winter, opens a whole new world of travel,” says Kayla Zeigler, owner of Destination Europe, LLC. “Way less crowds, lower hotel pricing, cooler weather… and more space to roam and take in all that Europe has to offer.”
Before embarking on your trip, however, there are a few things to be aware of. “Days get shorter during the winter season, which means less daylight for sightseeing. I recommend planning your activities accordingly and being mindful of opening and closing times for attractions and shops,” says Lydia Forte, group director of food and beverage at Rocco Forte Hotels. Weather-wise, your packing list and itinerary will depend on where you’re going. The temperatures in Nordic and Central European cities can reach well below freezing — allowing for picturesque snowy scenes and excellent skiing — while Southern Europe (which includes Croatia, Italy, Portugal, and Malta) promises more sunshine and moderate temperatures.
Kayla Zeigler owns Destination Europe, a travel agency that specializes in European vacations.
Lydia Forte is the group director of food and beverage at Rocco Forte Hotels, a luxury hotel brand with over a dozen properties across Europe.
Susan Boehnstedt is president of Critics Choice Vacations, an affiliate of Montecito Village Travel, a Virtuoso agency.
Tesa Totengco is the founder of Travels with Tesa and a member of Travel + Leisure’s Travel Advisory Board.
According to Susan Boehnstedt, president of Critics Choice Vacations, you’ll want to start thinking about your trip as soon as possible. “Weather and delays are always possible… [so] additional planning, patience, and perseverance may be required.” That said, the first step in the process is picking out where you want to go — whether you’re interested in Edinburgh’s Christmas markets, Vienna’s opulent balls, or pleasant walks along Las Ramblas in Barcelona.
Read on to discover 20 of the best European cities to visit in the winter, according to travel experts.
Boehnstedt recommends heading to Nuremberg for the “amazing Christmas markets, musical festivals, and overall festive spirit and atmosphere in the charm of Bavaria.” It will be cold, so travelers should bundle up to explore the charming city — a glass of mulled wine while browsing the famed Christkindlesmarkt, one of Germany’s oldest fairs, helps, too.
“Istanbul's unique blend of history, culture, and stunning architecture is enchanting year-round. In winter, you can explore iconic landmarks like the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with fewer crowds,” says Tesa Totengco, founder of Travels with Tesa.
“As Christmas approaches, London transforms into a winter wonderland, adorned with captivating city lights, beautifully decorated shops, and many excellent dining choices,” says Forte. Enjoy an afternoon walking through the brightly lit Kew Gardens, or tuck into a Sunday roast at one of the nearby pubs after a long walk through Hampstead Heath. “The weather, while cold, usually is snow-free, so it makes it easier to get about,” adds Boehnstedt.
“If you like moody skies and cozy corners in coffee shops, Edinburgh is the place to visit during the winter months,” says Zeigler. Expect cold weather and shorter days — the sun sets before 4 p.m. in December — but there’s still plenty to enjoy in the Scottish capital. “Keep warm with a wee dram, cozied up next to a roaring fire in any of Edinburgh’s iconic luxury hotels,” says Zeigler.
Snow-capped mountains and excursions requiring multiple layers aren’t for everyone. Thankfully, Europe has other options — one of which is Valletta, Malta. “Malta boasts a mild Mediterranean climate, even in winter. You can explore [Valletta’s] rich history, architecture, and vibrant culture without the scorching summer heat,” says Totengco.
A winter’s day in Bath is best spent browsing its various quaint bookstores, indulging in afternoon tea, soaking in the famed waters of the Thermae Bath Spa, and popping into one of the city’s oldest pubs, Saracens Head or The Star Inn. For a more festive touch, add ice skating at Royal Victoria Park and picking up gifts at the Bath Christmas Market to your day’s activities.
It’s true what they say: There’s never a bad time to visit Paris. As fall transitions into the colder months, the City of Light becomes extra cozy and even more romantic. “The museums are empty and are amazing places to have to yourself on a rainy or chilly day. Paris’ famous street cafés are still functioning in winter… with heat lamps and warm furry blankets — perfect for people watching and sipping a glass of wine (or a hot chocolate),” says Zeigler. “And, of course, the lower hotel prices can’t be beat this time of year.”
Given its status as a UNESCO World Heritage City, it’s no surprise that Dubrovnik is popular with tourists, especially in the summer. In the winter, though, you won’t have to fight for the best views of the iconic sights — the City Walls, the Cable Car, and the Dubrovnik Cathedral. Your trip may also fall during the Dubrovnik Winter Festival, featuring concerts, festive lights, and markets.
Winter is the ideal time to visit the “official hometown of Santa Claus.” “Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland, is known for its Santa Claus Village, where one can meet Santa Claus himself. Here, you can also enjoy activities like reindeer safaris, dog sledding, and witnessing the northern lights from your unique igloo accommodation,” says Totengco.
“Located on the Costa del Sol, Málaga offers a pleasant climate where you can still enjoy outdoor activities, explore historic sites like the Alcazaba, [visit the] neighboring towns of Ronda and Seville, and enjoy delicious Spanish cuisine in a relaxed atmosphere,” says Totengco. Temperatures typically range from the mid-50s to low 70s, and there the sun provides a much-needed dose of vitamin D.
You’ll only have a few hours of daylight in Reykjavík this time of year, but winter is also your best chance to see the northern lights in Iceland. Consider taking a boat tour out of Reykjavík Old Harbor, or use the city as your base camp before heading off on a longer excursion. To shake the cold, take a dip in the nearby Sky Lagoon, where the waters are typically around 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rome’s peak season comes to a close in November, so travelers have December through March to enjoy the capital city’s quieter side. Before or after a day of shopping and sightseeing, Forte recommends grabbing pizza from Emma or getting a table at Roscioli for lunch. We think pasta and pizza sound like the perfect way to warm up from a chilly walk.
As temperatures fall below freezing, the cities and towns in the Swiss Alps — like Lucerne — beckon to winter sports enthusiasts, as well as those who want an extra large helping of alpine charm. “Snow sports in the mountains may likely be very possible. Plan a day tour on one of the Swiss scenic trains across the winter wonderland,” says Boehnstedt. Lucerne is also a great option for international travelers, as it’s just a quick 40-minute train ride from Zurich.
Lisbon’s sunshine is part of its appeal, even in the winter. Depending on the day, you may only need a light or medium-weight jacket as you walk up and down the many hills, through the cobbled streets, and by the tiled buildings of the Alfama district. Compared to summer, this time of year is significantly more pleasant for on-foot exploration — but don’t forget to hop on a yellow tram at least once or twice.
According to Zeigler, in Barcelona, “one of Europe’s largest and busiest cruise port cities,” winter means getting a break from the crowds created by cruises. “Imagine walking directly into the Sagrada Familia with no long line! Strolling and exploring are more pleasant; restaurants are less crowded,” she says. Outdoor swimming may be a no-go, but travelers can still bask in the rays along the oceanfront promenade.
“On a sunny winter day, Venice is pure magic! With the city's new floodgates almost fully working now, hardly any high water (Aqua Alta) affects Venice anymore,” says Zeigler. And, as with most European cities in the off-season, it will be easier to navigate your way through the compact city without the staggering number of summer travelers. “Winter is the perfect time to visit the big sites, as you can get tickets and don’t have to do the ridiculous queues,” says Forte. Check off all the classics, including the Piazza San Marco, the Bridge of Signs, Doge's Palace, and Forte’s personal favorite, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Amsterdam might not be the first European destination you think of when planning winter travel, but it has its own brand of magic this time of year. “When it stays cold enough, long enough, the many canals of Amsterdam become a giant outdoor skating rink,” says Zeigler. This event is rare — and becoming increasingly so — but there are other sides of Amsterdam to explore as well. Bring a book or a good friend to one of the city’s many coffee shops and pubs, complete with “winter lights and cozy nooks,” she adds.
You won’t be frequenting Nice’s beach clubs this time of year, but there’s still beauty to be found in the waterfront city; you just have to know where to look. Get your steps in by walking up Castle Hill, a feat rewarded with an incredible view, or spend a day meandering through the narrow streets of Old Town. Schedule permitting, take a day trip to Monaco, or explore one of the many small towns in the French Riviera.
Those visiting Florence in the winter might not see any snow, but they’ll have the gift of lower hotel prices, fewer fellow travelers, and the option to go truffle hunting. “This time of year is when truffles are in season,” says Forte, who shares that guests of Hotel Savoy — named one of the best hotels in Florence by T+L readers — can book a truffle excursion via a vintage car. “The experience is especially extraordinary as guests can enjoy stunning views of the Ponte Vecchio, Piazzale Michelangelo, and San Miniato along their drive before heading into the Tuscan hills on their search for truffles,” she explains.
Get out your dancing shoes and black-tie attire: Winter is ball season in Vienna. Viennese balls are open to the public, so travelers just have to find one that aligns with their trip and buy tickets — and don’t worry, there are quite a few to choose from. Not sure where to start? Bookmark the Vienna Philharmonic Ball in January, or the Vienna State Opera Ball in February.
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