Many people tend to associate their time off with warm-weather getaways, but there’s something enchanting about embracing the cold of winter too. Winter brings with it the enchantment of Christmas, the thrill of skiing down majestic mountains, and the romance of sleigh rides beneath the icy starry skies.
Not every European city is ideal for a winter visit, but some truly shine as the temperature drops. Let’s explore our list of the best places to visit in Europe during the winter and what makes each of them so special.
Throughout most of the year, Zermatt is a quiet village. However, in winter, it comes alive with skiers of all skill levels flocking to its 200-plus kilometers of ski slopes. Zermatt is a paradise for expert skiers, offering off-piste adventures and high-altitude ski stations reaching nearly 4,000 meters.
Non-skiers will discover plenty of activities to enjoy in Zermatt as well. If you’re interested in snowshoeing and winter hiking, Zermatt boasts ample sunshine during the colder months, making it ideal for a stroll in the wilderness. There are also opportunities for tobogganing and sledding, as well as guided hikes for those eager to explore less-traveled areas.
For an easy and scenic trail, consider the 2.2-kilometer walk from Blauherd to Fluhalp, where you can spot chamois grazing on the slopes and catch a glimpse of the Matterhorn in the distance.
Bregenz Forest is a haven for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing enthusiasts, much like Zermatt is for downhill skiing. With numerous kilometers of trails available, you’re likely to enjoy this winter wonderland with plenty of peace and solitude.
The clean air and clear skies make it an ideal destination for stargazing and nighttime walks. In fact, the region is renowned for its snowshoeing excursions through the forest on full moon nights, as well as the Damüls “cuddle path,” a romantic five-kilometer trail best experienced under the starlit sky.
Begin your journey at the Zum Glöckle public house, pass by charming wooden huts, and make your way toward the Alpe Unterdamüls hut. Although the hut is closed in winter, the nearby country inn and restaurant offer a perfect spot for sipping hot chocolate as you reach your destination. It’s a gentle walk on powdery snow illuminated by the boundless starry expanse.
The towns of Au and Bezau in Bregenz Forest provide easy access to ski trails, sledding, sleigh rides, and winter hiking. When you need a break from the cold, you’ll also find plenty of indoor activities, including museums, galleries, and artisan shops showcasing local craftsmanship.
Val Thorens, France
Nestled at an altitude of over 2,000 meters with 140 kilometers of ski slopes, Val Thorens stands as the highest and most renowned ski resort in Europe. The resort is surrounded by striking peaks and a vast snow-covered landscape as far as the eye can see – a breathtaking sight for sports enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.
For those seeking the beauty of the region without the adrenaline rush of skiing, Val Thorens offers a wide range of off-slope activities. From snowshoeing and winter hiking to more unconventional experiences like snow mountain biking or descending the mountain on France’s longest toboggan run, there’s something for everyone. You can even try your hand at ice driving or experience the thrill of Europe’s highest zipline, reaching speeds of over 100 kilometers per hour. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, dive into an ice diving experience and test your bravery to the fullest.
Iceland truly comes into its own during the winter season when its otherworldly landscapes are blanketed in endless stretches of icy blue. This land of perpetual glaciers offers unique adventures that you won’t find anywhere else in Europe.
In February, Reykjavik hosts the Winter Lights Festival, featuring mesmerizing light installations and a plethora of outdoor activities to celebrate the final month of winter and the approaching brighter days.
If you’re in need of warming up, Iceland is renowned for its numerous geothermal pools where you can relax in steaming hot water beneath the starry midnight sky.
Reykjavik also serves as an excellent starting point for exploring the rest of Iceland. From here, you can take a train or a short flight to other corners of the country, where you can engage in activities ranging from glacier hiking in Vatnajökull National Park to witnessing the Great Geyser, a 10,000-year-old natural wonder, in action.
Abisko is often hailed as the best place to witness the Northern Lights without breaking the bank. This is due to the village’s unique microclimate, which significantly increases your chances of catching the mesmerizing auroras compared to other Scandinavian destinations. As a result, shorter stays are often sufficient, making it more budget-friendly.
Abisko is a paradise for winter enthusiasts who want to experience cross-country skiing, sledding, snowmobiling, and winter hiking beneath the unending polar night.
Nearby, you’ll also find the world’s first ice hotel, where you can either spend a night in “cozy” -5-degree Celsius temperatures or simply take a guided tour to learn about its construction and history.
Hallstätt is nestled along the shores of Hallstätter See, surrounded by 12th-century fairytale churches and charming Alpine houses set against the backdrop of snow-capped Dachstein Mountains.
Although Hallstätt is enchanting throughout the year, it truly dazzles when covered in a blanket of snow and ice. For those up to the challenge, the best view of winter Hallstätt can be found from the Hallstatt Skywalk high above the town, although reaching it may be a bit tricky during the depths of winter.
For December travelers, Rovaniemi is the ultimate destination, considered the official home of Santa Claus. Situated just four kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, the Santa Claus Village feels like a blend of an amusement park and an Arctic wonderland.
The Rovaniemi area is a prime location for northern lights tours, with over 200 aurora borealis displays visible here annually, one of the highest numbers in Scandinavia.
Even if you miss the Northern Lights, Rovaniemi experiences a magical Polar Twilight (as opposed to Polar Night) during which the sun still rises for a few hours each day. During these months, the glistening, bluish snow blankets everything, adding a magical touch to both nature and buildings.
The Ounasvaara outdoor area surrounding the town is perfect for snowshoeing through snow-covered forests, while Ounaskoski beach is a popular spot for winter swimming beneath the midnight sun.
For indoor activities, Rovaniemi offers numerous icy attractions, including a snow restaurant, an ice hotel, ice slides, and castles, as well as the warmth of the Arktikum Science Museum.
Christmas markets are a quintessential European tradition, and few countries do them better than Germany. There’s something truly magical about the glow of holiday lights in a medieval town, especially with a light dusting of December snow. The Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, dating back to the 1500s, is renowned as one of the finest Christmas markets in Germany.
Here, over a hundred stalls offer a wide array of treasures, from the famous local “Rauschgoldengel” (gold-foil angel decorations) to traditional lebkuchen gingerbread, all set against the backdrop of historic buildings.
After a shopping spree, visitors can enjoy a holiday concert at the Lorenzkirche church, home to one of the world’s largest organs. Alternatively, take a stroll along cobblestone streets to Nuremberg Castle, then pay a visit to the city’s toy museum to learn about the centuries-old tradition of wooden toy craftsmanship.
Prague, Czech Republic
Winter blankets Prague with snow starting in early December, creating a picturesque scene with its church spires and red rooftops in the Old Town.
Known as the second-best destination for Christmas markets after Germany, Prague becomes vibrant and bustling in the latter half of December as visitors from across Europe gather for holiday festivities. February brings Masopust or carnival season to Prague, offering another fantastic reason to visit during the chilly months and witness a whimsical parade featuring giant puppets and elaborate costumes.
The city, beloved by Franz Kafka, exudes even more magic in winter, with ice-skating rinks popping up all over and medieval churches hosting classical music concerts to delight visitors.
If you seek refuge from the cold Prague evenings, you’ll find plenty of attractions to explore, including over 100 museums and galleries, an indoor aqua park, one of the world’s oldest libraries (the 12th-century Strahov Library), excellent shopping opportunities, and much more.
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Arriving in Bergen in January offers a magical experience that combines colorful snow-covered wooden buildings, breathtaking views of fjords enveloped in misty ice, and the chance to witness the northern lights dancing in the night sky.
Exploring Bergen’s charming harbor during the off-season, with its fairy-tale landscapes blanketed in snow, is a true delight. Enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and indulge in kanelboller, Norway’s version of a warm cinnamon roll at a waterside café. Then, take the funicular to the top of Mount Fløyen for a spectacular panoramic view of the entire city.
Fjord cruises operate throughout the winter, providing an unparalleled way to immerse yourself in the serene beauty of the fjords. The Bergen mountains offer ample opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. A popular winter hike, the five-hour trail from Mt. Ulriken to Mount Fløyen, is just on the outskirts of town.
During November and December, Bergen boasts the world’s largest “gingerbread town” within its city limits. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, you can explore Bergen’s deep connection to the sea at the Bergen Maritime Museum.
Venice may not be the first place that comes to mind for a winter destination, but it has its own unique charm during the colder months. Tourist crowds thin out, allowing you to wander the tranquil streets, Piazza San Marco, and canal bridges with a sense of solitude. Aim to visit before late January, as that’s when Carnevale begins, bringing back the crowds and higher prices.
Though Venice may not seem like a snowy destination, it can indeed receive snowfall, and its canals occasionally freeze in winter, casting a colorful reflection of lights on the icy surface.
Even when the canals aren’t frozen, you can still enjoy a romantic gondola ride, wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket as you glide through the misty waters. In December, Venice’s largest square transforms into a massive ice-skating rink.
While Paris often takes the spotlight as a romantic destination, there’s a charming French city on the border with Germany that exudes winter charm even better than the capital. Strasbourg borrows from its German neighbor to offer traditional Christmas markets, towering Christmas trees, and a dusting of snow as you explore the stalls with a cup of hot chocolate.
Strasbourg, with its half-timbered houses and picturesque canals, is a medieval town that captivates visitors in any season.
The city’s Franco-German influences are evident throughout, including in its cuisine. No visit to Strasbourg is complete without savoring an apple and cinnamon tartes flambées at a waterside café – a literal translation of “pie baked in the flames.”
Don’t let winter weather deter you from strolling the cobblestone streets of La Petite France, the city’s oldest and most photogenic section, where centuries-old houses once housed millers and fishermen.
In December, Strasbourg Cathedral, the 17th-century Barrage Vauban, and the Baroque Palais des Rohan adorn themselves with Christmas lights, creating a magical atmosphere. Even during the rest of the winter, these landmarks offer an inviting indoor escape.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
Cortina d’Ampezzo, located just a two-hour drive north of Venice and renowned as the host of the 1956 Winter Olympics, serves as a gateway to the Italian Dolomites and one of Italy’s top ski resorts. Situated near Lake Sorapis and the Tre Cime National Park, the town is also a high-end winter destination.
Cortina d’Ampezzo offers easy access to three skiing areas: Faloria Cristallo Mietres, Tofana, and Lagazuoi 5 Torri. Besides skiing, the town boasts excellent snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails in winter, along with an Olympic ice stadium for ice-skating and curling. Additionally, an international mushing dog sledding school allows visitors to take a short “driving” class, interact with the dogs, and enjoy a 30-minute husky-powered sled ride.
In December, the town transforms into a winter wonderland with a bustling Christmas market known for its hot chestnuts and charming wooden stalls selling handcrafted goods. Beyond the market, the sense of wonder continues throughout the town, with numerous 18th-century buildings and cozy cafés adorned with festive lights and decorations.
Compared to other Northern European cities, Denmark experiences milder winters, with snow typically arriving in January. This makes Copenhagen an ideal destination for city enthusiasts seeking to enjoy the winter magic with leisurely walks along the canals in Nyhavn or strolls along Kronprinsensgade, Copenhagen’s prime street for cafés and boutique shops.
Tivoli Gardens, one of Europe’s oldest amusement parks dating back to the 19th century, is a must-visit throughout the year. However, the park is particularly enchanting in winter when thousands of twinkling lights illuminate the ice and snow, creating a dazzling atmosphere.
Tivoli Gardens even has a dedicated Christmas season (running from mid-November to early January), featuring Santa Claus appearances, holiday-themed shows, and restaurants serving traditional European Christmas cuisine. In January and February, the park remains open, and the massive ice-skating rink takes center stage.
Aside from Tivoli Garden’s own Christmas market, you’ll discover large Christmas markets at King’s Square and Nyhavn, as well as one inside the city zoo.
When seeking refuge from the cold, explore Copenhagen’s numerous museums, many of which offer special winter exhibitions and shows.
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Compared to Western European capitals, Budapest offers a more budget-friendly and less crowded winter escape, making it an ideal Christmas destination for those looking to save. In December, the city hosts two main Christmas markets: one in Vörösmarty Square and the other at St. Stephen’s Basilica.
The Vörösmarty Square market is the larger of the two, featuring over 100 stalls offering a wide range of crafts, handmade chocolates, and the beloved Mézeskalács gingerbread. Daily live music performances add to the festive atmosphere, featuring Christmas music, jazz, blues, and traditional dance. The market in front of the basilica, though smaller, boasts a skating rink and a captivating light show with lasers illuminating the basilica’s façade.
Budapest is renowned for its thermal baths and hot springs, which are especially delightful during the freezing winter days. The Széchenyi Baths, the largest and most popular, offer a relaxing retreat, while the Gellért and Rudas baths impress with their stunning architectural features.
For those who prefer outdoor adventures, the City Park Ice Rink, one of Europe’s oldest skating rinks, provides an enchanting backdrop with the Vajdahunyad Castle in view. Alternatively, embark on a cruise along the Danube River to enjoy breathtaking vistas of UNESCO World Heritage sites.