There are warm-weather devotees among us to quick to pass on a visit to Europe in winter, instead waiting for the sunkissed summer season. But we’re for embracing the colder weather and making the most of the chillier months. A 20-degree-Fahrenheit day in Europe can be, dare we say, blissful—and certainly beautiful. Some cities, beyond the Christmas market rush, are refreshingly crowd-free and inexpensive during the colder months, and they offer cozy experiences well worth traveling for. (Seriously, how good does a real hot chocolate in a riverside Belgian café sound right now?)
While we’ll be putting our international travel plans on hold this year, these photos of Europe in winter have us preparing for 2021. Read on for 21 European cities—and a few villages, if we’re getting technical—that we think are best when the temperature drops.
This gallery was last published in December 2019. It has been updated with new information.
GettyViennaVienna was voted the best city in Europe in this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards—a title that holds true no matter the season. But we’re particularly fond of the Austrian capital in the winter, when you can double down on hot chocolate and sachertorte, a local chocolate cake, watch free outdoor simulcasts of the opera (loads of people attend, even when it’s freezing), listen to classical holiday concerts, and snap photos of Schönbrunn Palace and St. Charles Church (pictured), covered in snow.
GettyBergen, NorwayBergen has all the makings of an idyllic Nordic village: colorful wooden buildings, a scenic harbor, and sweeping views of the surrounding fjords. The town looks beautiful in the summer, sure, but it’s during the winter months that you get to view the Northern Lights during their peak season. If you’re going to be freezing up in Scandinavia, you might as well get to cross an astronomical wonder off of your bucket list.ADVERTISEMENT
GettyAmsterdamAmsterdam is magical during the holidays—with Christmas celebrations that last for the entire month of December—but we recommend visiting the Dutch capital during the later winter months as well. While the city is no stranger to overtourism, those infamous crowds noticeably thin out when the temperatures drop, meaning you can enjoy snow-shrouded canal views and cozy restaurants in peace. And we swear—Dutch food, hearty with lots of bread and potatoes, is even more satisfying on cold days.
GettyTallinn, EstoniaTallinn practically overflows with charm, thanks to its turreted castles and a lovely location on the Baltic Sea. The city has one of the best-preserved historical centers in Europe, with many of its medieval churches and merchant houses falling under UNESCO protection. The views of the city center from Toompea Castle are beautiful no matter the season, but they pop even more under a layer of snow—in fact, they make those cold, Baltic winters downright bearable.
GettyHallstätt, AustriaYes, it’s technically a village, but perhaps none other fits the phrase “storybook setting” better than Hallstätt, which sits pretty on the shores of Austria’s Hallstätter See (about an hour’s drive east of Salzburg). The town’s 12th-century churches, candlelit restaurants, and market square only become more charming during the winter months, especially when the already-scenic Dachstein Mountains are capped with snow. As with most Austrian towns, Hallstätt does winter activities well; go skiing, snowshoe hiking, or take a horse-drawn carriage ride.
GettyBruges, BelgiumEurope’s best-preserved medieval city is also one of its most charming, especially during the holiday season. Let’s start with its light displays, when every tree and storefront seems ablaze with twinkle lights (just look up as you wander the cobblestone streets). When your fingers start going numb, warm up with mugs of Belgian hot chocolate in the historic Craenenburg Cafe.
GettyParisParis is always a good idea. During the winter, it’s an even better idea—especially when you see how Parisians enjoy a snow day. The City of Light becomes especially dazzling with its twinkle lights on the Champs-Elysées and over-the-top Christmas displays at Galeries Lafayette. Most magical of all? The notorious lines to get into the Eiffel Tower and Louvre shrink to a fraction of their usual lengths. Just wear your chicest winter coat—it gets cold.
GettyBudapestWinter is, hands down, the best time to visit Budapest. Seeing the Hungarian Parliament surrounded by ice drifts on the Danube could make even the strictest of beach bums embrace the cold. And you’re sure to find all of those grand cafés, museums, and thermal baths infinitely more welcoming after spending a few chilly hours exploring the city.
GettyPragueWhen a dusting of snow coats St. Charles Bridge and Old Town’s church spires, the whole of Prague transforms. But the city also has some of Europe’s best Christmas markets (outside of Germany, at least)—where even the most jaded traveler will succumb to the trdelník (fried dough) and mulled wine sold in festive stalls.
Gallery StockEdinburghEdinburgh’sHogmanay Festival—a three-day bacchanal celebrating the New Year, with outdoor concerts, fireworks, and dancing Scots—is reason enough to book a trip to the city. Not much of a partier? Shop for some cashmere, then curl up with your new scarf and some whisky at the speakeasy-style Panda and Sons. You can also work up a sweat skiing in Pentland Hills Regional Park or walking among the winter-flowering plants at the Royal Botanic Garden.
GettyCopenhagenWhen you visit the birthplace of hygge (basically the Danish concept of “coziness”), you better believe your winter vacation is going to be inviting. That feeling can be found throughout Copenhagen, from pastry shops to inviting hotels. Don’t feel like you have to stay indoors to enjoy the season, though. Those Michelin-starred restaurants, Tivoli Gardens, and canal views are certainly worth bundling up for. And is it just us—or do the buildings of Nyhavn look even more brightly colored against a snowy background?
GettyLjubljana, SloveniaSlovenia‘s capital city is a real-life fairytale setting, come sunshine or snow flurries. Visit during December to see the Baroque architecture surrounded by Christmas lights; or dodge the crowds and book a trip after the holidays, when you’ll have tons of room to stroll the pedestrian-only Old Town and sip coffee by the riverside cafés. You can also add Lake Bled and the Julian Alps to your itinerary, as Ljubljana makes the perfect base for Slovenian day trips.
GettyDublinIreland’s capital is one of our favorite places to visit in winter—and not just because of all those cozy little pubs. For the past nine years, the city has hosted the magical Smashing Times City of Dublin Parade, a festival that honors the Winter Solstice (December 21) with céilí dancing, traditional storytelling, and a fire ceremony. Dublin also gets lights up even more around New Year’s Eve, with events like light festival Luminosity, and the world’s largest Celtic drum session set around town. Of course, there is also beauty in the season itself: James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” even pays tribute to the city’s snow-covered graveyards.
GettyBerlinGermany is known around the world for its Christmas markets—its capital city alone has more than 60 of them, including the incredibly picturesque WeihnachtsZauber, which is surrounded by landmarks like Französischer Dom and the Konzerthaus. But don’t think that Berlin‘s wintery appeal starts and ends with the holidays. Travelers can enjoy the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants, buzzing nightclubs, and edgy museums well into the new year, sans the summer crowds.
AlamyLucerne, SwitzerlandVisiting Switzerland during ski season is a no-brainer, but most snow bunnies won’t venture outside their respective resort towns. This year, make your Swiss vacation more interesting and book a trip to Lucerne. The gorgeous city features activities you won’t find on the slopes—like museum tours and ferry rides on Lake Lucerne—while still offering easy access (via train and bus) to dozens of winter sport resorts.
Tanja_GVeniceVenice has become notoriously overrun during peak season—just see its recent attempts to limit tourist numbers for proof. But come wintertime, the city actually lives up to its La Serenissima (“The Serene”) nickname. The canals are quiet and shrouded in mist, hotels give discounted rates, and you can actually visit St. Mark’s Basilica without a stranger’s selfie stick poking you in the eye.
TanyaSvSt. Petersburg, RussiaFew travel images are superimposed on our imaginations the way St. Petersburg in the winter is. The colorful and whimsical towers of the Church of the Savior on Blood look especially striking against crisp, fresh-fallen snow. But like most of Russia, winter in the city is frigidly cold; rivers and canals freeze, the days are short, and temperatures average between –4 degrees and –28 degrees Fahrenheit between January and February. Embrace the cold and celebrate: Orthodox Christmas, Russian New Year, and a sporting event called the Big Neva Cup, which involves a swimming pool carved into ice, are a few occasions on which to do so.
Anthony Brown / Alamy Stock PhotoBath, EnglandNamed for its most famous feature, Bath is known for its hot springs and Roman bath complexes. Fun tip: Jane Austen was once a resident, and any reader of her novels or letters will be pleased to spot the Georgian architecture she used as settings, dusted in snow (an uncommon but not impossible weather condition for the place). For the ultimate wintry afternoon, warm up in a steamy thermal spa, then head to the Fashion Museum or a cozy pub. FilmBath, the annual film festival, takes place in December.
Samuelsson, KristoferStockholm, SwedenNorthern Lights, check. Christmas markets in the heart of the Old Town, check. Cozy cafés in home to coffee and pastry breaks called fika? Triple check. Stockholm may get more travelers in the summer, but we’d argue it’s made to be experienced in the winter. Christmastime is the best time for a visit, when local restaurants offer traditional Christmas buffets called julbord, smorgasbords of cured fish, liver paté, sausage, cabbage, and more. If you’re looking to photograph the city frosted in snow, though, plan your trip for January or February.
patpongsReykjavik, IcelandReykjavik is the northernmost country capital in the world—it doesn’t get much more wintry than that. A key souvenir, and the final reward of a must-do shopping experience, is a traditional wool Icelandic sweater (head to the Kolaportid Flea Market to snag one of your own). Other cold weather activities on offer include whale watching, bathing in geothermal pools (or traveling to the Instagrammable Blue Lagoon, a 40-minute drive away), and strolling by colorful houses and viking sculptures, such as the notorious resemblance of Leif Erikson.
Alexandra Constantin / EyeEmStrasbourg, FranceA blend of French and German cultures (it’s located right near the border with Germany), it’s only natural that Strasbourg stuns in the winter months. Nearby Colmar, whose charming canal area is called La Petite Venise (little Venice) makes the perfect winter day trip, and is especially scenic when covered in a blanket of snow. Grey skies are more common than snowfall in France’s Alsace region, but we say it’s charming no matter the weather. Strasbourg’s Christmas markets are renowned (they were first held here in the 16th century)—causing the scent of mulled wine and bredele cookies to waft through the streets. The brilliant hanging lights that illuminate the city’s centerpiece, the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, are also a sight to behold.