Best Winter Destinations in Europe
Europe is magical any time of year, but come winter, when the snow glistens and Christmas markets light up the cities, it is never lovelier.
As a Christmas baby, I've spent several years jetting off to Europe to celebrate my birthday. Bundled in a heavy coat, boots and hats, I've explored and discovered some of Europe's most picturesque towns, sampling rich foods and toasting to myself along the way.
These are 20 of the best destinations you will find in Europe during the winter months — and some of my personal favorites.
Just add snow to Austria's capital city, and its Baroque palaces and historic Old Town become a winter wonderland.
Temperatures in this cosmopolitan city hover between the 30s and 40s Fahrenheit, so you'll want to bundle up as you stroll through the annual Vienna Christmas Market, which transforms City Hall Square (Rathaus) into a sea of twinkling lights from Nov. 15 through Dec. 26. You can ice skate here, as well, then grab a Viennese hot chocolate, a concoction of egg yolk, semi-sweet chocolate and whipped cream.
When you get cold, pop into the Belvedere, a former palace turned art museum, and watch the light dance off the gold leaf used in paintings by Gustav Klimt.
Famous for its sky that fills with the Northern Lights during winter months, snow-covered Alta is north of the Arctic Circle and called the City of Aurora Borealis.
The largest city this far north in Norway, Alta is more known for its stunning carvings — protected by UNESCO — but in the winter, this land of the midnight sun provides a striking winter backdrop, complete with reindeer!
Although temperatures plunge into the teens, winter sports are popular, including snowshoeing, dogsledding, cross-country skiing and ice fishing — bring your warmest outdoor wear and enjoy these activities with the locals.
Slovakia may not be on your radar, but those who travel the Danube River via river cruise are introduced to its charming capital city of Bratislava and instantly fall in love.
Old Town is a pedestrian-only area consisting of modern restaurants, bars and boutique houses in 18th-century buildings that become even more lovely when snow mixes with the red-tiled rooftops.
Winter is bearable, with temperatures hovering near 40 degrees during the daytime. But when you get a chill, grab a Hriato, a honey-bacon alcoholic beverage served hot, especially during the holidays and at the city's multiple Christmas markets that operate until Dec. 22.
So many of Belgium's towns and cities provide a fairytale setting, but none compare to Bruges. This city of canals is as romantic as they come, especially when its church spires are surrounded by snow.
Grab a Belgian hot chocolate (made with a dash of cinnamon) and take a carriage ride around the cobblestone roads, then stroll about the Christmas market in Market Square from Nov. 22 through Jan. 1.
During the winter months, temperatures in Bruges average about 45 degrees. If the cold and dark send you into hibernation mode, there are plenty of Belgian chocolate shops to give you a tasty endorphin bump.
Hungary's capital city, Budapest, is truly heaven on earth at nighttime, in summer or winter. Along the river, where you can take an evening cruise, the city's most amazing architecture is illuminated, including Buda Castle, St. Stephen Basilica, the Fisherman's Bastion fortress, Chain Bridge and the absolutely stunning Parliament.
(Special note: Enjoy a New Year's Eve champagne dinner at the Fisherman's Bastion and you can enjoy these views all night long!)
Even though temps hover around 40 during the day and reach below freezing at night, bring your swimsuit for a dip in one of the city's thermal baths.
This city, too, also has a fabulous Christmas market, near the Basilica.
Chamonix - Mont Blanc, France
Located along the alpine border of France, Italy and Switzerland, this resort town is the epitome of an alpine ski resort. Wrap yourself in your warmest sweater, lace up your thickest snow boots, explore the restaurants and bars along Rue du Docteur Paccard, and prepare to eat your weight in cheese fondue. (Or is that just me?)
It's not too cold, a balmy 30-40s average, and even if you don't ski the highest mountain peak in Western Europe, you can enjoy the sweeping views and give the luge a try.
In the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark's capital, is an amusement park that has been delighting visitors since it first opened in 1843. Tivoli Gardens is a must-visit, especially during the winter months when it's lit up for the Copenhagen Light Festival.
The city's beloved amusement park and gardens originally celebrated with lights only during the Christmas season. But in 2018, it realized the lights help ward off seasonal depression, and decided to keep the festival going through the entire season.
Enjoy a heated Glogg, a spiced-wine beverage common in Scandinavian cafes, to help keep away the 30-degree chills that may feel a bit brisker due to the winds whipping off the strait of Øresund.
As Sweden's second-largest city, Gothenburg is home to the country's largest Christmas market. Taking place from mid-November through the end of the year, the market is held at Liseberg Amusement park and is known for displaying 5 million lights and decorating 700 Christmas trees.
Even when it's 28 degrees, you can shop and eat beneath the skylights of the Store Saluhallan market or within the greenhouses of the Palm House, a botanical garden that was founded in 1878.
Pop into coffee shops when you get cold sightseeing and enjoy the tradition of "fika," a coffee break featuring fresh pastries in cozy settings.
Home to the famous Icehotel — which kicked off the travel craze of sleeping in igloos after opening in 1999 — Jukkasjärvi is only a town of about 500 people. It's the Icehotel you have come to see, and it gets rebuilt every winter with a new theme and new styles so you can return again and again.
Guests of the hotel are often privy to the Northern Lights, reindeer and ice sculptures. Cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, dogsledding and horseback rides are part of the fun, along with the unique moose safari.
For the most immersive experience, sleep in a cold room sculpted by an artist that is kept at 17 to 23 degrees. The beds in these rooms are made of ice, but there are furs and an insulated sleeping bag to ward away the freeze. If that still sounds too uncomfortable, standard "warm" rooms are available as well.
From 1038 to 1596, Krakow was an imperial capital of Poland. Today, you can still catch glimpses of the Old World by walking the city's streets during the quiet winter months.
Like many of Europe's old capitals, Christmas is an especially great time to enjoy the city. From the last week of November through Dec. 26, and sometimes into the first week of January, the central square becomes a festive array of lights, shops and food vendors. You can enjoy a Grzaniec or Grzane Wino (mulled beer or wine) as you take in the fun.
Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, is an Arctic paradise during the winter. In the town of Rovaniemi, which rests right on the Arctic Circle, is Santa Park, Finland's answer to the North Pole. Here, Santa and his elves take visitors deep beneath the snow to an underground workshop and amusement park. Rides like a magical sleigh ride, live performances, arts and crafts, and photo-ops aplenty make this a family-friendly affair.
However, Lapland offers much more than a North Pole visit. Sure, it's home to the Christmas-themed Santa Claus Village, but there's also skiing, snowmobiling and a chance to see the Northern Lights in Finland's snow-covered landscape.
Proof that Munich aims to please during the winter months? Its international airport features its own outdoor Christmas market to enjoy a Glüehwein (mulled wine) and shop during layovers!
Many associate Munich with its beer-drinking Oktoberfest, but the city is utterly stunning when decked out for the holidays. Visit Marienplatz between Nov. 27 and Dec. 24 and you'll enjoy one of the world's oldest Christkindlmarkets in all of Europe.
Winter doesn't stop visitors and residents from surfing in the Eisbach river, although those brave enough to dare the 40-degree temps do so in a wet suit.
The king among kings for Christkindlmarkets can be found in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. Germany's most-famous of Christmas markets is also one the biggest — more than 200 vendors sell trinkets and gifts for the holidays. You'll find plenty of Glühwein here, and perhaps Feurzangenbowle, where a rum-soaked sugarloaf is set on fire to drop into the Glühwein for another tasty and toasty beverage.
When the market is long gone and the city is still covered in snow, Old Town awaits. The medieval city is quiet and cobbled with a museum dedicated to toys and an imperial castle.
While here, be sure to sample the gingerbread. This is where it originated, and Lebkuchen-Schmidt sells its gingerbread biscuits using a recipe that's been around for 600 years!
As Ella Fitzgerald once crooned, "I love Paris in the springtime. I love Paris in the fall. I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles..." More often that not, it will rain instead of snow in the City of Lights in winter, but if you're lucky enough to catch the city covered in white, it's a sight you'll treasure forever.
With its lighted nickname, you're guaranteed to see the city sparkle during the dark winter months, especially along the Champs-Élysées. (Be there in mid-January and you'll find some of the best deals during the city's annual sales.)
Paris is perfect for a winter getaway, as there are miles and miles of museum exhibits to enjoy indoors and even more miles of cafes that welcome you to do nothing but sick back and watch the world go by as you sip a glass of hearty red wine.
Prague, Czech Republic
I may be biased but to me, Prague is the most beautiful during the winter. This 14th-century city filled with church steeples, romantic bridges and its castle-city sentinel above the Danube River features pedestrian alleyways that twist and turn through Old and New Town. It's easy to get lost, and you'll enjoy every minute of it.
One of the wealthiest cities during its heyday, you'll still see riches flowing from St. Wenceslas Square, the "Rodeo Drive" of this Eastern European capital. Yet, within steps is the somber reminder of the Holocaust in the Josefov, or Jewish Quarter. The area is home to a cemetery that, though it's crammed with headstones, cannot mark the final resting place of all the nearly 100,000 bodies that have been laid to rest there since Medieval times.
A hot mulled wine is called a Svarák in Czech, and you can enjoy one during a stroll through Old Town and Wenceslas Squares, home to a Christmas market from Nov. 30 to Jan. 6.
If traveling for the winter, why not travel to the land of ice and stop in Iceland on your European adventures? Icelandic Air allows for 24- to 48-hour flight layovers, providing you with just enough time to get a glimpse at Reykjavik and its natural surroundings.
Visiting Þingvellir National Park when it is covered in snow is more breath-catching than a visit in the summer months. Seeing the Dettifoss waterfall covered in ice or a Geysir spew hot water and steam into the frigid air are once-in-a-lifetime moments.
Taking a dip in the thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon will make you feel as if you have walked into a painting, for how on earth could water be that color blue? The two seconds you'll spend de-robing in the 30-degree daytime temperatures and running into the water is as bad as it sounds, but the lagoon is a natural 102 and worth the initial pain.
If you think Vienna is gorgeous during the weather, consider its alpine competitor city of Salzburg. Within the foothills of the Alps is a city that feels stuck in medieval times, in the best way possible.
The Hohensalzburg fortress overlooks the city, which is filled with dramatic architecture and history. As residents still wearing dirndl and lederhosen hurry by, you can enjoy Christkindlmarkt am Domplatz, one of the world's best Christmas markets, running until Christmas Eve.
Salzburg is an intimate city that can be explored by foot in just a couple of days, which allows true winter-lovers time to enjoy one of the nearby ski slopes in the Alps.
Situated near the Germany-France border along the Rhine River, Strasbourg is home to the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and other European institutions.
It is also utterly quaint. White timber-framed buildings along canals and cobblestone streets provide a storybook setting, no matter the time of year you visit. However, when Christmas descends upon Strasbourg, one of Europe's oldest markets brings the Alsatian traditions and customs to new life.
Hands-down, Strasbourg is just about the prettiest place on earth!
To visit Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is to visit an ancient city that has yet to truly be rediscovered. This means: Go now before the rest of the world realizes what they have been missing and the tourists outweigh the residents.
Located on the Gulf of Finland, this Baltic city is so intact from its medieval days that its Old Town is still walled. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the red-tiled roofs add color to snow-covered winter days, as does a Christmas market. It may be less crowded than the more famous European markets, but from mid-November through the first week of January, Tallinn becomes even more of a fairytale village.
This high-elevation town is famed for being one of the prettiest in Switzerland, thanks in no small part to the snow-capped Matterhorn peeking over its alpine landscape. You can get up-close to the Matterhorn via a gondola ride and viewing platform — there are 360-degree views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps.
The village itself has architecture dating back 500 years, and you can explore tiny alley-like streets to shop and dine, especially along the main drag of Bahnhofstrasse, where more than 300 shops include high-end names like Armani. Yes, this is where the rich and famous may be grabbing a drink beside you aprés ski, but try to play it as cool as the air around you if you spot someone who is someone.