- From festive fun to a touch of winter sun – explore Europe’s coolest city destinations this winter
- Discover ten of the best European cities to visit in winter – from the festive streets of Bruges to the subtropical paradise of Funchal
- Get expert advice on what to see, when to go, and ideas for events, local cuisine and must-see winter sights
When it comes to the best European cities to visit in winter, travellers are spoilt for choice. Venice, Prague, Paris, Copenhagen, Cologne, Krakow, Bruges, Seville, Funchal and Budapest – ten destinations that are sure to tick all the boxes if you’re keen to have a holiday in Europe over the coming months. Why wait for summer, when winter city breaks are so much fun?
Top 10 best European cities to visit in winter
Winter is a peaceful time to visit the City of Lights on a city break or holiday to France. While the weather may be a little dull and grey, the streets are quiet, and the crowds at popular tourist destinations are a fraction of their spring and summer sizes. Unless of course, you’re visiting for Valentine’s Day in February when you’ll share this most romantic of cities with lovers from around the world.
Visit early winter to enjoy sparkling Christmas decorations and festive shopping at fancy boutiques and Christmas markets alike. Keep warm while sightseeing with a glass or two of vin chaud or a cup of hot chocolate at one of Paris’ many charming cafes. Or shelter from the elements with a visit to the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, Musée D’Orsay or another of Paris’ world-class museums. For an alternative undercover adventure, head underground to visit the famous Paris catacombs – home to over six million bones!
Bruges in winter is a treat. While early December is comparatively mild compared to mid-winter temperatures when the thermometer hovers around freezing, visiting Bruges in winter at any time is a multi-sensory delight. Its Christmas market is the city’s crowning jewel in late-November and December, with the scent of fresh waffles, hot chocolate, mulled wine and mayonnaise-covered fries wafting through the streets of the Old Town. Draped in decorations, Bruges transforms into a picturesque winter wonderland that can’t help but fill you with festive cheer.
There’s more on offer than yuletide activities, too. The Belfort Belfry dominates the beguiling Markt main square, and the 366-step climb to the top is worth it for a sparkling view over Flanders. Visits to the Church of Our Lady to gaze on Michelangelo’s famed sculpture Madonna and Child, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood are essential. While antique hunters will head to Place du Grand Sablon, The Old Chocolate House is a worthy detour, tempting shoppers with delicious hot chocolate and hot waffles. Beer lovers won’t miss out either – exploring De Halve Maan’s brewery and cellars with a memorable tasting experience is something to savour.
Explore what Bruges has to offer all year round with our guide to what to do in Bruges.
The enchanting city of Cologne should also be added to the list of best European cities to visit in winter. Yuletide markets fill the streets during the run-up to 25 December, and there’s no better destination to get you in the mood for Christmas. Visit on a river cruise, and you’ll have the chance to buy some gifts, tree decorations and souvenirs from traditional wooden stalls draped in twinkling fairy lights – it’s a magical way to get into the festive spirit.
Visit Cologne at the start of a new year, and it’s easy to forget about any dip in temperature while exploring the city’s numerous museums. The Farina Fragrance Museum is the birthplace of the original Eau de Cologne, while at Museum Ludwig, you’ll find artworks by Picasso, Warhol and Lichtenstein. The one, however, that is guaranteed to give you a warm glow inside is Cologne’s Chocolate Museum. Indulge!
Venice is a spectacular Italian city, so it’s no surprise that visitors arrive in their thousands during the popular summer months. Gondolas competing for space on the canals and long queues to see the top sights, however, can be off-putting, so why not visit Venice in winter? While the average temperature in December is around 8°C, you’ll be warm and dry inside the city’s remarkable St Mark’s Basilica. And you can easily while away the hours wandering around nearby Doge’s Palace or one of the city’s many art galleries.
Plan a winter European tour to coincide with Venice Carnival (from 8th to 25th February in 2020), and you’ll get the chance to attend concerts and watch colourful parades – don’t miss the decorated boat gala on the first Sunday. Throughout the carnival, people choose to wear elaborate costumes and masks. Pop into Ca’Macana, a fantastic shop, to learn more about the traditional craft of mask-making.
Explore what Venice has to offer all year round with our guide to things to do in Venice.
Regardless of the time of year that you visit Prague, you’re sure to fall in love with the charming Czech capital that’s also known as the City of a Hundred Spires and is one of the most walkable cities in Europe. With its many churches and impressive buildings of various architectural styles, riveting history and labyrinth of cobbled streets, it’s a magical destination for an escorted tour. Arrive in December, January or February on a Prague winter break, however, and with a dusting of snow, the city truly could be the setting of a fairy tale. Crowned by a storybook castle, which is a UNESCO-listed treasure, Prague may be cold – 3°C in January – but it’s also undeniably pretty.
Prague is also one of the best European cities to visit in winter as the weather gives you the perfect excuse to tuck into some hearty food. Traditional Czech cuisine includes filling soups and nourishing stews with dumplings, so enjoy a feast.
If you want to go on a winter city break to unwind, and simply sit around in cafes drinking hot chocolate, then look no further than Copenhagen. The Danes know all about the concept of hygge (cosiness and contentment), so no one blinks an eyelid if you snuggle up beside a warm fire for an afternoon to read a book or laugh with loved ones. Indeed, locals actively encourage long lazy winter days.
However, this doesn’t mean there’s little sightseeing to be done, as there are still plenty of great things to do in Copenhagen in winter. Head for Nyhavn, the city’s atmospheric waterfront, and wander alongside quaint quayside houses – author Hans Christian Andersen lived at number 20.
Stroll a further 20 minutes north to see the iconic monument of the Little Mermaid, then for something different, brave the cold and try a CopenHot experience. Outdoor hot tubs provide stunning views of the harbour skyline. A visit to Tivoli Gardens is a must for all visitors to the city, young and old. First opened in the 19th century, this amusement park and gardens offers exotic and quirky designed architecture, thrilling rides, musical concerts and at night, thousands of twinkle lights create a fairy tale atmosphere that is magical.
Poland in winter may conjure up images of bitter cold and stark architecture. Yet the reality is often far different, especially in Krakow which is nestled in southern Poland just north of the border with Slovakia. While Krakow may be cold – its streets are often clad in a festive blanket of snow – the vibrant culture, sights, delicious local cuisine and drink are all heart-warmingly magical.
Formerly Poland’s capital, Krakow is a medieval city steeped in history. Winter is an excellent time to visit as crowds tend to be less, allowing you to quickly escape the cold when visiting must-see sites such as Wawel, a royal castle built in the 13th and 14th centuries. Visit in winter to glimpse a delightful fairytale setting with its spectacular views over the river Vistula. Pay a visit to the Christmas market found in Rynek Gówny, or Main Square. There, mulled wine is sold directly from wooden barrels – or head a short distance to Plac Nowy, or New Square, to duck into one of the many pubs for a warm beer with raspberry or ginger juice.
For the more adventurous and those into winter sports, a 15-minute stroll from New Square are the ice-skating rinks of Galeria Krakowska and Blonia Park. It costs a few Euros to rent skates, and the ice rinks are especially charming at night.
Off-season European city breaks are not all about visiting winter wonderlands, however. And if you want to escape the cold and damp of dear old Blighty, but not travel too far, then a short flight to southern Spain may be the answer. The average January temperature in seductive Seville is 16°C, and the mercury rises to around 21°C by March – it’s a pleasant climate for visiting the city’s many attractions, and you’ll escape the summer crowds too.
High on any visitor’s itinerary should be a tour around the city’s cathedral, the third-largest in Europe and the alleged resting place of explorer Christopher Columbus. One of the city’s newer creations, the quirky Metropol Parasol, is a must-see too. Said to be the world’s largest wooden structure, it boasts 30-metre-tall mushroom-like pillars and an undulating honeycombed roof. A walkway along the top enables you to witness some stunning winter sunsets.
Yes, you may need to pack a few thermals to keep you warm while sightseeing in Budapest – in January and February daytime temperatures don’t rise much higher than 6°C. However, if you embrace the cold, you’re in for a treat. The imposing buildings in the Hungarian capital look even more stunning when sprinkled with snow, and if you are feeling the chill take a dip in one of the city’s famous thermal baths. At Széchenyi Baths, one of Europe’s largest hot spring spas, there are outdoor pools, including one with a chessboard. But you can also bathe inside – and the water here reaches a toasty 40°C.
Alternatively, catch a performance at the Hungarian State Opera House. Swan Lake and The Nutcracker are both on the programme for December, and much-loved operas, including Aida, take to the stage throughout the winter season.
Situated 600 miles southwest of Lisbon, Madeira is a subtropical haven that proves you can head to Europe and still enjoy some winter sun and warm weather while the UK shivers. Daytime temperatures hover around 20°C – plenty warm enough for a dip in a pool, yet still mild enough that meandering through Funchal’s narrow streets is pleasant. Stroll past its Portuguese-inspired architecture, and its picturesque harbour and delightful public squares are a great way to spend time on a winter holiday.
Wine lovers will rejoice in a trip to Funchal, with plenty of opportunities to sample the famous Madeira wine – a unique heating and cooling process creates its distinctive, fortified flavour. No stay in Funchal is complete without a visit to the magnificent Palheiro Gardens. Perched on a hill overlooking the city, thousands of varieties of plants and flowers compete for your attention in this subtropical paradise.
Travel to some of the best European cities to visit in winter
Thought you only enjoyed city breaks in Europe during the summer months? As you can see, there are so many reasons why a winter break is a good idea too. Seeing the best attractions without the crowds, not roasting in the midday sun, and some destinations have great travel deals, too – tempted?
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