Christmas and Valentine’s Day aside, European cities are a no-go in winter, right? Wrong! In some cases — we’re looking at you, Budapest, with your hot-spring spas and Nutcracker ballets — it could even be argued they’re at their best during the colder months. Tromso offers a chance of seeing the northern lights; and visit Amsterdam to scoff sweet seasonal snacks or Valletta for sunshine. Zurich and Berlin both have fun-filled sledging options, while cross-country skiing trails litter Helsinki’s periphery. Elsewhere Venice, Bruges and Prague are prettier and, for once, relatively quiet, and Paris promises fashion fairs and ample vin chaud. Want to try somewhere new? Then set off for Slovakia’s Poprad, a magical medieval gem huddled below the High Tatras mountains.
Main photo: Zurich (Getty Images)
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1. Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is perfectly set up for winter: its imposing buildings and Danube River bridges look much prettier than snow-sprinkled, while chilly daytime temperatures — rarely higher than 6C — can easily be mitigated by stops in grand coffee houses or a hedonistic stint inside one of the many ornate thermal-bath complexes. Back outside, even the trams in Hungary’s capital are magically illuminated each frosty evening. The City Park Ice Rink claims to be Europe’s largest, and certainly ranks among its oldest. Another rink materialises right in front of St Stephen’s Basilica, where the excellent Christmas market takes place each year. Watch ballet or opera at the acclaimed Hungarian State Opera House — performances of The Nutcracker are a winter staple — after tucking into some warming goulash, perhaps washed down with a glass of pálinka fruit brandy.
2. Copenhagen, Denmark
As befits the home of hygge (a Danish concept centred on cosiness and contentment), Copenhagen specialises in warm cafes serving mugs of hot chocolate. Back outside, the multi-coloured buildings of canalfront district Nyhavn look especially bright against snowy skies — no wonder fairytale author Hans Christian Andersen lived here, at number 18. Two centuries old, the kitschy, city-centre Tivoli Gardens combines an amusement park with diverse live music, a food hall and thousands of twinkling fairy lights. Sip some glögg (red wine, port and/or brandy steeped with spices such as cloves, cardamom and ginger), then move to Michelin-starred restaurants — much easier to book at this time of year — or Frederiksberg Gardens’ elegant ice rink. Amid the trendy, ex-industrial area of Refshaleoen, the CopenHot experience allows you to wallow in outdoor sea-water hot tubs while admiring the harbour’s skyline.
3. Krakow, Poland
In the Unesco-listed old town of Poland’s former capital, red-brick buildings and green domes look especially classical below bundles of snow. So too does Wawel, a 13th-century royal castle overlooking the snaking Vistula river. Roam about and, whenever necessary, warm up in one of the many subterranean restaurants over some traditional fare: a steaming bowl of barszcz (a thinner, beetroot-based version of borscht), beer-glazed ham hock or filled pierogi dumplings. The bravest might also try a glass of grzane piwo — hot and spicy mulled beer. Slightly west of the Old Town in Henryk Jordan Park, Krakow’s Ice Park usually features a 360-metre “ice alley” to complement its main area. Come Christmas, Cracovians create folksy, foil-covered szopki — a sort of nativity-scene and dollhouse mash-up. The best then go on display at the Celestat museum until late February.
4. Zurich, Switzerland
Bound for ski resorts, most winter visitors to Switzerland shuttle through cities like Zurich without pause. More fool them. One especially good reason to linger in the city is its own mini-mountain Uetliberg. In winter you can ride up that by train, admire staggering views of the city, snow-sloshed Alps and boat-dotted Lake Zurich from cafés, then hire a sledge for the two-mile toboggan run back down. Night sledding is also available. If visiting in December, visit the train station’s cinnamon-scented Christmas market — if only for its 50-foot tree bedecked with 7,000 Swarovski crystals — and the National Museum’s thrilling courtyard light show, Illuminarium. Zurich excels at naughty food. Most restaurants let you feast on cheese fondue, while the Lindt Home of Chocolate, down Lake Zurich, has a nine-metre-high chocolate fountain and the world’s largest choccy shop.
5. Venice, Italy
Winter is when La Serenissima truly is the “most serene”: overrun in summer, its canals are now mist-shrouded and peaceful — and its hotels much-discounted. One can even cross Rialto Bridge without having to duck ten selfie sticks. Yes, it’ll be parky, but a top-notch art gallery or classical church is never far away. There’s even an olfactory benefit: while the canals of Venice can have a certain, well, whiff about them in summer, no such pongs pervade during winter. Unless frozen, those canals continue to be navigated by gondolas; the city’s gilded domes and gothic buildings look magical in the low light as one floats by. Blankets help negate the cold. February’s second half witnesses the Venice Carnival: a bizarre but beautiful bash of boat galas, expensive masked balls and free shows. Rooms are quickly hard to come by.
6. Valletta, Malta
Malta’s charming capital ranks among the world’s smallest; factor in lavish baroque palaces, beautiful gardens and cobbled lanes, and it’s easy to see why crowds are a permanent summer pest. In winter, however, space is far easier to come by. The lower-angled sun also emphasises Valletta’s pale sandstone buildings, which never look fairer. Malta is one of Europe’s warmest winter spots, with the Mediterranean island still averaging 13C in January. That enables Valletta to host its international Baroque Festival in that month: a 15-day extravaganza whose opera and concerts culminate in a celebratory gala night. This is the best time of year to try hot pastizzi (pea and ricotta-filled pastries), or to find space in St John’s Co-Cathedral, a high baroque masterpiece whose oratory displays Caravaggio’s magnificent The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
7. Tromso, Norway
For the northern lights, first and foremost. Being inside the Arctic Circle, Norway’s island-set northern hub is a good bet for spying those multi-coloured sky swirls on guided outings into surrounding fells. That oh-so-northerly position does mean visitors will enjoy very little daylight — or none at all between late November and mid-January — but winter yields another perk to compensate: from November to February, whales can frequently be seen during fjord cruises. Dogsledding and skiing are easily accomplished in the surrounding wilderness, too. For an equally memorable dinner, take the cable car up Mount Storsteinen to Fjellstua restaurant. Reindeer burgers and great views back over the modern, pointy Arctic Cathedral await. Tromso holds a music-filled Northern Lights Festival late in January, an International Film Festival just beforehand and a Polar Night Half Marathon earlier in the month.
8. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
As snow melts into Amsterdam’s canals, passers-by huddle together below gingerbread houses. Lamp light bounces off the water and crowds are noticeably thin at such sights as the Van Gogh Museum or Anne Frank House. All that renders Amsterdam perfect for winter, as does a hearty cuisine typified by stamppot (veg-and-potato mash) or snert (pea-and-ham soup). Try to leave room for a few oliebollen: sugar-covered doughnut balls only served at this time of year. Usually featuring a big-name international artist or two, the Amsterdam Light Festival runs from early December to mid-January. Follow its installation-lined trails on foot or by canalboat. Should temperatures dip below four degrees for four consecutive nights (a rarity) then canals are blocked off to allow enough ice to form, and Europe’s most amazing pop-up skating rinks materialise.
9. Paris, France
Be it Galeries Lafayette’s flamboyant Christmas decorations or the Eiffel Tower emerging from thick fog, Paris is as enchanting as ever during the cold months. Perhaps even more enchanting: the Pompidou or Louvre’s lines shrink, Montmartre becomes even cuter and naughty refreshment in the form of vin chaud — mulled wine with a twist of Parisian class — or hot chocolate is readily available. Paris has an impressive ice-skating game in winter. The largest rink can be found at Grand Palais, but none match one right below the Eiffel Tower for sheer romance. Two pulls for couture-lovers: January sales in some of the Champs-Elysées’ ritziest addresses and a very exclusive January Fashion Week. Far easier to access is the Festival of Lights, in which giant, illuminated animals enliven the Jardin des Plantes from mid-November to mid-January.
10. Poprad, Slovakia
This left-field, little-known city — only Slovakia’s tenth-biggest — is a worthy destination year-round thanks to its humongous AquaCity water park: all alfresco heated pools and spa facilities. But the baroque or Renaissance architecture of a small, snuggly medieval core, Spisska Sobota, looks especially photogenic when laced with dollops of fresh snow. Poprad lies memorably at the foot of the majestic High Tatras mountains, with quick, cheap narrow-gauge trains (which actually connect on to Prague) serving them from its station. Cable-car connections then allow for skiing or simply enjoying panoramas from viewing platforms such as the one atop Lomnicky stit. A green-blue lake ringed by snowy peaks, Strbske Pleso is equally jaw-dropping. Back in town you’ll find modern-art galleries in old steam-power plants and absurdly cheap fine-dining restaurants including the experimental Vino & Tapas, beside a tree-filled plaza.
11. Innsbruck, Austria
If you question the cliché of Austria being the original winter wonderland, let it sink in that the carol Silent Night originated here. Then, picture Rattenberg market near Innsbruck, lit entirely by twinkling candles. The trump card? With temperatures averaging zero in December, that coveted white Christmas is a near dead cert. Authentic snow-topped Christmas trees come included. Hug your hands around a steaming cup of glühwein and mull over the clusters of Christmas market stalls filled with handmade baubles and trinkets. Warm up at Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Wattens and explore its 16 “Chambers of Wonders”, each designed by an acclaimed artist, designer or architect. Ball season also kicks off in November too, where seasoned waltzers show off their moves over at the Philharmonic Ball in Vienna.
12. Bruges, Belgium
There’s something extra authentic about Bruges in the winter months. Maybe it’s the cheer-filled choirs that huddle on church steps, or the fact that despite being one the biggest Christmas markets in Europe, it doesn’t have the usual hallmarks of a tourist trap. Either way, don’t miss it. Bruges in winter is freezing — there’s no sugar-coating it. But climb that 366 near-vertical steps of the Old Belfry tower and you’ll soon start peeling your scarf off. The view at the top is well worth the hike. Don’t miss The Old Chocolate House. The queues are long, but your patience will be rewarded with a bowl-sized mug of Belgium’s finest hot chocolate — an accolade not given lightly. Stir in anything from honeycomb to lavender and stock up at the gift shop downstairs before you leave.
13. Prague, Czech Republic
Winter is low season in Prague; the stag parties have dispersed, the sun-seeking tourists scattered. Enjoy smaller crowds around the city centre attractions, especially if you avoid the pre-Christmas run up. You’ll bag the best photo opportunities of the usually frenetic Charles Bridge in the colder months, too. Pull on you warmest scarf and boots and head up the hill to the largest ancient castle in the world. Glimmers of Prague’s sea of iconic red roofs peek through the snow-dusted snowscape and the astronomical clock looks extra-eerie in the winter evenings. The cuisine you’ll tuck into in the Czech Republic is better suited to winter than summer — you’ll appreciate a body-warming hearty stew or soup much more. And, if you visit near Christmas, you’ll find the markets that spill over Wenceslas Square brimming with wooden toys, handmade soaps and stocking fillers.
14. Helsinki, Finland
Short days are brightened by the china-white snow that drapes itself over Helsinki in winter and there’s a long list of sleek bars and diners that keep their doors open late to make the most of those long nights. The northern lights are more likely to make an appearance at this time of year, too. Quayside markets dish up warming reindeer stew; there’s Nordic design to be snapped up; and the frozen Baltic really means you can walk on water. Cross the sea on foot to rural Seurasaari island (if you can’t see others out on the ice, don’t risk it), or try the cross-country skiing trails — locals love forested Paloheina, on Helsinki’s northern edge.
15. Berlin, Germany
This European city was tailor-made for winter: vintage buses roll through the Grünewald forest where treetops peek above a blanket of snow, and Christmas markets are everywhere, pungent with roasting chestnuts and the rum-soaked sugarloaves that are set alight to drip into boozy feuerzangenbowle punch. Watch fire-jugglers on cobbled Gendarmenmarkt and on the city-centre Potsdamer Platz, at the annual Winter World event. Try Alpine curling or toboggan down Europe’s largest mobile snow-tubing track. Or, out at Potsdam, take a 40-minute scenic train ride through Grünewald, skate on icy lakes or amble through snowy palaces. Walkers here can glimpse stunning views on the havelhöhenweg, a path linking cosy forest restaurants. Pick up Christmas kitsch at the Ku’damm branch of specialists Käthe Wohlfahrt, where hand-painted nutcrackers stand sentinel. Then seek out the conservatory and grand salons of the Wintergarten café nearby, serving breakfasts until 2pm, in the 19th-century Literaturhaus. As night falls, head east to bar-hop: brick-arched Alte Kantine is the best of many in the KulturBrauerei brewery, which also has clubs, theatres and a Christmas market.
16. Edinburgh, Scotland
Agreed, long, lazy picnics on the cherry blossom-lined meadows and summer concerts at the castle aren’t to be sniffed at. But, trust us, the gothic buildings of Edinburgh look even more magical when tucked under a duvet of snow in the winter months. While summer brings the pageantry of the Tattoo winter celebrations go one-up with Hogmanay. Scots and tourists join forces to ring in the New Year on Princes Street, where rockets somersault above the craggy castle opposite. Feeling brave? Head to Portobello Beach and sprint into the sea with a bunch of crazy townsfolk for the traditional loony dook on New Year’s Day. Warm up and reward your bravery afterwards with a traditional fish and chip supper at The Guild of Foresters on Portobello High Street. East Princes Street Gardens morph into a winter wonderland. Navigate the Christmas tree maze, or take in the high-rise views of market stalls and the skating rink over at St Andrew’s Square. Prefer to people-watch indoors? Watch the skaters over cocktails at the Window Bar in Harvey Nichols.
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