Best European cities to visit in winter
Why winter? 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 Ratternberg market, lit entirely by twinkling candles. The trump card? With temperatures averaging 0°C in December that coveted white Christmas is a near dead cert. Authentic snow-topped Christmas trees come included.
Worth the chill: Hug your hands around a steaming cup of Glühwein and mull over the clusters of Christmas market stalls filled with handmade baubles and trinkets.
Anything else? 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.
Why winter? 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, Edinburgh’s gothic buildings look even more magical when tucked under a duvet of snow in the winter months.
Worth the chill: While summer brings the pageantry of the Tattoo – see tickets here – 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.
Anything else? 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.
Why winter? 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.
Worth the chill: 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 pealing your scarf off. The view at the top is well worth the hike.
Anything else? 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.
Why winter? Winter is low season in Prague; the stag dos 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.
Worth the chill: 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 rooves peek through the snow-dusted snow-scape and the astronomical clock looks extra-eerie in the winter evenings.
Anything else? 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.
Why winter: Short winter 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 lates to make the most of those long nights. The Northern Lights are more likely to make an appearance at this time of year, too.
Don’t miss: 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 Paloheinä, on Helsinki’s northern edge.
Anything else? Spot icebergs on the 15-minute ferry ride to the island fortress of Suomenlinna.
Why winter? This European city was tailor-made for winter: vintage buses roll through the Grünewald forest where tree tops 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.
Worth the chill: 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.
Anything else? 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 cafe 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.
Why winter? Whether it’s statues of Lenin or starry gold domes, Moscow’s sights never seem so iconically, beautifully Russian as when covered in snow. Throw in a warm, palatial metro system, world-class museums, miles of ice-rinks and ski-able urban woodland and you have an ideal, nice-and-icy winter city break.
Don’t miss: For a frosty Soviet fantasia of gold fountains, ornamental pavilions and cosmonautical monuments, take a 40-minute metro ride to pleasure park VDNH. Among the quirky cafes, shops and architectural eye-openers from Stalin’s era, you’ll find ice sculptures, a huge skating rink and a cross-country ski track. Or look out over snowy Moscow from the viewpoint high in Sparrow Hills.
Anything else? Moscow’s museums cater for eclectic tastes – everything from streetlamps to felt boots. Prefer to warm to a literary theme? Visit the houses of Dostoyevsky and Chekhov or of Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, whose Lubyanka-area flat is now a maze of surreal exhibitions. Round the corner on Krivokolennyy Lane, Georgian cafe Khachapuri serves up warming, fresh-baked cheese bread.