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12 European Cities That Are Even Better to Visit in the Winter

During the colder months and tourist off-season, these European cities really shine.

Spring and summer are the most obvious times of year to visit Europe. In the warmer months, you can enjoy great weather, plenty of time outdoors, and even combine your city break with a relaxing time at the beach. However, some cities are even better to visit in winter when there are fewer tourists, attractions are not so crowded, and accommodations are cheaper. But it’s not just these factors that make these 12 European cities better during the chillier times of the year–it’s that festive atmosphere, the thrilling cold weather activities on offer, and the number of other events and festivals going on during the winter months.

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Barcelona, Spain

Picture Barcelona and you’re probably imagining a land of summer, where locals eat tapas in the sunshine and hang out by the beach, but when the weather starts to turn cold, the city goes all out with festivities. Streets are covered with twinkly lights, there are holiday projections on some of the famous buildings—such as Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau—and giant nativity scenes are displayed around the city.

One of the most festive hotels in the city is the Majestic Hotel & Spa, with its over-the-top decorative displays, holiday-themed menus, and even a special Christmas brunch. In January, Christmas isn’t over in Spain as the Three Kings arrive on the night of January 5th to bring gifts to all the children with huge parades across the city. Even in February, the festivities aren’t over as Barcelona celebrates one of its two patron saints, Santa Eulalia, and the Festival de Llum or Light Festival takes place, in which innovative installations are set up across the neighborhood of Poblenou.

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Paris, France

“I love Paris in the springtime,” goes the famous song, but the City of Light is equally as spectacular in winter. The French capital’s moniker is especially noticeable in winter when you can stroll along the Seine, the small streets of the Marais, or the grand Champs-Élysées under the sparkling city lights. In the run-up to Christmas, there’s nowhere better to visit than the Magie de Noël Christmas Market held in the Tuileries Gardens. Not just a traditional Christmas market, it’s also a carnival with rides, games, and attractions. After the holidays, there are plenty of reasons to visit Paris in winter, with numerous ice rinks scattered around the city and the famous covered passages, where you can hop from shop to shop without going out in the cold. Don’t miss the city’s Festival of Lights until January 15th, when spectacular light displays are set up across the Jardin des Plantes.

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Munich, Germany

One of Germany’s most attractive cities, Munich is ideal for visiting any time of year but looks especially beautiful in winter. It’s magical around Christmas when the old cobbled streets of the center are filled with traditional markets, roads glow with holiday lights, and ice rinks pop up around the city. It often snows in Munich in winter, making it look even more striking when covered in a white dusting. When you’re not browsing the Christmas markets around Marienplatz Square, you can check out its snug cafes for festive gingerbread treats or visit some of its great museums, such as the diverse Deutsches Museum, the wintery-themed Alpine Museum.

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Tromsø, Norway

Located far north among the dramatic Norwegian fjord lands on the country’s western coast, the city of Tromsø is spectacular to visit at any time of year but particularly enchanting in winter. This is because Tromsø is one of the best places in the world to catch a glimpse of the elusive yet magical Northern Lights. The aurora borealis lights up the skies above this Norwegian city, turning it from pitch black to sparkling greens, pinks, and lavenders. Whether you’re lucky enough to catch the Northern Lights or not, there are plenty of other winter adventures, from reindeer and dog sledding to seeing the ice domes and going on a frozen cruise to visit the polar bears.

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Budapest, Hungary

Budapest feels like it was built to be a winter city, filled with cozy cafes, warming pubs, and many elegant thermal baths. Spend your days wandering around Buda and its historic sites or the big Christmas market on the Pest side, and then relax in the city’s elegant spas, such as the Szechenyi Baths. Dating back to 1913, it’s one of the largest bath complexes in Europe and has 21 different pools and countless saunas and massage rooms. Some of the pools are open to the sky, and locals often play chess in the steamy waters. Keep warm afterward by hunkering down with a hot mug of mulled wine in one of the city’s ruin pubs. These grungy and gritty spaces first opened in Budapest’s old abandoned buildings but today have become hip hangouts.

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Reykjavik, Iceland

Known as the land of ice and fire, Iceland is the perfect place for a winter break, and all visits here will begin in the capital of Reykjavik. Because it’s so far north, in winter, there may only be around four to five hours of daylight, but there’s still lots to do at this time of year. Of course, one of the major draws is to go on an excursion to see the otherworldly Northern Lights. You’re practically guaranteed snow here in winter, making it feel extra festive. Icelanders celebrate Christmas in a big way (on December 24th), but you won’t find Santa Claus here, Yule Lads bring gifts to the children with the help of their reindeer instead. Finish up your wintery escape to Iceland with a visit to the famous Blue Lagoon, where you can bathe in the warming geothermal waters while everything around you sparkles with ice.

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Tallinn, Estonia

The capital of Estonia, Tallin is one of the Baltic countries’ most picturesque and atmospheric cities. Its old medieval center is filled with fairy-tale spires, cobbled streets, and lively squares. In winter, it’s even more enchanting when there’s a frosting of snow along its rooftops, Christmas trees fill its squares, and lights dazzle along its streets. Get your skates on at the Uisuplats Ice Rink, shop for gifts at the Christmas market, and indulge in Estonian holiday treats inside the warming cafes.

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Edinburgh, Scotland

Scotland may seem like somewhere you’d rather visit in summer, but there’s something extra special about visiting Edinburgh at this time of year. Besides all the glittering Christmas lights, snug tearooms, and festive storefronts, there are Christmas markets, winter festivals, and ice rinks. And once Christmas is over, Edinburgh comes alive once more with the famous Hogmanay celebrations. During the New Year festivities, Scots often dress up in traditional kilts or ancient warriors to parade through the streets during the annual torchlight procession.

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Vienna, Austria

Vienna is just one of those European cities that feels like it’s at its best in winter. Winters in the Austrian capital are often frigid and snowy, making it more impressive at this time of year. Vienna is home to some excellent Christmas markets, around 20 of them to be exact, so you could even visit a different one on each day of your trip. One of the best is Wiener Christkindlmarkt Schönbrunn Palace, while the city hall also has its own ice rink. Vienna is home to some of the most elegant cafes in Europe and has a range of traditional and beautiful cakes and tarts to match. One of the classics is the chocolatey Sacher-Torte, but equally good is a warming piece of pastry-wrapped apple strudel.

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Cologne, Germany

Winter and Christmas markets go hand in hand, and some of the very best in Europe are in Cologne in, Germany. Cologne markets are the classic type of festive markets that are replicated all over Europe. Think small wooden chalets, stalls selling hot gluhwein (mulled wine), exquisite handmade decorations, and lots and lots of gingerbread. There are, in fact, around six or seven different markets in the city, each with a slightly different theme. The most famous, of course, is the one in front of Cologne Cathedral, which attracts around four million visitors annually.

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Bologna, Italy  

Italy may not immediately spring to mind as a wintry destination, but Northern Italian cities have a different feel to the south and are can be perfect destinations to visit during the colder months of the year. Bologna may not be located near the mountains for skiing, but being one of the country’s top foodie cities, it is an ideal winter destination. Many of the city’s most celebrated dishes are warming, hearty plates just perfect when the weather is at its coldest. Think tagliatelle al ragù (ribbons of pasta with a meaty tomato sauce) or tortellini en brodo (tortellini in broth). There are also special Christmas dishes, such as Certosino di Bologna, a kind of rich bread-like fruit cake. Visit in February for the Carnival de Fantaveicoli, a carnival celebration with a difference, focusing on sustainability with recycling and invention at its heart.

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Granada, Spain

Southern Spain may seem like an odd choice for a winter break, the temperatures are mild, but it’s still not warm enough to go to the beach. Granada, however, is different, located high up and surrounded by the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Far too hot in summer, winter could be a great time to explore some of this city’s wondrous sights, such as the magnificent Alhambra Moorish palace, without the crowds. The city is also filled with countless Moroccan-style tea houses, perfect spots to keep warm with a fragrant cup. Around one hour from the city lies Europe’s southernmost ski resort, the Sierra Nevada meaning you can combine a city break with a winter sporting adventure too.

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WeisserTee December 27, 2022

None from Switzerland? Bern, Zurich, Basel, even Lugano, are all better choices that Cologne. 

mrm12399 December 20, 2022

What about Venice Italy? A beautiful city during Christmas!