Some cities in Europe are magical in the Winter. I prefer summer at the best of times but Europe is overrun with mobs of tourists in the summer months. This makes travel at this time expensive and at times, pretty uncomfortable. Flights and hotels are more expensive between June and September and waiting in long lines to see attractions is typical. This is what makes Winter the best time for the crowd- phobic and cash- strapped to visit. Being back in Canada for the holidays has reminded me how beautiful winter can be and I can’t help pining a bit for some European cities.
Here are eight cities that top our list for travel in winter. I’ve included tips and suggestions local tourist boards graciously shared with us for some of the destinations as well.
We visited Brussels earlier this year and absolutely loved it. So many people we met during our stay said the next time we visited Belgium we had to see beautiful Bruges. Known for beer, chocolate, and lace, a trip to Bruges offers a generous taste of the best in Europe’s capital, Belgium!
Why we want to go?- Hmmmmmm, there are so many reasons- to climb to the top of a 12th-century bell tower, take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage to see the city, have our pick of delicious food including Belgian chocolate, tasty market stall fare, and Michelin Starred restaurant choices. The compact heart of Bruges is spectacular and loaded with tons of great things to see and do.
Winter Highlights- Bruges has a fairy tale ambiance always, but during the winter it’s different, even magical. There are so many wonderful ways to indulge all of your five senses! These are some of the things we plan experience in Bruges:
- We love markets and Bruges is home to the best Christmas Markets in Belgium (Grote Markt on Market Square and the smaller Simon Stevinplein Market). They offer traditional Winter products including handmade gifts, hearty gluhwein (mulled wine), and a variety of delicious foods. Both run from late November to the first week of January.
- Belgium is known for outstanding beer and chocolate and Bruges offers a great selection of places to enjoy both. To taste some of Bruges best beers, we plan to visit De Halve Maan Brewery. Located right in the center, they have been making excellent beer in Bruges for centuries. Tops on our list for chocolates are Dumon, Pralinette, and The Chocolate Line. They all produce exquisitely handcrafted chocolates on site.
Here’s a few more suggestions care of the Bruges Tourism Board:
- Winter Moments at the end of November– The historic Old St. John’s hospital is dressed in unprecedented floral creations by grand masters of the floral art. The breathtaking display creates a Christmas atmosphere with creations reflecting the four elements of nature: water, earth, air, and fire.
- Shopping, festivals, and much more- Here is a summary of Winter events happening in Bruges.
Prague, Czech Republic
The City of a Thousand Spires is even more bewitching covered in shimmering snowflakes. Prague is stunning and incredibly cheap compared to other historic cities in Europe.
Why we want to go?- Winter in Prague brings Gargoyles with spiky beards of ice, sparkling snowy alleys, and delightfully quiet cobbled streets. In stark contrast to the throngs of tourists that visit in the summer, we will have a lot more elbow room on the Charles Bridge!
Prague has many excellent museums, pubs, restaurants, and stunning architecture all centrally located. This makes is a great destination for a walking holiday as so many great things to see and do are concentrated in one area. Additionally, fewer tourists in winter means, less waiting in ques for admission to attractions and finding seating quickly and easily at the best pubs and restaurants.
Winter highlights- The Old Town Square is transformed into a winter wonderland complete with ice skating, hot mulled wine, brightly decorated market stalls, and delicious smells of roasting hams, barbecued sausage, and fresh baked sweet bread. Then there are the cozy cellar bars, boisterous beer halls, and taverns. Prague is known for cheap tasty beer. Imagine enjoying a few next to a crackling fireplace, festive local revelry all around.
Here are some more specific tips from Prague City Tourism:
This winter there will be temporary public ice rinks in Letna (next to the popular Letna park), Ovocny trh in the Old Town, next to the Estates Theatre, just a few steps from the Old Town Square, and in Zizkov, next to the TV Tower.
In the evening, relax in the sauna situated on a boat at the popular Naplavka, enjoying the view of Prague Castle. It can accommodate up to 15 persons and is open daily from 6pm to 11pm. For beer lovers, there are several beer spas in Prague, e.g. BBB Prague Beer Spa or Bernard Beer Spa in Old Town. Here you can enjoy a bath prepared from ingredients used for beer brewing and taste delicious beer!
For local traditions related to Christmas:
- Nicholas‘ Night: On the evening of December 5, St. Nicholas, wearing a bishop’s robes, miter, and staff (crozier), with a devil and an angel, can be seen roaming the streets, visiting the homes of young children and dispensing sweets and fruit (plus pieces of coal to those whose behaviour has been in need of improvement.)
- Christmas carp – a few weeks before Christmas you can see huge barrels with water filled with live carp in the streets of Prague. Fried carp with potato salad is a traditional Czech Christmas meal served on Christmas Eve. The ritual of picking out your Christmas carp is a part of Czech culture.
- Midnight masses/ Czech Christmas Mass by Jakub Jan Ryba – visiting midnight masses on Christmas Eve is another popular tradition. Masses are celebrated in almost all Prague Churches. In addition to carols that usually sung at the masses, sometimes the beautiful Czech Christmas Mass by Jakub Jan Ryba is performed as well.
With its festive atmosphere, quirky coffee shops, cozy pubs, and its world-famous network of canals, a lot of people think Amsterdam comes into its own in the winter.
Why we want to go?- There are so many ways to eat, drink and be merry in Amsterdam! Shop festive Christmas Markets, enjoy ice skating fun all over the city (and maybe on the canals if you’re lucky), and soak up some local Dutch culture hanging out in a brown cafe.
Winter Highlights- The chance to take part in local winter festivities! Amsterdam sees fewer tourists in winter months (except over Christmas) so prices for flights and accommodation are cheaper. Enjoy the light fantastic, The Amsterdam Light Festival illuminates various parts of the city from late November to mid-January. Stay up late and visit museums by moonlight! Museum Night gives culture hungry night owls the opportunity to explore 50 museums until the wee hours. Most of Amsterdams colorful markets are open year round and when the temperature drops, even more, pop up throughout the city! With a range of Victorian Christmas markets, lively food festivals, and so much in between, there is a market for every taste in Amsterdam during the Winter.
Vienna makes me think of tasty sausages, delicious beer, outstanding coffee, and angelic choir music. Not to mention stunning architecture, sparkling Christmas Markets, and warm inviting pubs and cafes.
Why we want to go?- Vienna’s romance and rich history are palpable. You can see and feel them all around in the Winter.
Winter highlights- Mid November to the end of December the entire city is home to over 20 magical Christmas markets. Some of them date back as far as the Middle Ages! The Magic of Advent Market in front of city hall (pictured above) is one not to be missed.
Winter heralds an event in Vienna like no other in the world, ball season. Renowned for the Waltz, the city plays host to over 450 balls from mid-November to the end of February. The New Years Eve Ball at the Imperial Palace is one of the most stunning. Complete with majesty, bells, and fireworks, we can’t think of a more memorable way to ring in the New Year!
From the end of January to the beginning March the town square in front of city hall changes again, transforming into Vienna Ice World. The entire area becomes an enormous 8000 sqr/ft ice rink connected to a dazzling network of ice trials that wind and loop through the adjacent City Hall.
Here are some fun suggestions from the Vienna Tourist Board:
- Visit the city’s highest advent market– Located on the rooftop terrace of the Ritz-Carlton Vienna!
- For a taste of pure Austrian cuisine- Recently opened “Salonplafond” in the MAK (the Austrian Museum of Applied/Contemporary Arts) is a deliciously exciting experience!
Iceland, the truly unique land of fire and ice, does Winter best. The tiny Arctic island offers visitors so many unforgettable experiences.
Why we want to go?- There is no better place on Earth to see Mother Natures most beautiful Winter displays. The landscape is packed with raging waterfalls, massive glaciers, and sputtering volcanos. Then there’s the sky, the hypnotic dancing Aurora’s that light the night in an emerald green glow.
Winter highlights- Tourism in Iceland has exploded in recent years and while Winter visits are steadily on the rise it is a much less crowded time to visit than during the Summer months. Accordingly, prices are better for flights and accommodation during this season as well.
Things that only exist on Iceland during Winter are the ice caves that develop in the Vatnajökull glacier and the Northern lights. Many experiences, like dog sledding, soaking in a thermal pool, seeing a geyser explode, whale watching and more can be done year round in Iceland.
Cultural and seasonal events that happen in and around Reykjavik during Winter are Thorablott (beginning the first Friday after January 19th until mid-February). It’s a feast of unusual (and kind of disgusting) traditional Icelandic foods like the Black Death and congealed sheep blood, ya, you read that right! There is a whole host of fun things to see and do in Reykjavik over Christmas and New Years like attending epic bonfires and learning about the folklore that makes the holiday season so exciting in Reykjavik.
Here are a few of the best ways “to do as locals do” during Winter according to the Reykjavik Tourism Board:
- Soak in the thermal pools- Reykjavik boasts seven quality swimming pools all filled to the brim with Iceland’s famous geothermal water. Each features a traditional lap pool, with a number of wonderful ‘heitar pottur’ or ‘hot tubs’ where you can join the locals to relax and engage in a little small-talk.
- Hike Mt. Esja and Mt. Úlfarsfell- The view from the top of 914 metre high Mt. Esja is breath-taking. Approximately 200 from the top, there’s a point marked with a big rock called “Steinn”. Inexperienced climbers choose to stop here and take in the view before going down again, as the path becomes increasingly difficult from there on. If you do get to the top, don’t forget to sign the guestbook! One of Reykjavík’s best kept secrets is Mt. Úlfarsfell, which is a small mountain, around 296 meters high, located south of Mosfellsbær, one of Reykjavík’s municipalities. The mountain is an easy climb for all. From the top, there’s are great views over the majestic Mt. Esja, Bláfjöll skiing area, Reykavík, and Faxaflói bay with Viðey Island close to the Skrafabakki harbor. On a clear day, the Reykjanes peninsula and the Hengill geothermal area are visible as well.
Aptly dubbed “The gateway to the World”, Hamburg is home to Germany’s largest port. Its exalted maritime spirit infuses everything in the city; from the architecture, cuisine, and the call of the gulls you always know you’re close to the water. This makes for a distinctly different Germanic experience, one that can only be found in Hamburg.
Why do we want to go?- The seafood! With its close proximity to the North Sea, you can get delicious fresh fish and seafood just about everywhere in Hamburg. Sure, Lederhosen and Oktoberfest come to mind when we think of Germany, but we know this is just a glimpse of Bavaria, not Germany as a whole, and definitely not Hamburg.
Winter highlights- Hamburg is all about water, around it and all the through it. With a huge lake right in the center, rivers and canals snaking throughout the city, and a good number of hilly parks, Hamburg becomes a giant icy playground in Winter! There are opportunities to skate and sled all over and festive markets featuring hearty local fare; fried fish, excellent beers, and warm sweet baked goods that will help keep you nice and warm in the process. The premier markets include the famed fish market (open year round) and the historic Christmas market (open November 21st to December 23rd) in front of the stunning neo-renaissance style city hall (Hamburg Rathaus).
Venice is most famous for its unusual urban design; over 100 islands separated by 150 canals then linked back together with a system 400 or so bridges. Millions of tourists travel to Venice yearly; the biggest wave flooding the city beginning of April to the end of August.
In Winter, Venice is no less beautiful, in fact, it’s even more so. Fewer crowds and mysterious fog make the ancient city feel at ease. There are vastly shorter wait times for the best restaurants and attractions and hotel rates are a lot more budget friendly as well.
Why do we want to go?- Venice tops our list of must see places in Europe in Winter. Largely, because we want to appreciate the city without the din of throngs of tourists everywhere.
Winter highlights- Incredible hot chocolate, eerie gondola rides in the winter mist, ice skating in Campo San Polo and all of the best things to do in Venice that are delightfully crowd free in the Winter. The week between Christmas and New Year’s is when Venice is at its emptiest. But keep in mind, with Christmas being a major religious holiday, a lot of things are closed in the city during this time as a result.
Venice Carnival (ten days before Ash Wednesday annually) is an unforgettable Winter experience in Venice. Visiting at this time is the opposite of Christmas week in Venice. Prepare for massive crowds and lots of revelries during this time.
Paris transforms from “the city of light” to a magical place as luminous as a star during the Winter. Imagine the Champs-Elysées, even more, impressive with its tree lined avenue illuminated by thousands of Christmas lights and the Eiffel Tower radiating light like a giant shining beacon.
Why do we want to go?- Paris is one of the best European cities to visit in December. It transforms from a cosmopolitan tourist destination to a vast collection of neighborhoods celebrating the holiday season. There is still all the allure and flare that is Paris but everything feels more intimate, dare I say, even more romantic.
Winter highlights- Ice skating on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower (200 feet off the ground), “window licking” (window shopping); Parisians dress their shop windows so incredibly beautifully during the holidays you may actually want to lick them! And, lovely sidewalk cafe views; outdoor cafe seating remains throughout the Winter in Paris. Imagine sipping hot chocolate or a delicious glass of red wine enjoying a perfect view of the Champs-Elysées, the Eiffel Tower, or Notre Dame? Sounds sublime, doesn’t it?
Winter is the quietest and cheapest time to visit a lot of cities in Europe. This is just a short list of amazing places to visit during Winter in Europe. What European destinations top your travel wish list? If you haven’t considered visiting during the Winter maybe you should. Your trip could end up being a lot cheaper and a more memorable as well.
featured image by Moyan Brenn via Flickr