10 European winter vacation ideas from the northern lights to ancient sites

Winter comes in many guises in Europe. In the polar north, there’s serious snow and sunless weeks. Around the mild Mediterranean, you’ll find lingering sunshine well into the season. And in the center of Europe: cozy cafe culture and halls decked with Christmas spirit.

It’s an inspiring time to visit grand cities and charming villages: with fewer queues you can fit more into your itinerary, and off-season accommodation prices make European travel wallet-friendly in November, December, January and February. Using Europe’s train network you can explore countries at your leisure, meeting locals going about their daily business away from the often-frenetic summer tourist season. 

Here are the 10 best winter destinations in Europe. 

People walk through a lit up Christmas market in front of an elaborate church. There’s no better place in winter than a Christmas market © Shutterstock / Perati Komson

Drink glühweinat Christmas markets in Germany or Austria

December sees these romantic historic markets pop up all over Germany, Austria and other Central European nations. Expect cute stalls selling everything from gingerbread to sleigh bells and plenty of good cheer, toasted with a glass of warming glühwein.

Top tip: Famous markets in Cologne, Vienna and Munich draw the tourist crowds, but seeking out ones in smaller towns is rewarding.

Nuremberg vs Cologne: what’s the best Christmas market in Germany?

Bathers crowd Szechenyi Baths in Budapest on January 1stJoin the locals as they unwind in the thermal waters of Szechenyi Baths in Budapest © Izabela23 / Shutterstock

Warm yourself up at one of Budapest’s famous thermal bath houses

Couples skating hand-in-hand, breath cloudy in the frosty air – there’s nowhere better for it than the Hungarian capital’s picturesque central park Városligeti Műjégpálya, with its enormous outdoor rink. Feeling chilly afterward? Budapest is famous for its ornate thermal baths.

Top tip: At night seek out a “ruin pub”– an atmospheric drinking venue artfully created in a once-abandoned building.

Where to see Budapest’s best street art

Spotlight on: Northern Lights – Scandinavia

Witness the northern lights at Abisko, Sweden

Almost as far north as you can get in Europe on a train, Abisko in Lapland is for lovers of serious winter. The sun doesn’t rise for several weeks in December and January but that darkness makes it one of the world’s best places to view the majestic aurora borealis (northern lights). Other attractions include cross-country skiing along national park trails and husky mushing.

Top tip: Stop off at nearby Kiruna to see the famous Swedish Icehotel.

How to photograph the northern lights

A moody castle sits atop a hill in winter with dead trees in front. Embrace Bran Castle in moody weather © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Steel-grey skies set the mood in Transylvania, Romania

You can’t visit Dracula’s lair on a sunny day with lambs bleating in the fields, right? Try steel-grey skies, bare trees and a smattering of snow. Braşov and Sighişoara, two hours apart by rail, are gorgeous medieval towns with various connections to Vlad Ţepeş, the historical Dracula, though it’s doubtful that he ever set foot in his so-called castle.

Top tip: Bram Stoker never visited Romania, so don’t expect many parallels with the book or films.

7 unmissable things to do in Romania

Young woman reading digital tablet whist sitting at Plaza de Espana, Seville with tiles in the background. The weather may be mild, but Spain is as beautiful as ever in winter © Ben Pipe Photography / Getty Images / Image Source

Bask in the sunshine in Andalucía, Spain

Parts of Andalucía are further south than the African coast so expect mild temperatures in winter. Accommodation is cheap, and crowds are smaller at standout attractions like Granada’s Alhambra or Seville’s cathedral. Plus, tapas and nightlife in the cities are as enticing as ever.

Top tip: Head to the Sierra Nevada near Granada if you want snowsport action.

Where to eat and drink in Spain

Woman looking at a temple on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece. See the Acropolis without the crowds in winter © Matteo Colombo / Getty Images

Have the best sites in Athens (almost) to yourself

It’s a real downer trying to Photoshop 500 people out of your would-be-prizewinning Parthenon photo, but during the winter in Athens it’s not an issue. All summer stresses – crowding, tourist pricing, intense heat, queues, air pollution – more or less disappear. The average temperature in Athens during the winter is around 13C (55F). It’s the best time to explore the country’s ancient heritage and get to experience local culture.

Top tip: By all means do some island-hopping, but most accommodations close in winter.

Archaeological Athens: Walking through the city’s history

Skier at the summit of a mountain in Slovakia; there is cloud cover below and a chairlift rising to the right.Slovakia is the place to go this winter if you want to enjoy top-notch skiing on a budget © mpaniti / Shutterstock

Hit the slopes at Jasná, Slovakia’s best ski resort

Slovakia offers high-quality skiing at affordable prices. Accommodation and food are reasonable too, and there’s a friendliness that’s missing from some of the snootier Alpine slopes. Jasná is the best Slovakian resort, with long descents flanked by snow-laden spruce trees, set in the ruggedly lovely Tatras Mountains.

Top tip: Flights direct to Slovakia can be pricey, so don’t make this your entry point to Europe.

Out on a high: exploring Slovakia’s High Tatras

Photo of a young woman pulling the bike and walking down the street while exploring the famous tourist attraction in Copenhagen, DenmarkPut on some warm clothes and explore the magic of Copenhagen © Getty Images

Expect snow flurries and fairytales in Copenhagen, Denmark

For fairytale European winter, it’s hard to beat the home of Hans Christian Andersen. Forget the over-hyped Little Mermaid and head to the city’s cosy bars and cafes to watch snow flurrying outside. In the heart of town, the 19th-century Tivoli amusement park is a romantic, kitsch delight around Christmastime, with heartwarming illuminations and body-warming mugs of glögg.

Top tip: Go for broke on a meal at noma, considered by many to be the world’s best restaurant (reservations can fill quickly, so try to book several months in advance).

Why Vejle is Denmark’s most underrated city

People in Reindeer sledge caravan safari in winter forest in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland Take the family on a reindeer safari in the forests of Rovaniemi in Lapland  © Roman Babakin / Shutterstock

Visit the unofficial home of Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, Finland

Fistfuls of Christmas clichés characterize Rovaniemi, the “official” terrestrial residence of Santa Claus. Everyone’s favorite bearded man hangs out in an atmospheric Arctic Circle grotto, and it’s free to visit him (but photos are another story). Snow and reindeer add festive spirit, while the Arktikum museum gives insights into life at these latitudes.

Top tip: Finnish thermometers have more numbers below 0°C than above, so pack serious winter clothing.

Finland’s best hikes: from high Arctic fells to fantasy forests

People in masks and Venetians costumes look into the camera. The city comes alive in the Carnival of Venice © Fotografiche / Shutterstock

Be seduced by the incredible Carnival in Venice

Hauntingly beautiful and rather weird, Venice’s Carnival in February is a European highlight. Elaborate costumes and spooky masks bring the canal city’s colorful history to life. Costumed dances are pricey affairs, but you can have a ball enjoying the free events with a mask bought on the street, but be prepared for epic crowding.

Top tip: Book accommodation ahead. Day-tripping in and out on a train will lower costs considerably.

Venice’s 6 best city parks


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