I’m not sure what it is about winter, but it not only is my favorite season, but it also suits certain cities far better than summer. I admit that this is a subjective opinion, as all of the cities listed in this round-up are also fantastic places to visit during other seasons. However, the best season to visit, in my opinion, is winter.
Perhaps it has something to do with the season in which I first visited and got to know each place, and looking at the list again, this is true for many of them, but not all. Whatever the reason, these cities are simply more atmospheric in the winter: they are either adorned with snow or dressed up for the holiday season, or they are ideal for strolling around while wrapped in a warm coat.
Why don’t you take a look and see if you agree?
1. Helsinki, Finland
Helsinki is another northern winter winner delight, and do you know why? Because I fell in love with a particular café/restaurant called Kappeli, which is decked out in countless twinkling lights that illuminate the entire Esplanade during the dark winter nights. Walking around the old harbor, stopping at the covered market and the arts and crafts huts along the harbor, and then turning into the wide Esplanade, the historic Kappeli restaurant — one side lovely café, another side very nice restaurant — stands out like a special Christmas decoration, and it also serves rather good food. Another lovely sight is the square in front of the Helsinki Cathedral, just off the Esplanade steps from Kappeli, which has a massive Christmas tree in front of the white cathedral.
Pro Tip: Finland is known as the land of 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas, and while the Finns enjoy them all year, they are especially enjoyable in the winter. Make a reservation and get warm.
2. Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, Estonia’s capital, is like a fairy tale city frozen in time. The old town is surrounded by a strong medieval city wall, complete with lookout towers with red pointed roofs, and the cobbled lanes are hemmed in by ancient buildings, some half-timbered, others painted in pastel colors. The market square is located next to the old town hall, which was built in 1404 and is the oldest in the Baltic States. There are shops selling the cutest local arts and crafts, including those little big-nosed gnomes, also known as tomte or tonttu in Norse folklore, that would make the cutest addition to your mantlepiece back home.
Add snow, cafes and restaurants with large open fires serving mulled wine, glöggi, and decadent hot chocolate, an ice rink set against a row of colorful old houses, and people warmly dressed simply enjoying being out at the market square filled with stalls during the Christmas season, and you have the ideal winter atmosphere.
Pro Tip: Stay at the Hotel Telegraaf, which is located in the heart of the old town. A beautiful old building with modern amenities, a massive open fire, and a fantastic restaurant.
3. Stockholm, Sweden
This is unquestionably a case of first impressions made in the snow and cherished ever since. The first time I visited Stockholm, I arrived on a ferry from Germany that had just crossed the frozen Baltic Sea, arriving after it had snowed. The Gamla Stan, the old town, the palaces in and around the city, the parks, the streets, and the roofs were all covered in a thick layer of perfectly white snow, adding to the already beautiful setting of countless islands, canals, bridges, and harbors.
While Stockholm is wonderful in the summer, with people enjoying the light, warmth, and the opportunity to enjoy the water, I have always preferred it in the winter. Maybe it’s because the city is prepared for winter and knows how to make the most of it while also providing creature comforts and making every place cozy and warm?
Pro Tip: If you’re lucky enough to be there when fresh snow falls, head straight out to Drottningholm Palace, which is especially beautiful in the snow.
4. Strasbourg, France
Strasbourg was a no-brainer for this list because it embodies the Christmas setting. Strasbourg is the most festively decorated city I’ve ever seen. There are twinkling lights, window decorations, and market stalls in every shop window and street. There is so much to see that you can hardly take it all in. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve visited in the summer and loved sitting by the river and the atmosphere of the old town, but if you only get to visit once, make it December and enjoy Christmas in Strasbourg. To be believed, it must be seen. And don’t think it’s overdone or tacky. No, not at all. It’s just perfect.
Pro Tip: While there are large Christmas markets around the cathedral and on the main square, focus on the smaller ones in Petite France, the truly old part of town, where half-timbered houses, covered bridges, and tiny squares add to the ambiance.
5. Edinburgh, Scotland
Scotland’s capital is truly lovely in all seasons, and even when it rains, it retains a certain charm. But Edinburgh goes all out not only for Christmas, with the steep lanes up to the castle looking especially lovely, but also for New Year’s. This is the time to visit and see how the Scots celebrate Hogmanay. Bring a torch for the torchlight procession down the Royal Mile, and learn the words to “Auld Lang Syne,” which everyone bursts into at midnight.
Pro Tip: On January 2, after the party has ended and the hangover has subsided, head to the Botanical Gardens for the last light trail viewing time slots. The lights are stunning.