Winter takes many forms, so there are numerous winter destinations in Europe to choose from. There’s a lot of snow and no sun in the polar north. There will be plenty of sunshine around the mild Mediterranean until the season begins. And in the heart of Europe, there’s cozy cafe culture and Christmas-themed halls.
It’s an enthralling time to visit grand cities and charming villages: with fewer crowds, you can fit more into your itinerary, and off-season hotel prices make European travel affordable in November, December, January, and February. By taking advantage of Europe’s train network, you can travel at your leisure, meeting locals going about their daily lives away from the often-frantic summer tourist season.
Here are Europe’s top 10 winter vacation spots
1. Visit one of Budapest’s renowned thermal baths to warm yourself
Couples skating hand in hand, breath cloudy in the frosty air – there’s no better place for it than Budapest’s picturesque central park Városligeti Mjégpálya, with its enormous outdoor rink. Do you feel cold afterward? Budapest is well-known for its elaborate thermal baths.
Top tip: At night, look for a “ruin pub,” an atmospheric drinking establishment artfully created in an abandoned building.
2. Steel-grey skies set the tone in Romania’s Transylvania
You can’t go to Dracula’s lair on a sunny day when lambs are bleating in the fields, can you? Consider steel-grey skies, bare trees, and a dusting of snow. Braşov and Sighişoara, two hours apart by train, are beautiful medieval towns with a variety of connections to Vlad epeş, the historical Dracula, though it’s unlikely he ever set foot in his so-called castle.
Top tip: Because Bram Stoker never visited Romania, don’t expect many parallels between the book and the films.
3. Observe the northern lights in Abisko, Sweden – an amazing winter destination in Europe
Abisko in Lapland is one of the best winter destinations in Europe, but is for serious winter enthusiasts. It is almost as far north as you can get by train in Europe. The sun does not rise for several weeks in December and January, but this darkness makes it one of the best places in the world to see the magnificent aurora borealis (northern lights). Cross-country skiing on national park trails and husky mushing are also popular activities.
Top tip: Visit the famous Swedish Icehotel in nearby Kiruna.
4. Glühwein should be consumed at Christmas markets in Germany or Austria
These romantic historic markets spring up all over Germany, Austria, and other Central European countries in December. Expect adorable stalls selling everything from gingerbread to sleigh bells, as well as plenty of good cheer to be toasted with a glass of warming glühwein.
Top tip: While famous markets in Cologne, Vienna, and Munich draw large crowds, seeking out markets in smaller towns can be rewarding.
5. Ski at Jasná, Slovakia’s best ski resort
Slovakia provides high-quality skiing at reasonable prices. Accommodation and food are also reasonable, and there’s a friendliness that’s lacking on some of the more upscale Alpine slopes. Jasná is Slovakia’s best ski resort, with long descents flanked by snow-laden spruce trees and set in the ruggedly beautiful Tatras Mountains.
Top tip: Direct flights to Slovakia can be expensive, so don’t use this as your entry point into Europe.
6. In Copenhagen, Denmark, expect snow flurries and fairytales, one of the best winter destinations in Europe
It’s difficult to beat Hans Christian Andersen’s home for a fairytale European winter. Instead of watching the over-hyped Little Mermaid, head to the city’s cosy bars and cafes to watch the snow fall. The 19th-century Tivoli amusement park in the heart of town is a romantic, kitsch delight around Christmastime, with heartwarming illuminations and body-warming mugs of glögg.
Top tip: Splurge on a meal at noma, widely regarded as the world’s best restaurant (reservations can fill quickly, so try to book several months in advance).
7. Allow yourself to be seduced by Venice’s incredible Carnival
Venice’s Carnival in February is a European highlight, both hauntingly beautiful and strange, is is one of the best winter destinations in Europe. The canal city’s colorful history is brought to life through elaborate costumes and spooky masks. Costumed dances are expensive affairs, but you can have a good time at the free events if you buy a mask on the street, but be prepared for epic crowding.
Booking ahead of time is a good idea. Day trips on the train will significantly reduce costs.
8. Have (almost) exclusive access to Athens’ best attractions
It’s a drag trying to Photoshop 500 people out of your prize-winning Parthenon photo, but it’s not an issue in Athens during the winter. Summer’s stresses – crowding, tourist pricing, intense heat, lines, and air pollution – all but vanish. During the winter, the average temperature in Athens is around 13 degrees Celsius (55F). It’s an excellent time to learn about the country’s ancient history and culture.
Top tip: Go island hopping, but keep in mind that most accommodations close in the winter.
9. Visit Santa Claus’ unofficial home in Rovaniemi, Finland
Rovaniemi, Santa Claus’ “official” terrestrial residence, is full of Christmas clichés. Everyone’s favorite bearded man can be found in an atmospheric Arctic Circle grotto, and visiting him is free (but photos are another story). The Arktikum museum provides insight into life at these latitudes, while snow and reindeer add festive spirit.
Top tip: Finnish thermometers have more numbers below 0°C than above, so dress warmly.
10. Enjoy the sunshine at Spain’s Andalucía region
Because Andalucía extends further south than the coast of Africa, winters there are typically pleasant. At popular attractions like the cathedral in Seville or the Alhambra in Granada, there are less tourists and accommodations are less expensive. Additionally, the city’s tapas and nightlife are just as alluring as ever.
The Sierra Nevada, close to Granada, is the place to go for snowsports action.