As the temperatures start to drop, and the days become shorter, European cities begin gearing up for the winter tourist season. Holiday markets unveil their wares, hot-wine stalls get wheeled out onto the streets, and ski resorts brace for an influx of guests. No matter what your interests are, there is a European city perfect for your winter break.
1. Paris, France
As the holidays approach, Paris becomes perfect for the traveler who loves to shop, or at least window-shop. Along the Champs-Elysées, designer shops will start creating the most beautiful window designs in their store fronts. The street itself will become decorated with elegant Christmas lights all over and fir trees will be brought in to further the holiday feel. While you are strolling along the Champs-Elysées, stop by the infamous and delicious macaroon expert, Ladurée for a treat that will brighten any dreary winter day, or one of the Christmas Markets brought to the Avenue each year. As you explore the rest of the city warm up with a fresh crepe and cup of hot wine, sold from carts all around town, and packaged so that you can enjoy their warmth as you walk, or grab a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts. We hear the best are from Pigalle. And of course, if it’s really cold, head inside and enjoy any of Paris’ notable museums. Tours of the Louvre can take up most of a day, and some guides will even allow you to skip the line.
2. Rovaniemi, Finland
The official home to Santa Claus, there may not be a more appropriate destination for a winter holiday trip. Visit Santa Claus Village in the Arctic Circle, and meet the man himself. But don't just come all the way to Finland for a simple meet and greet. The city of Rovaniemi has a lot to offer. Visit the Arctic Circle Husky Park and take a dog sled ride; if you're lucky you might even get to meet some puppies. There are also reindeer rides and safaris, snowmobile trips, and two theme parks- Santa Park and Snowman World. At Santa Park, which claims to be the top Christmas destination in the world, you can go underground into Santa's caverns, meet elves at the elf school, eat gingerbread in Mrs. Gingerbread's kitchen, go on a magic train ride, or watch the Magical Christmas Show on their stage. Visit Snowman World and you're in for a little more adult-oriented fun. Ice sculptures all around, you can enjoy drinks at the Ice Bar, from a glass made of ice, or spend the night in the Igloo Hotel. Plus there are plenty of snowmen to meet! Rovaniemi is also known for its wide-array of winter sporting options from snowshoeing to cross-country skiing, and views of the Northern Lights. There are many local guides that can show you around, but also an eight-day guided itinerary to make sure you experience this city to the fullest. The tour includes viewing the northern lights, participating in winter sports activities, enjoying local cuisine, and even going to a reindeer farm. Each day ends with a relaxing visit to the sauna in your cabin.
3. Seville, Spain
If you're already shivering reading this list of winter-break destinations, and would prefer your European getaway to be a tad bit warmer, say comfortable sweater-weather, then Seville may be your best option. While it will get a little bit cold from December to February, it doesn't dip into the freezing temperatures that many of the other cities we are highlighting do. To really get to know the city, head out with a local guide and discover the unique architecture of the area. Home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites within only two square miles, there are a lot of incredible buildings to marvel at. If you want to experience more hands-on activities, learn to cook the Spanish Way with a cooking class that takes you from the local market to a local's kitchen.
4. Krakow, Poland
Often toted as an underrated winter-break destination, Krakow is perfect for the holiday season. The Main Market Square truly comes alive during the holidays with concerts and events throughout the month. Observe the annual Krakow Crib Competition, a contest of hand-built magnificent manger scenes, or indulge in the delights of Polish Holiday food, cooked to order from the wooden stalls of the market. Better yet, take a day-trip to the mountain town of Zakopane, easily accessible by bus from Krakow, to enjoy even more winter delights. Ride the funicular to the mountain top and enjoy Polish beer and very strong plum vodka, go out for a little sledding or skiing, hike to the breath-taking Morskie Oko lake, or just do some Christmas shopping on the main street of the village.
5. Munich, Germany
While many think of Munich as the Bavarian capital you visit for Oktoberfest, it must not be overlooked during the winter season. The holiday season in Munich is lively and fun, with a host of holiday activities and decorations. Visit the main Christmas Market on Marienplatz from the end of November until Christmas Eve, and enjoy shopping along wooden stalls filled with hot drinks, souvenirs, and Christmas treats. Visit Sterneplatzl at the Rindermarkt for nostalgic atmosphere of stalls selling traditional handmade crafts. Or head over to Kripperlmarkt, also known as the Manger Market, to find handmade items to fill your nativity scene. It will definitely be cold, so take this time to explore the various cozy cafes of this German city. Come after Christmas, and you'll be able to take part in the winter-sports community that helps make Munich a year-round destination. As host of the World Ski Cup, the city is filled with ice-skating parks, and even has a thriving curling population. Of course, it wouldn't be a trip to Munich without indulging in some of their world-famous beers, so while you're there, keep warm with a few pints and a private beer tour.
6. Barcelona, Spain
Barcelona is crowded in the summer, and the heavy rains of fall can ruin any vacation, so surprisingly many suggest visiting this vibrant city in the winter. The sky will be blue, unlike many other European cities in winter, and the streets will be empty. While it won't be warm, it also won't be that chilly, and recent years have seen several weeks with record high temperatures even in the deep of winter. As many other European cities are fighting with the dreariness of winter's bleak grey skies and empty greenery, take yourself to Barcelona and experience the colors and beauty of Antoni Gaudi's Park Güell, and his unfinished work “La Sagrada Familia” with a local guide.
7. Budapest, Hungary
A warm bowl of Hungarian goulash is best suited for a winter-break, and just like any European city around Christmastime, Budapest will be filled with Christmas Markets, and hot wine-stalls to keep the holiday spirit alive. But what makes Budapest truly unique for a winter-break? It's hot thermal baths. Open all year, the indoor and outdoor baths are well-suited to winter when the steam rising off of them is so thick you can barely see the person swimming next to you. Go at night to the Szechenyi Baths and soak the night away and if you are in town for New Year's Eve consider the massive party here. If you happen to be in town on a Saturday in winter you can also go to the Lukacs Baths for what they call a Magic Bath Party. Regardless of whether you want to party or not, after a cold day of sight-seeing, a soak in a thermal bath is the perfect way to recover.
8. Venice, Italy
If you come to Venice in Winter you will be hit with wind and cold temperatures, but the silver-lining in that is that you will have the whole place to yourself! Most attractions and restaurants will still be open, and a sunny day won't be unbearable. So wrap yourself up and head out on a Cicchetti bar crawl, sure to warm you up real quick, with bites of local seafood and full glasses of wine. Or take a day to explore the other islands of Murano and Burano. And if you come here late enough in winter, though the crowds will be heavy, you'll be able to experience the world-renowned Carnevale festival, known for its elaborate handmade masks and costumes. If you're not in Venice during Carnevale you can still learn about the yearly tradition's customs with a knowledgeable guide.
Here’s a bonus personal favourite, though not in Europe!
New York City, USA
As soon as Thanksgiving passes, the city of New York quickly begins the Christmas season by lighting “The Tree” at Rockefeller Center. Covered in five miles of lights, and standing anywhere from 75-100 feet tall, the tree lighting ceremony is an event many look forward to all year, and is even broadcast on television. If you can't make it for the ceremony, do not fret, the tree and Rockefeller Center will stay lit and decorated for the entire holiday season. From 39thto 59thStreet on Fifth Avenue, the infamous department stores that line the blocks, will have their windows decorated for the holiday season as well. Inside each small space will be different themed Christmas scenes, complete with lights, mobiles, nativities, and cheer. You'll also have the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular, featuring the Radio City Rockettes to look forward to. And if you're in the mood, the Rockefeller Center also has a wintertime ice-rink set up. When you're done with all of the holiday cheer, and want to discover the rest of the city, choose a private tour that can show you everything from the underground Harlem Jazz Scene, to the East Village, Central Park, or the Financial District. Or, if you're really feeling up to it take a full day tour of the city.
“Emily Meadows is the author of Emily's Guide to Kraków. She currently resides part of the year in Ocean City, Maryland and the other part in Aspen, Colorado in the midst of her travels.”