Summer months are, by far and collectively, the busiest months for tourism across European countries.
But, if you ask me, one of the best times to visit Europe is during winter. Daylight hours made fade and temperatures may drop, but the tourists also diminish. And, in cities where snow falls often or occasionally, wandering historical town centres, and cozying up in a cafe with a hot chocolate feels downright magical.
There are plenty of places in Europe that are fantastic to visit in winter- especially if you’re into skiing or snowboarding. If you’re looking for cities to wander though, these 8 are my favourite.
8 Cozy Cities in Europe, Perfect for a Winter Visit
Tallinn, a medieval Old Town surrounded by 13th-century walls and oozing charm at every turn. Albeit I wasn’t there long, Tallinn didn’t need more than a day to capture my heart. A charming Old Town, beautiful red roofs, picture-perfect cobbled streets- it’s like stepping back in time to the medieval age. The Old Town is so well-preserved, it’s been granted UNESCO World Heritage Status.
No matter the season, Tallinn is an underrated European destination, but exceptionally lovely place to wander when there’s freshly fallen snow capping the city’s turrets.
Riga, a brill mix of the old and the new.
Riga had been on my travel radar since 2016, when Lonely Planet named it one of the best places to travel. It was one of those European cities that wasn’t high priority on my list, but when I saw a £40 return flight, and found a £24 a night Airbnb studio in the heart of the city’s Old Town, I knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
Cobblestone streets, pastel buildings, narrow alleyways- Riga is serious heart eyes. And, while I visited in March, when the city was still dusted with snow, I’ve heard Riga is especially lovely in the run-up to Christmas with its markets.
It’s no secret I love Polish cities- Krakow and Gdansk were two of my favourite weekend city breaks while living in London. Not to be outdone by cities more frequented in the country, Wroclaw was just as lovely as my other Polish trips. In fact, I believe it’s one of the prettiest cities I’ve ever visited.
It’s a city full of surprises and delights- affordable drinks, delicious and cheap eats, a beautiful town square and quirky gnomes stuck around the city. And by the way, in case you’re wondering, it’s pronounced VRAHTS-wahv.
I visited Wroclaw in January, and adored wandering the old town square in a snow storm- the way the bright buildings pop against a stark white sky is incredible. As you’re walking, keep an eye out for little Gnomes- they’re all around the city, making discovering one a bit like finding bits of magic everywhere.
From Christmas markets and mulled wine, to charming carousels and pretty window displays, Europe knows how to do Christmas well. At Christmas, Brussels is really something. The city transforms to a beautiful, winter wonderland, home to one of the largest Christmas markets in Europe.
While wandering the city, I couldn’t get over how idyllic things seemed- cobblestone streets, twinkling lights, copper lamp posts, and the smell of spiced wine wafting in the air. There are several markets in Brussels, but I only had time to visit the main one in old town, Winter Wonders. It’s massive, the largest Christmas market I’ve ever been to with over 2.5M visitors annually and over 200 chalets.
You’ll find everything from handmade goods to gluhwein, to waffles, to Belgium treats, and fresh oysters served with champagne. What’s also interesting about the Brussels market is that they celebrate something different each year.
In 2018, for instance, the market’s theme was Finland, which saw the takeover of a small section of the market to sell traditional Finnish goods. In 2019, when I visited, the focus was on Manneken-Pis, a tribute to 400th anniversary of the city’s iconic statue of a peeing man.
In the vein of no such thing as too much holiday cheer, every half hour from 5:30 pm until 10:30 pm, people assemble in Grand Palace for the light show. There aren’t any chalets at the Grand Palace, bur it’s worth visiting during the day to see the glistening gold architecture, and then again at night for the light show.
While you’re taking in the Christmas cheer, don’t miss trying Belgian beers, gobbling frites and munching on waffles while in Brussels.
Researching our German Christmas market trip, I kept seeing Vienna’s markets referenced as some of the best in Europe. Happily the descriptions of idyllic Christmas couldn’t have been closer to the truth- beautiful lights, dozens of Christmas markets and cozy cafes, Vienna is a gorgeous place to visit for holiday cheer.
In the lead up to Christmas, Vienna is transformed. Christmas lights illuminate every street in the city center. Wandering the city, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported to another era. Bopping from market to market and wandering the streets in search of dazzling Christmas lights means a lot of time outdoors. Luckily, Vienna has no shortage of opulent cafes and cozy restaurants to take refuge from the cold. And, unlike many places in Europe, Vienna doesn’t shut down for Christmas. Having spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day there myself, I can assure you markets are open, as well as many restaurants and cafes. It’s total Christmas vibes, everywhere you look.
The Northern Lights were what intrigued me to visit Tromsø, but in planning the trip, we were delighted to discover there was so much more to the northernmost city in the Arctic Circle.
The timing of our trip was definitely influenced by our best chance to see the lights- generally, winter months are the best time (November – March) when the nights are longer and it gets dark earlier in the evening.
Chasing the Northern Lights was nothing short of magnificent.
But, after lucking out with a spectacular showing on our first night chasing the lights, we were pleased to find so many other great wintertime activities in Tromso. The polar night didn’t bother us- we did most of our activities in the morning (cross country skiing, reindeer visitation), and left our nights open for hunting the lights or simply wandering town and relaxing.
You’ll find Scandi perfection everywhere in Tromso- from the minimal, yet magnificent Christmas tree in the town square; to the northernmost brewery with tons of local brews on tap and stuffed polar bears as decor; to the cafes lit by candlelight with giant cinnamon rolls and steaming hot chocolate; to small bars in wooden homes with hot toddies so strong, you’ll question whether you’ve left the arctic.
Edinburgh is a gorgeous city, full of history and charm. With cobbled streets, medieval stone buildings, pubs tucked below street level on every other corner, and some seriously good cocktail bars, you’re pretty much guaranteed a good time.
And while Edinburgh is a great place to visit any time of the year, I’ve most enjoyed my winter trips in January and December- when the city is quieter, and the damp cobblestone and stone homes lend a calm vibe to a city that’s bustling with visitors in warmer months.
Edinburgh is also a fantastic place to spend New Years at the annual Hogmanay festival, the Scottish celebration for welcoming the new year. People celebrate in a number of ways- some throw parties, others dance the night away, and in Edinburgh, one of the world’s most famous New Year’s parties happens on Princes Street with the castle serving as the backdrop.
Throughout Scotland, people celebrate Hogmanay with food, drink, music and dancing. Gatherings often end with the singing of Auld Lang Syne, a poem by Robert Burns.
Hogmanay is more than a one night party, it’s really a marathon of events, and there’s no better place to take part in those events than Edinburgh. I’d return to Scotland to revel in their new year celebration in a heartbeat. Plus, Edinburgh’s Christmas market is fantastic- one of my favourites in Europe.
Nowhere is the yuletide celebration more evident than at German Christmas markets. It is, after all, the country where a lot of present day holiday traditions started.
The tradition of Christmas markets dates back to the 14th century in Germany, attracting nearly 200 million people a year.
German Christmas markets are like stepping back in time. Each market has dozens of wooden booths filled to the brim with crafts, food and drinks. Present day, most are referred to as Christkindlmarkt or Weihnachtsmarkt.
Everything I’d imagined German Christmas markets to be we found in Munich and Nuremberg- gingerbread, gluhwein, wooden booths selling homemade crafts, giant pretzels and bratwursts, piping hot Spatzle, caroling- all the elements that make a Christkindlesmarkt great.
What to Pack for a Winter Trip to Europe
To get the best deals on airfare, I always book as hand luggage.
Read: One carry-on bag.
Bold move considering how cold Europe can be in winter, and that hand luggage in Europe is much smaller than in the States. This is the suitcase I use for week long trips, and for anything under a week, I take my 40L Osprey backpack or a smaller backpack.
What you pack for any trip should depend first and foremost on the weather and then, account for the kinds of activities you plan on doing. On most trips, I walk around cities, but pop into places to warm up if in need of a break from the cold weather.
A Packing List: Must-Haves for Winter Trips to Europe
(The below is based on a packing list from a two week trip to Tromso, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Scotland in late December/early January, but can be adapted for any trip length.)
Very warm jacket: This jacket was a last minute purchase and the best thing I brought. It’s beyond warm, water resistant, has inside and outer pockets, and bonus- the outer pockets are lined with fleece so they keep hands toasty. Yes, it’s mens. I couldn’t find any as durable in womans (inventory was sparse), but given how oversize puffy jackets are, and how much layering I ended up doing, sizing didn’t matter much.
Lightweight down vest: A must for layering. Most days, I wore 1-2 base layers, this vest and a jacket, and was warm wherever we went.
Sorrel winter boots: Bring a pair of boots you’ve broken in that are roomy enough to layer multiple socks. I bought ones similar to these Sorrel ones years ago for New York City winters, and was happy with snow traction.
Two pairs of of wool socks: Mine were similar to this- stretched to the knee, thick and with a cute pattern. On really cold days, I wore HeatTech socks, wool socks and then leg warmers on top of all of it.
Uniqlo HeatTech everything – 1x leggings, 1x tank tops, 2x turtlenecks, 2x crew necks, 1x fleece pull-over, 2x leg warmers, 2x socks: The Uniqlo HeatTech line is great. Everything I bought from the Extra or Ultra Warm lines kept me warm the entire trip.
Long, heavy cardigan: Duster length (extra long), and thick.
Thick yoga pants (2x): When everyone told me not to bring jeans, I almost rejoiced. A holiday where I can justify yoga pants? Sign me up. Jeans simply aren’t stretchable enough to be layered the way you’ll need to do things if you’re in the arctic or spending entire days walking around European cities in the midst of winter. Instead, I brought thick yoga pants to layer over my HeatTech leggings, which worked out well.
Black walking trainers: Essential for cities where it’s cold, but not cold/snowy enough to warrant walking around it snow boots.
Fleece black hat and fleece headband: Purchased both from a sporting goods store in the ski section. Both are awesome for keeping ears/head warm. Most days, I wore the black hat, and only used the headband if we’d be outside for long stretches of time.
Long, thick wool scarf: Helpful option for extra warmth.
A few pairs of gloves: I brought mammoth, insulated ski gloves and cheap, thin cotton gloves. Everyone recommends you bring mittens so your fingers aren’t separated, but I missed that memo when packing. Wearing the thin cotton gloves with the thick ski ones on top worked perfectly.
HotHands: I brought six pairs but only used two of them when we spent hours outside, hunting for the Northern Lights.
Fitting everything (and a few other items) mentioned above into a carry-on was tough, but with packing cubes, I managed. Laundry at hotels was a key part of being able to fit everything into hand luggage. And, as always, everything I brought was black/neutral, which made layering a cinch.
Enjoyed this post? Pin it.
Have you ever visited Europe in winter? Which places would you recommend?
Other Posts You May Enjoy
- Packing for Two Winter Weeks Travelling Europe in Hand Luggage
- A Magical Night in Norway
- Hunting the Northern Lights in Norway
- 3 Reasons to Visit Vienna in Winter
- Why You Should Visit Iceland in Winter
- Christmas Magic in Munich
- Tromsø, Norway: So Much More Than The Northern Lights
- Winter Wonderland Lives in Nuremberg
- City Break: Riga, Latvia
- 5 Ways to Find Cheap Flights