One of the best times to visit Europe?
Winter, of course.
Daylight hours may fade and temperatures may drop, but 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. I’ve shared 10 of my favorite places to visit in Europe during winter, and what makes so many of those places (and others) special are the experiences I’ve had in them.
Summer in Europe cues lounging on beaches with bright striped umbrellas, sailing as the sun sets, or even driving around the countryside in the south of France, stopping at wineries and in tiny, rustic towns.
Winter, on the other hand, presents a whole different set of experiences.
Cozy chalets atop mountains covered in freshly fallen snow.
Scenic ski slopes and lively après ski, where aperol spritz is the drink of choice.
Ice palaces and igloos deep in the forests of Scandinavia.
Streams of green, blue and purple dancing across the night sky.
Christmas markets brimming with decades of tradition and perfectly spiced mulled wine.
Strolls through medieval town centres, where cobblestone streets are dusted with snow.
New Year celebrations with torch-lit parades, street dancing, and firework exploding high above historic castles.
No question, there’s so much to experience in Europe during winter- and often, at a fraction of the rates you’d pay in peak summer travel months. There’s so much I enjoy about winter in Europe, but three experiences stand above the rest.
3 Winter Experiences You Must Have in Europe
See the Northern Lights in Scandinavia
Scandinavia (Norway, Iceland, Faroe Islands, Sweden, Finland) is famous for its Northern Lights, but seeing the dancing Aurora Borealis is no easy feat.
I’d heard Tromsø (Norway) is one of the best places to see the Northern Lights, but tried not to go into the trip with high hopes after being let down during a holiday to Iceland a few years ago.
Snowstorms aside, the Aurora Borealis is unpredictable- there’s never a guarantee she’ll show up. We planned to hunt for the lights on our second night in Tromsø, but left our other two nights open just in case we had to schedule additional tours.
Luckily, there was no need for that. The show we saw on our first time out was incredible.
Leaving central Tromsø at 7 pm (after hotel pick-up and changing into thermal suits), our hunt started off wonderfully. 20 minutes into driving, our guide spotted the Aurora, and we pulled over to a lake adjacent beach to watch.
It’s true what people say- the lights look very different in person. Being able to photograph them is key, they’re much more visible through the lens of a camera. But, even seeing faint green slivers appear in the sky and reflect off the lake was magic.
In total, I’d estimate we stayed at the lake for about an hour. Next, we drove around for ~20-30 minutes before spotting the lights over a mountain ridge and pulling over to watch. This time, the lights were stronger than the ones we’d seen over the lake- the colours were more vivid and there were more arcs in the sky.
Seeing the green arcs in the sky felt special enough, but when a purple line began to intersect the arc and brightness intensified as the lights bounced around the night sky, we were left breathless.
Watching the lights dance across the night sky is something I’ll remember forever. Next winter, I’m hoping to try my luck with seeing the Northern Lights again in Lapland. I’d love to venture back to Finland and stay at an igloo resort (Kakslauttanen) or the arctic tree house hotel for my chance to see the lights dance deep in the forest from the comfort of plush surroundings.
Revel in Christmas Markets
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. Usually set outdoors in charming town squares, 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.
My first holiday season living in Europe, I travelled to Munich to visit the city’s main Christmas market in Marienplatz and took a day trip to Nuremberg. 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- Christkindlesmarkt excellence.
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, tons of Christmas markets and charming 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. The alleyways, while always beautiful, are decked out with sparkling lights. 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.
Ring in the New Year at One of the World’s Largest Festivals
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.
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, which is 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. It’s regarded as one of the most important Scottish holidays. Many think that the term comes from French but there are also theories that it may have Gaelic, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon origins.
But, what exactly does it mean and when did celebrations start?
From Edinburgh’s Hogmanay website-
“The answer dates back to the 16th century, when Parliament, under Oliver Cromwell, banned any Christmas celebrations in 1647. Even though the ban was uplifted 13 years later, celebrating Christmas wasn’t seen with good eyes in Scotland and so Christmas day remained a normal working day until as late as 1958. Hogmanay is longer than any other New Year’s celebrations, with the 2nd January also being a public holiday in Scotland. It’s celebrated with passion and revelry, as Scots consider Hogmanay an opportunity to bring friends and strangers together to welcome the New Year with good cheer.”
I’d return to Scotland to revel in their new year celebrations in a heartbeat. Plus, Edinburgh’s Christmas market is fantastic- one of my favourites in Europe.
Have you ever visited Europe in winter? Which experiences are you keen to have?
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