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Dreaming of winter in Europe? It’s an incredible season to visit! Central and Northern Europe are winter wonderlands. In southern Europe, brilliant sunshine lights up the turquoise Mediterranean Sea. Glimpse the mystical Northern Lights. Go dog sledding. Or visit a Norwegian reindeer farm. With fewer crowds and cheap flights, the best of Europe awaits. Here’s some destination inspiration for enjoying Europe in winter in 2020:
- Best European Destinations in Winter
- 1. See the Northern Lights
- 2. Visit the Christmas Market in Cologne
- 3. Soak in Budapest’s Thermal Baths
- 4. Ski at Borovets, Bulgaria
- 5. Sunbathe in Cyprus
- 6. Live Like a Local in Tuscany
- 7. Take in a Swiss Balloon Festival
- 8. Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh
- 9. Experience Spanish Holiday Traditions in Seville
- 10. Go Snowshoeing in Sarajevo
- 11. Savor Paris without the Crowds
- 12. Visit a Reindeer Farm
- 13. Go Wine Tasting in Porto, Portugal
- 14. Hike in Val Lumnezia, Switzerland
- 15. Go Dog Sledding in Lapland
Best European Destinations in Winter
1. See the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights in Iceland are one of the main attractions and best things to do in Europe during wintertime. This natural phenomenon, Aurora Borealis, can typically be seen between sometime in September to March and April.
The trick is that it must be dark enough in order to be visible. In fact, the Northern Lights are active during the summer months as well, but since the sun sets late (or never sets) in Iceland, it’s only possible to see the Northern Lights during the winter months when it’s dark enough.
For the best chance to see the Northern Lights for yourself, download a Northern Lights app. You’ll be able to track the daily activity for your visit as well as monitor the cloudiness.
While you won’t be able to see it if it’s too cloudy, you could still drive an hour or two away from your current location to escape the clouds. And it’s well worth the drive; Aurora Borealis is truly one of the natural wonders of the world.
A last tip: For best success, consider joining a guided tour by experienced Northern Lights chasers. Locals know best! You can check prices on a tour here.
Alexander | Destinavo
2. Visit the Christmas Market in Cologne
The Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom in German)—visible as far away as neighboring Bonn—is a must-visit on any Cologne or even European itinerary. And it’s also the center of one of the largest Christmas markets in all of Germany.
An impressive gothic structure, the cathedral rivals many of its European counterparts and is actually the most visited tourist attraction in all of Germany. It also has a more dubious claim to fame: it was one of the only large structures left standing in Cologne after the World War II bombing, as it’s said that Allied pilots used it as a landmark, rather than a target.
The Cologne Christmas market (KölnerWeihnachtsmarkt) attracts visitors from nearby cities as well as international visitors, making it one of the best European winter holiday destinations. You’ll taste fragrant mulled wine, lebekuchen (German gingerbread treats) and find gorgeous handicrafts.
But the Cologne Christmas market also specializes in delicious local beer (kölsch) and more unique foodie fare. Try the zimtbrezeln, a fusion between a cinnamon roll and a salty pretzel that will have your taste buds singing.
Spend a few hours walking around this market (which opens in December) before you head into Cologne proper. More lovely shops await you in the main streets of Hohe and Breite Strasse there.
Consider a river cruise in Cologne or a pub crawl, too. You can check prices and availability on all Cologne tours here.
And if you’re headed towards Munich or Nuremberg next, be sure to visit the beautiful medieval town of Regensburg.
Lee | The Travel Scribes
3. Soak in Budapest’s Thermal Baths
Freezing days, soft snow and a steamy hot bath…It’s the perfect combination to enjoy the winter in Budapest. The city is famous for its thermal baths and there are many of them scattered across the city, but not all of them have a majestic outdoor swimming pool where you can swing surrounded by snow!
One of the top things to do in Budapest in winter is to visit the Szechenyi Thermal Bath and relax at its gigantic open-air swimming bath. It’s not just about a hot bath on a cold day, but rather, a sensory experience.
You can relax your body and mind in 21 swimming pools in the complex, spend hours admiring the amazing architecture, and see a bit of Budapest local life. The bath is busy with locals and tourists during summer, but in winter not many tourists venture there, especially in the outdoor pool.
Yes, you will feel cold when you leave the building and walk to the pool, but after that first dive in, you’ll wish you could stay there forever. The outside area of Szechenyi Thermal Bath is stunning. In fact, if the sky is clear, you must stay until sunset. The spectacle is stunning!
Unlike other baths in Budapest that frequently have different days for men and women, the Szechenyi Thermal Bath is open daily for both women and men from 6 am to 10 pm.
Nathalie | Love and Road
4. Ski at Borovets, Bulgaria
One of the best places to go in Europe in the winter is the small Bulgarian ski resort town of Borovets. Located just two hours outside of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, Borovets can also be reached easily from Plovdiv.
Or you can reserve a full-day private tour from Sofia here. (Lunch is included but equipment and lift tickets are not.)
There are two main ski lifts to use, and there are even night ski sessions available for someone looking for a bit of extra adventure. There are lots of great things to do in Borovets beyond skiing as well, like tobogganing, enjoying the local spas and steam rooms, and even going horseback riding in the snow!
Be sure to enjoy the apres-ski scene in Borovets after a long day out in the cold. With plenty of fun bars, karaoke joints, and delicious restaurants, it’s easy to refuel and relax. Check out Cool Running, Bulgaria’s only Jamaican restaurant or Sunny’s, a great spot to try traditional Bulgarian cuisine.
There are some beautiful hotels and resorts for a full-service experience, but you’ll also find plenty of budget hotels in Borovets to help keep your ski vacation budget under control.
For anyone who is not yet an expert skier, you can attend ski school and lessons in Borovets before setting out on your own.
Stephanie | Sofia Adventures
5. Sunbathe in Cyprus
Cyprus is one of the sunniest destinations in Europe and is a popular island for escaping the cold winter months of northern and central Europe. Cyprus is known for its pleasant climate year-round as well as beautiful beaches and delicious food.
The island is located south of Turkey and actually belongs to Asia geographically, although it’s a member of the European Union. Greek is the language spoken and the cuisine is very similar to Greek food as well.
Some of the most popular destinations are Larnaca, Ayia Napa, Limassol, and Paphos. Ayia Napa is more of a summer destination and is especially known for Nissi Beach, but it’s much nicer to come here off-season when it isn’t crowded.
Paphos, Larnaca, and Limassol are all cities that are inhabited by locals and expats year-round, so if you want a more lively destination, choose one of these.
For a whirlwind tour of the best of Cyprus, consider a full day tour. You can check prices and availability here.
There are flights to Cyprus from all over Europe, especially from the UK. Larnaca is the main airport, and some low-cost carriers will fly to Paphos airport as well. I recommend renting a car to get around the island since public transportation is limited.
The temperature during the winter months will range between 15-25 degrees Celsius (55 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit). In winter, expect lots of sunshine for sunbathing and sightseeing with the occasional rainy day.
Alexander | Gourmand Trotter
6. Live Like a Local in Tuscany
When the snow finally drifts down onto Firenze, the city gets a much-awaited reprieve from the tourists, making it one of the best European cities to visit in Winter. It’s the perfect time to visit the famed Uffizi Gallery or Michaelangelo’s David in the Academica without massive lines snaking as far as the eye can see.
Or soak in one of the many natural thermal pools that abound in this region. There are dozens that range from free natural pools in forests to luxury spa experiences. The choice is yours!
With more time, head to the Cinque Terre in nearby Liguria for a day trip or overnight stay. You may be among the only visitors during winter, but those magnificent Mediterranean views from your villa will come at one-third the price of high season.
Chris | Explore Now or Never
7. Take in a Swiss Balloon Festival
See the Balloon Festival in Chateau-d’Oeux, Switzerland! One of the best things to do in Switzerland during the winter is to experience the hot air balloon festival in the small village of Chateau-d’Oex.
This small town is tucked away in western Switzerland in between the villages of Gstaad and Gruyères. This yearly festival has food, drinks, and of course, colorful hot air balloons that cover the sky.
The festival—where twenty countries show off their colorful, creative balloons—happens every year for nine days at the end of January since 1979. On one Wednesday, there is even a day where the festival is dedicated to the children. It is an especially great time to bring the family.
Of course, one of the best things to do during the festival is to ride a balloon. For hours, you’ll drift across the stunning valley of Château-d’Oex with the dazzling sun and the majestic, towering mountains.
It is an incredible experience that should not be missed. The last night of the festival is usually reserved for the famous “Night Glow” show with hot air balloons, para-gliders, fireworks, and music performances as well. This is probably the best day to attend the Château-d’Oex festival.
Michelle | The Wandering Queen
8. Celebrate New Year’s Eve in Edinburgh
When it comes to Edinburgh, Scotland, every season is worth visiting. Despite Britain’s reputation for dreary weather, Edinburgh is also a definitely underrated winter destination!
Edinburgh is one of the most hauntingly beautiful medieval cities in the world. Its winter charm is all the more apparent with a dusting of fresh falling snow. Plus, outside of the busy tourist season, you’ll have the most popular spots to yourself.
It’s a great time for a walking tour, a visit to the Edinburgh Castle or to see the historic underground vaults. You can check prices on these tours—and airport transfers—here.
The lone exception to a peaceful, quiet winter in Edinburgh happens around New Year’s Eve, in the form of a world-famous celebration called Hogmanay. It’s one of the most iconic NYE parties in the world!
“Hogmanay” means the last day of the year in Scottish, and the Scots celebrate it with song, traditional sport and activities, and a decent amount of drinking. (This is Scotland, after all.) Edinburgh throws a massive street party, often featuring well-known musical performers.
Whether you visit Edinburgh to celebrate Hogmanay, explore the Christmas market, or make friends in a welcoming pub, Edinburgh is the perfect European city to spend the winter.
Kaisa | Glam Granola Travel
9. Experience Spanish Holiday Traditions in Seville
The period between Christmas and New Year’s Day is a special time to be in Seville, Spain. Before Christmas, you’ll see the Bélen or “Bethlehem” in shop windows and cathedrals throughout the city.
Unlike in other countries, the nativity scene in Spain typically includes all of Bethlehem, rather than the manger scene. In fact, the feria del Bélen (market) where nativity figurines are sold is one of the largest in Spain!
Connect with a local family to experience New Year’s Eve the local way. You’ll feast on fish and then gobble 12 grapes at midnight. Restaurants offer special menus at this time of year. And finally, take part in the huge parade on January 6th, marking the end of the holidays.
Seville is a must-visit on a visit to Spain any time of year, but it’s also one of the best winter vacations in Europe. You can reserve your tickets to visit the Alcazar and Seville cathedral here.
Chris | Explore Now or Never
10. Go Snowshoeing in Sarajevo
Bosnia is probably not the first country that comes to mind when you think about a winter destination in Europe. But it is not for nothing that in 1984 the winter Olympics were held in its capital, Sarajevo. If you are looking for snow and winter sports, choose Sarajevo!
Sarajevo is surrounded by rolling hills. In winter, they are covered in a thick blanket of snow. The old Olympic mountain resorts Bjeljasnica and Jahorina are less than an hour from Sarajevo and are at the center of winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.
In recent years Sarajevo not only developed hiking trails for summer, but also special snowshoeing trails for winter. Trails start from both Bjelasnica and Jahorina. They go through forests and semi-nomadic mountain villages such as Lukomir and Umoljani.
You will be in a true winter wonderland here with the very best mountain views! Consider a winter tour from Sarajevo, too.
The cozy cafe culture means that a cup of tea to warm up is never far away. And it is not just the mountains that look beautiful in the snow, so does the city of Sarajevo with its scenic old town.
To understand the history of Sarajevo under siege, consider a guided tour. You can reserve a tour here.
Ellis | Backpack Adventures
11. Savor Paris without the Crowds
The City of Lights is magical in winter! Instead of standing in a line for tourist attractions shoulder to shoulder with all the other sweaty tourists in July, mingle with the locals as the spirit of holiday cheer sweeps the city. It’s one of the best European cities to visit in December.
So live like a local! Sip hot chocolate in a cozy cafe or browse the books at Shakespeare & Company. Join the ice skating fun at La Boulogne-Billencourt Rink or taste a Buche de Noel (Christmas cake) at a Paris Christmas market.
As in other seasons, Paris is high fashion in winter, too. So bring your prettiest wool coat and best boots as you duck into some of the world’s most memorable museusm…crowd-free in winter! You can reserve museum tickets and other guided tours to Paris attractions here.
Be sure to walk the Champs Elysées to ogle the boutiques dressed up in their colorful holiday best. And afterward, as night descends, buy some hot chestnuts and mulled wine from a street vendor.
With more time, consider a day trip to see the beautiful cathedral in nearby Chartres or tour the D-day beaches in Normandy. There’s no lavender this time of year in Provence, but it’s sunny and warm and just three hours on the fast train from Paris.
Chris | Explore Now or Never
12. Visit a Reindeer Farm
One of the most unique experiences in Europe in winter is visiting a reindeer farm and learning about the Sami culture in Northern Norway (or anywhere in the north of the Nordics, really).
There are many things to do in Tromsø, Norway during winter but one of the most essential experiences and activities to partake in is visiting a reindeer farm here. While a reindeer sleigh ride isn’t recommended, do enjoy feeding the reindeer and learning about their importance to the Sami people of the North.
Usually visiting one of the farms is coupled with other experiences like sitting in a Sami lavvu (tent) underneath the dark, winter skies in Norway listening to joik (songs) and enjoying a tasty and hearty stew… or seeing the northern lights.
One of the coolest things about visiting a reindeer farm in Northern Norway is that you will get a chance to see these beautiful animals up close and personal. And, they are not scared of interaction with humans.
They will allow you to feed them lichen directly and take a few photos with them. While you can do a lot in the area, from dog sledding in Tromsø to visiting the Tromsø Ice Domes, a trip to a reindeer farm and learning more about the Sami is imperative on a trip to the Arctic.
Megan | MeganStarr.com
13. Go Wine Tasting in Porto, Portugal
Looking for a winter city break in Europe? Head directly to beautiful Porto in Portugal.
This lovely traditional fishing village is a foodie paradise on the beautiful Costa Verde coastline. Be sure to taste some Bacalhau a Bras, a delicious Portuguese stew of potato, egg, olives, and codfish while here.
Six Eiffel Tower-inspired bridges span the Douro River here between Old Town and Vila Nova de Gaia. Unlike steeper Lisbon, Porto is very walkable. It’s easy to take a walking tour of Porto and then cross the bridge into Gaia for tasting at the many port houses that line the river there.
Porto is ideal in winter as milder temperatures prevail. (You can expect temps at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit or 10 to 18 degrees Celsius.)
And if you’re traveling in February, be sure to attend the Simplesmente Vinho festival, which gathers more than 100 winemakers in a one-of-a-kind celebration of food, music, art, and wine.
With more time, book a day trip for port tasting in the lovely Douro Valley. You can check prices and availability on my recommended Douro Valley tour here. I had a lovely day out on this tour!
Heading to Lisbon too? Plan some day trips!
14. Hike in Val Lumnezia, Switzerland
Val Lumnezia in Switzerland is an exceptional destination in the winter. After all, the name means “Valley of Light”, so you can expect nice, sunny weather even in the winter months.
Because it’s in Switzerland, the infrastructure is well developed. You can easily get around by public transport and you will find clean toilets everywhere.
Val Lumnezia offers many ski resorts that include ski slopes for people with all abilities and the views along the way are fantastic! However, if skiing is not really your sport, you can also snowshoe or hike here. There are several well-maintained hiking trails.
Cumbel is a cute village to base yourself in. It is the start of many hiking routes and also just a short walk away from the local ski resort.
The sled route down the mountain is another fun activity that adults and children can equally enjoy. You can take up your sled up the ski lift, so no need to carry it all the way up. It’s also possible to rent sleds on site.
This area has many green initiatives—the ski lifts operate with solar power, for example—so if you want to have an eco-friendly winter holiday, this is the place to go!
Eniko | Travel Hacker Girl
15. Go Dog Sledding in Lapland
Lapland is one of the most amazing places you can visit in the winter. Located in Finland’s northernmost region, the majority of the Finnish Lapland lies above the Arctic Circle but is considered one of the best places for a winter vacation, especially for families.
In fact, the city of Rovaniemi is in the heart of Lapland and is known as the official hometown of Santa Claus. It has millions of visitors each year and is one of the best places to see northern lights and reindeer enjoy a husky ride.
These are working dogs. Huskies and malamutes are common in the uppermost part of the continent as they pull sleds in the deep winter snow. As a result, husky safaris are one of the most popular activities to take part in here and are great for individuals, couples or families.
You’ll choose from a wide variety of packages and tour operators across Lapland, from Rovaniemi to Saariselka. Husky rides range from 20 minutes to several day tours, with overnight stays.
And for those who prefer to skip a husky ride, consider a husky kennel visit where you can learn about these dogs and their way of life.. Typically, you’ll find these opportunities outside of the main cities.
Diana | The Elusive Family
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