Winter in Europe (December to February) is a magical time. A crisp chill permeates the air, the large crowds of warm-weather tourists have gone home, and festive cheer brights up even the darkest days.
Each European country celebrates winter in its own way. The further north you travel, the more focus there is on winter activities fuelled by snowy landscapes.
If you head south, you’re more likely to experience a mild winter with plenty of sunshine. If you’re visiting Europe in December, no matter what country you’re in, the warm nostalgia of a holiday market isn’t hard to find.
If any of this has piqued your interest, here are the top bucket-list destinations in Europe for winter travels.
- 1 Best European Winter Destinations for Nature Fans
- 2 Best European Cities to Visit in Winter for Christmas Markets
- 3 Best Winter Destinations in Europe for Skiing
- 4 Where to Take a Winter Vacation in Europe to Beat the Cold
Best European Winter Destinations for Nature Fans
There’s nothing more whimsical in wintertime than when the landscape is blanketed in shimmering white. If you’re a nature lover, these places will supply the best winter vacations in Europe.
Lapland, Finland is located in the northernmost area of the country. If you’re after a snowy escape, this region will provide the ultimate frosty winter vacation in Europe.
With fun activities like husky dog sledding, snowshoeing, and snowmobile safaris, it’s perfect for winter-thrill seekers. However, if relaxing is more your jam, there are plenty of options for that too.
Destress in a Finnish sauna, go on a magical reindeer sleigh ride or have a few drinks in an ice hotel.
Winter is also a great time to see the Northern Lights in Finland. Keep your eyes peeled for clear nights when stars illuminate the sky.
If you’re travelling to Europe in winter with kids, make sure to travel to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi and meet the most famous jolly old elf.
This village is actually open year-round, but a heavy coating of snow makes the experience all the more special.
Iceland takes the cake when it comes to dramatic wintery scenery. The snow doesn’t bury the landscape as you might think, but instead accentuates it.
Some attractions close during the winter months, but most of the main highlights remain open. These include the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, glaciers, waterfalls, and ice caves.
Many of the museums and cultural attractions in Iceland also remain open during winter. If the weather isn’t great, pop into a museum and learn about Icelandic art, sagas, maritime history, and the fishing culture.
Iceland’s biggest winter draw is the Northern Lights.
Although you have a shot at seeing them anytime from October to April, the darker months of December, January and February produce the best conditions for viewing this natural phenomenon.
Norway is a Scandinavian country with a proper wintery landscape. Northern Norway is especially magical.
There is so much you can experience during the colder months, from dog sledding and downhill skiing to scenic train journeys and staying in an ice hotel.
If you’re keen on seeing the Northern Lights, head to the city of Tromsø. It sits in the middle of the “Northern Lights Belt” and has the optimal latitude for viewing this colourful phenomenon.
Alta, Norway is a winter destination perfect for an adventurous trip. Ice fishing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling are just some of the activities you can enjoy in the snowy wilderness.
If you want to immerse yourself in the local culture, take an exciting reindeer sledding expedition with Sami guides.
If you’re a fan of a cosy Christmas, Norway is one of the best places to visit in December in Europe. Norwegians love to put extra effort into making Christmas as homey and festive as possible.
It’s not as overly commercialised as other countries. Norway paints the picture of a story-book Christmas scene. Think candles in windows, roasted chestnuts, and crackling fires.
With frost-covered trees, snow-dusted castles, and towering mountain ranges that sparkle white, Slovenia is one of Europe’s wintertime hidden gems.
Winter is a very romantic time to visit the town of Bled. The lake freezes over and the tiny church on the centre island somehow becomes more photogenic.
Do a loop around the lake while breathing in the fresh mountain air. Picture opportunities of this idyllic fairytale scene will abound.
Afterwards, do what the locals do and warm up with some wine tasting and appetizers in the cosy little town centre.
For more fairytale winter scenes, visit Triglav National Park. With beautiful lakes, magical waterfalls, and snow-laded scenery, this is a dream destination for nature lovers.
The country’s largest lake, Lake Bohinj, is housed inside the park. It freezes over in winter and is framed by the breathtaking Julian Alps and lush snow-covered spruces.
Best European Cities to Visit in Winter for Christmas Markets
If you really want to get in the holiday spirit, a European Christmas market will do the job. Most markets are open from mid to late November to early January.
Here are the best European cities to visit in December to soak in the cheerful, festive atmosphere.
Zurich is one of Europe’s most charming cities year-round. You can just imagine what happens when fairy lights are strung and festive wooden stalls spring up. The whole city transforms into a picture-perfect Christmas scene.
Christkindlimarkt at Zurich Central Station – This market is held in Zurich Central Station. It’s filled with over 150 stalls, making it one of Europe’s largest indoor Christmas markets.
You’ll definitely find whatever gift you’re searching for. The massive Christmas tree dazzled in Swarovski crystals is the focal point and an absolute must-see.
Wienachtsdorf Market – 100 cosy stalls give this market a village-like atmosphere. Local designers sell their goods and a nice cheese fondue isn’t hard to find.
A large ice rink and a traditional carousel give it a lovely family-friendly appeal.
Niederdorf Old Town Christmas Market – This is Zurich’s oldest Christmas Market. It’s held in the Niederdorf quarter, in the old town.
It’s known for being a little less busy than Zurich’s other markets, especially during the day. Dozens of festive stalls sell traditional holiday goodies and gifts.
If you’re a fan of glühwein (mulled wine) and mouth-watering baked goods, the capital of Germany is one of the best places to go in Europe in December.
Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt – Craftsmen from all over the world sell custom-made gifts at this magical German market.
Countless food-stands offer German delicacies, like savoury bratwurst, crispy kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes), and hearty stollen (German Christmas cake). Entertainment is a daily feature, from dancers and fire-throwers to choirs and brass bands.
Winter World on Potsdamer Platz – This market has a few special features. It contains Europe’s largest toboggan slide and hosts lively DJs in the evenings.
Walk around with a glass of glühwein and a decadent Nutella crepe while browsing the traditional Christmas stalls.
Jolly old England is a dream destination for Christmas fanatics, and London is the epicentre of the holiday festivities. With so much going on, it’s easily one of the best places in Europe to visit in December.
Winter Wonderland – Each year, Hyde Park is the setting for one of Europe’s largest Christmas markets. The whole area transforms into a magical Christmas village.
The atmosphere is high-energy, with thrilling roller coaster rides, live concerts, lively bars, and even karaoke.
There is no shortage of food options. Whether you fancy a German sausage or a vegan/vegetarian meal, there’s something for all tastes.
Kingston Christmas Market – If you’re looking for something a little more “classic Christmas”, this market has a lovely Nordic theme.
Traditional wooden stalls sell festive, handmade gifts and the scent of mulled wine and German street food permeates the air.
Prague, Czech Republic
With a medieval backdrop of century-old buildings, Prague is a holiday postcard for an old-world Christmas.
Old Town Square Christmas Market – This is the setting for the biggest Christmas Market in the city. Shop hand-made wooden toys, puppets, and ornaments. The quality is top-notch and will last for years to come.
Make sure to indulge in a trdelnik as you wander. This classic Czech treat consists of a sweet rolled dough grilled and dusted with sugar.
Wenceslas Square – Prague’s second-largest Christmas market shines bright. It’s hosted in the heart of the historic city centre. Enjoy a bit of sightseeing with a holiday twist.
Kids can warm up with a cup of hot cocoa, and adults can savour a steaming glass of grog (a blend of rum, hot water, lemon, and sugar).
The city of Vienna has a romantic Christmas atmosphere. With a light dusting of snow, the beautiful baroque buildings that fill the city look even more enchanting than usual.
Christmas World at City Hall – With a backdrop of Vienna’s magnificent City Hall building, this is the city’s most popular Christmas market.
Over 150 market stalls sell a treasure trove of festive gifts, from candies and schnapps to jewellery and decorations.
Fun attractions, like a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and an ice rink will keep the children happy, and there’s lumumba (hot chocolate with cinnamon and rum) for the adults.
Christmas Market Stephansplatz – Hosted in front of the beautiful St. Stephen’s Cathedral, this market is right in the city centre.
More than 40 stalls are huddled around a dazzling Christmas tree selling festive fare from all over Austria.
Best Winter Destinations in Europe for Skiing
Whether you’re a first-time skier or a pro, this fun wintery sport can be enjoyed by all. Europe is known for its amazing ski resort towns. Here are a few spots that will not disappoint.
Trentino is a province in Northern Italy that contains some of the best spots for skiing in Europe.
The area is rich in natural beauty and renowned for its dramatic mountains, most notably, the Dolomites. Trentino encompasses a large area of the country and boasts a multitude of ski destinations.
Madonna di Campiglio is one of Trentino’s most popular ski resorts. There is 150 km of well-maintained slopes, almost all of which can be accessed by chairlifts.
Although all skill levels are welcome, this resort is geared more towards intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders.
San Martino di Castrozza offers scenic skiing at its best. It’s one of the most mesmerizing locations of any Trentino mountain resort. There are 60 km of piste for all skill levels, from beginners to experts.
Paganella Ski Resort is perfect for families. There are confidence-boosting runs for learners, kids, and families, as well as ski schools.
Davos is a ski resort town in the middle of the Swiss Alps. It has the highest elevation of any city in Europe and is a wintery playground for all snow sports enthusiasts.
There is an endless amount of terrain that features wide slopes, long runs, and 300 km of pistes. Most resorts in town are geared towards strong-intermediate to advanced skiers, with some beginner slopes for building confidence.
Davos is a bit pricey. But if you don’t mind splashing some cash, the town is one of the best winter European vacations for skiers.
St Anton, Austria
St Anton is an Austrian village tucked into the majestic Tyrolean Alps. It’s considered the gateway to the Arlberg ski region and referred to as the “cradle of alpine skiing.”
Although there are slopes for all skill levels, St Anton caters especially well to expert skiers and snowboarders. There are plenty of challenging runs and off-piste possibilities.
When you’re done hitting the slopes, the charming town will supply you with plenty of entertainment options. With numerous nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and shops, there’s always something fun to do.
Where to Take a Winter Vacation in Europe to Beat the Cold
If you prefer sun over snow, you’re in luck. There are some amazing warm-weather destinations in European where you can dodge the winter chill completely.
The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago with a rugged volcano landscape and endless coastlines.
The temperatures in winter are mild and hover around a comfortable 22°C. Rain is also uncommon during this time. As opposed to the busy summer season, the tourists thin out during winter, providing for a more relaxing retreat.
Water themed excursions, like whale watching and snorkelling and kayaking tours, aren’t hard to come by either.
Fuerteventura is the second-largest Canary. It’s a popular island for water sports and hiking. It’s my personal favourite island and I’m even considering spending winter there this year.
The Azores, Portugal
The Azores of Portugal are made up of nine major islands in the North Atlantic ocean. They’re sparsely populated and full of unspoiled, natural beauty.
The weather averages around 17°C in winter. It’s not exactly beach weather, but still very enjoyable. Activities wise, whale watching tours, hiking, and every water-themed excursion you can think of are popular with visitors.
São Miguel is the largest and most popular island. It’s the easiest to fly into and offers plenty of things to see and do.
Terceira island is the second most popular island. Beautiful natural pools line the island’s green countryside, and scenic vineyards cover the lush, volcanic soil.
Pico is one of the top islands for whale watching in the Azores. It’s also popular for avid hikers. Mount Pico dominates the landscape and offers incredible views from the top.
Seville is the capital city of the Andalusia region of southern Spain. Known for its striking architecture, Moorish heritage, Flamenco dancing culture, and abundance of tapas bars, there’s something for everyone.
Unlike the extreme temperatures produced in summer, the winter average of 17°C makes outdoor exploration very pleasant. Much of Seville is compact and walkable, especially in the city centre where many iconic buildings reside.
The Royal Alcázar of Seville is a lavish Moorish-Renaissance palace full of wonder and beauty.
The Seville Cathedral holds the title for the fourth-largest church in the world and the largest Gothic church. The well-manicured Parque de María Luisa is a public park and a nice spot to cool down on a warm day.
Athens is a wonderful year-round destination. The average temperature in winter is between 13°C and 15°C, so it never gets too cold. It’s the kind of weather that makes getting lost in the city most enjoyable.
Winter is also less busy, meaning you won’t have to battle with as many tourist crowds when exploring attractions like the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the Temple of Olympian Zeus.
You won’t sizzle under the sun when hiking up Mount Lycabettus, the highest point in Athens. You also probably won’t have to wait too long to get a seat at a Greek restaurant either.
Europe in Winter: Final Thoughts
Visiting Europe in winter is always a good idea. There’s loads to do and so many different countries to enjoy.
Whether you feel like a snowy retreat focused on winter activities, a Christmas themed vacation, or a sunny beach holiday, there’s something for everyone.
And, in most cases, winter is the cheapest time to travel to Europe. You can score out on some amazing flight and accommodation prices. It’s a win-win!
I tried to include all the best destinations for a fun winter trip to Europe. I hope you find this guide useful in planning your own European winter holiday!