Thousands of people flock to Europe in the warm months creating over-crowding and placing a strain on residents and businesses. One way to help ease that strain is to visit during the less popular time of year and enjoy winter city breaks in Europe instead.
Visiting the famous cities of Europe in the winter has multiple benefits. First of all, it helps alleviate some of the over-tourism issues that happen between May and September, something we all need to be conscious of. Secondly, it allows you to explore these great cities without the crowds, line-ups and understandably frustrated residents. Oh and there’s also a good chance your budget will go a lot further due to lower prices in the off-season.
Still need more convincing? We reached out to fellow travelers and travel writers and asked them for their choice of the best European cities to visit in winter.
Travelers Choice for Best Winter City Breaks in Europe
- Paris, France
- London, England
- Florence, Italy
- Edinburgh, Scotland
- Budapest, Hungary
- Athens, Greece
- Lisbon, Portugal
- Vienna, Austria
- Barcelona, Spain
- St Petersburg, Russia
- York, England
- Stockholm, Sweden
- Venice, Italy
- Prague, Czech Republic
- Rome, Italy
- Madrid, Spain
- Porto, Portugal
- Copenhagen, Denmark
Paris is always a great idea, but I especially love it in winter. Why? Because it is a lot less crowded. This usually means locals are less stressed out compared to when they have to fight the hordes of tourists that descend like a plague over the city during the summertime.
As the winter can be hit or miss, I recommend adding a few museums to your winter in Paris itinerary. My favorite one is the Musée d’Orsay. It’s a classic and features some of the most magnificent paintings and sculptures I have seen. And the view from the terrace on top is stunning as well.
For something less touristy, I recommend a cooking class. On our last visit to Paris, my husband and I did a private cooking class with a local. We met our “chef” at an open-air market, went shopping at the local stores. We then went to her home where we cooked, chatted, and got a glimpse of what it is like to live in Paris. Many of those classes (especially the private ones) can be modified for dietary restrictions. And the best part? We got the recipes as “souvenirs”. Now every time I cook the dishes at home, we think of our trip to Paris.
Read more from Maria at Europe Up Close
Some people may not consider a winter city break in London because of the gloomy weather. But, after visiting this historic city several times in the winter we are going to debunk that thought. London never really slows down. But the winter months definitely see fewer tourists which is always a good thing unless you like crowds and line-ups. Plus, due to the less than perfect weather London is full of wonderful indoor activities.
If you enjoy Christmas there are few cities in the world that are more festive than London in December. Think pop-up skating rinks and Christmas markets, incredible light and window displays, and hilarious pantomimes to entertain the whole family.
Once Christmas is over the city may be less colorful but it’s no less vibrant and exciting. London is a city full of amazing museums and art galleries. Plus many of them are free making for hours of visual stimulation without touching the budget. Then there’s London’s famous West End with an exciting variety of live theatre performances. Tickets are often at discounted rates in the winter.
Do you like to shop? You’ll love London with all the famous department stores like Harrods and Selfridges or the fun-filled floors of Hamley’s toy store. Plus, of course, the big sights of Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, and the London Eye. These will also have far fewer people visiting giving you the chance to really enjoy these iconic places.
Finally, London is a wonderful place to escape the weather in one of the many cozy and historic pubs. Even if you don’t imbibe in an alcoholic drink the pubs in London have great food at pretty reasonable prices and there’s often a crackling fireplace to sit by.
There may not be snow but London is definitely one of our favorite winter city breaks in Europe.
Read more from Sarah at Live Dream Discover
Don’t stop with the capital, there are many amazing day trips from London within easy reach by train or car. Click here for the ultimate list!
Florence makes for a lovely winter city break in Europe. Winter daytime temperatures hover in the low fifties Fahrenheit, so you can explore with a light jacket or sweater. You will need warm clothes to walk around outdoors at night. But it’s fun to enjoy hot cocoa at a cafe and people watch.
There are two big pluses to visiting Florence in the winter. First, the crowds are noticeably less. This means you can enjoy all the best things to do in Florence without having to jostle elbows with tons of other visitors. Secondly, accommodation is less expensive, so you can get a nicer place to stay or save a few bucks.
If you’ve been to Italy during the peak summer months, you know how large the crowds can be in popular destinations. Long lines are the norm. It’s difficult to take the time to enjoy art because you have to make way for other people. Well, not so in the winter! You can see David, enjoy all the masterpieces at the Uffizi, and climb to the top of the Duomo without all the frenzy of the summer.
If you visit in December, you must check out the Christmas markets. The market in Piazza Santa Croce is definitely a must-visit. Admire all the Christmas decorations and the nativity scenes, and do some shopping. Bundle up at night and walk around to enjoy the lights!
Dhara from It’s Not About the Miles
Shopping, skating, mulled wine and a bloody big New Year’s Eve party! Where else puts on a show quite like Scotland’s Capital? Edinburgh at Christmas is festive, fun and goes on forever. Each year a new activity is added.
Our cold Edinburgh starts to warm up around mid-November when the shops on Princes Street, George Street, Ocean Terminal (Leith) and The Gyle start lowering their prices for Christmas gift shoppers. If you are looking for something more unique than the high street stores, try the local shops in Leith, Stockbridge, Morningside, and Bruntsfield.
If you visit when it is on, head to the weekly farmer’s market at Stockbridge. There is usually a monthly vintage fair in the city centre too. It’s great for those who live by the zero-waste lifestyle. After that shopping spree, you will have a chill so head to the Christmas Market at Princes Street Gardens. When there, sip a steaming mulled wine or whiskey cocktail at the pop-up Bothy.
Hungry? Grab German bratwurst hot dog. Now you are refuelled, hit the festive huts which sell a mix of Scottish and international products. Now it is time to work off the booze calories at the ice rink in St Andrews Square. Afterward, warm up with hot chocolate at the bar in the middle.
Since you are close by it would be rude not to swing into The Dome to see what all the fuss is. Is it pricey? Yes! Is it worth every penny? Absolutely. The Dome erects a tree in the centre of its downstairs bar every Christmas. A local haunt as well as one visited by tourists. Avoid at weekends though, the lines are painstakingly long.
So now the festive fun is over it is time for the biggest Hogmanay party in the world! On the 31st of December, revellers line the streets and gardens of Edinburgh to listen to live music, dance at public ceilidhs and ring the new year with fireworks.
Read more from Gemma at Two Scots Abroad
With its lack of tourist crowds and a relatively mild winter climate, Budapest in Hungary is one of the best cities in Europe to visit in winter. From a heated cruise on the Danube River to exploring fairytale architecture, there are plenty of things to do in Budapest for a perfect European winter getaway.
You can’t go wrong by simply exploring the historic streets of Budapest. Plus they’re made even more magical with a light dusting of frost in winter. Take in the stunning views over downtown Pest from the popular Fisherman’s Bastion or the Citadel on top of Gellert Hill. Take a brisk stroll down the beautiful Andrassy Avenue or Vaci Utca. After that you can enjoy a warming coffee in one of Budapest’s historic cafes.
Keep the cold at bay by soaking in one of Budapest’s famous hot thermal baths. Try the photogenic Szechenyi Bath or Rudas Bath for its quirky rooftop jacuzzi and amazing views over the river Danube.
Hop on tram number two for a scenic ride along the Danube promenade as you get a different wintry perspective of the river and city. With a fairy-tale castle as a stunning winter backdrop, you can experience ice-skating in City Park. In the evening hit up one of Budapest’s famous ruin pubs for a warming aperitif and hearty local food.
Note: Nathan and I (from Live Dream Discover) have spent lots of time in the beautiful city of Budapest in every season. Despite the cold, we still consider it one of the best European cities to visit in winter.
Read more from Marie at A Life Without Borders
As Athens is filled to the brim with awesome things to do, it makes an excellent year-round destination. However, it is arguably better in the off-season or even winter than it is in summer. Athens in July and August can be absolutely sweltering. Walking around the archaeological sites in the heat of the day can be pretty exhausting. Thankfully, Athens in the winter is cooler. Yet it’s still milder than a cold winter’s day in the rest of Europe’s capital cities. You’ll feel fresh and ready to discover everything from the Acropolis and Hadrian’s Library to the Ancient Agora and the Temple of Zeus. All this while enjoying the winter sun in Europe.
Not only does Athens have some epic outdoor attractions to explore, but it features some great museums to keep you occupied when the weather is not playing ball. Visit the National Archaeological Museum, the interactive Plato museum, and the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum for some interesting things to do indoors.
One of the best things about visiting Athens in winter is that it is much less crowded than in summer. This allows you room to relax without feeling jostled on the streets and ensures your photos are much more authentic without hordes of tourists in the background! Plus, visiting in the off-season means it’s cheaper too, so really, it’s a win-win choice!
Read more from Chrysoula at Travel Passionate
Lisbon in the summer is beautiful, but it is also crowded and hot. Winter means cooler weather and fewer crowds. Visiting in the winter gave us the chance to visit the popular Lisbon Intagram spots and not have to battle for a view or a picture. The weather is cool enough to make exploring on foot comfortable but not so cold to need to bundle all the way up. Lisbon is one of the best European winter destinations because of the more moderate weather.
Belem Tower and Jeronimo’s Monastery get extremely busy in the summer. In the winter, you can walk right in without a line. Enjoy wandering around the streets of Alfama and Bairro Alto without having to push through crowds of tourists. Plus, the streets in the Bairro Alto district get a Christmas makeover with decorations hung across the street. Stop by the Praca dos Restauradoros to see the Christmas decorations there too.
If you are looking for a European winter getaway, you can’t go wrong with a stop in Lisbon. Enjoy the beautiful winter weather in a beautiful European city without fighting any crowds.
Read more from Christine at Live.Love.Run.Travel
Imagine a two-levels ice skating rink the size of a small town across the street from Europe’s biggest theater. Behind, the neo-gothic spires of Vienna’s Townhall, straight out of a Harry Potter book. Now think endless rows of fairytale huts selling mulled wine, savory pastries, Christmas ornaments, and hand-made wool clothing.
I’m not done. By far. Because if you cross the street, you’ll find yourself in Vienna’s old town. Walk in the steps of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Brahms. Discover Freud’s and Klimt’s turn of the century Vienna. Book a concert or go see one of the many excellent museums. Alternatively, you can take a skiing day trip to one of the several world-class resorts around the city. Finally, don’t forget to enjoy famous Viennese cakes and coffee in Café Central or go for a schnitzel at one of the amazing Austrian restaurants.
It’s still Christmas time in Vienna, which means there’s a market in every important square of the city. You can’t top that! Nobody can! And that’s still not it. Vienna in January attracts visitors with famous balls, shopping opportunities, and the promise to have the city all to yourself. All of this makes Vienna one of the best winter destinations in Europe.
Read more from Anca at Dream Book and Travel
I love Barcelona in the winter. It’s my hometown. But after relocating to Singapore and traveling constantly, I only have a certain time period I can visit. And always choose December/January. Why? Well, apart from seeing my family, winter in Barcelona is actually quite pleasant. The crowds of tourists have almost vanished. The temperatures range from around 10-16 C degrees. So while it’s not necessarily beach weather, it is warmer than some other places. This makes it a good choice for a winter sun destination in Europe.
December is particularly festive, as the Christmas season is in full swing. There are gorgeous markets, holiday decorations everywhere, and a variety of unique events to keep visitors and locals entertained. The epic Sagrada Familia hosts its annual Christmas fair that’s been going since the 1960s. Plus the Santa Llucia market is equally wonderful with over 300 stalls. While there is no real “off-season” in Barcelona, the winter months are quieter. Therefore, prices for accommodation often drop and you can save quite a bit.
Read more from Mar at Once in a Lifetime Journey
St Petersburg, Russia
You might not think of St Petersburg as your first choice when deciding on where to go in winter. However, let me tell you why you should reconsider. What makes this imperial city wonderful during this time is the festive atmosphere with plenty of things to see and do. The city is beautiful in the snow as locals prepare to celebrate the cold season. Think spiced glintwein, troika rides, and snow-capped domes.
Considered the cultural capital of the country, it has a long history, dating back to the early 1700s and it has gained a multitude of artistic and architectural treasures. There are also plenty of cultural events and outdoor activities from Ice Hockey at the Ice Palace to skiing at Tsarskoye Selo and sledging at Victory Park. If it’s too cold to be outside, there’s still a lot to keep you busy indoors. No visit to the city is complete without a stop at the Hermitage Museum and the Winter Palace.
Read more from Rai at A Rai of Light
York, in northern England, is perfect for a winter city break. The city centre is compact and filled with brilliant museums including the much-lauded Jorvik Centre which charts the Viking history of the city. York is also home to the vast National Railway Museum which can warrant a whole day of exploration, particularly if you are visiting York with kids.
Much of the centre of York is free from traffic so it’s a joy to wander through by foot. However, the best way to see the city is from the medieval city walls which loop 3.5km around the city. The walls reward walkers with a perfect view of Gothic York Minster and the River Ouse.
York is a great destination for shopping, the narrow alleyways which make up the medieval Shambles are home to enticing gift shops. York has a particularly good range of independent cafes, pubs and restaurants including the famous Betty’s Tea Rooms: the perfect place for an authentic brew and a break from the chilly winter weather.
Read more from Annabel at Smudged Postcard
Most people want to avoid Sweden for the winter and head to warmer climates, but Stockholm does shine and is a fun place to head out to without all the crowds and tourists visiting the popular attractions during the holiday. Besides, the winter theme and imagery of visiting this city with snow in all the neighborhoods make it even more scenic and special.
Getting around the city is easy enough with a fantastic metro system that gets you to every part of the city fast and cheap. Also the ferry system around the bay is also a wonderful way to explore the city and the different sections of the city if you want to check out things from a water vantage point.
You’ll have less crowds and competition to get to all the best attractions, restaurants and entertainment venues around the city, so that is a real bonus for visitors that want to see everything (not that everything is open for the public during the winter season). Even if the weather isn’t cooperating, there are museums, entertainment venues, pubs and restaurants to enjoy in every district of town.
Stockholm is definitely a beautiful place to see and enjoy during the wintertime in Europe. Check out this post on the top things to do in Stockholm for more photos, details and inspiration of what to see and do in the city.
Read more from Noel at Travel Photo Discovery
Venice throws the biggest winter party in Europe each February in the midst of winter. As fog envelops the lagoon, the city lights up with Carnevale, a celebration dating back to the 12th century. Over two weeks, Venice is the place to go for masquerade balls, parties, concerts, and events. Three million people visit the city to take part in the festivities, party and enjoy the spectacle of a city devoted to this hedonistic ritual.
Tickets to the most glittering parties are hard to come by however it is easy to soak up the atmosphere. Visit one of the traditional mask-making workshops and choose a beautiful mask to wear. Mark your diary for the second Sunday of celebrations and the spectacular “Flight of the Angel” reenactment in Piazza San Marco. Watch as an “angel” flies above the piazza suspended on a rope. Then admire the candle-lit gondola parade, a highlight that people travel the world to see.
Read more from Katy at Untold Morsels
Prague, Czech Republic
We love to make our way to Europe over the winter season for many reasons. We especially like to visit the wonderful city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Prague has become increasingly popular over the past few years. So, going in the winter months has its perks – a lot less tourists to compete with! It may be colder, but you’ll still be able to walk around and see the beautiful city; you’ll just have to bundle up a little bit more. And there’s so much to see and do in Prague!
Probably the top reason we recommend Prague specifically in the winter is because of their awesome Christmas markets. Imagine the smell of freshly baked pastries while sparkling lights surround you and live music plays in the background. It’s a winter wonderland in Prague! And with several Christmas markets to choose from, you’ll never run out of places to explore. Prague is truly a magical place and one of the best winter destinations in Europe.
Read more from Hannah at Getting Stamped
Rome has plenty of things to do in all seasons. But in winter, travellers can enjoy the city in a more cosy and intimate way. July and August are the busiest months and all the most popular landmarks are extremely packed. In the summer, whatever time you get into the line it’s likely going to be a long one. In winter, on the other hand, landmarks are less packed. This means you will queue less to enter. Plus inside it won’t be too crowded to prevent you from fully enjoying the place.
Rome is a great Europe winter destination also when it comes to the weather. It’s not too cold and not too rainy. You do need to wear warm clothes, but apart from that, walking in the streets of Rome in winter is more pleasant than during the super hot summer days.
On top of all that, Rome is also a great destination during Christmas. There are lots of events, festive lights, decorations, Christmas trees and beautiful markets.
Read more from Angela at Chasing the Unexpected
Visiting Madrid in winter means that you can enjoy all the touristic places without the normal tourist crowds. Imagine El Prado, the Retiro Park or the Royal Palace with fewer people! You can rub elbows with the locals, enjoy a magical walk in the park or do some Christmas shopping. All the while discovering the local culture. The Spanish capital isn’t as big as it seems. You can easily visit the main attractions in Madrid in 3 days.
As temperatures are lower you can properly enjoy a traditional thick hot chocolate drink accompanied by churros. One of the best places is San Ginés Chocolaterie. This is a place popular with locals as they love to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate.
In December, Madrid transforms into a magical twinkling city. Beautiful lights are strung across the streets and the capital is dominated by the holiday spirit. In Spain, the Three Kings are responsible for the same tasks as Santa Claus. They bring gifts to kids all over Spain, including Madrid.
What does this mean for you, as a visitor in winter? It means Christmas will last longer. Join the locals and do Christmas all over again on the 5th of January, during the Three Kings Procession. It begins in the evening around 6 pm on San Juan de la Cruz and descends along the Boulevard Castellana to Cibeles Square. After a short stop here, the procession continues to the square of Cibeles. The whole event ends with a magical pyrotechnic show.
Read more from Laura at Travelers Universe
Choosing to visit the lovely coastal city of Porto during the winter is a great option. Especially for those who prefer to avoid the crowds and are looking to have a more authentic experience. While you won’t find hot temperatures there during the winter, Porto’s weather is mild and sees plenty of sun year-round. It’s important to keep in mind that you should come prepared for any weather. The city is coastal and a sunny day can quickly turn to rain without warning.
The benefits of visiting Porto during winter extend beyond fewer crowds. With properties lowering their prices to attract more visitors, you will often find that off-season is a much cheaper time of year to travel. Save money, escape the summer hordes and visit Porto during the winter months.
One of the city’s highlights that cannot be missed is taking the 6 bridges boat cruise which takes you on a scenic boat trip along the Douro River. As you pass underneath all 6 of Porto’s bridges, you will learn some of the city’s fascinating history from a local guide while taking in panoramic views.
Another fun activity is to take a tour of one of the wine lodges on the banks of the Douro River. This is a great way to learn about the history of the famous Port wine as you sample it directly from the source!
Read more from Ann at The Road Is Life
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Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.