The best places to visit in Europe in winter time - From snowy mountain peaks to Christmas markets
Spending the winter in Europe each year has quickly become a favourite tradition of mine. Whilst the long summer days on the Mediterranean coast or golden sunsets on warm evenings are wonderful, I feel like Europe just becomes a more magical place in the winter.
Christmas in Europe is always magical. Towns and cities light up with Christmas lights and decorations, the mountains get a beautiful dusting of white snow, the food becomes warming and hearty and people revel in the local traditions of the festive period.
If the cold has been putting you off of travelling to Europe past September, then I promise you that this list of the most beautiful places to visit in Europe during the winter will convince you to embrace the brisk weather, so pack your big coat and let’s go and discover the best winter destinations in Europe.
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1. Hallstatt, Austria - A real life fairytale village
Even if you’ve never been to Hallstatt in Austria, I can guarantee that you’ve probably at least seen photos of it. Hallstatt is one of the most picturesque places you can visit at any time of year, but if you’re visiting Europe in winter then the charming Austrian lakeside town should be at the top of your list. No list of the best winter destinations in Europe would be complete without Hallstatt!
Nestled into a valley in the Austrian Alps, and overlooking the lake Hallstätter See, Hallstatt is a true fairytale village! Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Hallstatt’s Alpine houses date back to the 16th century, but Hallstatt’s history as a human settlement dates back much further to the Iron Age.
The village is located around an hour from Salzburg, either by rail and then over the lake by ferry, or by a long, scenic mountain road. If you are planning a trip to Hallstatt it’s well worth staying in Salzburg for at least a couple of days too! In fact if you are planning on visiting Hallstatt on a tighter budget you’ll find there are more budget friendly accommodation options in Salzburg, then you can just travel into Hallstatt as a day trip.
During the winter Hallstatt is a real wonderland. If you’re planning to take a trip for Christmas in Europe, Hallstatt will definitely feed your wanderlust. The village is beautifully decorated for Christmas with sparkling lights that glow against the white snow. Its well worth visiting before Christmas to enjoy the Christkindlmarkt set up in the Market square too. There are some lovely handmade gifts and decorations that you can purchase as a reminder of your trip. Step into one of the inviting cafes and restaurants for a warming drink after a stroll through the beautiful village.
Hallstatt's best viewpoints
If you’re into landscape photography and capturing great views, Hallstatt is certainly one of the best places to visit in Europe in winter.
There are a number of great viewpoints in Hallstatt, but here are a few of the best ones for amazing views and photographs:
- The World Heritage Skywalk – a fantastic viewpoint that gives you panoramic views 350m above Hallstatt and it’s surrounding lakes and mountains. You can reach it either by funicular or by walking up the steep hillside path.
- From the lakeside – There are some beautiful spots along the lakeside in the village where you can see lovely views of the chocolate-box alpine buildings nestled into the mountainside. A sprinkling of snow makes it even more magical.
- From the water – If you arrive via train you’ll have to take the small ferry that connects the village of Hallstatt to the train station on the other side of the lake. Be sure to have your camera ready when you board as the views as you approach the village are spectacular.
Other things to do near Hallstatt:
2. Bruges Belgium - A romantic city break in Europe in winter
Well deserving of a spot on the list of beautiful places to visit in Europe in winter, Bruges, also known as the Venice of the North, really sparkles during the colder months. Thousands flock to the romantic capital city of Belgium’s West Flanders region around Christmas time to enjoy the festive food, markets and decorations.
Bruges is easily recognisable with it’s distinctive medieval architecture, cobbled streets and numerous canals. In the city centre you’ll find the famous Markt Square where you’ll find grand buildings like the Provincial Court and of course, the Belfry Tower.
I’d recommend going to the top of the Belfry Tower to get a view over Bruges as one of the first things you do in the city. Not only is it a spectacular view up there, but it’s also great for getting your bearings. Looking down from the tower during the winter you’ll also see all of the beautiful Christmas market stalls and lights that take over the city from above.
Another thing I’d absolutely recommend in Bruges is to take the Legends of Bruges free walking tour. The guides are fantastically entertaining and teach you the history of the beautiful Flemish city of Bruges with a few good legendary tales mixed in for good measure. It’s an easy city to walk around too, so as long as your shoes are cobblestone-friendly it’s pretty accessible.
Get in the Christmas sprit with some traditional Belgian treats
So what makes Bruges one of the best winter destinations in Europe? The Christmas markets of course! If you are visiting Bruges during the winter you definitely don’t want to miss out on the cosy Christmas markets that spring up throughout the city.
The Christmas markets in Bruges are some of my favourites in the whole of Europe. What Belgium does spectacularly with beer, chocolate and waffles all the year round, is done in excess at the markets. Venture into the Markt Square after dark and soak up the festive atmosphere of fairy lights, live music and indulgent hot food and boozy drinks.
Looking for things to do in Bruges? Check out these activities:
3. Budapest Hungary - Escape the cold of Europe in winter in a thermal bath
Budapest is well known for being one of the most photogenic cities in Europe, and winter in the Hungarian capital certainly does not disappoint.
How to escape the cold in Budapest during the winter
Bisected by the River Danube, the two sides of the city, Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht), have plenty to offer visitors, despite the bitter chill in the air.
One of the most enjoyable things to do in Budapest in the winter is visiting one of the many thermal baths in the city. The city’s largest thermal bath, Szechenyi Bath, is open all year around and is the perfect place to thaw out and enjoy the medicinal benefits of the geothermal pools.
Architecture and atmosphere
The architecture in Budapest is world famous and with good reason! Even if you’ve never visited Budapest before you’re most likely familiar with the Parliament building that dominates the view of the the River Danube. The architecture of the building is quite simply outstanding and has a fairytale like quality to it. The combination of shimmering white stone and multiple spires reaching up to the sky are seriously swoon-worthy.
If you think the outside of the Hungarian Parliament Building was stunning, then the 691 ornately decorated rooms within will definitely peak your interest too. It’s well worth booking a tour of the Parliament Building to find out more about its history, architecture and current function. Tours run in several languages an last roughly 45 minutes. Be sure to book in advance to avoid disappointment.
To get an amazing view of the Hungarian Parliament Building, as well as the Pest side of the city, head over to the Fisherman’s Bastion. Another architectural wonder in itself, the structure looks as though it should be some kind of Disney castle. The fairytale balconies and pointed towers crown Buda Castle Hill and offer beautiful panoramas over the city. On a chilly winter morning be sure to head up to the Fisherman’s Bastion early to capture the view with a layer of atmospheric fog. If you are lucky enough to visit Budapest when it is snowing you may even see that the Danube is frozen over and the buildings covered in a dusting of white snow.
Find an awesome place to stay in Budapest:
4. Paris France - The chic French capital gets its glow on at Christmas
Is Paris one of the most hyped up destinations in Europe? Yes. Is it usually rammed with tourists all year round (not including 2020 perhaps)? Yes. Is it still an amazing city to visit in Europe in winter? Absolutely!
The truth is that the city of love only becomes more magical with a sprinkling of fairy lights and festivity. Paris is well know for having some of the best tourist attractions in the world, including outstanding museums such as the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay and galleries like Musee de l’Orangerie which alone make Paris well worth a visit. Add in festive lights down the Champs-Élysées and the chance of getting a glimpse of the Eiffer Tower in the snow and a winter break in the French capital is a total no-brainer!
If you want to see the ultimate in Christmas tree decorations be sure to visit Galeries Lafayette! When I visited around Christmas they had the most magnificent HUGE tree suspended from the ceiling with some truly over the top lights and decorations thrown in for good measure! Another top tip is to head to the roof of the department store where you’ll get a stunning view over the city.
Where to eat authentic French cuisine on a budget
One of the less attractive things about visiting Paris can be the prices to eat in a restaurant. However, finding authentic French dishes and an amazing atmosphere doesnt have to cost the Earth.
I’d been doing a bit of research on where to eat in Paris and knew I had to give Le Bouillon Chartier a visit. A ‘Bouillon’ is a traditional French canteen style restaurant, based on the concept of serving good quality food quickly, and for an affordable price. Although the food won’t win any prizes for fantastic presentation, everything we tries was delicious, and the speedy service, atmosphere and prices certainly exceeded expectations.
After stuffing ourselves on a number of dishes at Le Bouillon Chartier, we walked through charming Montmartre up to the Sacré-Coeur. This whole area of Paris is breathtaking with all the Christmas decorations up!
A very Disney Christmas
We can’t talk about fairytale Christmas destinations without giving a mention to Disneyland Paris now can we? If you’re going to be in Paris at Christmas and haven’t already made other plans, I’d totally recommend visiting Disneyland just for the atmosphere.
Disney does Christmas to the extreme. Expect the lights, music and decorations ev-er-y-where! For the kids (and lets be real – the adults too) the character parade is a must see, and there are plenty or rides to keep you occupied throughout the day.
Top tips for visiting Disney at Christmas:
- Book your ticket in advance! Spend less time queueing on the day and more time in the park
- Wrap up warm – December in Paris is cold! I had several layers on and to be honest it still wasn’t enough. We’re talking fleece lined everything!
- Make lunch reservations. We queued for a LONG time to get into the buffet restaurant at lunch time, if we visited again I’d definitely make lunch reservations in advance
- Stick around for the fireworks – even more so at Christmas, the lights and firework display at Disneyland is epic, and includes Christmas tree lights that are synced to the music!
5. Nuremberg Germany - The home of Christmas market
Visit Nuremberg’s Old Town for a delightful stroll through some gorgeous traditional Bavarian architecture – the half-timbered houses on Weißgerbergasse are a must-see!
In the Old Town you can also visit Nuremberg Castle, an impressive medieval fortress raised on a hill of sandstone and connected to the city walls. The castle also houses a museum and offers stunning views over the rooftops of the city. Head up here in the evening with your camera for some really beautiful photos of the city lit up.
Nuremberg Christmas Market
Nuremberg’s main event is of course its HUGE Christmas market. The market usually takes place throughout December and can be found in Nuremberg’s main market square. Be sure to visit on an empty stomach, as you’re sure to want room for all the traditional German winter fare, such as sausages, gingerbread, chocolate and mulled wine.
In fact Christmas is such a big event in Nuremberg that there are Christmas shops open all year round selling the most beautiful Christmas ornaments and gifts.
Add a day trip to Bamberg to your itinerary for winter in Europe
Just 30 minutes away from Nuremberg is the town of Bamberg, and it’s a great little day trip to take if you have time to do so whilst you are there. Bamberg is another quintessential German medieval town with plenty to see and do in a day.
One of the must-sees in this pretty little town is the Altes Rathaus, which is Bamberg’s Old Town Hall. The timber clad building sits on it’s own little island in the River Regnitz. The building’s exterior is also decorated with some fantastic hand painted frescoes.
Another charming spot in Bamberg is ‘Little Venice’, which as you can guess by the name, is a beautiful little part of the town along the water’s edge. The colourful timber framed buildings are decorated with pretty flower boxes and make for perfect pictures!