Traveling in the off-season is a great way to beat crowds, save money, and make some cozy memories.
There are devotees of warm-weather vacations among us, who refuse to look north until May rolls around. But there’s something to be said for embracing the season and following the deep freeze. In fact, a 20-degree-Fahrenheit day in Europe can be—dare we say it—blissful. The continent’s best cities are refreshingly crowd-free and inexpensive during the colder months, and they offer some seriously cozy experiences that will make you forget about the beach altogether. Whether you’re shopping a holiday market or sipping hot chocolate in a riverside cafe, you’ll be happy you’re in one of these 11 European cities when the temperature drops.
1. Vienna, Austria
Vienna was voted the best city in Europe in this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards—a title that holds true no matter the season. But we’re particularly fond of the Austrian capital in the winter, when you can double down on hot chocolate and Sacher torte, watch free outdoor simulcasts of the opera (loads of people attend, even when it’s freezing), listen to classical holiday concerts, and Instagram Schönbrunn Palace and St. Charles Church (pictured) covered in snow.
2. Bruges, Belgium
Europe’s best-preserved medieval city is also one of its most charming, especially during the holiday season. Split your time wandering the cobblestone streets, ice skating at the Christmas market, and warming up with mugs of Belgian hot chocolate in cafes.
3. Edinburg, Scotland
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Festival—a three-day bacchanal celebrating the New Year, with outdoor concerts, fireworks, and dancing Scots—is reason enough to book a trip to the city. Not much of a partier? Shop for some cashmere along the Royal Mile; then curl up with your new scarf on and whisky in hand at the speakeasy-style Panda and Sons. You can also work up a sweat skiing in Pentland Hills Regional Park or walking among the winter-flowering plants at the Royal Botanic Garden.
4. Budapest, Hungary
Winter is, hands down, the best time to visit Budapest. Seeing the Hungarian Parliament surrounded by ice drifts on the Danube could make even the strictest of beach bums embrace the cold. And you’re sure to find all of those grand cafes, museums, and thermal baths infinitely more welcoming after spending a few chilly hours exploring the city.
5. Prague, Czech Republic
No city transforms into a winter wonderland quite like Prague, when a dusting of snow coats St. Charles Bridge and Old Town’s church spires. Add to that some of Europe’s best Christmas markets outside of Germany—where even the most jaded traveler will succumb to the trdelník (fried dough) and mulled wine—and you have yourself a vacation frontrunner.
6. Bergen, Norway
Bergen has all the makings of an idyllic Nordic village: colorful wooden buildings, scenic harbor, and sweeping views of the surrounding fjords. The town looks beautiful in the summer, sure, but it’s during the winter months that you get to view the Northern Lights during their peak season. If you’re going to be freezing up in Scandinavia, you might as well get to cross an astronomical item off your bucket list.
7. Paris, France
Paris is always a good idea. During the winter, it’s a great idea. The City of Light becomes even more dazzling with seasonal additions like The Peninsula hotel’s Christmas market and museum-worthy Christmas displays at Galeries Lafayette. Most magical of all? The notorious lines to get into Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower shrink to a fraction of their usual lengths.
8. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Slovenia’s capital city is a real-life fairytale setting, come sunshine or snow flurries. Visit during December to see the Baroque architecture surrounded by Christmas lights; or dodge the crowds and book a trip after the holidays, when you’ll have tons of room to stroll the pedestrian-only Old Town and sip coffee by the riverside cafes. You can also add Lake Bled and the Julian Alps to your itinerary, as Ljubljana makes the perfect base for Slovenian day trips.
9. Venice, Italy
Venice has become notoriously overrun during peak season—just see the its recent attempts to limit tourist numbers for proof. But come wintertime, the city actually lives up to its La Serenissima (“The Serene”) nickname. The canals are quiet and shrouded in mist, hotels give discounted rates, and you can actually visit St. Mark’s Basilica without a stranger’s selfie stick poking you in the eye.
10. Berlin, Germany
Germany is known around the world for its Christmas markets—its capital city alone has more than 60 of them, including the incredibly picturesque WeihnachtsZauber, which is surrounded by such landmarks as Französischer Dom and the Konzerthaus. But don’t think the Berlin’s wintery appeal starts and ends with the holidays. Travelers can enjoy the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants, buzzing nightclubs, and edgy museums well into the early months of 2018.
11. Lucerne, Switzerland
Visiting Switzerland during ski season is a no-brainer, but most snow bunnies won’t venture outside their respective resort towns. This year, make your Swiss vacation more unique and book a trip to Lucerne. The gorgeous city features activities you won’t find on the slopes—like museum tours and ferry rides on Lake Lucerne—while still offering travelers easy access (via train and bus) to 24 winter sport resorts.
There are plenty of ways to stay warm in Europe during winter, as well as many other experiences to consider such as a river cruise with Ama Waterways visiting the Christmas markets. Chat with us and explore more options, you’ve got nothing to lose.