12 Best Places to Visit in Europe in Winter
Most people may think of warm-weather vacations as the only logical way to enjoy their time off, but there's something to be said for embracing the icy weather, too. Winter brings about the magic of Christmas, the adrenaline of ski runs down mighty mountains, and the romance of sleigh rides under the starry cold skies.
While not every European city is suited to winter, some just flourish as the temperatures plummet. Take a look at our list of best places to visit in Europe in winter and what makes each so special.
1. Zermatt, Switzerland
During most of the year, Zermatt is a sleepy village. Come winter, though, skiers of all abilities descend upon it to take over the 200-plus kilometers of pistes. Zermatt is a haven for expert skiers, with off-piste opportunities and top stations sitting at altitudes of almost 4,000 meters.
Non skiers will find plenty of things to do in Zermatt as well. For those who want to try snowshoeing and winter hiking, Zermatt offers plenty of sunshine during the colder months, perfect for a walk in the wilderness. There's also tobogganing and sledding, as well as guided hikes for those who want to discover off-the-beaten-path areas.
A great easy trail to try is the 2.2-kilometer walk from Blauherd to Fluhalp, where you can catch sight of chamois grazing on the slopes and the Matterhorn in the distance.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Zermatt: Best Areas & Hotels
2. Bregenzerwald, Austria
The Bregenz Forest is the Zermatt of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. With many kilometers of trails available, chances are good you'll get to enjoy this winter wonderland much on your own.
Clean air and clear skies mean this is the perfect destination for star gazing and night walks. In fact, the area is known for its snowshoeing trips through the forest on full moon nights, as well as its Damüls "cuddle path." This is a romantic five-kilometer path better enjoyed under the stars.
Start at the Zum Glöckle public house, past fairty-tale wooden huts and towards the Alpe Unterdamüls hut. Though the hut is closed in winter, the nearby country inn and restaurant is a great place for a cup of hot chocolate as you reach your destination. It's an easy walk on powdery snow illuminated by the infinite starry sky.
The towns of Au and Bezau are in the Bregenz Forest and offer easy access to ski trails, sledding, and sleigh rides, as well as winter hiking. There's also plenty of things to do indoors when you need a break from the cold, including museums, galleries, and artisan buildings showcasing local handicrafts.
3. Val Thorens, France
Sitting at an altitude of over 2,000 meters with 140 kilometers of pistes, Val Thorens is the highest and most famous ski resort in Europe. The resort is surrounded by dramatic peaks and a blanket of snow as far as the eye can see - great for sports enthusiasts but also truly spectacular to see.
For those who want the beauty without the adrenaline, Val Thorens has plenty to offer off the slopes as well. From snowshoeing and winter hiking to more unusual activities such as mountain biking on snow or sliding down the mountain on France's longest toboggan run. You can try an ice driving course or fly down the mountain on the highest zipline in Europe at hair raising speeds of over 100 kilometers per hour. Or test your true courage with an ice diving experience.
- Read More:
- Top-Rated Ski Resorts in France, 2020
4. Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland is at its best in winter, when the alien-looking landscape is covered in blue ice as far as the eye can see. The land of the eternal glaciers, Iceland offers the kind of adventures you can't find anywhere else in Europe.
Every February, Reykjavik holds the Winter Lights Festival, which showcases light installations and plenty of outdoor activities to celebrate the last month of winter and the upcoming lighter days.
If you're looking to warm up, Iceland is also famous for its many geothermal pools, where you can soak in steaming hot water under the icy midnight sky.
Reykjavik is also the perfect starting point for adventures around the country. From here, you can catch a train or a short flight to other corners of Iceland, where you can do everything from glacier hiking in Vatnajökull National Park to witnessing the 10,000-year-old Great Geyser in action.
Accommodation: Top-Rated Resorts in Iceland
5. Abisko, Sweden
Abisko is often considered the best place to see the northern lights on a budget. This is because the village has a special microclimate that makes catching the dancing lights on the sky a lot more likely than in other Scandinavian destinations. This means shorter stays are needed, which is easier on the budget.
Abisko is also the perfect destination for die-hard winter fans who want to experience cross-country skiing, sledding, snowmobiling, and winter hiking under the never-ending polar night.
The world's first ice hotel is also located nearby - you can either spend a night here in "cozy" -5 degree Celsius temperatures or just take a guided tour to learn about its construction and history.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Abisko
6. Hallstätt, Austria
Hallstätt sits right on the shores of Hallstätter See, full of 12th-century fairy-tale churches and quaint Alpine houses and surrounded by the snowcapped Dachstein Mountains.
Hallstätt is tiny, with a population of under 1,000 permanent residents who live in Alpine timber houses built up on the steep hill slopes.
Equally stunning all year long, Hallstätt really shines when it's covered in snow and ice. If you're feeling up to the task, the best view of winter Hallstätt is from the Hallstatt Skywalk high above town, though reaching it requires a hike not always possible in the depth of winter.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Hallstätt
7. Rovaniemi, Finland
For December travelers, no other destination makes more sense than Rovaniemi, considered the official home of Santa Claus. A fairy-tale place just four kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, the Santa Claus Village feels like a mix of amusement park and Arctic wonderland.
The area around Rovaniemi is a favorite for northern lights tours. Over 200 aurora borealis displays can be seen here every year - one of the highest numbers in Scandinavia.
Even if you don't catch a display of northern lights, Rovaniemi goes through a magical period of Polar Twilight (rather than Polar Night), where the sun will still rise for a couple of hours per day. During these months, bluish, glittering snowdrifts cover everything, providing a magical quality to nature and buildings alike.
The Ounasvaara outdoor area around town is perfect for snowshoeing among snow-covered forests, while Ounaskoski beach is a famous spot for winter swimming under the midnight sun.
When you need some indoor time, Rovaniemi offers plenty of icy breaks, including a snow restaurant, an ice hotel, ice slides and castles - plus a warmer break in the form of the Arktikum Science Museum.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rovaniemi
- Read More:
- Top-Rated Things to Do in Rovaniemi
8. Nuremberg, Germany
Christmas markets are a European staple, and few countries do Christmas markets better than Germany. After all, it's hard to beat the blinking of holiday lights in a medieval town, especially under a soft dusting of December snow. The Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt, which has been around since around the 1500s, is considered one of the best Christmas markets in Germany.
Here, over one hundred stalls sell everything from the famous local "Rauschgoldengel" (gold-foil angel decorations) to the traditional lebkuchen gingerbread against a backdrop of historical buildings.
With shopping done, visitors can catch a holiday concert at the Lorenzkirche church, home to one of the largest organs in the world. Or take a stroll up cobbled streets to the grounds of Nuremberg Castle, then visit the city's toy museum to learn about the centuries-old tradition of wooden toy making.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Nuremberg
9. Prague, Czech Republic
Winter rolls over Prague in early December and lasts well into February, with a dusting of snow regularly covering the Old Town's church spires and red rooftops.
Second only to Germany for its great Christmas markets, the city is lively and busy during the second half of December, as tourists from all over Europe come over for some holiday merriment. February is Masopust or carnival season in Prague - another great time to visit during the cold months to see a fanciful parade of giant puppets and whimsical costumes.
The city that Franz Kafka loved just feels more magical in winter, as ice-skating rinks open all around the city, and medieval churches put on classical music concerts for the delight of visitors.
If you need a break from the cold Prague evenings, Prague is home to many other attractions, including over 100 museums and galleries, an indoor aqua park, one of the oldest libraries in the world (the 12th-century Strahov Library), great shopping, and much more.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Prague: Best Areas & Hotels
10. Bergen, Norway
Arrive in Bergen in January, and you get a few magical things all packed into one. Colorful wooden buildings covered in snow, breathtaking views of the fjords covered in icy mist, and a chance to catch the northern lights dancing over the city.
Bergen's idyllic harbor is a pleasure to explore off-season, as snow covers the fairy-tale-looking landscapes around. Sit at a café near the water to sip some hot chocolate and try kanelboller, Norway's version of a warm cinnamon roll. Then take the funicular to the top of Mount Fløyen for a spectacular view over the entire city.
Fjord cruises run throughout the entire winter, and there's truly no better way to experience the quiet magic of the fjords than from the water. Plus, the Bergen mountains around offer plenty of opportunities to try cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or sledding. The five-hour hike between Mt. Ulriken to Mount Fløyen is a popular winter walk just on the edge of town.
During November and December, the world's largest "gingerbread town" is built within the city of Bergen. And on winter days, when the weather doesn't cooperate, you can get a peak of the country's strong connection to the sea at the Bergen Maritime Museum.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bergen
- Read More:
- Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Bergen
11. Venice, Italy
Venice might surprise you as a winter destination, but there's a reason it often makes the top 10 winter lists. Once the colder months arrive, the tourists leave. This means you mostly get the sleepy streets, Piazza San Marco, and the bridges on the canal to yourself. Just remember to visit before the second half of January, as that's when Carnevale kicks off and things get busy and expensive again.
While Venice might not sound like a snow destination, it can certainly snow in the city, and the canals often freeze in winter, the sun glistening on the ice in a rainbow of lights.
When the canals aren't frozen, you can still catch a gondola ride - just bundle up under a thick blanket as you ride on the misty waters. During December, Venice's largest square is turned into a gigantic ice-skating rink.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Venice: Best Areas & Hotels
- Read More:
- Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Venice
12. Strasbourg, France
Paris might capture the heart of lovers everywhere, but there's a storybook French city on the German border that can do winter charm a lot better than the country's capital. Strasbourg borrows from its neighbor to offer traditional Christmas markets, gigantic Christmas trees, and a dusting of snow as you walk through the stalls with a cup of hot chocolate.
Plus, Strasbourg is an enchanting medieval town famous for its half-timbered houses and picturesque canals that are stunning in any season.
The Franco-German influences can be seen everywhere in Strasbourg, including in its cuisine. No visit to the city is complete without sitting at a café near the water to taste an apple and cinnamon tartes flambées - which literally translates to "pie baked in the flames."
And don't let the winter weather scare you from taking a walk around the cobblestone streets of La Petite France, the oldest section of the city and the most photogenic, where millers and fishermen once sold their fare in the medieval houses that still stand.
The Strasbourg Cathedral, the 17th-century Barrage Vauban, and the Baroque Palais des Rohan are great places to visit in winter. They're particularly stunning in December when decorated in Christmas lights, but they're also a great indoor escape all winter long.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Strasbourg
- Read More:
- Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Strasbourg