13 Magical Spots For a Winter Vacation in Europe

Georgie Darling

London, UK

Europe is the birthplace of hygge culture: the Danish word for all things comfy and cosy. If tropical getaways aren’t your thing, than Europe is the perfect spot to hunker down and cozy up this winter season. Wake up to snow-capped mountains in Slovenia, walk cobbled streets in Tallinn, shop at cheerful Christmas festivals in Bruges, drink glassfuls of gluehwein (mulled wine!) in Nuremberg, and so much more. Already packing your bag? Us too. Grab your warmest jumper and get ready to explore 13 of Europe’s best winter vacation destinations this season:

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Winter vacation
Lake Bled, Slovenia

Beat the crowds by visiting Lake Bled in the winter. This quiet Slovenian town might seem rather sleepy once high season passes, but that makes it the perfect winter vacation retreat if you’re looking to spend some one-on-one time with nature.

If you stare out into the water of Lake Bled, you’ll spot Bled Island, a tiny dot that’s home to both the Church of the Assumption and a museum. Take a gondola out to the island for a truly authentic experience with postcard-perfect views. When you’re back on the mainland, it’s only a 6km stroll around the entire lake, so if you’ve stuffed yourself silly at nearby rustic Gostilna Pri Planincu, it’s a beautiful and relatively easy walk. If possible, time the end of your stroll for sunset to watch the colours ripple across the water.

When it comes to attractions, explore the oldest castle in Slovenia, try the famous cream cake made of vanilla cream and puff pastry, and check out the waterfall at nearby Vintgar Gorge.

Tallinn, Estonia

Over in eastern Europe you’ll find Tallinn: an up-and-coming cultural hub in Estonia. Combine picturesque buildings, medieval stone walls, and enchanting cobblestone streets and you get a dreamy European city, perfect for winter getaways.

Tallinn’s Old Town is the place to be for a throwback to olden times this winter vacation, where locals will stroll the streets in full medieval get-up. If you’re a fan of music, Kohtuotsa Viewing Platform provides the perfect combination of gorgeous views of the city and a variety of musical sounds (it’s where local musicians love to hang out).

Estonians are big fans of coffee culture, much like their Nordic cousins, so visit RØST Bakery and kill a few hours people watching. You’ll spot breathtaking architecture like the Russian-orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, but make sure to save time to dig into some food and cocktails at Rataskaevu 16, a cosy spot with Estonian cuisine. Want to continue the historical theme? Check into the Knight House at Ruutli 16, a hostel that used to be home to knights back in the 13th century. 

Bruges, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium. MarkoV87 / Shutterstock.com

Home to one of Europe’s most magical Christmas markets, Bruges (also spelt “Brugge”) is an must-visit spot if you’re a lover of the holiday season.

Once you’ve had your fill of Belgian waffles and Gluhwein, wander up to the top of the Belfry for spectacular views of the city— it’s worth every one of the 366 steps. On your way to the Chocolate Museum you’ll pass plenty of canals and cobbled streets, while the Gruuthuse Hof restaurant (one of the oldest in the area) will provide the backdrop for an authentic dinner.

If you’re feeling particularly indulgent, head to the Chocolate Cafe and feast your eyes (and your stomach) upon the extensive hot chocolate menu. If you find yourself falling in love with Belgian architecture and festive markets, hop on a train to nearby Ghent: a university town offering more beautiful sights a mere 25 minutes away. 

Bergen, Norway

Bergen, Norway.

Bergen might technically be a city, but it’s surrounded by enough mountains and sweeping fjords to make you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere (in the best way possible). If the chilled weather doesn’t put you in the mood for hiking, don’t fear, because the Fløyen cable car will ensure you can still admire the city from above without reaching for a second jumper.

Other must-see spots include the Hanseatic Museum and Schøtstuene, which is one of the oldest wooden buildings in Bergen, and Bryggeloftet & Stuene for authentic Nordic dishes like moose and wolf-fish. Hotels not your thing? Spend a night at the world’s most sleekly designed rabbit hole: Tubakuba. Available to rent on a nightly basis, it’s just outside the centre and offers magnificent sights. 

Lucerne, Switzerland

Lucerne, Switzerland.

Lucerne might be small, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bursting with things to do. No matter where you decide to base yourself in the city, you’ll definitely pass the majestic Chapel Bridge, which connects the Old City to the rest of Lucerne. It’s also the oldest covered bridge in Europe, so you’ll be picking up a bit of history on your trip to this Swiss beauty. A boat trip of the Vierwaldstattersee is a must, and book a morning tour to watch the mist rise and the mountains reflect on the water.

Central Switzerland’s terrain has a brilliant reputation for being both challenging and satisfying, so combat the handfuls of Swiss chocolate you’ve been feasting on with a hike up Mount Pilatus, nicknamed Dragon Mountain based on various medieval legends. Potter around the (traffic free) Old Town and wander down the cobbled streets to check out the Christmas market filled with stalls resembling miniature timber houses.  

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague, Czech Republic.

Prague’s winter markets and cheap price point makes it the perfect destination for a winter vacation in Europe. You’ll have spied many a snow-covered Instagram shot taken from the centre of Charles Bridge and there’s a good reason for that: it’s the midpoint of the city, offering a bit of everything.

Watch the Astronomical Clock strike before tucking into a dish from one of Prague’s many traditional restaurants nearby; Restaurace Mincovna is known for its hearty potions. Czech food is pretty carb and meat heavy, warming you from the inside and helping you deal with the cooler temperatures. Both beer and wine are cheap in Prague, giving you the opportunity to sample a variety of local favourites while you’re in the city.

If you really want to channel some “Netflix Christmas special” vibes, spend a few hours inside Prague castle. November and December are picture-perfect times to visit, and if you’re in the city on Mikuláš (St Nicholas Day, 5th December) you’ll spot locals dressed up as saints, devils, and angels as part of a festive tradition. Hold off until January or early February for a less touristy experience. 

Saariselkä, Lapland

Is there anywhere better to head this time of year than the home of Santa himself? Saariselkä in Lapland might be difficult to pronounce, but this village in northern Finland is worth the stumbling tongues. Saariselkä borders the mountainous Urho Kekkonen National Park, which offers incredible snow-capped sights all around you.

Try traditional local dishes like Inarijärvi lake fish and smoked reindeer (don’t think too much about Rudolph) and head to Pirkon Pirtti to eat surrounded by their cosy wooden interiors. Husky-sledding takes the top position of things to do here (and it’s definitely an experience to write home about afterwards — hold on tight!) but you can also toboggan down ice slides, float with icebergs, and sleep in igloos while in Saariselkä. 

Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg, Germany. Perati Komson / Shutterstock.com

You’ve heard of Berlin, you’ve been to Frankfurt, but where you should really be going this season is Nuremberg. Known for its controversial history and storybook-esque winding streets, it’s a mixed bag of a city that’ll leave you reeling but desperate to return. The Altstadt (Old Town) is still surrounded by walls, while inside you’ll find plenty of art galleries, museums, and churches. Not many cities can offer such a variety of experiences, and Nuremberg’s “Nürnberger Christkindlesmarkt” (that’s “Christmas market”) offers everything from mulled wine (try the blueberry flavour) to trinkets, Christmas decorations, and more. Go along for the bratwurst and stay for the Bavarian charm. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, the “Nürnberger Lebkuchen” (sweet gingerbread) is a must-try. Keep an eye out for the decorative cookies lining the many stalls in the market!

Reykjavik, Iceland

The easiest and cheapest way to explore Reykjavik is by car, but it’s also fairly straightforward to rely on public transport. Instead of going to the famous Blue Lagoon, take a trip to its lesser-spotted cousin, Mývatn Nature Bath. With an entrance fee less than half of the one at the Blue Lagoon, you’ll still get the same Insta shots without paying the high prices.

If you do have access to a car, spend some time driving across the Golden Circle to spot waterfalls, hot springs, and world-renowned nature. If you’re an animal lover, make sure to go whale watching and, when you get hungry, go to Prikið — the oldest coffee shop in Reykjavík with a delicious brunch menu. It might go without saying that December is the best time of year to visit Reykjavik. Not only does the capital city come alive with festive celebrations, it’s also the time of year you’re most likely to spot the elusive Northern Lights. Side note: December is the darkest month in Iceland, but rest assured the Christmas spirit will keep you toasty and bright.  

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh, Scotland

The city of Edinburgh wakes up during winter vacation the streets become filled with buskers and snow forms a blanket on the floor. Temperatures might drop up north, but this just adds to the appeal of exploring the surrounding areas before sipping on some warming whisky at one of Edinburgh’s famous bars. Dornoch Castle Hotel, voted best whisky bar in Scotland, is the place to go if you’re one to know the difference between your whisky and your whiskey.

The city also loves its Christmas festivities, which means no matter the whereabouts you find yourself in Edinburgh, you’ll be able to gaze up at a multitude of twinkling lights. Princes Street is the place to visit for kitsch fairground rides, Scandinavian-themed bars, and the infamous ice-rink.

You’ll inevitably queue to get into Edinburgh’s magical Dome any time of year, but it’s worth the wait to sip on a cocktail under the impressive ceiling. Of course, a holiday wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Edinburgh castle. Or, if you’re a fan of crisp air and don’t mind a challenge, a hike up nearby Arthur’s Seat is well worth the steps to the top. 

St. Petersburg, Russia

St. Petersburg, Russia.

You’ll never witness blazing sunshine in Russia, but somehow that makes the country even more fitting for a winter vacation. As the canals freeze over and snow gently settles over the cooler months, the quaint walkways even seem to glow slightly pink as the sun sets. The Russians are used to their cold weather, which means your faux fur hat will go down a treat in frosty St. Petersburg.

Russia’s skyline was practically made for gloomy weather so you don’t need to stress about a lack of sunshine over here. Churches, palaces, and museums make up much of the city’s must-see list, so be prepared for a fill of culture and a jam-packed photo reel. Top picks include the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (and make sure to go inside, too) and the State Hermitage Museum for the colourful contrast they provide against the moody surroundings. Any wintery pictures you take while exploring St. Petersburg will surely look like something straight out of old-fashioned Russian literature. And that’s only one of the attractions. 

Hallstatt, Austria

Hallstatt, Austria.

If you’ve ever watched The Sound Of Music, then Hallstatt in Austria with its fairytale charm might ring a few bells. Sure, the movie was set in nearby Salzburg, but Hallstatt is our top pick for cosy seasonal vibes this winter vacation. The alpine lakes provide a stunning backdrop for strolls through the nearby villages and you’ll find lots of opportunities for fishing and boating everywhere you look.

First, head towards the Old Town and Market Square, a sweet spot that’s surrounded by houses lined with fresh flowers (they look like they’re made of gingerbread). If you’ve got guts, go to Dachstein Salzkammergut (part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site) and walk out on the Five Fingers: a group of viewing platforms jutting out over a 122-meter drop over the city. For more “top” views, visit Dachstein Krippenstein for spectacular views over the nearby Alps.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Christmas at Trivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark.

The iconic colourful houses of Copenhagen’s Nyhavn district make up the images you’re probably most familiar with, but Denmark’s capital city has plenty more to offer. Although it’s at the higher end of the price spectrum, there’s plenty to explore for those on any kind of budget.

Tivoli Gardens‘ theme park rides might not be open during the colder months, but the park is beautiful to explore when it’s all lit up with Christmas decorations. Elsewhere, take a trip to the Meatpacking district in the district of Vesterbro for any number of stylish bars, hygge-stuffed restaurants, and plenty of Danish charm. You’ll find at least four Christmas markets each year in Copenhagen, stuffed to the brim with all manner of traditional food and drink.

If the cold air gets too much, make like the Nordics do and relax in a hot sauna like the aptly named CopenHot. You might even find that locals offer you a comforting cup of hot chocolate while you’re exploring the city. Rather than assuming anything unscrupulous, accept it with a quick “thank you” as it’s just another example of the Danish hygge culture during winter.