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Top 10 winter destinations in Europe

Winter comes in many guises in Europe – in the polar north there’s serious snow and sunless weeks, while you’ll find lingering sunshine in the mild Mediterranean, and cosy cafe culture and Christmas spirit in the centre.

It's an inspiring time to visit grand cities and charming villages: with fewer queues you can fit more into your itinerary, and off-season accommodation prices make European travel wallet-friendly in November, December, January and February. Via Europe’s train network you can explore countries at your leisure, meeting locals going about their daily business away from the often-frenetic summer tourist season.

People enjoying sleigh rides in Rovaniemi, Finland; the sleighs are red and are being pulled by reindeer while in the background is a snowy forest scene.
There's only one proper mode of transport if you're heading for a rendezvous with Santa in Rovaniemi, Finland © Roman Babakin / Shutterstock

1. Rovaniemi, Finland

Fistfuls of Christmas clichés characterise Rovaniemi, the 'official' terrestrial residence of Santa Claus. Everyone's favourite bearded man hangs out in an atmospheric Arctic Circle grotto, and it's free to visit him (but photos are another story). Snow and reindeer add festive spirit, while the Arktikum museum gives insights into life at these latitudes.

Tip: Finnish thermometers have more numbers below 0°C than above, so pack serious winter clothing.

Christmas market at sunset in Vienna, Austria; shoppers are browsing stalls on either side of the road, while at the end is an imposing building with spires.
Vienna is famous for its spectacular Christmas markets © posztos / Shutterstock

2. Christmas markets in Germany & Austria

December sees these romantic historic markets pop up all over Germany, Austria and other Central European nations. Expect cute stalls selling everything from gingerbread to sleigh bells and plenty of good cheer, toasted with a glass of warming glühwein.

Tip: Famous markets in Cologne, Vienna and Munich draw the tourist crowds, but seeking out ones in smaller towns is rewarding.

The Northern Lights are a green swirl above a snowy forest in Abisko, Sweden.
You're never guaranteed a sighting of the Northern Lights, but a visit to Abisko, Sweden, puts you in with a decent chance © Mihai Speteanu / Shutterstock

3. Abisko, Sweden

Almost as far north as you can get in Europe on a train, Abisko in Lapland is for lovers of serious winter. The sun doesn't rise for several weeks in December and January but that darkness makes it one of the world's best places to view the majestic aurora borealis. Other attractions include cross-country skiing along national park trails and husky mushing.

Tip: Stop off at nearby Kiruna to see the famous Icehotel.

A close view of the fluted Doric columns of the Parthenon temple on a sunny day in Athens, Greece.
Have the Parthenon and other marvels of Ancient Greece all to yourself on a winter visit to Athens © PavleMarjanovic / Shutterstock

4. Athens, Greece

It's a real downer trying to Photoshop 500 people out of your would-be-prizewinning Parthenon photo, but in winter in Athens it's not an issue. All summer stresses – crowding, tourist pricing, intense heat, queues, air pollution – more or less disappear. It's the best time to explore the country's ancient heritage and get to experience local culture.

Tip: By all means do some island-hopping, but most accommodations close in winter.

The amusement park at the Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen; we see a lake in the foreground reflecting the illuminations from a Japanese-style pagoda and a rollercoaster with loops.
Enjoy thrills and spectacle this Christmas with a visit to Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock

5. Copenhagen, Denmark

For fairytale European winter, it's hard to beat the home of Hans Christian Andersen. Forget the over-hyped Little Mermaid and head to the city's cosy bars and cafes to watch snow flurrying outside. In the heart of town, the 19th-century Tivoli amusement park is a romantic, kitsch delight around Christmastime, with heartwarming illuminations and body-warming mugs of glögg.

Tip: Splash out on a meal at noma, considered by many to be the world's best restaurant (reservations can fill quickly, so try to book several months in advance).

The best of Budapest's thermal baths

6. Budapest, Hungary

Couples skating hand-in-hand, breath cloudy in the frosty air – there’s nowhere better for it than the Hungarian capital’s picturesque central park Városligeti Műjégpálya, with its enormous outdoor rink. Feeling chilly afterwards? Budapest is famous for its ornate thermal baths.

Tip: At night seek out a ‘ruin pub’ – an atmospheric drinking venue artfully created in a once-abandoned building.

Skier at the summit of a mountain in Slovakia; there is cloud cover below and a chairlift rising to the right.
Slovakia is the place to go this winter if you're a skier on a tight budget © mpaniti / Shutterstock

7. Jasná, Slovakia

Slovakia offers high-quality skiing at affordable prices. Accommodation and food are reasonable too, and there's a friendliness that’s missing from some of the snootier Alpine slopes. Jasná is the best Slovakian resort, with long descents flanked by snow-laden spruce trees, set in the ruggedly lovely Tatras Mountains.

Tip: Flights direct to Slovakia can be pricey, so don't make this your entry point to Europe.

Part of the Alhambra complex - a Moorish-inspired fort with a graceful cloister in the foreground - reflects off the courtyard pool in Generalife Gardens, Granada, Spain.
The Generalife Gardens are just one of the wonders of Granada, one of Andalucía's – and indeed Spain's – most fascinating cities © Yuriy Biryukov / Shutterstock

8. Andalucía, Spain

Parts of Andalucía are further south than the African coast so expect mild temperatures in winter. Accommodation is cheap, and crowds are smaller at standout attractions like Granada's Alhambra or Seville's cathedral. Plus, tapas and nightlife in the cities are as enticing as ever.

Tip: Head to the Sierra Nevada near Granada if you want snowsport action.

A snowy square of colourful houses in Sighişoara, Transylvania.
Follow in the footsteps of Vlad Ţepeş, the historical Dracula, on a visit to Sighişoara, Transylvania © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

9. Transylvania, Romania

You can’t visit Dracula’s lair on a sunny day with lambs bleating in the fields, right? Try steel-grey skies, bare trees and a smattering of snow. Braşov and Sighişoara, two hours apart by rail, are gorgeous medieval towns with various connections to Vlad Ţepeş, the historical Dracula, though it’s doubtful that he ever set foot in his so-called castle.

Tip: Bram Stoker never visited Romania, so don’t expect many parallels with the book or films.

Masked reveller dressed in red, white and black in Venice, Italy, with a row of gondolas behind them and the city skyline on the other side of the water.
Venice's Carnevale is a highlight of any European winter, but be prepared to book ahead © Oleg Znamenskiy / Shutterstock

10. Venice, Italy

Hauntingly beautiful and rather weird, Venice's Carnevale in February is a European highlight. Elaborate costumes and spooky masks bring the canal city's colourful history to life. Costumed dances are pricey affairs, but you can have a ball enjoying the free events with a mask bought on the street, but be prepared for epic crowding.

Tip: Book accommodation ahead. Day-tripping in and out on a train will lower costs considerably.

This article was first published in December 2012 and updated in September 2019.

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