The ‘most wonderful time of the year’ is on its way – so turn on the carols, light the fire, pour a mulled wine and get planning your perfect winter weekend break. Europe has a festive destination to suit everyone – from husky sledding in Lapland to soaking up the sun in Spain, Christmas market shopping in Austria to ice skating on a frozen lake in Slovenia. So if you fancy a festive escape this winter, here are ten of my favourite, tried-and-tested European winter weekend break ideas (with a PDF version at the end so you can download them for later).
10 of the best festive European winter weekend break ideas
1. Salzburg, Austria
Why visit? Overdose on glühwein and lebkuchen at one of Europe’s top destinations for Christmas market obsessives. This culture-loving city celebrates the festive season in style, with music from Mozart to The Sound of Music.
SEE & DO
Salzburg is a pro when it comes to Christmas markets. The Christkindlmarkt in Dom Square is the biggest and best-known, with lines of wooden chalets selling tree decorations, gifts, food and drinks. But there are lots of smaller markets tucked around the city as well as at the Hellbrun Palace and in the pretty lakeside villages of St Gilgen, St Wolfgang and Strobl.
Join a Sound of Music themed tour* around the city to visit locations from the classic film (even if most of the locals have never heard of it). And when you’re all Christmassed out, visit Mozart’s birthplace and residence, take a tour around the the grand Mirabell Palace, check out the views from the Hohensalzburg Fortress or explore the city’s high-octane side at Hangar 7.
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Dine with Mozart with a candlelit dinner concert* at the oldest restaurant in Europe, the Stiftskulinarium, with dishes from Mozart’s day and a different piece of music between each course. Or pop into his old haunt Café Tomaselli for a cake and a cup of his favourite almond milk. And make sure to pick up some tasty local specialities at the Christmas markets, from glühwein and lebkuchen spiced biscuits to plates of bratwurst and sauerkraut.
The historic Hotel Villa Carlton* has cosy, colourful rooms and is close to the Mirabell Palace, a short walk along the waterfront to the centre of the old town. Salzburg’s international airport has flights from across Europe, and is 20 minutes by bus or taxi into the city centre. Or travelling by train you can reach Munich in 90 minutes, Vienna in 2.5 hours or Paris in 8 hours.
2. Rovaniemi, Finland
Why visit? Cross the Arctic circle to the snow-dusted winter wonderland of Rovaniemi where you’ll find Santa and his reindeer, husky sled rides, snow Moomins and maybe even the Northern Lights – who said Lapland’s just for kids?
SEE & DO
Santa Claus Village is the epicentre of all things festive in Rovaniemi – you can meet the man himself or send a letter from his post office, speed around on a husky sled or choose a more sedate reindeer ride, and choose from activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and ice fishing, and visit a castle for five-metre-tall Moomins made of snow.
Head into Rovaniemi city centre to find out more about life in the Arctic at the dramatic Arktikum museum and science centre and try some traditional Lappish food. Or take a Northern Lights tour* to hunt for the elusive aurora – it appears on 150 days a year on average in Rovaniemi. Just make sure to wrap up warm as winter temps average a chilly -13°C/8°F.
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Try some traditional Lappish and Finnish dishes at Restaurant Nili in central Rovaniemi, who feature local ingredients like reindeer, Arctic char, puikula potatoes, lingonberries and, er, bear on their menu. Or eat salmon baked over an open fire inside a teepee at Santa’s Salmon Place in Santa Claus Village. Chill out at the Ice Bar with drinks served in a glasses carved from ice, or warm up with a glass of hot berry juice or glögi (Finnish mulled wine).
Santa Claus Village is 8km out of town and has a range of accommodation options, from wooden cottages* to glass igloos. Rovaniemi airport (Santa’s official airport none the less) has direct flights from London and Helsinki. The airport is 8km out of town with a bus connecting the town centre and Santa’s Village. Or the overnight train from Helsinki takes around 12 hours.
3. Bruges, Belgium
Why visit? Whether you prefer chocolate and carriage rides or boat trips and beer, the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges has the winter weekend for you. This medieval city is packed with historic sights, scenic spots and Christmas treats.
SEE & DO
Start your weekend in the Grote Markt (market square) – the heart of Bruges’ old town – where you can climb the top of the medieval Belfort belfry tower. Its 366 spiralling stairs are a bit of a workout but the views from the top are well worth the effort. The Grote Markt is also where you’ll find Bruges’ Christmas markets and plenty of cosy cafés and restaurants.
Huddle up under a blanket as you take a horse and carriage ride around the city’s historic squares, decorated with fir trees and twinkling lights for the Christmas season. Take a boat ride around the city’s network of canals. Or visit museums dedicated to two of Belgium’s most famous exports – chocolate at the Choco-Story Museum and chips at the Frites Museum.
EAT & DRINK
Bruges is heaven for beer lovers – take a tour and tasting at the De Halve Maan, a family-run brewery where you can also dine on beer-themed traditional Belgian dishes like carbonnades flamandes (beef and beer stew). Or choose from over 300 beers from across Belgium at ‘t Brugs Beertje. There’s a chocolate shop on almost every street, but for weird and wonderful flavour combinations using ingredients like wasabi and bacon, head to chocolatiers The Chocolate Line.
Eco-certified B&B Bariseele* has just three en-suite rooms in a quiet street 10 minutes from the Grote Markt, and breakfasts with chocolate included. Bruges is easy to reach by train – under two hours from London to Brussels by Eurostar then an hour on to Bruges (get a ticket to ‘Any Belgian station’ and the train to Bruges is included) or the nearest airport is in Brussels.
Read more: How to spend the perfect weekend in Bruges
4. Bath, England
Why visit? The genteel streets of Bath get an extra dose of sparkle for the festive season with carols, carousels and Christmas markets. Explore this UNESCO-listed city’s history and soak away the winter chill at the Thermae Bath Spa.
SEE & DO
Bath has so many historic buildings that the entire city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site – take a walk along the Royal Crescent with its curved terrace of grand Georgian townhouses, cross covered Pulteney Bridge and visit Bath’s Gothic Abbey, where you’ll find the 150 stalls of the city’s Christmas market from late November until mid-December.
When you start to feel the cold, thaw out at the Thermae Bath Spa with its steam rooms and rooftop thermal pool, where you get a view over the city’s skyline as you soak away. Or experience spa life Roman-style at the Roman Baths and taste a drop of the mineral-filled (if slightly metallic tasting) spa waters from the King’s Fountain in the Pump Rooms.
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Afternoon tea is an English tradition – go old-school with a Champagne cream tea at the opulent Pump Rooms or try local speciality the Sally Lunn bun, a brioche-style bun spread with cream or butter whose origins dates back to the 17th century. And try a Jane Austen-themed ‘Gin’ Austen cocktail at the Bath Distillery’s Canary Gin Bar, which serves 230 different gins, before dinner at The Circus, with modern European dishes made using local and seasonal ingredients.
Splash out on a stay at the city’s most famous address at the Royal Crescent Hotel*, a luxury five-star hotel and spa in two converted 18th-century Georgian townhouses. Bath is around 90 minutes by train from London and 15 minutes from Bristol, where there’s an international airport. Air Decker buses connect Bristol Airport with Bath and take around an hour.
Read more: A weekend in Bath: A 48-hour itinerary
5. Seville, Spain
Why visit? Swap snow for sunshine for a Spanish-style winter break in Seville. With midwinter highs of 16°C/61°F you won’t need the thermals for a weekend packed with spectacular architecture, parks and plazas, and tasty tapas.
SEE & DO
Enjoy a stroll in the sunshine through Seville’s María Luisa Park to the Plaza de España with its rose-gold stone buildings and intricately painted ceramic tiles covering bridges and balustrades. Seville is famous for its azulejo tiles which were made in the Triana district across the river, and you’ll find the Centro Ceramica Triana museum there telling the history of the craft.
Visit the Real Alcázar royal palace with its ornate Moorish-style buildings and lush gardens. Head to the 15th-century cathedral to see the nativity scene and shop Seville’s Christmas markets, then climb to the top of the Giralda tower for the best views in town. Or go modern at the quirky Metropol Parasol. Nicknamed the setas (mushrooms), this unsual structure is made from a criss-cross lattice forming six parasols with a walkway running across the top.
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Seville’s tapas bar are a cosy place to spend a winter’s evening, featuring dishes like chickpea stew, marinated anchovies, manchego cheese, acorn-fed ham and fried dogfish, with local dry sherry. Try Ovejas Negras and La Cava Bar on Calle Hernando Colón, and Bar Antiguedades on Calle Argote de Molina, and work your way from one to the next until you’re stuffed.
The Hotel Alminar* is in the heart of the old town, on a pedestrianised street a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, and has some rooms with balconies. Seville’s international airport has flights to destinations around Spain and a few other European cities. The airport is connected to the city centre by bus in around 35 minutes. And it’s 3 hours from Madrid to Seville by train.
Read more: Winter in Seville, Spain: A city break guide
6. Mainz, Germany
Why visit? Germany are the experts when it comes to celebrating Christmas and Mainz is one of the country’s lesser-known gems. Shop, eat and drink your way around the city’s markets and try the local wine – mulled or otherwise.
SEE & DO
Head to the Mainzer Dom, Mainz’s immense cathedral which mixes up Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture and towers over the city centre. Mainz’s Christmas markets take place in the shadow of the cathedral, with streets swathed in greenery, fairy lights and baubles. Among the traditional stalls you’ll find carved decorations, sweets, biscuits and local sausages.
Visit the Gutenberg Museum to learn the story of local boy Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the world’s first printing press. Take a walk along the half-timbered buildings on the Kirschgarten, see a show at the grand Staatstheater and be wowed by the Rococo interiors of St Augustine’s Church. Or cruise along the River Rhine on a sunset boat trip.
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Mainz is one of nine Great Wine Capitals around the world and the surrounding Rheinhessen region is famous for its Reisling, Müller-Thurgau and Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) wines – taste some of the best from local producers at Proviantamt wine bar before a wine-themed dinner at Haus des Deutschen Weines, with traditional specialities like Tafelspitz (boiled veal in broth) and Schnitzel. And call in at Dicke Lilli, Gutes Kind café if you need a coffee and cake fix.
The Favorite Parkhotel Mainz* is set inside the city’s park along the banks of the River Rhine, with a pool, spa, beer garden and Michelin-starred restaurant on site. The nearest airport is in Frankfurt, with connections around the world. It’s 40 minutes by train from the airport to Mainz, or you can reach Paris or Amsterdam in under 5 hours and Berlin in 6 hours on the train.
Read more: Germany for wine-lovers: A weekend in Mainz
7. Tallinn, Estonia
Why visit? With its towers and turrets, castles and cathedrals, visiting Tallinn in winter is like stepping inside the pages of a snowy fairytale. Trade summer’s stag parties for peaceful winter days in the pretty medieval old town.
SEE & DO
Go back in time to the 13th century in Tallinn’s medieval old town. Head to the Old Town Hall Square – where you’ll find the Christmas markets in December – where the town hall is surrounded by pastel-coloured merchants’ houses. Walk the old town city walls or head to Kohtuotsa and Patkuli viewing platforms on Toompea Hill for views over the city rooftops.
Visit the ornate, onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral for a taste of Russia, and find out about Tallinn’s days of occupation at the Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom. And if you get too cold, warm up with a hõõgwein (Estonian mulled wine with fruit and nuts) in a cosy cellar restaurant – if you see a lit candle outside it means hõõgwein‘s available there.
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Dine 15th-century style at III Draakon medieval tavern, where dishes like elk broth and ox meat sausages are served by candlelight in the courtroom of Tallinn’s old town hall. Or for something more modern, Rataskaevu 16 takes local ingredients like Baltic herring, elk and sea buckthorn and gives them a contemporary twist. And 1980s music fans won’t want to miss a drink at DM Baar, Estonia’s (and possibly the world’s) only Depeche Mode-themed bar.
Located in the heart of the old town, the Merchants House Hotel* is a historic Estonian merchant’s house converted into a cosy hotel with friendly staff and a mix of modern and traditional style rooms. Tallinn’s international airport has flights from around Europe and is only 4km from the city centre, with bus and trams linking the two in around 15 minutes.
8. Colmar, France
Why visit? Colmar may look like something out of a storybook, but it’s anything but Grimm (sorry!). This Alsatian city mixes French and German influences and adds a sprinkle of Christmas magic as it’s lit up by festive illuminations.
SEE & DO
Follow the illuminated trail through Colmar’s cobbled streets, with streets draped with lights and colourfully lit buildings linking the city’s six Christmas markets – voted the most beautiful in Europe. Shop for crafts at the Koïfhus indoor market, buy traditional Alsatian products from the market in Place Jeanne d’Arc or eat and drink your way around the Marché Gourmand.
Take a boat trip on the canal past the half-timbered buildings of Petit Venice, the city’s most scenic district. Visit the Unterlinden Museum, with artworks and artefacts including the famous 16th-century Isenheim Alterpiece. Or take a day tour* out to the villages of Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Hunawihr on the Alsace Wine Route to try some of the area’s best wines.
EAT & DRINK
Colmar’s local cuisine combines French and German flavours. Try a flammekueche (thin-crust pizza topped with bacon, onion and crème fraîche) at La Soi, a traditional Alsatian winstub or wine tavern. Or splash out on a Michelin-starred meal – Colmar has 10 different options to choose from, with the two-star JY’s having a prime spot by the waterside. And don’t miss the local wine, with delicious Reislings, Gewürztraminers and sparkling Crémant d’Alsace.
We stayed in a smart, two-bed apartment in an old Alsatian house close to the centre. Or the four-star Hotel le Colombier* has a great location in Petit Venice with rooms overlooking the canals. Colmar is 2.5 hours from Paris by train. Or there’s a small airport in nearby Strasbourg, 35 minutes away by train, and larger airports in Basel (45 minutes) or Zürich (2 hours).
9. Bergen, Norway
Why visit? Norway’s second-largest city is the gateway to the fjords, with some of Europe’s most jaw-dropping landscapes on its doorstep. Add in a historic old town, great seafood and knockout mountain views for the perfect winter weekend.
SEE & DO
Explore the UNESCO-listed port area of Bryggen with its colourfully painted shopfronts, home to restaurants and art studios. Learn about Bergen’s fascinating history at the Hanseatic Museum. Soak up the views from the top of Fløibanen funicular railway – it’s lit up so you can sledge or ski into the evenings – or catch the Ulriken cable car to Bergen’s highest mountain.
Take a day trip out into the fjords on the self-guided Norway in a Nutshell day trip. It starts off with the train from Bergen to Myrdal where you board the scenic Flåmsbana railway – one of the most spectacular train trips in Europe. From Flåm you board a cruise through the fjords before catching the bus from Gudvangen to Voss and boarding the train back to Bergen.
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Norway has some of the best seafood in the world – taste it straight off the boat at the Bergen Fish Market, where stalls sell fresh fish and shellfish. Or dine in style at Cornelius Sjømat Restaurant on a small island surrounded by fjords and mountains accessible by boat from Bergen and serves seafood from a Meteorological Menu inspired by the day’s weather. Vegans should head to the Daily Pot, which does organic power bowls and tasty vegan cheesecakes.
The Bergen Børs* is a modern, boutique style hotel in Bergen’s old stock exchange building with a cocktail bar and restaurant, located close to the centre of town. Bergen has an international airport, 20 minutes by airport bus from the city centre, with flights to European destinations and connections further afield via Oslo. Or it’s around 6.5 hours from Oslo to Bergen by train.
10. Ljubljana & Lake Bled, Slovenia
Why visit? Get two destinations for the price of one on a Slovenian winter weekend – city life in the charming, compact capital Ljubljana followed by scenes straight from a Christmas card at Instagrammers’ favourite Lake Bled.
SEE & DO
Explore the cobbled streets of Ljubljana’s old town – stroll along the banks of the River Ljubljanica, cross the famous Triple Bridge, visit the Baroque Church of the Annunciation and take the funicular up to the hilltop castle – keep your eye out for hidden dragon statues along the way too. And visit the edgy Metelkova district for street art by day and bars by night.
Then head out on a day trip to Lake Bled. Visit the famous island Church of the Assumption of Mary – you can either take a boat trip out to the island or if it’s cold enough for the lake to freeze then you can skate instead. Take a walk around the lake on the 6km waterside path, and climb up to 12th-century Bled Castle where you get a panoramic 360° view on a clear day.
EAT & DRINK
Slovenian food mixes influences from Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia in dishes like Kranjska Klobasa (Carniolan sausage), Bleki pasta and Bograč meat stew. You can try local specialities at Slovenska Hiša – Figovec restaurant in Ljubljana or dine with a view at the Bled Castle Restaurant. And if you have a sweet tooth, pick up a Prekmurska gibanica (poppy seed, apple, walnut and cottage cheese cake) or a creamy, custard-filled Bled Cake at Lake Bled.
Ljubljana Center Apartments* are right in the centre of the old town, sleep 2 or 4, are clean and bright, and come with fully equipped kitchens. Ljubljana’s international airport is 45 minutes outside of the city by bus. Lake Bled is 54km northwest of Ljubljana, and it takes around 90 minutes by bus or two hours by train (changing train in Jesenice) to get there.
Read more: 5 reasons to visit Ljubljana, Slovenia
So which would you most like to visit – or do you have another favourite winter weekend break destination?
* This article contains affiliate links, where I get a small commission at no extra cost to you, thanks.