Plan the perfect short break this festive season with this selection of 10 fantastic European winter city breaks, featuring snowy scenery, fairytale medieval cities, Christmas markets and more.
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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 city 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 planning a festive escape this winter, here are ten of my favourite, tried-and-tested European winter city breaks, with all the details you need, from what to do and where to eat, drink and stay to how to get there – and there’s a downloadable PDF version of the guide the end so you can save them for later.
10 of the best European winter city breaks
1. Salzburg, Austria
Overdose on glühwein and lebkuchen at one of Europe’s top Christmas market destinations. 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 best-known, with lines of wooden chalets selling tree decorations, gifts, food and drinks. But there are lots of smaller markets around the city as well as at the Hellbrunn Palace and in the pretty lakeside villages of St Gilgen, St Wolfgang and Strobl.
Join a Sound of Music themed tour* of 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, look around the grand Mirabell Palace, check out the views from Hohensalzburg Fortress or explore the city’s high-octane side at Hangar 7.
EAT & DRINK
Dine with Mozart with a candlelit dinner concert* at the oldest restaurant in Europe, the Stiftskulinarium, with dishes from Mozart’s day and 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 Goldener Hirsch* lies in the heart of the old town. It dates back 600 year and has luxurious rooms decorated in traditional Austrian style and two great restaurants. Salzburg’s international airport is only 20 minutes by bus or taxi into the city centre. Or by train you can reach Munich in 90 minutes, Vienna in 2.5 hours or Paris in 8 hours.
Read more: The best things to do in Salzburg in winter
2. Rovaniemi, Finland
Cross the Arctic circle to the snow-dusted winter wonderland of Rovaniemi where you’ll find Santa and his reindeer, huskies 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 try out a range of from different wintery activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, ice fishing and even ice swimming.
Head into Rovaniemi city centre to find out more about life in the Arctic at the Arktikum museum and science centre and try 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.
EAT & DRINK
Try traditional Lappish and Finnish dishes at Restaurant Nili in central Rovaniemi, who feature local ingredients like reindeer, Arctic char, puikula potatoes, lingonberries and even bear. 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 where drinks are 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, from wooden cottages* to glass igloos. Rovaniemi airport (Santa’s official airport) 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
Whether you prefer chocolate and carriage rides or boat trips and beer, the medieval Belgian city of Bruges has a winter city break for you, and is packed with historic sights, scenic spots and Christmas treats.
SEE & DO
Start 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 on a horse and carriage ride around the city’s historic squares, decorated with fir trees and twinkling lights for Christmas. 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 head to posh 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 serves breakfasts with chocolate included. The nearest airport is in Brussels, or Bruges is easy to reach by train. If you’re travelling from the UK it’s under two hours from London to Brussels by Eurostar then an hour by local train to Bruges.
Read more: How to spend the perfect weekend in Bruges
4. Bath, England
The genteel streets of Bath get extra 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 is 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 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.
EAT & DRINK
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 17th century brioche-style bun spread with cream or butter. 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 90 minutes by train from London and 15 minutes from Bristol, which has an international airport. Air Decker buses from Bristol Airport to Bath take around an hour.
Read more: A weekend in Bath: A 48-hour itinerary
5. Seville, Spain
Swap snow for sunshine for a Spanish winter break in Seville. With midwinter highs of 16°C/61°F you won’t need the thermals for a city break of 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 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 visit the quirky Metropol Parasol. Nicknamed the setas (mushrooms), this unsual structure is made from a criss-cross lattice forming six parasols with a walkway across the top.
EAT & DRINK
Seville’s tapas bar are a cosy place to spend a winter’s evening, with dishes like chickpea stew, marinated anchovies, manchego cheese, acorn-fed ham and local dry sherry. Try Bar Antiguedades on Calle Argote de Molina and Ovejas Negras and La Cava Bar on Calle Hernando Colón, working your way from one to the next until you’re stuffed.
La Bella Sevilla* is a small hotel in the heart of the old town, on a pedestrianised street a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, which has some rooms with balconies. Seville has an international airport, with a bus connecting it to the city centre in around 35 minutes. Or by train it’s under 3 hours from Seville to Madrid or 2.5 hours to Cádiz.
6. Mainz, Germany
The lesser-known German gem of Mainz is one of our favourite European winter city breaks. 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 below it, with streets swathed in greenery, fairy lights and baubles and traditional stalls selling carved decorations, sweets, biscuits and local sausages.
Visit the Gutenberg Museum to learn the story of local boy Johannes Gutenberg, 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 the River Rhine on a sunset boat trip.
EAT & DRINK
Mainz is one of nine Great Wine Capitals around the world and the surrounding Rheinhessen region is famous for its Reisling, Müller-Thurgau and Pinot Noir wines – taste some of the best 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 for 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 to Mainz is in Frankfurt, which is 40 minutes away by train. Or you can reach Paris or Amsterdam in under 5 hours by train and Berlin in around 6 hours.
Read more: A Christmas market river cruise on the Rhine
7. Tallinn, Estonia
With its towers, turrets, castles and cathedrals, visiting Tallinn in winter is like stepping inside the pages of a snowy fairytale. Trade summer stag parties for peaceful winter days in its medieval old town.
SEE & DO
Go back in time to the 13th century in Tallinn’s 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 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 cold, warm up with a hõõgwein (mulled wine with fruit and nuts) in a cosy cellar restaurant – if you see a lit candle outside it means it’s available there.
EAT & DRINK
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 80s music fans won’t want to miss DM Baar, Estonia’s (and maybe the world’s) only Depeche Mode-themed bar.
At 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
Colmar may look like something out of a storybook, but it’s anything but Grimm. This Alsatian city mixes French and German influences and adds a sprinkle of Christmas magic as it’s lit by festive illuminations.
SEE & DO
Follow the illuminated trail through Colmar’s cobbled streets, with streets draped with lights and colourful 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 in Place Jeanne d’Arc or eat your way around the Marché Gourmand.
Take a boat trip on the canal past the half-timbered buildings of Petit Venice. Visit the Unterlinden Museum, with artworks and artefacts including the famous 16th-century Isenheim Alterpiece. Or take a day tour* of the villages of Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Hunawihr on the Alsace Wine Route for 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 options to choose from, with 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.
The stylish 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 is a small airport in nearby Strasbourg, which you can each by train in 35 minutes. And there are larger airports in Basel (45 minutes away) and Zürich (2 hours away).
9. Bergen, Norway
Norway’s second-largest city is the gateway to the fjords, with some of Europe’s most jaw-dropping landscapes on its doorstep, as well as a historic old town, great seafood and knockout mountain views.
SEE & DO
Explore the UNESCO-listed port area of Bryggen with its colourful shopfronts, home to restaurants and art studios. Learn about Bergen’s history at the Hanseatic Museum. Soak up the views from the top of Fløibanen funicular railway – 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 Europe’s most spectacular train trips. From Flåm you sail through the fjords before catching the bus from Gudvangen to Voss and boarding the train back to Bergen.
EAT & DRINK
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 which serves a 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 hotel in Bergen’s old stock exchange building with a cocktail bar and restaurant, located close to the centre of town. Bergen’s international airport is 20 minutes by airport bus from the city centre, with flights to Europe and connections further afield via Oslo. Or it’s 6.5 hours from Oslo to Bergen by train.
10. Ljubljana & Lake Bled, Slovenia
Get two destinations for the price of one in the last of our European winter city breaks – urban life in the charming Slovenian capital Ljubljana and scenes straight from a Christmas card at 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 to the hilltop castle – keep your eye out for 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. Take a walk around the lake on the 6km waterside path, and climb up to 12th-century Bled Castle for panoramic 360° views 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. Try local specialities at Slovenska Hiša – Figovec restaurant in Ljubljana or dine with a view at 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.
The clean and bright Ljubljana Center Apartments* in the centre of the old town sleep 2 or 4 and come with fully equipped kitchens. Ljubljana’s 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