Winter Wonderland: An insider’s guide to Europe’s top winter cities
From cosy cafés to magical markets, enjoy these top tips from our local teams on where to visit and what to do in Europe’s most exciting winter destinations.
There’s something special about winter in Europe. Whether it’s wrapping up warm in a cosy café, watching a fresh snowfall with giddy anticipation or feeling swept up in the merry hum of a Christmas market, experiencing Europe’s beautiful buildings and captivating culture during the chilly season hits different. Not to mention the added bonus of fewer tourists and better prices.
But with so many cities to choose from, where do you start? Luckily, with hotel spaces across Europe, we’ve got locals and insiders with their fingers on the pulse. From Barcelona to Berlin, here’s the inside scoop on what to see and do in the very best destinations. So, grab your gloves, tighten your scarves and prepare to explore some wintery wonderlands as we guide you through Europe’s best winter cities.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
A quaint, historic capital famed for its canals, café culture and criss-crossing bike lanes, Amsterdam has long been a go-to winter destination packed with events and activities. If you’re visiting before 21 January, be sure to check out the Amsterdam Light Festival illuminating the city’s pathways, canals and sculptures. Or, as temperatures dip, grab a mulled wine and get cultured at one of the city’s world-renowned attractions, like the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum or Anne Frank House.
If you’re lucky enough to see the canals freeze, lace up your skates and live like a local with a spot of ‘Schaatsen’ (ice skating). For Dutchies, skating on the canals is a favourite pastime in the winter months – and a truly once-in-a-lifetime way to see the city for everyone else. After working up an appetite, grab a sweet treat with a traditional oliebol or stroopwafel, sold at stalls and trucks throughout the city. Feeling romantic? Don’t miss our Blind Date Dinner at The Social Hub Amsterdam West on Valentine’s Day.
There’s no better time to visit the bohemian German capital than winter. Brave the crisp, chilly skies and you’ll be rewarded with bountiful Christmas markets, beautifully lit-up landmarks and the occasional snowfall, lending a touch of winter magic to the urban sprawl. Berlin’s Botanical Gardens are a must visit at this time of year, as they transform into the glittering, decoration-strewn Christmas Garden until 14 January.
For a taste of tradition, visit one of the city’s beloved Christmas markets. From the historic Gendarmenmarkt to the fairy-tale-like stalls at Charlottenburg Palace, enjoy everything from Lebkuchen (gingerbread) to Glühwein (mulled wine) beneath twinkling lights and towering festive trees. For something more active, head to the Eisbahn am Neptunbrunnen in Alexandperplatz for a spot of ice skating before 7 January or wander the immersive light and sound exhibitions of DARK MATTER. Finish your trip at one of the capital’s many leading museums, from the Alte Nationalgalerie to the Jewish Museum Berlin.
The Hague, the Netherlands
From historic city attractions to sweeping Dutch beaches, The Hague has it all. Visit in winter to avoid the crowds and see popular attractions like the Prime Minister’s office at the Binnenhof or Girl with a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis museum. For some sustainability-focused family fun, head to Museon Omniversum. After a day of sightseeing, take a trip to the coast for Cool Event Scheveningen, where you can skate on a 600m2 ice rink right on the iconic Kurhausplein (until 11 February).
If you’re visiting in December, embrace the festive spirit at the Royal Christmas Fair – open until 23 December – and take a stroll through tinsel-tangled stalls with a steaming hot chocolate or freshly-fried oliebol in hand. For travellers seeking some Dutch courage, get out of your comfort zone with a bracing Nieuwjaarsduik (New Year’s dive) at De Pier on New Year’s Eve and jump headfirst into 2024.
Imagine enchanting palaces draped in twinkling lights, grand boulevards adorned with festive decorations and magnificent parks blanketed in fresh snow. As winter destinations go, you won’t find many more spectacular than Vienna. During the colder months, the city comes to life, ushering in a season of classical concerts, ballet performances and outdoor activities. From mid-January till mid-March, must-visits include Vienna Ice World – and its enormous 8,500m2 ice rink – sitting beneath the capital’s iconic Rathaus city hall.
If you’re feeling festive and visiting before Christmas, explore one of the city’s famous markets or postpone your trip till January or February to experience Carnival in full swing. Be sure to pack your black tie; this is peak season for balls, ballets and operas. Once you’ve had your culture fix, retreat to a cosy coffeehouse for a slice of homemade Sachertorte or indulge in some ultimate relaxation at the natural hot water baths of Therme Wien, a short 15-minute subway ride from the city. Our top tip? Grab a pastry at our favourite Viennese patisserie, Konditorei Oberlaa, at the spa’s entrance.
Known for its immense historic heritage, awe-inspiring artistic attractions and delicious regional cuisine, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region ranks among Italy’s friendliest, most breath-taking destinations. In winter, the city grows yet more charming as its traditional markets, pop-up exhibitions and colourful Carnival take centre stage. Visit before 26 December to experience one of Bologna’s favourite festive attractions, Fiera di Santa Lucia. This traditional fair transforms the monumental portico of the Santa Maria dei Servi into a bustling market, packed with Nativity items, Christmas decorations, sweets and gifts.
In true Bolognese spirit, winter activities are just as much about art and expression as they are seasonal festivities. Between January and February, you can take part in Art City Bologna, a citywide programme that transforms the municipality into venues for contemporary art, or get your film fix at the YoungAbout International Film Festival and Visioni Italiane in March. Once you’ve finished sightseeing, warm up at a homely osteria and indulge in local delicacies like Tagliatelle al Ragù (spaghetti Bolognese), Parmigiano Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma.
Maastricht, the Netherlands
As the oldest city in the Netherlands, Maastricht is a picture-perfect cultural hotspot packed with interesting buildings, compelling museums and tempting bars and bistros. Take a stroll through the city’s winding walkways in December or early January and you’ll experience its famous Christmas markets and winter festivals. Nibble classic Dutch poffertjes (mini pancakes) and sip bischopswijn (mulled wine) as you shop for unique holiday gifts at the Vrijthof Square market, where beautifully decorated stalls, festive lights and an ice-skating rink await.
For an even more authentic cultural experience, visit in mid-February for Carnival. This pre-Lenten celebration is a favourite with locals and tourists alike, marked by colourful parades, elaborate costumes and lively street parties. Afterwards, get gezellig at Bissschopsmolen, the oldest bakery in the city, with a traditional Limburgse vlaai (filled pastry). If you’ve got energy to spare, Maastricht’s surrounding countryside offers a host of adventures, including scenic hikes in the nearby Limburg hills and along the Maas River. Despite colder temperatures, you’re sure to stumble across fellow hikers and outdoor lovers.
The city of beautiful beaches, awesome architecture and footballing folklore may be known for its sizzling summer climate, but travelling in the cooler months means sunshine, comfortable temperatures and, thankfully, fewer rowdy crowds. Visit the imposing Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona in December and you’ll be treated to the city’s most famous Christmas market, Fira de Santa Llúcia. Explore extravagant stalls piled high with decorations, crafts and seasonal treats, like chewy torró nougat and crumbly polvorón shortbread, before wandering through Park Güell and wondering at Gaudí’s world-renowned architecture.
From La Pedrera-Casa Milà to Casa Batlló, you’ll find Gaudí’s unique architectural accent throughout the city, rivalled only by Barcelona’s hulking historic hotspots, like La Sagrada Familia and Plaça de Catalunya. Feeling arty? Visit the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya or pose with a Picasso at the Museu Picasso. To combine your festive cheer with all that creativity, join our Christmas gnome making session at The Social Hub Barcelona on 15 December and keep an eye out for our upcoming workshop with ephemeral designer, Luca Hugo Brucculeri.
Delft, the Netherlands
Perhaps best known for its famous ceramic blue pottery, this charming canal-ringed city is full of quaint squares, historic monuments and old town attractions waiting to be explored. Kick-start your winter adventure in the city’s Markt (main square), where you can see the Stadhuis (Town Hall) and scale the 109-metre bell tower of the Niewe Kerk (New Church) for unrivalled views of Delft. Plan your trip between the 13 and 18 December and you’ll be rewarded with Light Week, five days of illuminations, activities and celebrations across the city.
To truly embrace winter like a local, head to the waterfront Knus in the scenic Delftse Hout recreation area. Here, you can grab a hot chocolate, roast some marshmallows and enjoy a spot of ice skating on the lake. Afterwards, head back to the city for velvety cheese fondue and a glass of wine in the cosy, laidback lounge of Delft-favourite institution, De Beierd. For those planning a trip in February, don’t miss Highlight Delft, an innovative art and technology festival held annually in the city. We’ll be announcing our program at The Social Hub Delft soon, so watch this space.
A city defined by Renaissance buildings, significant artworks and looming landmarks; Florence is the capital of the beautiful Tuscan region of Italy. From food fairs to festivals, there’s no better time to explore than in the quieter winter months, when teeming crowds make way for traditional activities and local celebrations. From 5 December till early January, you can see the city in a new light during the Green Line Festival, illuminating the municipality with playful projections, installations and spectacular lighting effects.
Visit Piazza Santa Croce to experience the largest Christmas market in Florence and stock up on roasted chestnuts, truffles, polenta and fine wine before pulling on your skates and heading to the shimmering ice rink at Cascine di Firenze. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, time your trip for mid-February and Carnival season. Enjoy elaborate parties and parades as local bakeries churn out fried and sugar-coated carnival sweets all month long, like fritelle di riso (deep-fried rice pudding) and cence (‘rags’ of fried dough). For men’s fashion, don’t miss Pitti Uomo fashion week from 9 to 12 January.
Rotterdam, the Netherlands
Also known as the ‘Manhattan on the Meuse’, Rotterdam is a city of peaking skylines, architectural wonders and lively culture. From its famous Kijk-Kubus (Cube Houses) to its colourful street art, the best time to see its sights is winter, when the city comes alive with concerts, events and exhibitions. Visit at the end of January for the International Film Festival, running till 4 February, or time your trip for The Friends of Amstel LIVE, a two-week musical extravaganza showcasing the best artists and performers in the Netherlands.
For creative souls seeking inspiration, don’t miss Rotterdam Art Week. Taking place between 31 January and 4 February, the city transforms into a living, breathing gallery for art, design and architecture, attracting culture lovers from across the globe. For something wildly wintery, rent a pair of skates and take to the ice rink at Kralingen or spot Rudolph as you feed the reindeer at Kralingse Bos. Scale the Euromast Tower for sky-high views, then escape the cold snap at the Markthal, a strikingly modern building with more than 100 stalls, bars and foodie joints.
And that’s our list! If you like what you’ve read and found a favourite destination (we know, hard to pick), we’ve got more good news. Why not book your big trip for less? Get up to 25% off your hotel stay, including breakfast and free bubbly. Book now and choose between 17 locations across Europe. Happy travels!
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