Europe in Winter: the Best 8 Countries to Visit Off-Season
From icy landscapes, fairy-lit cobbled streets and cosy cafés to lingering sunshine and bright-blue skies, winter in Europe comes in many guises. Great accommodation deals, lower airfares and fewer tourists are a given when you travel to this part of the world in the off season, but what else can you expect? We’ve rounded up our favourite European destinations to visit in the colder months…
Europe in winter is synonymous with festive markets, with Vienna at the top of the Christmas list. The Austrian capital has one around almost every corner, each with a slightly different theme (although they all have steaming mugs of Glühwein in common). The stalls outside Schönbrunn Castle are best for traditional ornaments, while Adventmarkt, in front of the imposing Karlskirche church, focuses on more unique gifts and homewares. Once you’ve had your fill of festive cheer, warm up in a Viennese coffee house with a slice of Sacher-Torte.
If Austria’s snowy climate seems a little too extreme, Spain might be a better bet. You can expect mild temperatures of around 10°C, particularly in the south, and much smaller crowds at key attractions like the Alhambra in Granada or Seville Cathedral. Barcelona’s cultural calendar is jam-packed in winter, while Madrid’s tapas bars are ideal for cosy evenings. We love the glass-and-iron Mercado de San Miguel for a warming glass of rioja and pintxos atop mini toast.
3. The UK
Britain's pretty towns and historic cities have a lot to offer in winter. London is a great starting point, from festive shows and elaborate Christmas window displays (the ones at Harrods are unmissable) to pop-up ice rinks at the Natural History Museum, Canary Wharf, Somerset House and Hampton Court Palace -- these are usually open from November-February. Add the Cotswolds to your list for honey-hued pubs with roaring fires; luxuriate in steaming hot thermal springs in Bath; or head north to Scotland for Hogmanay celebrations.
You might be surprised to learn that the average rainfall on the Emerald Isle is roughly the same in August as it is in December. Winter sees far fewer tourists, which means you might just have iconic attractions like the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry and Blarney Castle all to yourself. And if all else fails, you can always enjoy the craic in a warm pub, listening to local tales over a pint of Guinness or two.
Paris is the ultimate city of lights and really does come into its own in the colder months, when strings of fairy lights illuminate almost every tree and street. This is the season to shop – you can expect designer discounts of up to 75%, particularly in January and February. Once you’ve had your fill of Parisian couture, finish up in a tiny bistro with a hearty bowl of cassoulet. In fact, France excels in winter comfort food (think slabs of cheese, onion soup and tartiflette).
Germany's baroque palaces, fairytale castles and old towns are lovely in summer, but it's winter when they really impress. Snow-blanketed Berlin is picture-postcard pretty -- be sure to wander around the Tiergarten park, which has a Narnia-esque feel to it when it's truly cold and icy. Head south to Nuremberg, where you'll find medieval cobbled streets and Bavarian markets, and stop off in Dresden for a slice of festive Stollen cake. Germany also has castles aplenty, most of which wouldn't look out of place in a Disney film. Our favourites include Lichtenstein, which is perched precariously on a cliff, and Hohenzollern Castle (the views from here are incredible).
With architecture, art and culture galore, Italian cities were made for winter and the “great indoors”. You can take in works by Da Vinci and Michelangelo in Florence, while away hours in Rome’s Vatican Museums, or visit the Opera House in Venice. Crisp days and bright blue skies aren’t unusual either, which makes sitting in an atmospheric plaza all the more enjoyable.
No round-up of Europe would be complete without mention of Iceland’s wintery charms. Game of Thrones fans will be familiar with the frozen waterfalls, glaciers and ice caves that make up its brilliant-white landscape. This is also prime Northern Lights time, so your chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis spectacle are high. The country is well-equipped for the cold, with hot tubs galore, and the restaurant scene really is impressive: less fermented shark, more fine-dining tasting menus. And really, where else can you snorkel between tectonic plates in the dead of winter?