I’m guilty of escaping the European winter in favour of warmer climates but Europe actually has some amazing destinations that are great for a winter city break! For the sake of this post, we’ll consider winter to be from November to March/April, generally when the weather is still a little on the chilly side! These are all European cities that I have personally visited during the off peak season!
Best Winter City Breaks In Europe
1. London, England
It wasn’t until I moved away that I really appreciated just how awesome London actually is. I was born and grew up just a 50 minute train ride from London, so I’ve been there for day trips, overnight stays in all different months and seasons!
Leicester Square Christmas Market
In December various Christmas Markets pop up around the city. Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park is the biggest, not only does it have the traditional market stalls, but there’s also a large fairground and an ice skating rink. Last year I came across another smaller market in the middle of Leicester Square! Many streets are covered in Christmas lights too, Oxford Street and Regent Street being 2 of the major shopping streets are obviously covered with Christmas spirit (I went to see my favourite band ‘Busted’ turn on the Christmas lights years ago)!
New Years Eve can be a little crazy, especially around the River Thames, closest to the London Eye. The fireworks display at midnight is amazing, but will require some preparation as you’ll need to apply for tickets in advance.
London tends to experience quite mild winters really. It rarely snows and I don’t think I ever even wore a hat during the winters, a hood is usually enough if it gets really ‘bad’! When I visited home back in March, I was even down to a t-shirt one day (but then I had come from unbelievably cold Iowa!). If the weather isn’t great, there are plenty of indoor attractions and free museums and art galleries to keep you entertained. If you have the budget, seeing a West End show is worth it (or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child…that’s a whole day show right there)!
London in March
A positive of visiting during the colder months, is that the London Underground train network will be a comfortable temperature. In the summer it can often be 10c warmer than the above ground temperatures, and yes there’s no air con!
2. Sigulda/Riga, Latvia
I visited Latvia at the end of November into December. If you want to escape the city for a little while, I highly recommend jumping on the train in Riga and heading an hour away to the town of Sigulda for a great little winter break in Europe!
During the winter months, visitors can go and have rides down the Sigulda bobsleigh track, either as a passenger in a bobsleigh or by themselves in sponge ‘bobs’. It’s a really fun experience and pretty budget friendly!
There are lots of parks and woodland areas to explore and The Livonian Order Castle of Sigulda is a bargain at 2 euro for adults and the winter hours are Mon – Sun, 9am until 5pm.
Of course it’d be rude to not check out Riga while you’re passing by. If you visit at the end at the end of November and through December, the Christmas Markets will be in full swing. My favourite one was the one outside Riga Cathedral!
Read more: Latvia: A Guide To Riga Christmas Markets
3. Barcelona, Spain
In my opinion, one of the best places to visit in Europe in winter is Barcelona! I’m sure it’s lovely in the summer too, but when I was sat on a near empty beach, in the middle of December in a t-shirt and jeans, life was pretty good at that moment! I’ve heard from people that in the summer months, the beach gets VERY crowded!
A great thing about a winter city break is that you can walk for miles and not end up sweating like a pig! There were still crowds at some of the major sights, such as the Sagrada Familia, but that’s to be expected.
I really loved visiting the Tibidabo Skywalk up in the mountains above the city. During the winter months you’ll have to check the opening hours and I don’t think the shuttle bus runs as frequently. But if you are able to get up there, it’s well worth making the effort!
In winter, day light hours are shorter. A fun attraction to visit during the dark evenings, is the Museum of Illusions! It’s open until 10pm. Make sure you take a camera and a sense of fun! You’ll only really get the most out of the museum if you’re not afraid to be silly and pose in front of the murals!
4. Budapest, Hungary
Call me crazy but there’s something satisfying about being outside in the cold, yet nice and toasty and warm in a thermal pool. The Szechenyi Thermal Baths are a great place to experience this! Yes it was a bit of a run from the changing rooms to the pool, but once you’re in the water it’s fine (on average the water temperature is 37c!). There were indoor baths too but part of the fun is being outside. The building is bright yellow too, which makes for a nice contrast against the blue water of the pool.
We took a guided Segway tour of the city. Even though it was winter and the weather was a bit drizzly and wet, the tour still went ahead! They even fitted the Segway handle bars with big padded mittens so our hands stayed warm!
In my eyes it’s never too cold for ice cream, Gelarto Rosa is worth stopping at. If you don’t want ice cream, their hot chocolate is amazing! The shop has a few tables inside, it’s tiny but cute!
Another fun way to escape the winter weather is to visit a ‘ruin bar’. These are uniquely styled pubs that are located in buildings that used to be abandoned. Szimpla Kert is retro themed and even has a Farmer’s Market on Sunday mornings.
5. Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is another great destination for a European winter city break, it’s so bright and colourful! There was always a large crowd in front of the Astronomical Clock, even on a rainy day!
The Choco Cafe is a great place to warm up, the hot chocolate is so thick, it’s like drinking a melted chocolate bar! Even though the regular hot chocolate is the colour of milk chocolate, it’s actually quite bitter, tasting more like dark chocolate. I liked the white hot chocolate the best.
Trdelniks (Chimney Cakes) are a type of dough that’s toasted over coals. The ‘warm’ version has a layer or chocolate spread inside, otherwise you can get them filled with ice cream or fresh strawberries and cream etc.
Vytopna Railway restaurant is really cool, drinks are delivered to the table by trains on a miniture railway!
Cool indoor attractions include Prague themed glow golf and the Toy Museum. Again a great way to see the city is by Segway. The John Lennon Wall is cool, there was a busker there during my visit! Our Segway tour took us up to Pivovar Strahov A Restaurace Sv. Norbert, a restaurant that serves beer brewed by the monks from the Monastery opposite. They have outside seating with patio heaters too!
6. Reykjavik, Iceland
Depending on when in winter you visit Reykjavik, depends on how much daylight you’ll have! For example, in December the sun doesn’t rise until around 11.30am and it sets at 3.30pm, giving you only 4 hours of daylight which isn’t much if you want to see some of the natural parts of Iceland! In March, there’s even a big difference from the beginning to the end of the month. At the start of March, you’re looking at an 8.30am sunrise and a 6.50pm sunset. (In the height of summer, Reykjavik experiences close to 24hours of daylight with a sunset at midnight and the sun rising just 3 hours later!)
Travelling to Iceland in winter gives you the best opportunity to see the Northern Lights. The peak season ends in March, so travelling around this time could potentially give you the best of both worlds!
During my visit it rained almost everyday, with temperatures hovering around 1c/33f, so it wasn’t the warmest but we did get to see many of the waterfalls, geysers (my favourite) and the black sands beach at Vik. Just wrap up warm and in waterproofs!
Just like Budapest, the Blue Lagoon is fun to experience when it’s cold. The difference compared to Szechenyi Thermal Baths is that there’s an indoor pool at the Blue Lagoon which is connected to the main outdoor one by a tunnel, so you can get in and out without actually needing to make a half naked dash outside! There are cheaper alternatives to the Blue Lagoon but I personally enjoyed the experience.
Read more: Practical Tips For Visiting Iceland In April
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