Whether you want to escape the snow and plummeting temperatures with a tropical getaway or hit that holiday spirit head-on in one of Europe’s iconic Christmas markets, we’ve got you covered. Check out our picks for the best wintertime destinations below and prepare yourself for some serious wanderlust.
Gettin’ hygge with it
You know that feeling of being cuddled up under a blanket somewhere quaint and cozy, a flickering fire in the hearth and a mug of something warm in hand, while snow falls softly beyond the frosted windowpanes? That delicious contentment is known as hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”) in Denmark, and the Danes take that ish seriously.
Spend just a single day wandering the streets of Copenhagen (or, better yet, cycle them!) and you’ll see what we mean—from its colorful, blocky buildings and tiny harbors to its trendy cafes and design shops, the city positively oozes Scandinavian charm. A visit to Copenhagen in the wintertime takes all that Nordic charm and dials it up to 11 with a sugary dusting of snow and holiday cheer. Whether you fancy skiing, ice skating, or holing up indoors with a helping of Copenhagen’s legendary Nordic cuisine, winter in Denmark’s capital has something to tempt every kind of traveler.
This holiday season, get cozy with your friends and loved ones (or a Danish pastry and a glass of gløgg, we don’t judge) and embrace that hygge!
Indulge your inner child at Tivoli Gardens, the second-oldest theme park in the world and a fairy tale come to life. Every winter sees Tivoli transform into a festive wonderland with enough Christmas magic to power a whole fleet of Santa sleighs.
Strap on some skates, grab your sweetheart, and hit the ice rink at Frederiksberg Runddel! Admission to the rink is free and you can rent a pair of skates for 50kr. Nothing better than an afternoon zipping around a chilly rink followed by a hearty meal and a mug of hot chocolate.
Hunt down the Instagram-worthy light displays in Nyhavn, Kronprinsensgade, and Kongens Nytorv. These areas are pretty enough on their own, but sprinkle some fairy lights over them and you’ve got yourself one seriously magical backdrop. Hello, new profile pic.
Meat, fish, cheese, spreads, and veggies in a wild variety of combinations, all piled high on a piece of dense, nutty rye bread to form possibly the best open-faced sandwich you’ll ever eat.
The Danes tend to be a reserved bunch until you get to know them better, so don’t expect anyone to approach you on the street and ask if you need help. This cultural quirk doesn’t come from a bad place—people are simply trying to respect your personal space and independence. If you’re really stuck and need some assistance, speak up! Most Danes will be happy to lend a hand once you’ve made it known you need one.
Old world charm, new world hustle
Frankfurt is the financial capital of Germany and a booming business hub, the glittering metropolis at the center of European modernity and progress. Not only does the city play host to the European Central Bank’s headquarters, but it also boasts Germany’s largest airport and the massive Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Its skyline is all glass and steel, but underneath the city’s glitzy exterior beats a surprisingly traditional heart.
Meander around Frankfurt’s Altstadt (“old city”) and you’ll find plenty of old-world charm in the cobbled streets, half-timbered buildings, and cozy apple wine taverns. The quaint neighborhoods here are steeped in history, from the looming Gothic cathedrals where kings and emperors were once crowned to the ornate Römerberg, Frankfurt’s medieval central square. Come December, the Römerberg will be decked out with a gorgeous display of lights and festive stalls for the massive annual Christmas market that takes place in the old city. The carolers, ornaments, delicious German cuisine, and steaming mugs of Glühwein (“mulled wine”) are enough to send any Christmas-obsessed traveler straight to holiday heaven. Plus, more than 200 decorated stalls means you’ll have no trouble finding the perfect gift for your loved ones back home!
Trust us—if you’re looking to take your Christmas celebrations to the next level this year, there is no better place to do it than Frankfurt.
Have we mentioned the Frankfurt Christmas market enough yet?? Dating all the way back to the late 1300s, it’s one of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany and an absolute must-see for any wintertime visitor. Do not miss out on this gorgeous, festive display!
Get your culture fix at Frankfurt’s renowned Museum für Moderne Kunst (Museum of Modern Art)—widely regarded as one of the most significant museums in Europe today. With over 5,000 works of international art housed in one of the most spectacular examples of postmodern building design to date, there is plenty to see.
Vying for attention among the city’s sleek skyscrapers is the red sandstone tower of Frankfurt’s most famous cathedral, the Kaiserdom St. Bartholomäus. If incredible city views are your thing, you’re going to want to make the trek up all 324 steps of the cathedral’s giant tower—the amazing panorama waiting for you at the top is worth those aching calves, we promise.
Frankfurt’s famously delicious apple wine, spiced with cinnamon and cloves and served hot through the winter months, is literally Christmas in a cup. Be sure to stop by one of the old city’s rustic apple wine taverns for a nightcap before you leave!
Germans are known worldwide for their intense love of organization and order. This cultural trait results in not only some of the most punctual people around, but also a strict adherence to the law—no matter how minor. Unsuspecting tourists happily jay-walking around the city might find themselves on the wrong end of an immediate fine if they’re spotted by the police. Best to stick to the zebra crossings while you’re there.
A sun-soaked Spanish gem
Vibrant, colourful, and cultured, Spain’s capital is by far one of the best bang-for-your-buck destinations in all of Europe. There’s a little something for everyone to be found in Madrid: delectable Spanish cuisine, world-class art galleries, legendary nightlife, wonderful locals, and a beautiful blend of architectural styles ranging from baroque to belle époque. There’s a reason Madrid lures tourists to its sunny streets year after year—the city’s cheerful charm and zest for life are completely infectious.
Madrid’s merits as a summer destination are well documented, but we’ll let you in on a little secret: Madrid is even better in the wintertime. You heard us! Summers in Madrid can be scorchingly hot, sending residents scurrying for the air-conditioned indoors. Winter days, by contrast, are typically crisp and sunny with bright blue skies—perfect weather for sightseeing and grabbing a bite to eat on the patio.
The city’s winter beauty intensifies in December, when Madrid transforms into a twinkling vision of fairy lights and towering evergreens, and Christmas markets appear in every plaza. Bundle up and drink in the festive atmosphere before heading to one of Madrid’s many cave bars to enjoy a cozy bite to eat and a cocktail. Finish the night off with some churros and chocolate from the 24-hour Chocolatería San Ginés and congratulate yourself on doing winter vacation right this year.
If you’re eager to see the best Christmas light displays in the city, why not try… all of them? The open-topped Navibús will take you on a nighttime tour of Madrid’s lovely lights for the price of just a few euros. Grab your camera and some mittens and prepare to be dazzled.
Famished foodies looking for a special meal should be sure to pay a visit to Sobrino de Botín on Calle de los Cuchilleros. The historic restaurant, established in 1725, has played host to a multitude of famous figures over the decades (including, if you believe the anecdotal evidence, a teenage employee by the name of Goya). And really, who wouldn’t want to brag that they’ve eaten at one of Hemingway’s favorite restaurants?
A trip to Madrid isn’t complete without a stroll through El Retiro Park, the green heart of the city. Meander around the Velázquez and Glass palaces, warm up with a café con leche and people-watch, or take a boat out on the lake if you’re feeling especially adventurous.
You thought we were going to say tapas, didn’t you? While you can (and should!) hit up Calle Cava Baja for some tasty tapas before you leave, cocido Madrileño is a must-try winter dish in Madrid. This hearty stew is typically devoured in two or three courses—after the chickpeas, meats, and vegetables have been cooked, the broth is separated and served as a piping hot soup first, followed afterwards by the rest of the flavorful ingredients.
If you happen to be in Madrid for New Years, you might be a little confused by the grapes everyone is carrying around. The ritual of las 12 uvas, where people eat twelve grapes at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve, is an old Spanish custom meant to bring luck in the coming year. Why not grab some grapes and try it out yourself?
Keep calm and wassail on
Let’s be honest, no one visits London for the weather and wintertime is no exception. But, as a cheeky Brit might advise you, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!” Armed with your warmest coat, a good umbrella, and some stylish wellies, even London’s notoriously dreary skies won’t be able to dampen your holiday spirit.
Weather aside, December is a fantastic time to visit London. Winter villages and Christmas markets pop up throughout the city as if by magic, brimming with festive foods, handmade goods, and fun seasonal activities like ice skating. The cold and damp will have you wanting to indulge in a nice long lunch, and you absolutely should! London is chock-full of cozy taverns, elegant bistros, and hip hole-in-the-wall joints. Take your pick of the above and savour the luxury of a hot meal indoors while it’s gray and drizzly outside.
Whether you’re braving the cold at one of London’s public skating rinks, getting your Christmas fix at Greenwich Market and Winterville, or keeping warm with a hot toddy and some classic British comfort food (steak and ale pie, anyone?), we guarantee London will have you feeling those holiday warm-and-fuzzies in no time.
Visit a museum! London is home to some of the craziest, coolest, most fascinating museums in the world. Want to see a collection of creepy old curios? Visit Freud’s London home? Tour a delightfully wacky Victorian-manor-turned-party-venue? You can! Have fun exploring some of London’s weirder museum offerings or stick with classics like the Tate Modern and British Museum—either way you’ll be warm indoors.
Sign up for a haunted pub crawl. Hitting the pub is a must when visiting the British capital, and London is old enough to have racked up its fair share of ghost stories and sightings. Fill up on the city’s spooky history and ale at the same time! (Ghosts go down better with a pint, we find.)
Check out the Southbank Centre’s Wintertime Festival for a trendy take on the traditional Christmas market. South Bank is one of our favourite places in London and a magical spot to wander at any time of year. With a rooftop sauna overlooking the Thames, snow globe fondue, and all the mulled wine you can drink, the Wintertime Festival promises holiday bliss.
Like, all of them. Steak and kidney, chicken and leek, Eccles cakes, mincemeat, shepherd’s pie—sweet or savoury, they’re all quintessentially British and the perfect cold-weather comfort food.
You’re probably aware of the Brits’ love for tea, orderly queues, and funny euphemisms, but has anyone told you about the taps? England has yet to fully embrace the “mixer tap” and you’ll find most sinks have two separate taps instead—one for hot water and one for cold. This odd quirk of British plumbing has been baffling tourists for decades (SERIOUSLY, WHY?), but there’s no way around it. Make do with cold water, or try to perfect the awkward technique of whipping your hands back and forth between the two taps.
Underrated and ultra-chic
Switzerland is a tiny country that’s often overlooked in favor of the tourism giants next door, but doesn’t that make it an even more appealing destination? Buck the travel trends this winter and head to Zürich, a modern gem of a city nestled at the point where Lake Zürich meets the Limmat River.
As the wealthiest city in Switzerland, Zürich has long been known as a center for commerce (Swiss bank accounts are famous for a reason). However, recent years have seen Zürich emerge as one of central Europe’s trendiest destinations thanks to a growing arts and culture scene that lends the stoic city a youthful, postindustrial edge. And the good times don’t end when the sun goes down—with over 500 different clubs, bars, and concert venues to choose from, Zürich is most definitely the party capital of Switzerland.
With winter’s arrival, Zürich becomes a literal fairy-tale city—powdery snow settling over its medieval spires and tiled roofs, frost blooming on shop windows, and the alpine majesty of the mountains far in the distance. The Old Town is especially beautiful in winter, so take the time to enjoy the historical sights and that festive bite in the air. When you need a break from the cold, warm up with a luxurious visit to the spa, get cultured at one of Zürich’s excellent museums, or spend a blissful day indulging in all the delicious Swiss cheese and chocolate you can get your hands on.
Hit the club! Or the pub, bar, concert, fancy lounge—whatever vibe you’re feeling, Zürich’s legendary nightlife will guarantee you a good time. Night owls and dancing queens can head to Niederdorf, Langstrasse, and Zürich-West to browse the hip venues on offer there.
All that partying wearing you out? Treat yo’self to a little spa therapy at one of Zürich’s thermal baths. If you’re feeling extra fancy, pay a visit to the The Dolder Grand for some luxury pampering. For the budget bathers, a nice long soak in Thermalbad & Spa Zürich’s thermal rooftop pool should do the trick (the fantastic city view is icing on the cake).
Eat all the chocolate. Sweet-toothed travelers, do yourself a favour and fill up on decadent Swiss chocolate while you’re in town. Zürich is overflowing with premium chocolate shops, from big name brands like Lindt to tiny local chocolatiers. Why not try them all?
A delicious Swiss cheese, and the name of the dish revolving around it. The cheese is melted on a special grill, then scooped up and poured over anything within reach—bread, boiled potatoes, gherkins, pickled onions, tomatoes, meat. Raclette is a perfect meal for sharing, and one that cheese fanatics should definitely not miss out on.
The Swiss are a rule-loving people. One such rule? When eating fondue or raclette (both classic Swiss dishes involving melted cheese), your drink options are limited to wine—preferably a nice, acidic white—or hot tea. Asking for anything else will likely result in disapproving looks and a gentle refusal. The Swiss believe that cold drinks like beer, water, or soda will cause the melted cheese to congeal into a giant ball in your stomach and give you horrible indigestion later on. The science is iffy on that one, but really, do you want to risk it?
You feeling that holiday spirit yet? Check out Part 2!