Best European cities in winter

Winter in Europe comes in many forms. In the freezing north there’s ice and snow, while Mediterranean climes offer milder temperatures and gentle sunshine. The continent’s grand cities offer the chance to either embrace or escape the cold, and most are more pleasant in the less crowded off-season.
St. Mark Square and the Doge's Palace at dusk. Photo: Hugh O'Connor/Shutterstock
St. Mark Square and the Doge's Palace at dusk. Photo: Hugh O'Connor/Shutterstock

The off-season can be a great time to visit cities throughout Europe. With less visitors and queues you can do more in less time, while off-season accommodation prices make travelling more affordable. Here is our guide to the best European cities in winter.


Athens

The Greek capital is a year-round destination which benefits from temperatures of around 14 degrees Celsius throughout the winter. And without the crowds and blistering heat of the summer, it’s easier to move around the city and enjoy its attractions. You can take the funicular railway up Mount Lycabettus for sweeping views over the metropolis, discover the nation’s artistic and cultural history in excellent museums such as the Benaki, and walk up to the ancient hilltop citadel complex of the Acropolis of Athens. Afternoons exploring the boutiques and galleries of the Kolonaki district can be complemented by evenings in the charming tavernas and bars of the nearby Psirri neighbourhood.


Ljubljana

Slovenia's vibrant capital, Ljubljana, is a compact city with ample green spaces such as the expansive landscaped City Park Tivoli. You can ride the funicular railway up the hill to fortified Ljubljana Castle for panoramic views over the city and an exhibition on Slovenian history. Stroll through the Old Town to discover Prešeren Square lined with baroque buildings at the city’s medieval heart and the Ljubljanica River spanned by the iconic Triple Bridge. Check out the Metelkova Art Center for alternative urban exhibitions, music and theatre, or museums like the National Gallery showcasing Slovenian art. Winter snowfall is expected annually in Ljubljana and Slovenia’s ski resorts are all within easy reach of the capital. The closest, Krvavec, only a 15-minute drive away from Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport, usually guarantees skiing from late December to March.

Winter in Ljubljana. Photo: Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock

Budapest

The Hungarian capital is chilly in winter, with temperatures rarely creeping above freezing from December to February. However, a dusting of snow enhances the city skyline making it even more beautiful. Wrap up warmly to stroll across the iconic Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube and take it views of the imposing buildings lining its banks. Ride the funicular railway up to the Castle Hill district where you can explore the Hungarian National Gallery set within magnificent Buda Castle. If the cold starts to bite, there’s no better way to warm up than by sampling Budapest’s renowned mineral bath culture. Among the grandest of Budapest’s spas, Széchenyi Thermal Baths has outdoor pools. Their therapeutic waters, direct from underground thermal springs, are naturally heated to 38 degrees Celsius, providing the opportunity to enjoy a rejuvenating soak underneath the ethereal layer of swirling mist rising off them.


Venice

Venice is another European city that blooms during atmospheric winter weather. Its canals are peaceful and shrouded in mist, hotel prices drop and the summer crowds have dispersed so you can more easily enjoy the grandeur of St Mark’s Square, its gilded iconic Basilica and the ornate Rialto footbridge with its views of the palace-lined Grand Canal thoroughfare. In February, the city’s annual, fortnight-long Carnival is one of the most important events on the Venetian calendar. Expect to see numerous Venetian masks, medieval sword-fighting re-enactments and groups of local residents sporting in their striking red silk finery. You can take in all the highlights of the magnificent floating city as part of Insight Guides' Romantic Venice trip.

Venice's gondolas covered by snow. Photo: spacecake/Shutterstock


Seville

Winter in Seville is not at all like winter. Temperatures in the Andalusian capital rarely drop below 16 degrees Celsius and on golden days it’s still possible to dine alfresco at restaurants on cobbled alleyways and sunny plazas. In the heart of the Old Town, the monumental Gothic Catedral de Sevilla is marked by the soaring 12th-century La Giralda minaret, now topped by the cathedral’s baroque bell tower. Nearby, the Royal Alcázar of Seville citadel complex is set in palm tree-filled gardens and embellished with ornate arches and intricate, 16th-century tilework. Also not to be missed are visits to some of the city’s acclaimed tapas bars. Las Teresas is a relaxed spot in which to savour slivers of jamón ibérico, slices of rich manchego cheese and succulent chunks of salted tuna, accompanied by a glass or two of crisp dry sherry. 


Vienna

Vienna, is undoubtedly cold during the winter, when temperatures can often drop below zero. However, the Austrian capital is also possibly at its most attractive with a layer of snow, underneath the blue skies of the season’s frequent crisp, clear days. Central Vienna, where the city’s major attractions cluster, is relatively compact so you don’t have to walk far. The baroque Hofburg Palace complex, imposing medieval St Stephen’s Cathedral and world-famous Vienna State Opera and museum are all within a short walk of each other, along with a wealth of magnificent art collections housed in galleries such as the palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum. If you do start to feel the chill a little, make a beeline to one of the city’s grand coffee houses, such as Café Central, to indulge in a warming hot chocolate topped with whipped cream, accompanied by pastries or a slice of luxurious gateau. 

Vienna's city hall and Christmas market. Photo: Muellek Josef/Shutterstock


Edinburgh

The millions of visitors who travel to Edinburgh each year don’t do so for the weather. However, there are far fewer sightseers in the city during the winter, meaning that a visit to Edinburgh Castle or a stroll down the Royal Mile is less crowded and much more pleasant. If it’s rainy, head to the National Museum of Scotland for natural history displays, or for art and sculpture try the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. A bracing walk up Arthur’s Seat hill in the city’s Holyrood Park is rewarded by sweeping views over the capital. On descending warm yourself up with a whisky or a pint in a cosy, traditional pub like the Baillie or the Halfway House. Or if you really want to spoil yourself, book a table at the oak-panelled Witchery for a culinary experience to remember, dining on seasonal dishes prepared with premium seasonal Scottish produce. The Christmas Market offers traditional seasonal gifts and fare at East Princes St Gardens, while the city’s Hogmanay Festival is a celebratory three days of events welcoming in the New Year.


Ready to take a winter trip?

Our local experts can help you to plan, organise and book fantastic tailor-made trips to European cities. Simply contact us with details of your ideas for the trip and when you would like to visit. We will then will prepare an itinerary based on your personal preferences, which you can amend until you're completely satisfied with every detail before you book.