Winter comes in many guises in Europe – in the polar north there’s serious snow and sunless weeks, while you’ll find lingering sunshine in the mild Mediterranean, and cosy cafe culture and Christmas spirit in the centre.
It’s an inspiring time to visit grand cities and charming villages: with fewer queues you can fit more into your itinerary, and off-season accommodation prices make European travel wallet-friendly in November, December, January and February. Via Europe’s train network you can explore countries at your leisure, meeting locals going about their daily business away from the often-frenetic summer tourist season.
1. Rovaniemi, Finland
Fistfuls of Christmas clichés characterise Rovaniemi, the ‘official’ terrestrial residence of Santa Claus. Everyone’s favourite bearded man hangs out in an atmospheric Arctic Circle grotto, and it’s free to visit him (but photos are another story). Snow and reindeer add festive spirit, while the Arktikum museum gives insights into life at these latitudes.
Tip: Finnish thermometers have more numbers below 0°C than above, so pack serious winter clothing.
2. Christmas markets, Germany & Austria
December sees these romantic historic markets pop up all over Germany and other Central European nations. Expect cute stalls selling everything from gingerbread to sleigh bells and plenty of good cheer, toasted with a glass of warming glühwein.
Tip: Famous markets in Cologne, Vienna and Munich draw the tourist crowds, but seeking out ones in smaller towns is rewarding.
3. Abisko, Sweden
Almost as far north as you can get in Europe on a train, Abisko in Lapland is for lovers of serious winter. The sun doesn’t rise for several weeks in December and January but that darkness makes it one of the world’s best places to view the majestic aurora borealis. Other attractions include cross-country skiing along national park trails and husky mushing.
Tip: Top off at nearby Kiruna to see the famous Icehotel.
4. Athens, Greece
It’s a real downer trying to Photoshop 500 people out of your would-be-prizewinning Parthenon photo, but in winter it’s not an issue. All summer stresses – crowding, tourist pricing, intense heat, queues, air pollution – more or less disappear. It’s the best time to explore the country’s ancient heritage and get to experience local culture.
Tip: By all means do some island-hopping, but most accommodations close in winter.
5. Copenhagen, Denmark
For fairytale European winter, it’s hard to beat the home of Hans Christian Andersen. Forget the over-hyped Little Mermaid and head to the city’s cosy bars and cafes to watch snow flurrying outside. In the heart of town, the 19th-century Tivoli amusement park is a romantic, kitsch delight around Christmastime, with heartwarming illuminations and body-warming mugs of glögg.