I don’t know what it is about winter, but not only is it probably my favorite season, but it also suits certain cities so much better than summer. I admit that this view might be subjective, as all the cities listed in this round-up are also great places to visit during other seasons. But, somehow, the best season to visit, in my mind at least, is winter.
Maybe it has something to do with the season I first visited and got to know each place, and looking at the list again, this is true for quite a few of them, but not all. Whatever the reason, these cities just are much more atmospheric in winter: They are either adorned with snow or are dressed up for the festive season, or they are perfect for walking around while wrapped in a warm coat.
Why don’t you go and have a look to see if you agree?
1. Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, is like a time-stood-still fairy tale city. The old center is snuggled within a sturdy medieval city wall, complete with lookout towers with red pointed roofs, and the cobbled lanes are hemmed with ancient buildings, some half-timbered, others painted in pastel shades. The market square sits alongside the old town hall, which dates to 1404, making it the oldest in the Baltic States. There are shops selling the loveliest local arts and crafts, with those little big-nosed gnomes, also called tomte or tonttu, which originate from Norse folklore, making the cutest addition to your mantlepiece back home.
Now add snow, add cafes and restaurants with large open fires and serving either mulled wine, or glöggi, and decadent hot chocolate, add an ice rink set against a row of colorful old houses, and people warmly dressed simply enjoying being out at the market square filled with stalls during the Christmas season, and you have the perfect winter atmosphere.
Pro Tip: Stay at the Hotel Telegraaf in the heart of the old town. A gorgeous old building, modern amenities, huge open fire, and a great restaurant.
2. Strasbourg, France
Choosing Strasbourg for this list was a no-brainer because it is the Christmas setting personified. I have never seen a city more decorated at Christmas than Strasbourg. Not one shop window or street is without twinkling lights, window decorations, or market stalls. You can barely take it all in, there is so much to see. Don’t get me wrong, I have visited in summer and enjoyed sitting out by the river, and loving the atmosphere of the old town, but if you only get to visit once, make it December, and take in Christmas in Strasbourg. It has to be seen to be believed. And don’t think that it is too much or tacky. Not at all. It is simply perfect.
Pro Tip: While there are big Christmas markets around the cathedral and on the main square, concentrate on the smaller ones in Petite France, the really old part of the old town, where half-timbered houses, covered bridges, and tiny squares add that extra-special ambiance.
3. Stockholm, Sweden
This is definitely a case of first impressions made in the snow and loved ever since. The first time I visited Stockholm I arrived on a ferry from Germany that had just made its way across the frozen Baltic Sea, landing in Stockholm after it had just snowed. The Gamla Stan, the old town, the palaces in and around the city, the parks, the streets, the roofs, everything was covered in a thick layer of perfectly white snow, making the already lovely setting of countless islands, canals, bridges, and harbors even more special. While Stockholm is great in summer, with its people enjoying the light, warmth, and the chance to enjoy the water, I have always preferred it in the winter. Maybe because the city is set up for winter, and knows how to make the most of it, while also offering creature comforts and making every place snuggly and warm?
Pro Tip: If you are lucky enough to be there when fresh snow has fallen, head straight out to Drottningholm Palace which is particularly picturesque in the snow.
4. Helsinki, Finland
Another northern winter winner delight is Helsinki, and do you know why? Because I fell in love with one particular café/restaurant called Kappeli, which is decked out in countless twinkling lights that light up the entire Esplanade in winter’s dark nights. Walking around the old harbor, visiting the covered market, the arts and crafts huts alongside the harbor, and then turning into the wide Esplanade, the historic Kappeli restaurant — one side lovely café, another side very nice restaurant — stands there like a special Christmas decoration, and it does serve rather good food, too.
And the square in front of the Helsinki Cathedral, just off the Esplanade steps from Kappeli, is another lovely sight, with a huge Christmas tree in front of the white cathedral.
Pro Tip: Finland is known as the land with 5.3 million people and 3.3 million saunas, and while the Finns love them year round, they are even better in winter. Book yourself in and get warm.
5. Paris, France
I have always maintained that winter was my favorite season in Paris, much to the horror of Parisians, who easily get a chill. But not only is Paris more void of people in winter but also, it is possible to walk along the beautiful architecture without the leaves of the trees being in the way of appreciating the scene. Not that I do not like the trees in Paris, it is lovely for the city to be so green, but when you walk along looking up, you often miss the details of the buildings for trees.
And should you get snow that stays on the ground, then head straight for the Eiffel Tower. That might sound like unnecessary advice but trust me. Once it snows properly, all the metros and buses go on reduced service, and no one heads out. I had the entire Champ de Mars to myself, with four other people, managing to take wonderful pictures of a snowy Eiffel Tower without people. Just imagine.
Pro Tip: Every winter there are lots of ice rinks popping up in Paris, and whether you join in or not, try and go to the Grand Palais. The setting is wonderful, and it serves warm drinks as well as chilled champagne, and you can just watch others fall over.
6. Edinburgh, Scotland
The capital of Scotland is truly lovely in all seasons, and even if it rains, it still has a certain charm. But Edinburgh pulls out all the stops not just for Christmas, with the steep lanes up to the castle looking particularly lovely, but especially over the New Year. This is the time to come and watch how the Scots party and celebrate Hogmanay. Come prepared and get a torch ready for the torchlight procession down the Royal Mile, and learn the words to “Auld Lang Syne,” which everybody bursts into at midnight.
Pro Tip: On January 2, when the party is over and the hangover has abated, head to the Botanical Gardens for the last visiting time slots for the light trail. The lights are so pretty.
7. Hamburg, Germany
Hamburg is my hometown and I love all seasons there, in summer the canals and lakes are full of boats and paddlers, and the parks full of picnickers, and it is lovely to have a break from the famous schmuddelwetter, meaning the dirty weather, i.e., the rain that dominates spring and fall. In winter, there is usually another break from the rain, when it turns to snow. And if luck has it, it gets cold enough for the two lakes that dominate the city center to freeze over. When that happens, all of Hamburg gets on the ice — walking, skating, setting up sausage and mulled wine stands, and people basically picnicking on the ice.
Then there are the Christmas concerts, best enjoyed in the modern Elbphilharmonie with its great views, or the truly iconic Hamburg setting of the St. Michaelis Church, the “Michel” as locals call it.
Add to that the great Christmas markets, especially the one in front of the historic town hall, and you will get the idea why this city is just perfect in wintertime.
Pro Tip: Head to Konditorei Lindtner in the Eppendorf neighborhood. This is a traditional old café that embodies the Germans’ famous love of cake. Try the Lübecker Marzipantorte, a cream cake with a layer of marzipan on top. Very decadent, but in winter you burn more calories, so this doesn’t count.
8. York, UK
York, the walled city in North Yorkshire which was founded by the Romans, is a cathedral city with a medieval old town in the heart of it. Not far from my in-laws, I always find an excuse to visit York to meander through the narrow lanes, which offer great shopping and many lovely cafes and restaurants, plus a selection of superb antique markets.
But come winter, and especially Christmas time, this beautiful place turns into a Christmassy wonderland. Markets pop up everywhere, especially around Parliament Street and St. Sampson’s Square, sprawling out into the nearby lanes all decorated with twinkle lights. There are so many good food stalls that I tend to visit on an empty stomach, and people stand outside with their coffees or mulled wine just enjoying the lights.
Pro Tip: I mentioned the Romans and medieval times, but did you know York has a Viking history? Check it out at the Jorvik Museum.
9. Kraków, Poland
The first time I visited Kraków was in spring, and I was enchanted. The lovely architecture around the main square, the moving clock on the Town Hall, and the daily bugle call from the tower are quite unique and special. While Polish food is known around the world — who doesn’t love pierogis? — there is also an amazing selection of superb restaurants in the city, where you can spend a small fortune, but it will be well spent. For traditional Polish cuisine with a Michelin star, try Bottiglieria 1881.
But in winter, the markets take over the square, the terraces are still open, but the huts selling traditional Polish snacks and street food let you forget fine dining and just enjoy eating standing up in the cold, but being warmed by a mulled wine. The square is beautifully decorated and just wonderful in winter.
Pro Tip: Krakow is famous for its glass and crystal, and does hand-crafted Christmas baubles very well indeed. Think ahead and bring something sturdy in your suitcase to safely transport some delicate, shiny decorations back with you to hang on your tree back home.
Wintertime in Europe also means Christmas markets: