This time of the year, the winter sometimes feels like it will never end. After months of cloudy skies and cold weather, it’s easy to lose sight of what makes winter so wonderful: snow-dusted cities, seeing your breath in the air, a steaming hot drink on a cold day. If you’re looking for a magical winter escape, Europe has some of the best winter destinations to fulfill even your wildest winter vacation dreams.
Whether you want to go skiing or ice fishing, wander round medieval-style Christmas markets or go dog sledding under the Northern Lights at the top of the world – Europe is certainly a continent that has perfected the winter vacation. So much so that a single winter holiday destination can be hard to choose. That’s why we’ve assembled eight fairytale wintertime destinations so you can make your coziest dreams into a reality.
From romantic getaways in the Swiss Alps to exploring your own song of ice and fire in Iceland, from the medieval side streets of Český Krumlov, Czechia, to the ornate Gothic edifices of Bruges, Belgium, here are eight of the best winter destinations in Europe. Read on.
Best winter vacations in Europe: the Dolomites, Italy
When it comes to European mountain ranges, the Alps pretty much have the game all sewn up. But if you ask us, there’s a new challenger making noise. The Dolomites are a mountain range in northeastern Italy. Their sheer drops and steep sides means they offer some of the most extreme and challenging mountain terrain anywhere on the continent. They boast a variety of winter vacation options for those looking to get out of the daily grind and experience the cozy seclusion of a real winter escape to the mountains. A winter holiday in the Dolomites offers skiing and snowboarding at all skill levels, top-quality accommodation, and generally excellent snow conditions from December all the way through April.
Aside from skiing and snowboarding, the Dolomites also offer ice climbing and snowshoeing, making them essentially a one-stop shop for all your winter sporting needs. Everything from guided tours to pre-planned routes are available, ensuring that everyone from absolute beginners to experienced mountaineers can find what they’re looking for.
Feeling sore from all the exercise? If your ideal winter holiday is less sport and more spa, the Dolomites have you covered as well. Visitors to the Dolomites can find a range of spas and wellness centers that combine naturally occurring hot springs with cold, clean mountain air – a winning combination! Hot stone massages, hydrotherapy, acupuncture and saunas are just a few of the creative and diverse options available to make sure you return from your holiday rested and rejuvenated.
And let’s not forget: you’re in Italy! On top of all the sporting and luxury, the Dolomites also offer the culinary delights of Europe’s most food-obsessed nation. Here, you’ll find Italian favorites with a mountainous twist – part-Austrian, part-Swiss, part-Italian, and trust us: 100% delicious. Our favorites? The canederli, little bread dumplings that are half Italian gnocchi, half Austrian knödel, and ideally at least 20% prosciutto. Yum.
As a mountain range that spans dozens of miles, you can approach the Dolomites from a number of airports. We recommend flying to either Venice or Verona airport and then catching a bus to Bolzano. Bolzano is a reasonably sized city with plenty of accommodation and can serve as a good home base for your visit to the Dolomites.
European winter holidays at their finest in Lapland, Finland
If you’re truly looking for an arctic experience, an ordinary winter holiday might not be enough. What you need is something else: something outside the ordinary, something otherworldly, a land of ice and snow where the sun never rises and the Northern Lights shine brightly. You need Lapland.
Lapland, a region in the extreme north of the already quite northern country of Finland, is a remote yet charming escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. The capital of Lapland, Rovaniemi, constitutes the perfect home base for all of your Laplandic activities – and there are a lot to choose from! Here you have your pick of all the classic winter activities and then some: cross country skiing, ice fishing, sauna, dog sledding, even reindeer sleigh rides!
Another unique, wintry experience that Lapland has to offer is the chance to stay in an igloo house. Ice and Aurora hotels, as they are known, allow guests to stay in specially constructed dwellings carved out of the winters’ ice each year. These hotels also give you the opportunity to enjoy one of the most unique experiences possible in these northern climes: a view of the Northern Lights. The specially constructed hotel suites with glass ceilings allow you to view the majesty of the dancing Northern Lights all night long. Alternatively, you can also book excursions into nature to take in the majesty of the polar aurora in its natural environment.
If you’re traveling with children, then Lapland truly has something special to offer. Visitors to Lapland can head to the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, home to Santa’s office, where he receives mail from children all over the world. Activities like workshop tours and a reindeer petting zoo will keep the visions of sugarplums dancing in the little ones’ heads.
Rovaniemi is just a short distance from the city’s airport, known as Rovaniemi Airport. Just get bus line 11 from the airport and you’ll be in the city center in a few minutes.
Winter romantic getaways: the Swiss Alps
You didn’t think we’d forget the Alps, did you? Never fear: the eponymous Alpine peaks that inspired Toblerone’s characteristic shape were never far from our mind – because what’s a winter holiday list without the Swiss Alps? Indeed, the Alps are a paradise for those looking for winter vacations of all kinds.
The village of Grindelwald, in addition to its fairytale-sounding name, also makes an ideal home base for those looking for Alpine delights. Picturesque timber houses flank the snow-bedecked streets, lined by quaint shops and restaurants, all surrounded by pristine snow-capped mountains. With its proximity to ski and snowboard slopes, scenery, and resorts, it makes the perfect place to start your adventure. The village is also near several iconic mountains, such as the Jungfrau, the 13,642-foot (4,158 meters) behemoth of the Bernese Alps.
For those seeking some romantic isolation on their winter holiday, there are a wealth of cute cottage getaways available for rent in the area. These charming chalets offer a perfect escape from the winter without ditching the snow-and-fireplace aesthetic that is so appealing at this time of year.
And what’s a trip to the Swiss Alps without a pot of fondue? A hearty dish of cheese and wine served with crusty bread is one of the most iconic meals of the region, and truly the best way to refuel on precious calories after a day on the slopes.
To get to Grindelwald from the airport, it’s best to fly to Geneva Airport and get an express train to Interlaken. Once in Interlaken, it’s a simple, very scenic train ride to Grindelwald, which boasts incomparable Alpine views from both sides.
Your own song of ice and fire in Iceland
Before there was the Song of Ice and Fire series, there was the land of ice and fire – Iceland. Truly an otherworldly location, an isolated island of volcanoes, glaciers, and hot springs. Here on Iceland, the main settlements can be found on the temperate fringes of the island, where Norse farmers could make a living by the seaside. Iceland is also the place you’ll find some of Game of Thrones’ most iconic filming locations, such as the Bloody Gate – filmed in a canyon near the Oxararfoss waterfall.
Almost all tourists to Iceland start in the capital city of Reykjavik, where the majority of the native population also lives. Anywhere else, this city of 120,000 would be called medium-sized at best, but in Iceland, it’s like New York and Shanghai combined. Reykjavik is known for its art and museums, as well as a lively nightlife scene that’s extremely welcoming to tourists.
But let’s face it – most people don’t come to Iceland for the city life. So let’s get out of the city and head to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa just outside the capital with stunning opaque turquoise water that gushes forth from the living earth at a near-perfect 98-104°F (37-40°C). Soak in this stunning natural spa bath and take in the otherworldly views of the surrounding lava fields.
Another Icelandic wintertime attraction is the opportunity to see the Northern Lights. The city of Reykjavik is too bright, so Northern Lights tours leave at night and drive deep into the Icelandic countryside where you can be surrounded by the dark of natural night – except for the glow of the aurora. Get lucky with a solar storm, and you’re in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
To get from Reykjavik Airport to the city center, get an airport bus. It’s direct and takes less than an hour; Flybus Iceland is a good option.
Bask in the medieval winter feeling in Český Krumlov, Czechia
For a truly picturesque winter holiday that feels like traveling back in time to medieval Europe (in a good way), travelers can’t do much better than Český Krumlov. Český Krumlov is a jaw-dropping town located in Czechia, known throughout central Europe as one of the most well-preserved cities of its era. If you’re looking to spend some time in one of the best winter destinations in Europe, you can’t get much better than Český Krumlov.
From its characteristic winding cobblestone streets, multicolored buildings, and looming castle on a hill overlooking the city, UNESCO-recognized Český Krumlov has just about everything a winter lover wants. During the winter, Christmas lights shine well into the new year, illuminating snow-dappled lanes and alleyways abutting intricately decorated squares sprinkled with market stalls. You almost feel as though you’ve traveled back in time.
During the holiday season, the Český Krumlov Christmas market occupies the city’s main square. It features vendors selling local handicrafts like wooden toys and sheepskin blankets, bracing mulled wine (shot of amaretto or rum optional, but recommended – it is the holidays, after all), and all manner of Czech specialties. Must-tries include Czech goulash, Czech dumplings (Knedlíky), and, of course, that delicious Czech beer. American beer enthusiasts will be amused to find a beer called Budwar, or as it’s also known, Budweiser. Not the same thing as the classic American brew!
Once you’ve gotten your fill of this gorgeous city and its indulgent delicacies, it’s time to head into the countryside for some good, old-fashioned cross-country skiing. The region surrounding Český Krumlov is crisscrossed by a web of trails and ski runs offering thrills to skiers of all skill levels.
Český Krumlov is easily but somewhat lengthily reached from Prague airport by shuttle bus or train. Both take about four hours – the train is slightly faster, but also slightly more expensive.
Escape the cold in Porto, Portugal
Though the phrase “winter wonderland” surely conjures up visions of snow-covered hills and fairy lights, it’s important to remember that for much of the world, winter means mild temperatures and a bit of rain from time to time. But just because you’re not curling up in front of a roaring fire after a day on the slopes, it doesn’t mean you can’t get cozy. And a winter holiday in Porto, Portugal might be exactly what you need.
When the weather is this temperate, a stroll through the city can be just what the doctor ordered. Visitors to Porto have the opportunity to enjoy a cityscape clad in the ornate facades of the 18th and 19th centuries. The gleaming Clérigos Tower and the colorful Ribera neighborhood offer ample opportunities for sightseeing.
Once you’ve explored the city, you might want to get out to the countryside to see what this part of the world looks like. Porto is well-positioned for day trips to northern Portugal’s most beautiful areas. Head north to the Douro River Valley for stunning views of terraced vineyards sprinkled with tiny villages. The historic town of Guimaraes, known as the birthplace of Portugal, is just an hour from Porto by train. Or head south to the beach town of Aveiro, a miniature Venice on the Atlantic.
But we promised cozy, didn’t we? And Porto’s food and wine scene is there to deliver it by the glassful. Port wine is from here, and Port wine tours are a popular activity for visitors. Porto is also known for its delicious and hearty cuisine. A notable highlight is the Francesinha, an imposing cheese, egg and meat sandwich drowned in a rich gravy. Try feeling cold after eating that!
Arriving in Porto is straightforward. Take Line E (Purple) from Porto Airport – the trip takes about 30 minutes.
A fairytale winter holiday in Bruges, Belgium
Bruges, Belgium in winter is surely a sight to behold. Bruges is a prime example of a 17th-century western European city. It’s a stately collection of ornate gray stone buildings that, when sprinkled with a light snowfall, transform into a true winter wonderland, a patchwork of snow-covered roofs arrayed within a web of frozen canals.
Bruges is famous for its UNESCO-designated city center, an impressive love letter to Gothic architecture. The Belfry Tower, the Church of Our Lady, and the Basilica of the Holy Blood are prime examples of this type.
But you’d be tempted to say that what makes Bruges special is not the buildings, as beautiful as they are. Instead, it’s what’s between them: a network of narrow canals abutting a side of a city you rarely see – the back doors. Or rather, the windows and sunrooms that occupy their canal-facing walls. A canal tour in Bruges allows you to relax, sip some of that famous Belgian beer, and enjoy the sights.
Ice skating is another lovely way to spend time in Bruges. During the holiday season, the city’s main Christmas Market hosts a skating rink. Otherwise, you just need to wait for the proper weather. When conditions allow, ice skating is a popular activity on the city’s many small lakes, as well as down those breathtaking canals. When traveling to Bruges in winter, it’s all about those canals.
Belgium is a small country that is well-connected by trains. The simplest way to get to Bruges is to fly to Brussels Airport and get a direct train to the main train station Bruxelles Central, which takes about an hour.
A typical German winter experience in Nuremberg, Germany
What is a list of best winter destinations in Europe without Germany making an appearance? When you’re looking for a winter holiday in Germany, you could do a lot worse than Nuremberg. Nuremberg is a city that boasts a rich history, some absolutely excellent architecture, and a joyful holiday atmosphere that make it a great choice for a winter destination in Europe.
With its timbered houses, Nuremberg’s old town cuts a very medieval figure. Wander through its winding cobblestone streets, finding medieval fortifications and quaint squares around every corner. The compact old town is eminently discoverable purely by foot; indeed, Europe’s oldest and most extensive pedestrian zone covers much of Nuremberg’s historical old town.
One of the biggest wintertime attractions in Nuremberg are the traditional markets. If you’re arriving in the holiday season, Nuremberg’s Christmas markets offer a quintessential demonstration of what makes German Christmas markets so great. Handmade crafts, sparkling decorations, hearty food, and just enough mulled wine to warm you up. Wander the stalls, admire the snow-draped roofs of the old town, and just take it all in.
If you’re looking for something more active, the mountains nearby Nuremberg are an underrated skiing and snowboarding destination. There are several ski resorts nearby that offer modern amenities and ample opportunity to carve up some fresh powder.
Getting to central Nuremberg from the airport couldn’t be simpler: just take the U2 subway line and you’ll be wandering the cobblestone alleyways in less than 20 minutes.