If one continent does the holiday season wholeheartedly it’s Europe — and most places don’t even have to try very hard. To get you in the festive holiday spirit, we’ve gathered together some of our favorite places in Europe that are perhaps even more beautiful and picturesque in winter. These villages, towns, and cities have all the right ingredients: bustling Christmas markets, pretty light displays, delicious local seasonal delicacies, and stunning architecture — all topped off with a dusting of snow. From Bruges in Belgium to Tallinn in Estonia, here are the most festive places in Europe that will get you in the mood for winter.
1. Hallstatt, Austria
Hallstatt’s charming 16th-century alpine houses and narrow cobblestone alleyways look like a fairytale. During the holidays the village attracts many tourists who come to see the winter wonderland. Perched on the edge of Lake Hallstatt and close to the Salzkammergut mountains, the small town is only accessible by foot. The dramatic natural scenery truly shines in winter and Hallstatt’s local alpine-style buildings are laced with decorations and lights. The region is also famous for hiking, and there are 93 trails to choose from. A day in the chilly hills can be topped off with pine schnapps and freshly baked Lebkuchen — traditional German Christmas cookies — from one of the welcoming local bars.
2. Bruges, Belgium
The medieval town of Bruges is located in the Flemish region of Belgium and has one of the better seasonal markets in Europe. Located in the city center, it is packed with wooden stalls selling beautiful handicrafts, spiced glühwein, fresh waffles, and other local delicacies. The streets surrounding the center also have lovely little shops, including some of the best chocolate shops in the world. This makes Bruges a great place for Christmas shopping.
3. Wroclaw, Poland
Wroclaw in western Poland is one of the oldest cities in Europe and sits at the foot of the Sudetes by the Oder river. The impressive square is enclosed with tenement buildings and comes to life during November and December as the market — which is decked out with festive light displays and world-class decorations — opens to the public. The city also brings in the season with carnival rides, a Christmas parade, magic shows, and other fun events.
4. Prague, Czech Republic
Many visitors to Prague satisfy their bucket-list dream of experiencing a white European winter as the chocolate-box city’s cold climate makes for an almost guaranteed snowfall. The Old Town Square Christmas Market is famous, and you can take in the bustling streets from above after climbing to the top of the square’s tower. It is recommended to enjoy the city from the Vltava River where you are rewarded with a view lit up in amber lights. A trek up Castle Hill, over Charles Bridge, is yet another beautiful place to enjoy Prague, and there are a handful of Christmas market stalls at the top, so you can take in the sights with a hot cup of cider.
5. Budapest, Hungary
The capital of Hungary is popular year-round, but its famous thermal baths, numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, and beautiful architecture really come to life in the colder months. The Christmas markets at Vorosmarty Square and Basilica attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who enjoy traditional goodies such as Hungarian chimney cake. The Hungarian State Opera House is also well known for its magical annual Nutcracker ballet, and the Christmas Chamber Concert sells out every year.
6. Dresden, Germany
Like most of the places listed here, the riverfront city of Dresden is well known for its outstanding architecture. The Old Town with its opulent palaces, cathedrals, and baroque and rococo styling is a pleasure to visit, especially if it has been snowing. Originating in the 15th century, Dresden also has the oldest seasonal market in Germany. It is located in Altmarkt Square in the historic center and is beautifully sprawling. And if you enjoy the fruit bread, stollen, The Dresden Stollenfest festival celebrates unique local baking techniques and runs annually every December.
7. Vienna, Austria
Vienna puts on a show throughout the year, but during the festive period they really pull out all the stops. An age-old tradition, the numerous Christmas markets date back to the 13th century. Today there are over 20 including The Viennese Dream Christmas Market in front of the City Hall, Christmas Village Belvedere Palace, and Maria Theresien Square. Visitors enjoy seasonal local delicacies here such as hot Christmas punch, gingerbread, and kartoffelpuffer — potato pancakes with garlic sauce, and giant pretzels.
8. Cologne, Germany
It would be a real shame to visit Cologne if you’re a picky eater. The city sits on the Rhine and is one of the better places to eat and drink in Europe. The lively brewery scene makes for an exciting nightlife, especially during the colder months when locals and tourists alike huddle around outdoor heaters with lashings of Kölsch. The Christmas markets are also a great place to go to sample some other local delicacies such as Blutwurst — black sausage, roast almonds, and rum-laced hot chocolate.
9. Colmar, France
The fairytale-style buildings of Colmar are common in the Alsace region of northeastern France, but the small town is a very popular tourist destination because of its particular charm. It’s also famous for its festive celebrations. Colmar’s six Christmas markets have been voted some of the best in the world and are spread throughout the Old Town, linked by a labyrinth of narrow streets lined with half timber-clad brightly colored houses laced in lights. The historic center is pedestrian, so you can happily meander through the town with a glass of mulled wine.
10. Bergen, Norway
Wintertime in Norway might be dark and bitterly cold, but that does not stop Norwegians from going all out with festivities. Bergan, which is located on Norway’s southwestern coast, is enclosed by mountains and fjords. The iconic colorful facade of Bryggen, the old wharf, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and during winter its colors are amplified by thousands of lights and decorations. At the end of November, locals come together in town to celebrate the coming of advent. Lysfesten, or “Light Festival,” is quite a spectacle as people with torches line the streets, and an impressive Christmas tree, which sits in the middle of the lake, is lit. Fireworks close out the festival after a concert and a seasonal singalong.
11. Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn is another European city that is lovely all year round but is truly magical in winter. The Baltic capital has become a hot destination in Northern Europe over the last decade, so it’s not a bad idea to skip the summer crowds. In 1441, Tallinn was the first city in the world to have a public Christmas tree, and today you’ll find a beautifully decorated one in the Town Hall Square. The Uisuplats pop-up rink is surrounded by the Old Town’s buildings and is a great place to admire the architecture before warming up in one of Tallinn’s wonderful coffee houses with a seasonal drink.
12. Salzburg, Austria
The storybook baroque city of Salzburg sits on the border with Germany, close to the Eastern Alps, and is in my opinion one of the prettiest places in Europe. The crisp chilly air coupled with the city’s otherworldly backdrop of mountains looming over snow-covered domes and church roofs looks like something from a Christmas movie. Salzburg’s Christmas markets attract a lot of visitors, and its close proximity to good ski slopes means the city can get busy during the season. But those who enjoy the bustling energy of a busy market are welcomed by the smell of baked apples and almonds, roasted chestnuts, and warm spiced punch. It also has an extensive annual program of events, such as choral singing, live orchestral concerts, and sled rides drawn by reindeer.
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