From the Alps to the Pyrenees, Europe is home to some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Tucked into valleys between those peaks, straddling foothills, or lapping at the edge of lakes and ocean inlets are countless picturesque mountain towns and villages. Each of these historic hamlets radiates a charm that becomes even more irresistible when the winter snowfalls. From Italy to Norway and across the Alps, winter makes these European mountain towns all the more enticing.
1. Salzburg, Austria
The birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, possibly the world’s most celebrated composer, lies in the northwest corner of Austria, where it perfectly blends city culture and rugged Alpine lifestyle. Salzburg means “salt mountain,” and its famed salt mines account for some of the wealth that resulted in the town’s elegant, baroque architecture — which is frosted with a delicate coat of white snow throughout the winter. Towering above the town, the Fortress Hohensalzburg headlines Salzburg’s UNESCO World Heritage site and once-protected the salt mines below. Gazing at the surrounding mountains from the city center is the perfect way to feel as though you’ve stumbled into a Charles Dickens film.
2. Zermatt, Switzerland
With its pyramid-like rock spire, the Matterhorn might just be the world’s most iconic peak. Squeezed into a valley nearly at the base of that most memorable mountain, the town of Zermatt itself is no less striking, an expansive mountain village in Switzerland where the signature chalet architecture has become a staple in ski towns the world over. Zermatt so closely resembles a mountainous fairytale that Disney filmed Third Man on the Mountain here in 1958, and that effect is only amplified when the sloped rooftops of the village are loaded up with snow. If ever there were a place to enjoy year-round skiing and Swiss fondue, it’s in Zermatt next to the towering and elegant Matterhorn, one of the world’s most dangerous mountains to climb. Although you can admire the mountain from many spots in town and ski or snowboard with it in view for most of the day, there are also a few other good ways to get a closer look.
3. Hallstatt, Austria
On the western shore of Lake Hallstatt, the Austrian town that shares its name with the stunning alpine lake, is a postcard come to life. The lake itself covers over three square miles and, reaching depths over 400 feet, dazzles with its piercing blue color. From town, guests can take the funicular to the Skywalk Hallstatt overlook platform for their own postcard shot of that very lake and the Alpine peaks that surround it. They can also visit an underwater salt lake and tour the salt mines that once provided a major source of income for the town. Looking out onto snow-capped peaks, over the tiny village and to the crystal lake is considered one of the most iconic experiences in the Austrian Alps. The entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s so beautiful that China erected a replica of the village in Guangdong Province in 2011.
4. Mittenwald, Germany
No Bavarian mountain town is more classically Bavarian than Mittenwald. Downtown, the Obermarkt district fills with snow and revelers who stroll between the famed St. Peter and Paul Church and chalets, restaurants, and pubs. Mittenwald is known as the “village of a thousand violins” as it was once a major manufacturer of the instrument, and many a musician still charms the town with tunes on busy evenings. Each December Mittenwald hosts one of Germany’s most enchanting Christmas markets, with residents and visitors perusing wooden stalls while sipping hot Feuerzangenbowle.
5. Alesund, Norway
Norway’s fjordland is a common dream vacation for Americans, and these photos of the waterside mountain town of Alesund make it clear why. Its location embodies what makes coastal Norway a unique place: towns built at sea level surrounded by fjords, peaks, and inlets that offer views unlike any in the world. In the winter, downhill skiing, ski touring, and snowshoeing are all within easy reach. Or you could just relax and admire the northern lights string over snow-capped peaks and the Norwegian Sea simultaneously. In fact, skiing is possible on its glaciers in summer as well — as is heading out onto the water to gaze back at the town’s gumdrop-colored buildings.
6. Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
Italy’s Dolomites range contains some of the most irresistible ski areas in Europe, combining as they do slopes for every type of ski ability with stunning vistas, incredible cuisine, and a friendly mountain vibe. Amid all the towns in the Dolomites, Cortina is known as “the pearl.” The site of the 1956 Winter Olympic Games lies in the Ampezzo valley where two rivers meet and is a place to be enjoyed not just on skis, snowboards, cross-country skies, or snowshoes, but in a pair of cozy winter boots. The town is an excellent place to shop or to step into one of its many restaurants for a unique meal that showcases the area’s Alpine Austrian influences, with zesty salamis and rich cheeses, but, of course, inimitable pastas as well.
7. Chamonix, France
Chamonix is well known for its fearsome peaks, and it attracts not just some of the most rugged and fearless athletes in France but also in the world. It’s understandably a favored destination to film the kind of ski films that make you wonder how some of the feats are humanly possible. But Chamonix is also very French, with unforgettable restaurants serving wines from the Savoie region. So if ski touring with a guide and bypassing deep crevasses is not on your travel bucket list, not to worry. There’s plenty to do in the town’s shops, brasseries, and cafes. Chamonix’s historic town center is a great place to be once the snow starts falling.