July 16, 2024

Olympia Travel Tips

Maniac Travel Update

Best European Cities to Visit in the Winter

Ah, summer in Europe: biking over bridges in Amsterdam, eating just-caught fish at a taverna in Athens, paying exorbitantly high price tags, waiting forever to get into crowded museums, squeezing through masses of tourists swarming sidewalks and blocking every view… Admittedly, vibes on the well-traversed continent can get ruined pretty quickly during high season. But while spring and fall can give you a bit of reprieve, the real trick to having the European vacation of your dreams is by visiting in the dead of winter.

Sure, you’ll miss out on beach days and picnics, but the cozy cafes, homey taverns, peaceful museums, and affordable hotel rates will more than make up for it (not to mention any festive holiday markets). And while a trip to Europe during the coolest months might mean bundling up a bit more, the temperature in Paris or Venice will feel perfectly manageable compared to the arctic bomb cyclones and other horrific winter atrocities you’d otherwise be subjected to in Boston, New York, or Chicago.

Plus, the efficient train system means that if you want to tack on an alpine getaway, many of Europe’s urban wonderlands are just a few hours from adorable mountain villages and some of the world’s best skiing. So grab your chicest warm coat and a comfy pair of boots—here are the 10 best destinations for a winter escape in Europe.

london winter
London’s bustling streets somehow feel warmer with bright lights come winter. | blue sky in my pocket/Photodisc/Getty Images

London, England

Yes, the weather in London in the winter isn’t great. But here’s the thing: It’s not great in the summer, either. And while a rainy summer day might ruin your plans of a picnic in the park or a bike ride through Hackney, a rainy winter day just provides a great excuse to cozy up and enjoy London’s greatest asset: its pubs—er, museums, we mean.

Work up an appetite by strolling through some of the city’s most famous cultural institutions like the Natural History Museum or the British Museum, or choose a more niche experience, like discovering contemporary art at Tate Modern or finding your way through the maze of art- and sculpture-stuffed rooms at Sir John Soane’s Museum. Afterwards, you can reward yourself with a pint at a famous spot like the Churchill Arms or at a Victorian-era pub like the Princess Louise in Holborn.

Don’t miss out on high tea, a decadent afternoon snack of finger sandwiches, petit fours, and scones, washed down with champagne (or tea, if you must) at the recently relaunched Dorchester, one of the grandest hotels in London. Spend the night next door at the swank and intimate 45 Park Lane, or hop over to Chiltern Firehouse to sleep at one of the hippest hotels in town.

Switzerland winter
The Swiss are masters of winter. | Juergen Sack/E+/Getty Images

Basel, Switzerland

Basel is most famous for its annual summer art fair, when crowds of elite collectors, gallerists, and advisors descend on the city. But while the rest of the year remains relatively quiet, the Swiss city is still a must-visit destination for art lovers. Start your art adventure at the Kunstmuseum, where you can see works by Old Masters like Rembrandt along with modern art by Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.

Contemporary art lovers will want to venture out to see the private collection of the Beyeler family at Fondation Beyeler. And if the art there isn’t unsettling enough for you, there’s always the toy museum, where the eyes of ancient puppets seem to follow you around the room.

In winter, the quaint old town feels like a movie set, with cobblestoned streets lined with bakeries, galleries, and chocolate shops. The most famous hotel in town, Les Trois Rois, has more affordable rates in winter—plus, you’ll probably even be able to score a reservation at the hotel’s three-Michelin-star restaurant, Cheval Blanc.

greece winter
Snowfall in Athens is rare, but it can happen. | Alexandros Maragos/Moment/Getty Images

Athens, Greece

Of all the cities on this list, Athens is where you’re most likely to see some winter sun. With temperatures reaching the low 60s, it’s actually perfect weather for exploring the extensive network of ancient ruins strewn throughout the city. Absolutely jam-packed with tourists and beastly hot in the summer, the Acropolis is the most famous attraction in pretty much all of Greece, perched on the top of a hill in the middle of the city. Climb to the top to explore the Parthenon with 360-degree views of the city, and don’t miss out on the informative museum, along with other ancient sites like the Temple of Hephaestus, Hadrian’s Library, and the Ancient Agora, all located right in center of the action.

But while Athens is most famous for its ancient attractions, it’s a hip and modern city with an active nightlife scene, home to bars like The Clumsies (one of the world’s 50 best bars) and s.i.x. Dogs (built in an underground rock pit). You can eat at a classic taverna like Yiasemi, hidden away on the steps leading up to the picturesque Anafiotika neighborhood, or opt for modern Greek-Japanese fusion at the Michelin-recommended Nolan.

Winter is also a great time to visit Athens for affordable hotel rates, so spend the night at the swank Lighthouse Athens, where you can book a suite with a bar, a writing desk, and a bathtub in the middle of the room for under $300 per night.

prague winter
Step into a fairytale in Prague. | borchee/E+/Getty Images

Prague, Czechia

There’s nothing quite like seeing Prague Castle covered in snow. While the Czech capital is one of the most beautiful cities on this list, it’s also one of the coldest. But beautiful architecture, fascinating history, and a rich cultural heritage make up for the short days and low temps.

Spend your time popping into cafes and shops in old town square (don’t miss the astronomical clock) or touring the many rooms and museums of Prague Castle before a ballet or opera performance at the National Theater. After dark, experience Prague’s legendary nightlife scene, kicking things off with craft cocktails at the Alchemist, a bar that plays homage to Prague’s past as a hotspot for alchemy. For hotels, you can go modern with the design-y Hotel Boho, or keep it classic with a stay at the Grand Mark.

venice winter
Snow may be rare in Venice, but the streets are more charming and easier to see. | Marco Bottigelli/Moment/Getty Images

Venice, Italy

Venice can sometimes feel like a ghost town in winter—but compared to the mayhem of summer, we can promise you that’s a good thing. Wander the canals, browse the stunning artworks at the Peggy Guggenhiem Collection or the Prada Foundation, and get a drink at legendary Harry’s Bar, the birthplace of the Bellini.

The incredibly stylish Palazzo Experimental is the hottest hotel in town with a restaurant and bar that are worth visiting even if you’re not staying there. If you time your trip right, you might even get to enjoy some carnival theatrics; in the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras, revelers don elaborate masks and capes in festivals and events throughout the city.

paris winter
Paris is the place to find your winter-chic. | martin-dm/E+/Getty Images

Paris, France

Don’t ask us why, but somehow Paris becomes even more charming and romantic with cold weather and gray skies. Leave your heavy winter parka at home and opt for a light down jacket under a wool trench to dress like a local. And if you don’t have a good wool coat, that’s an excellent excuse for checking out Paris’s incredible stores or spending an afternoon shopping in the Marais.

Winter is also an excellent time to visit museums without busloads of tourists. Get some interior design inspo at the Napoleon Apartments in the Louvre, learn about the spooky underground history of Paris at the catacombs, step into a Wes Anderson film at the Musee de la Chasse, or catch a classical music performance at Sainte Chapelle.

Even though the weather can dip into the 30s and 40s this time of year, it doesn’t mean outdoor drinking is out of the question. Many of the city’s cafes come equipped with outdoor heaters and blankets for patrons, so you can still sip your cafe creme or kir royale and people-watch on the sidewalk. Plus, the cozy brasseries like Cafe Voltaire or Chez Rene are the perfect place to while away the evening over a plate of steak frites and a bottle of burgundy. As long as you’re not traveling during fashion week in February, it’s easy to find reasonable room rates at five-star hotels like Madame Reve or Pavillon de la Reine.

vienna winter
See all the beautiful buildings lit up in Vienna. | Gary Yeowell/Stone/Getty Images

Vienna, Austria

Visiting Vienna feels like something out of a fairytale, where twinkling lights lend a festive glow to the city’s incredible architecture, even in the dead of winter. Keep the fairytale theme going with a visit to Hofburg Palace (once home to the Hapsburg dynasty) and the dazzling Opera House, before discovering paintings by Klimt, Schiele, Van Gogh, and others at the extensive Belvedere collection. Spend a cozy afternoon at one of the city’s famous cafes like Cafe Landtmann, where you can people-watch over coffee and sachertorte.

Winter is also ball season in Vienna, and even tourists can score tickets to black-tie events put on by various guilds throughout the city, from the Confectioner’s Guild to the Philharmonic Orchestra, which takes place in the Golden Hall of the Musikverein. Once you’ve waltzed the night away, book a night at the new Rosewood Vienna, where the impeccably-designed rooms overlook the spires of old town.

Lisbon winter
Snow-less Lisbon looks unchanged in winter, but is easier to manage without the sweltering heat. | Alexander Spatari/Moment/Getty Images

Lisbon, Portugal

You’ll be grateful for the cooler weather when you’re hoofing it up Lisbon’s steep hills. Plus, the city’s cafes and wine bars along the winding cobblestone streets don’t get any less hip during the winter. And without throngs of tourists, you can easily explore the stunning National Tile Museum or the massive LX factory, full of shops, restaurants, and more.

Save at least one day to visit nearby Sintra, where a collection of jaw-dropping palaces, parks, and castles will delight and surprise you (and definitely don’t miss the Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira). And if you’re a surfer, you can find waves just 30 minutes from the city at Praia do Guincho.

Lower winter rates might mean a stay at the glamorous Palacio Santa Catarina is in the cards. If that’s out of your budget, opt for The Vintage, where spacious rooms and an underground spa with a heated pool provide a cozy home base.

Amsterdam winter
Sip warm drinks on a boat in Amsterdam. | Fokke Baarssen / EyeEm/Getty Images

Amsterdam, Netherlands

The bridges and canals of Amsterdam are especially romantic in winter, especially if you’re snuggled up inside an antique boat sipping a hot toddy. As the sun sets in the early afternoon, the whole city turns into a movie set.

The city’s cafes and coffeeshops are extra cozy in winter. Try the famous apple tart at Winkel 43, grab a pint at Cafe de Druif, or get weird at the quirky Cafe Pollux. You can easily spend the day cafe-hopping, but winter is a great time to visit the popular Rijksmuseum, where you can have the place to yourself.

With so many streets and alleyways to explore, it’s tempting to stick to the city center, but venturing a bit further out can be even more rewarding. Go for inventive—but not gimmicky—cuisine at Michelin-starred Ron Gastrobar or interesting natural wines at Glou Glou. For the ultimate cozy winter getaway, book a room at the Pulitzer, a five-star hotel occupying a row of townhouses in the chic Jordaan neighborhood.

Croatia winter
Keep things Mediterranean-mild in Dubrovnik. | Ratnakorn Piyasirisorost/Moment/Getty Images

Dubrovnik, Croatia

This walled city on the Adriatic is, unfortunately, as famous for overtourism as it is for Game of Thrones filming locations. But outside of the summer-cruise-ship months, it’s a quiet and lovely long-weekend escape, where you can feel like you have the city to yourself.

Get lost in the winding cobblestone streets, grab a cozy drink at a hidden wine bar, visit one of the world’s oldest pharmacies, or stroll along the old city walls. While some restaurants and bars close in the winter, the city is still full of incredible places to eat, like Bota Sare Oyster and Sushi Bar. And, if you’re up for a delicious day trip, you can visit the oyster farm in Mali Ston where the briney shellfish are raised. Plus, visiting in winter means that rooms at the best accommodation in town—the Hotel Excelsior—cost a fraction of what they might in the high season.

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Teddy Minford is a contributor for Thrillist.