Winter Wonderlands: 6 Great European Breaks

Snow-dusted cityscapes, Christmas markets in full swing, hot chocolate-scented cafés – Europe in winter is a magical place. No doubt, the festive season adds another layer to the atmosphere, but visit outside of the Christmas period and you’ll find places wonderfully quiet and much more affordable. From Budapest’s steaming thermal baths to city-skiing in Copenhagen, SL contributor Olivia Rawes reveals six fantastic European winter breaks…

For Ice Skating & Thermal Baths: Budapest

Billowing steam and soothingly warm waters – Budapest’s baths are a wonderfully atmospheric way to warm up. The city’s most impressive site is the ornate Széchenyi Spa with its maze of over 20 baths set around a grand central pool. Thermal waters aside, Budapest has plenty to offer for a winter trip: admire the Hungarian parliament building framed by an ice-scattered Danube; warm up with a shot of fiery pálinka brandy in a ruin bar; or ice skate across the Városligeti Tó, a vast frozen lake backed by the Vajdahunyad Castle. 

Stay: Brody House

Insider Tip: 360 Bar – bag a heated igloo dome at the city’s hottest rooftop bar.

Meissl & Schadn
The Grand Ferdinand
The Grand Ferdinand

For Belgian Hot Chocolate & Frosty Canals: Bruges

Few cities in winter are more beautiful than Bruges, with its medieval centre a lattice of fairy light-draped lanes, misty canals and frost-glazed towers. Climb the Belfry for breathtaking views of the frozen city then curl up in the warm with a rich hot chocolate – this city is home to more than 40 chocolate shops. Bruges is undoubtedly a great Christmas break, but visit outside of the festive season and you’ll have the magic of the frozen city much to yourself. 

Stay: La Suite

Insider Tip: The eastern end of Langestraat is becoming a cool hub of independent shops and places to eat and drink.

For Hygge & Skiing: Copenhagen

For cosiness, you can’t beat the home of hygge. Danish capital Copenhagen is riddled with warm nooks where you can hunker down while snow swirls outside, from hip candle-lit cafés and cinnamon-scented pastry shops to fantastic restaurants – not least, Noma. But there are plenty of reasons to explore the icy outdoors too: embrace your inner child at the charmingly kitsch Tivoli amusement park; admire Nyhavn’s colourful parade of waterfront buildings framed against a snowy backdrop; or get your winter sports fix. The recently opened CopenHill has brought an urban playground to the city’s new waste-to-energy power plant, combining a hiking trail, the world’s highest climbing wall and an artificial ski slope with jaw-dropping views from atop the plant.

Stay: Hotel Sp34

Insider Tip: Check the opening times of Tivoli in advance – it closes for around 14 weeks each year. 

Amsterdam Light Festival
Hotel SP34
The Dylan

For Snow-Dusted Beauty & Geothermal Pools: Lake Bled

Few sights are more magical than Lake Bled in the winter, with its snow-draped medieval castle marooned on a tiny island set amidst a mountain-backed, glassy lake. When the lake freezes over, the view is even more perfect. When unfrozen, you can row across the lake to the little central island and admire the castle up close. Lake pursuits aside, there’s much to fill your winter days: soak in a geothermal spa, gorge on kremna rezina (a fantastically indulgent Slovenian cream cake), hike in the surrounding countryside or take a day trip to Ljubljana to admire the capital city’s Baroque architecture.

Stay: Vila Bled

Insider Tip: The ancient church at the centre of Lake Bled has a bell that grants the ringer’s wishes.

For Quieter Streets & Arty Lights: Amsterdam

With its laidback vibe, bike-thronged streets and sunny canals, Amsterdam is an understandably popular summer city. But visit in winter and you’ll get to explore without the crowds, meaning all those museums and hot-list restaurants are much more accessible. Amsterdam also undergoes a wonderful winter transformation: snow-blanketed parks, fairy-lit streets and scattered oliebollen stalls – for locals the appearance of these sugar-dusted dumplings marks the start of the festive season. Also not to be missed is the Amsterdam Light Festival (late November to early January). It fills the city with brilliant light installations, turning its streets and canals into a sparkling art gallery.

Stay: The Dylan
Insider Tip: Book an Amsterdam Light Festival cruise for an up-close view of the glittering canals.

The Grand Ferdinand
Hotel Gulasch & Soehne
Hotel SP34

For Café Culture & Carnival Elegance: Vienna

Lovely year-round, Vienna is even more alluring in winter. Its grand palaces are cloaked in snow, the spiced scent of glühwein drifts from Christmas market stalls and horse-drawn carriages add a fairy-tale romance to the streets. It’s little wonder this is where the snow globe was invented. There’s plenty to do too: view the twinkling skyline from the giant ferris wheel; indulge in Sachertorte in an elegant coffee house; or wrap up and watch a free outdoor simulcast of the opera. Come after Christmas and you’ll find Vienna still buzzing as carnival season (January to March) brings more than 400 balls waltzing through the city. 

Stay: The Grand Ferdinand

Insider Tip: A Vienna Pass saves you money and gives you fast track access to the top attractions. 

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