If you’re in need of a festive fix but don’t fancy battling the crowds, you might want to consider an alternative wintry break.  Thankfully, Europe is full of hidden gems; from quaint medieval towns with cobbled squares to villages perched upon the edge of frozen fjords, these are my top choices for a snow-topped adventure somewhat off the beaten track:

Budapest, Hungary

Despite having a lot to offer travellers, Hungary is still relatively untouched by tourism.  Even its capital, Budapest, can be amongst Europe’s calmest and most affordable cities to visit for a Winter jaunt.  Stroll along the bitingly cold Danube River, watch as the city’s buildings light up at night, tuck into some heart-warming chimney cake and explore the gorgeous markets down at Vorosmarty Square…the options are endless, and the wine is cheap!  Plus, what’s not to love about a city where you ice-skate in front of a castle before thawing out in an open-air thermal spa?

I was lucky enough to be invited out by the Hungarian tourism board last winter; you can find out more about my adventure and why Budapest makes for the perfect pre-Christmas jaunt below:

13 reasons why you should visit Budapest in December

 

 

Baden-Baden, Germany

Baden-Baden is a spa town nestled into the foot of Germany’s Black Forest.  It’s known for its salt and radon-rich thermal baths, and though it was a popular resort town during the 19th Century, it’s still much quieter than the likes of Berlin, Munich or Hamburg.  Throughout the Advent period, the tree-lined promenade comes to life with traditional market stalls, twinkling lights and a vintage carousel that’ll have even the biggest of kids begging for a shot.  Besides, if you get too cold you can always go for a dip in one of the many hot spas!  Currywurst and thermal pools? Bliss*.

*…not at the same time, obvs.

Aviemore, Scotland

Aviemore is one of my favourite places to visit in Scotland.  Nestled deep into the valley beneath the Cairngorm mountains, the town is popular with outdoor enthusiasts all year round as it offers great skiing, hill-climbing and water sports opportunities.  The Rothiemurcas Estate has great forest walks, and is also home to the beautiful Loch An Eilein, where a freshwater loch surrounds the ruins of a mysterious 13th Century castle.  You can even take a walk on the sandy shores of Loch Morlich, with snow-capped mountains sleeping gently in the background.

With its alpine-style chalets, woodland backdrop and high probability of snowfall during the winter months, Aviemore is the perfect place to head if you’re looking to generate some festive feels.  Having spent a couple of Christmases there, I can safely say that the town has plenty to offer if you’re looking for somewhere special to see in the 25th; from the annual street parade on Christmas Eve, which brings the whole town out to see Santa, to the Reindeer centre which lets you get up close and personal with Rudolph & co.

The town is also easy driving distance to Loch Ness if you’re up for a spot of monster-hunting.  Check out these features for some road trip inspiration:

Exploring the Cairngorms National Park: Things to do in and around Aviemore

A Review of the Macdonald Aviemore Resort

How to explore Loch Ness by car

 

Tallinn, Estonia

If you’re looking for a fairy tale setting to indulge in a spot of early Christmas shopping, it won’t come much prettier than Tallinn, Estonia’s much under-rated capital.  The Baltic winds may be nippy, but the characterful medieval buildings, cobblestone street and gothic towers will be sure to melt the heart.  The market, which dominates the Town Square throughout December, is one of Europe’s oldest Christmas markets; it’s even argued that the city was the first ever to resurrect a Christmas tree, back in 1441.

Foodies won’t have to look far to stock up on Estonian fare, with street stalls selling everything from black pudding and pickled cabbage to freshly-made gingerbread and fruity red wine.  Tallinn’s shops are the perfect place to pick up a festive gift or two, and you won’t have to worry about breaking the bank either; in 2018, Lonely Planet’s readers nominated the city as the number one best value destination in the world.  I’m liking the sound of that!

Krakow, Poland

Krakow may not be Poland’s political capital, but it is widely regarded as it’s cultural home.  Home to a gorgeous medieval square and a characterful Jewish district, Krakow’s Old Town has also been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s a beautiful place to wander around, and certainly comes to life throughout Advent.

With its historic castles, hidden salt mines and ornate basilicas, there’s also a wealth of history to be explored in Krakow; sadly, not all of it is of a positive light.  A more harrowing experience – but to many, an essential one – which many travelers choose to make is a visit to the Auschwitz & Birkenau concentration camps, about an hour’s drive from the city.  Though not exactly bound to fill you with festive cheer, a visit to Auschwitz will make you thankful for the people in your life and the things you take for granted.  If that’s not a great Christmas gift, I don’t know what is.

Bruges, Belgium

Chocolate, beer, waffles and houses which look they belong on the front of a gingerbread tin?  What’s not to love about a trip to Belgium?

As a travel destination, Bruges is often overlooked in favour of its elder siblings, Ghent and Brussells.  In fact, for many, it only came to attention after Martin McDonagh’s 2008 film In Bruges.  And yet, this wee gem has charm by the bucketload.  With its shimmering canals, medieval architecture, narrow streets and imposing Belfry tower, it’s no wonder the city is often considered the ‘Venice of the North’.  I visited in November, when the Christmas decorations were just starting to emerge, and I wished so badly that I’d booked to come just a few weeks later so that I could experience the delight of getting lost in its cobbled backstreets after one too many mulled wines.

Take a canal cruise, learn about the art of chocolate making, pick up some handcrafted tree ornaments or spend an afternoon sampling the goods at the Halve Maan Brewery; whatever your fancy, Bruges is perfect for a chilly adventure.

For more Belgian inspiration, check out the following features:

A day in the fairy tale town of Ghent

A weekend in Bruges

Bath, England

Another spa town, this time in England…Can you spot a theme emerging here?

Bath is known for its Roman-era thermal spas (hence the name).  It’s also known for being exceptionally pretty, with its honey-coloured bath stone houses and neatly-lined terraces.

They do Christmas in a big way down in Bath; so much so that their annual market has won numerous awards and has gone on to become one of the best-loved in England.  That being said, the city is still much quieter than say London, Manchester or Liverpool.  Instead of sprawling urban masses, you’ll find quaint, cobbled streets, parks a’plenty and lovely basement bars and restaurants just meant for cosy winter nights.

If the smell of warmly roasting chestnuts or the sound of children singing choirs don’t pull at your heartstrings, the ice rink down at Royal Victoria Park will.

Gothenburg, Sweden

With an estimated 5 million lights twinkling away, it’d be hard not to be dazzled by the Christmas display which takes over the city of Gothenburg.  Despite hosting the largest market in Sweden – and one of the largest in Scandinavia – Gothenburg itself is often overshadowed by Stockholm when it comes to enticing first-time visitors.

Winter is long and dark in Sweden. In some parts, the sun doesn’t even rise for weeks.  That’s why they’ve invented “Julmys” – a uniquely Swedish combination of ancient Nordic traditions and modern customs. Christmas City Gothenburg, one of Scandinavia’s most popular Christmas destinations, takes place between November 29 and January 6.  There are countless festive events held across the city throughout this time, and an impressive winter wonderland which is held at Liseberg amusement park.  The market stalls sell everything from arts and crafts to seasonal foods such as traditional Swedish marinated herring, marzipan pigs, and traditional mulled and spiced wine, known as glögg. You’re sure to find something…although I’m pretty sure after meeting these guys, the roasted reindeer will not appeal to all.

Bergen, Norway

With its fjord-side location and mountain backdrop, it doesn’t come much more scenic than Norway’s Bergen.  Through in some festive sparkle and you’ve got all the makings of an idyllic winter getaway.

The Norwegians don’t do things by half measures either; as well as an epic Christmas market and stunning Festival of Lights, the city is also home to the world’s largest gingerbread town! In November, half of Bergen’s citizens make their own contributions to this tasteful, magical town. Houses, churches, castles, rockets, and even oil platforms are some of the edible artwork you can find – the creativity is amazing! The result of it all is a mind-blowing fairytale town among mountains, fjords, snow and atmospheric light. You can also have a taste of Bergen’s own gingerbread hearts at the end of the tour.  The Gingerbread Town runs every day from Setralbadet, and lasts from mid November until the end of December.

Throw in the added chance of seeing the Northern Lights and you’re on to a winner.

Vilnius, Lithuania

The capital of Lithuania has been growing in popularity over recent years but don’t let that faze you.  The town, with its mixture of medieval and gothic architecture, has not lost any of its fairytale charm – and what could be more magical than a little dusting of snow to grace those spired rooftops?

Every December, the UNESCO – listed Old Town becomes home to a bustling market, the cobbled streets warmed with the smell of candied nuts and the sound of local carol singers.  Take a ride on the Christmas train, marvel at the grandiose tree, enjoy a performance of the Nutcracker or even enjoy a birds eye view of the city from a hot air balloon!

Lithuania may only have had independence for the last 100 years, but that doesn’t mean its lacking in cultural attractions.  In the space of a weekend, you could easily find yourself exploring 15th Century towers, wandering through beautiful gothic churches, tucking into cake in one of the city’s countless great coffee shops, enjoying the street art or delving into the city’s darker past with a visit to the Genocide Museum, housed in a former KGB prison.

 

Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland

Where better to finish than with a trip to the official home of Santa Claus??

Rovaniemi was almost completely destroyed during the Second World War; today, it’s a thriving resort town for people looking for an Arctic  adventure.  As well as being one of the best places in the world to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, there’s also the brilliant Arktikum museum and the Pilke Science Centre, which has interactive features on northern forests.  You can even make some husky pals with a dog-sledding experience – just make sure to wrap up warm!

Learn about the indigenous Sami culture, head out for a spot of skiing, visit the Ranua wildlife park or even meet Old St Nick himself down at Santa Claus Village; whatever your fancy, Lapland is sure to bring on that yuletide spirit one way or another!

Have you been on any winter adventures recently?  Where would you recommend?

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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