“If you’re in need of a festive fix but don’t fancy battling the crowds, you might want to consider an alternative winter break. Thankfully, Europe is full of hidden gems. From quaint medieval towns to villages perched upon frozen fjords, these are my top choices for a snow-topped adventure off the beaten track.”
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 break.
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 winte. You can find out more about my adventure and why Budapest makes for the perfect alternative winter break below:
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. 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. Traditional market stalls, twinkling lights and a vintage carousel will have kids – small and big – brimming with excitement. 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 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. It offers great skiing, hill-climbing and water sports opportunities.
Aviemore is the place to get your fill of nature’s winter vibes. The Rothiemurcas Estate has beautiful forest walks, perfect for filling your lungs with pine-fresh air. It’s also home to Loch An Eilein, a freshwater loch which 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 snowfall, it’s almost like Aviemore was built with Christmas in mind. Having spent a couple of Christmases there, I can safely say that the town measures up on the big day too. Be sure to catch the annual street parade on Christmas Eve, where you can get up-close-and-personal with Santa and his reindeer.
The town is also easy driving distance to Loch Ness if you’re up for a spot of festive monster-hunting. Check out these features for some road trip inspiration:
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. The Baltic winds may be nippy, but the medieval buildings, cobblestone streets and gothic towers will be sure to warm the heart. The Christmas market is one of Europe’s oldest. It’s even argued that the city was the first ever to erect 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, it’s a culinary treasure trove. The shops are also fab. Better still, 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 may not be Poland’s political capital, but it is widely regarded as it’s cultural home. Home to a gorgeous medieval square and historic Jewish district, Krakow’s Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a beautiful place to wander around, and certainly comes to life throughout Advent, making it ideal for a winter break.
In December 2018, I was lucky enough to visit Krakow as part of a press stay. I quickly fell in love with the ancient city centre, lively Christmas markets and sparkling cobbled streets. You can read all about my experience, and why Krakow makes for the perfect alternative winter break in these articles:
With its historic castles, hidden salt mines and ornate basilicas, there’s also a wealth of history to be explored in Krakow. Sadly, much of it comes tinged with with darkness. A more harrowing experience, which many travellers choose to make, is a visit to the nearby Auschwitz & Birkenau concentration camps. 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.
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. 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 and medieval architecture, 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. I wished so badly that I’d 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 with a twist!
For more Belgian inspiration, check out the following features:
Another spa town, this time in England. Can you spot a theme emerging here?
Bath is famous for its Roman-era thermal spas (hence the name). It’s also exceptionally pretty, with its honey-coloured stone houses and neatly-lined terraces.
They do Christmas in a big way in Bath. So much so that their annual market has won numerous awards and is 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 just meant for cosy winter nights.
If the smell of warmly roasting chestnuts or the sound of carol singing don’t pull at your heartstrings, the ice rink at Royal Victoria Park will!
With an estimated 5m lights twinkling away, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the Christmas display which takes over the city of Gothenburg. Despite hosting the largest market in Sweden, Gothenburg itself is often overshadowed by Stockholm when it comes to enticing first-time visitors. If you’re looking for somewhere a little quieter, this could be the perfect peaceful winter break.
Winter is long and dark in Sweden. In some parts, the sun doesn’t 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. Countless festive events take place across the city and an impressive winter wonderland sits proudly at Liseberg amusement park. The market stalls sell everything from crafts to seasonal foods like marinated herring, marzipan pigs, and mulled 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.
With its fjord-side location and mountain backdrop, destinations don’t come much more scenic than Norway’s Bergen. Throw in some festive sparkle and you’ve got all the makings of an idyllic winter break!
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 tasty, 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.
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. 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 are warm with the smell of candied nuts and the sound of local carol singers rings through the air. 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. Phew!
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. It’s 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!