A city break hits different in winter. Parks packed with sweat-drenched tourists are swapped for ethereal, fairy light-strewn streets; frosty cocktails for warming, mulled drinks.
Outside the peak Christmas market period – in itself a magical time to see plenty of European destinations – those who visit cities in the colder months often benefit from cheaper prices and easier-to-get-into, crowd-free attractions.
The days may be shorter, but places on the Continent often look their best aglow with cosy lights anyway. Here’s the travel team’s pick of European city break destinations just begging to be explored this winter.
This tourist favourite is so pretty it’s almost a charicature of the “perfect” chocolate box-worthy European city. The medieval centre is all canals, bridges, cobbled streets, ornate facades and 14th-century buildings. And winter might just be the best time to see it at its best: cosy up in an estaminet (the Flanders term for pub) to sip on Belgian beer; stroll the Markt square and admire the famed 13th-century Belfry; peruse early Flemish art at the Groeninge Museum; and, of course, get your fill of beige foods – fries and waffles are both Belgian specialities, after all. You can reach Bruges from the UK by rail in just 3hr 30m by catching a Eurostar to Brussels and an onward train. Helen Coffey
Where to stay
Hip Monsieur Ernest pairs contemporary style with eclectic period features – think decorative mosaics, parquet flooring and a wrought-iron staircase; doubles from £79.
The Austrian capital, with its Imperial palaces, ornate coffee houses and rich musical and artistic heritage, makes for an ideal winter city break. Get an art fix at new venue the Heidi Horten Collection, a modern art museum that opened in June 2022, or the eminent Kunsthistorisches Museum, which houses the largest Bruegel collection in the world. Grab a fork and try the famed Sachertorte, a rich chocolate cake with apricot jam that was invented in the city. And sample a taste of Vienna’s musical roots (it was home to Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and Schubert at various points) by taking in a classical performance at one of the city’s numerous concert venues. Vienna is reachable by rail from the UK; catch an afternoon Eurostar to Paris, then the new sleeper train service that runs direct to Vienna. HC
Where to stay
Boutique hotel MOTTO occupies a historic building on Vienna’s main shopping street, Mariahilfer; doubles from £138.
The dinky Slovenian capital is the perfect size to explore over a wintery weekend. The smaller scale means the whole thing is incredibly accessible for travelling on foot; the compact centre, wrapped around the Ljubljanica River, is completely pedestrianised, and most attractions are within a 20-minute stroll. Hike up to Ljubljana Castle, which towers above the city on its own hilltop (or hop on the funicular) for fabulous city views. Chow down on traditional Slovenian struklji – a baked roll of filo pastry stuffed with a range of sweet and savoury fillings – and drink up on a 90-minute tour at the 155-year-old Union brewery next to Tivoli park. If you’re trying to fly less, you can reach the city by train in less than 24 hours: get the Eurostar to Paris, catch an onward train to Munich (with one change at Karlsruhe), then board the NightJet sleeper service to Ljubljana. HC
Where to stay
Hotel Cubo is a cool, contemporary four-star less than 10 minutes walk to the pedestrianised city centre; doubles from £101.
This stylish city at the foot of the Alps is welcoming, uncrowded and actually more accessible in winter than summer thanks to the frequent ski flights. Turin was the primary city for the House of Savoy and first capital of a united Italy, and offers visitors a spectrum of indulgence from high culture to rich chocolate. The outstanding civic architecture is best appreciated with a stroll through the centre (with warming pauses for coffee or hot chocolate). Start at the equestrian statue of Emanuele Filiberto in Piazza San Carlo, honouring the duke who made Turin capital of the Duchy of Savoy in 1563. Walk north between the chic boutiques flanking Via Roma to Piazza Castello and along Via Po – a handsomely porticoed street lined with shops. At the broad, cobbled piazza at the end, call in at the Caffè Vittorio Veneto. Ahead stands the 19th-century church of Gran Madre di Dio , built to imitate the Pantheon – and featured in the film The Italian Job. Cross the river and climb the steps for a view north towards the Alps. Among the cultural highlights, the Museo Egizio fills a 17th-century palazzo and brims with Egyptian artefacts. If it happens to be your birthday, you avoid the €15 admission fee. Simon Calder
Where to stay
Hotel Dogano Vecchia is an atmospheric old mansion where Mozart stayed in 1771, and retains plenty of faded elegance. Doubles fromm around €145 in December.
My constant recommendation for a winter city break for those who crave some sunshine is Andalucia’s grand city on the Mediterranean. Many flights swoop in from the UK right through the winter. Within 30 minutes of touchdown you can be wandering through the narrow streets of the Centro Historico, echoing with two millennia of history. Among the cultural set pieces, the Picasso Museum is a mesmerising tribute to Malaga’s favourite son; in 2023 it will be marking 59 years since his death. The Centre Pompidou Málaga is a sunny southern outpost of the Parisian modern art establishment, and close by is a creditable city beach.
Andalucian exuberance is evident at the Mercado de Atarazanas, full of noise, colour and produce straight from the farm – and the sea. Eating out is a joy. The beach has a string of chiringuitos – outdoor cafés where you can watch your fish being grilled while you sip a beer or order an extravagant helping of paella. Back in town, Los Gatos on the Plaza de Uncibay is my favourite: officially a tapas bar and cerveceria but also serving overflowing dishes of freshly cooked seafood in the city’s most convivial surroundings. SC
Where to stay
The Parador de Málaga Gibralfaro, high on a hill east of the centre and adjacent to the Gibralfaro castle, offers excellent rooms with views and a rooftop swimming pool.
The exquisite capital of Estonia has seen a remarkable history from its status as a Hanseatic port to its emergence from domination by the Kremlin. The Old Town (walkable from the city’s close-in airport) remains one of the most exquisite urban centres in Europe. Cottages and mansions with pastel façades crowd around cobbled lanes that clamber to the top of the hill – home to the Orthodox Cathedral and parliament building, as well as a series of vantage points from which you can survey the church spires. Winter is deep at this latitude: almost 60 degrees north, and closer to the pole than is Alaska’s capital, Juneau. All the more excuse for frequent warm-ups in the many atmospheric places to eat and drink: it feels like a Scandinavian capital, but at a fraction of the price. SC
Where to stay
The Hotel Bern Superior, tucked into the eastern edge of the old town, has a bright, modern interior and excellent service at low rates: typically €65 double or twin.
Aesthetically, Portugal’s second city is gorgeous. The location astride the Douro river is dramatic, with the elegant Dom Luis bridge straddling the gorge. Handsome urban architecture ushers you through the centuries. And there is even a city beach stretching along the Atlantic shore to the fishing district of Matosinhos – connected with the city centre by the excellent Metro. On the far side of the Duoro, the aroma from the port houses wafts across the river, sharpening the appetite for a seafood feast. Financially, Porto is equally appealing. The dismal slide of the pound against the euro (and almost every other currency worldwide) leaves sterling one-sixth weaker than it was in December 2015. The cruelty of arithmetic means prices in pounds are one-fifth higher – even before inflation adds to the financial pressure. Fortunately Porto has the lowest prices I’ve found in any big western European city for everything from a coffee to a boutique hotel. If you find yourself with an afternoon to spare, consider a trip to the colourful nearby town of Aveiro, an hour south on a very cheap train ride. SC
Where to stay
The waterfront Pestana Vintage Porto is a landmark in its own right, and part of the Unesco World Heritage Site.
Budapest is beautiful at any time of year – except perhaps deepest, hottest summer. But its ruin bars and whimsical nightlife twinkles extra brightly in midwinter. Layer up for wanders through the historic, preserved Jewish Quarter and raucous Party District; load up on warming, piping-hot goulash stew at historic Rosenstein restaurant or local favourite Spiler Bistro; head to the Christmas markets at the picturesque Vörösmarty Square and St Stephen’s Basilica; or simply knock back several types of palinka, the local fruit brandy, at cosy Doblo Bar. You can even learn more about this fruity firewater at the official Palinka Museum; but the top way to thaw out in this city has to be an alfresco dip in one of its public baths – Széchenyi Thermal Baths is the architectural classic, with several heated pools, but Gellert feels more luxe and insidery. Lucy Thackray
Where to stay
The new haunt in town is Matild Palace, an iconic Belle Epoque building now reopened with a swanky, Grand-Cafe-styled restaurant and cabaret; doubles from £283, room only.
Zagreb has big toytown energy, from the hilltop fortress tower which fires an actual cannon at 12pm each day, to cute leafy squares and primary-coloured tiling atop churches that could be made from gingerbread. Strolling up to the Croatian capital’s sloping old town is like stepping into The Nutcracker, only with the added bonus of cheap, warming local brews and affordable upmarket restaurants. Start with those candyland tiles at St Mark’s Cathedral; then duck out of the bracing cold into the Museum of Broken Relationships, full of everyday artifacts meaningful only to the lovers who sent, gave back or fought over them. Don’t miss the chance to forage through the city’s Christmas markets, perhaps even booking a Christmas Carol tour with Secret Zagreb to hear about Croatia’s folklore and history. LT
Where to stay
Set in the city’s magnificent old rail station, the Esplanade Zagreb has the pedigree of a five-star grand dame, but the price point of a mid-level boutique hotel (plus a great bar in which to sink a palinka); doubles from £113, room only.
Being firmly inland, you don’t usually come to the Spanish capital for sunshine – instead, you come for culture, architecture, local vibes and, crucially, endless delicious lunches and dinners. Don your gloves and hat for a crisp wander of the grand El Retiro park, followed by a cosier dip into the lavish Reina Sofia art museum next door. Next, hop on the Metro to youthful Malasaña, where you can fill an afternoon with cute indie shops, unpretentious cafes and tiny restaurants. Nip into no-reservations, queue-trailed Pez Tortilla for a brunch of hot, gooey freshly-sizzled eggs and potato that’ll warm your cockles until dinnertime; or slip through the door at trendy Pez 8 a few doors down to feast on black risotto with Iberico pork, or braised artichokes, with a gorgeous wine list in hand. Lastly make time to hunt out the best churros in town (some say they’re at Chocolatería San Ginés, but there are many less popular finds across the city) and see some flamenco at exclusive supper club Corral de la Moreria. LT
Where to stay
The central Hotel Urban has a great location for the city-centre train station, museums and El Retiro, as well as a happening, sheltered rooftop bar and decidedly quirky interiors; doubles from £180, room only.