Winter vacation comes in many forms in Europe. In the polar north there is serious snow and sunless week while you will find the sun lingering in the mild Mediterranean, and cozy cafe culture and the spirit of Christmas in the middle. It’s an inspiring time to visit great metropolis and charming villages: with fewer queues you can fit more into your itinerary, and low-priced off-season accommodations make wallet-friendly travel. Through Europe’s rail network, you can explore the countries in your free time, getting to know the locals who deal with their daily business away from the hectic summer tourist season.
1. Rovaniemi, Finland
The handfuls of Christmas clichés characterize Rovaniemi, the “official” residence of Santa Claus. Everyone’s favorite bearded man hangs in an atmospheric grotto of the Arctic Circle, and it’s free to visit (but the photos are another story). Snow and reindeer provide a festive spirit, while the Arktikum museum gives an idea of life in these latitudes. It is a nice place to be for winter vacation
Tip: Finnish thermometers have more numbers below 0 ° C than above, so wear serious winter clothing.
2. Christmas Markets, Germany And Austria
December sees these romantic historic markets emerging throughout Germany and other nations of Central Europe. Expect cute stalls selling everything from gingerbread to sleigh bells and lots of joy, toasting with a glass of glühwein warming up.
Tip: Famous markets in Cologne, Vienna and Munich attract tourist crowds, but finding smaller cities is rewarding.
3. Abisko, Sweden
Up in Northern Europe on a train, Abisko in Lapland is for winter fans. The sun does not rise for several weeks in December and January, but that darkness makes it one of the best places in the world to see the majestic northern lights. Other attractions include cross-country skiing along the national park trails and husky mushing.
Tip: Stop in Kiruna and see the famous Icehotel.
4. Athens, Greece
It’s a real downer trying to Photoshop 500 people out of their Parthenon photo to be awarded, but in winter it’s not a problem. All the tensions of summer – crowding, tourist prices, intense heat, queues, air pollution – disappear more or less. It is the best time to explore the ancient heritage of the country and get to experience the local culture.
Tip: By all means do some island hopping, but most accommodations close during winter vacation.
5. Copenhagen, Denmark
For the European fairy tale winter, it is hard to beat the home of Hans Christian Andersen. Forget about the exaggerated little mermaid and head to the cozy bars and cafes of the city to see the snow fluttering outside. In the heart of the city, the Tivoli amusement park of the nineteenth century is a romantic and kitschy delight around Christmas, with touching illuminations and glogging cups that warm the body.
Tip: Go out for a meal in Noma, considered by many to be the best restaurant in the world (reservations can be filled quickly, so try to book several months in advance)
6. Budapest, Hungary
The pair of hand skating, breath-clouded in the frozen air – there is no better place for it than the picturesque central park of the Hungarian capital Varosligeti Mujegpalya, with its huge outdoor track. Do you feel cold afterwards? Budapest is famous for its ornate thermal baths.
Tip: At night look for a ‘bar ruin’ – an artfully atmospheric beverage place created in a building once abandoned.
7. Jasna, Slovakia
Slovakia offers high quality skiing at affordable prices. The accommodations and food are reasonable, and there is a friendliness that is missing from some of the snootier alpine tracks. Jasna is the best resort in Slovakia, with long descents flanked by snow-covered spruce trees, located in the rugged Tatras mountains.
Tip: Direct flights to Slovakia can be expensive, so do not make this an entry point to Europe.
8. Andalusia, Spain
Parts of Andalusia are further down south than the African coast, so there is a mild temperature in the winter. Accommodation is cheap and crowds are smaller in such prominent places as the Alhambra in Granada or Seville Cathedral. In addition, the tapas and nightlife in the cities are as attractive as ever.
Tip: head to the Sierra Nevada near Granada if you want snow sports action.
9. Transylvania, Romania
You can not visit Dracula’s lair on a sunny day with lambs bellowing in the fields, right? Try steel gray sky, bare trees and a handful of snow. Brasov and Sighisoara, two hours away by rail, are magnificent medieval towns with various connections to Vlad Tepes, historical Dracula, although it is doubtful that you have set foot in its so-called castle.
Tip: Bram Stoker never visited Romania, so do not expect many parallels with the book or the movies.
10. Venice, Italy
Hauntingly beautiful and somewhat strange, Carnevale from Venice in February is a European highlight. Elaborate costumes and creepy masks bring the city’s colorful history of the canal to life. Disguised dances are expensive things, but you can have a ball enjoying the free events with a mask bought on the street, but be prepared for epic crowding.
Tip: Book accommodation in advance. The day you enter and leave on a train will greatly reduce costs of your winter vacation.
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