Take a city break in Europe during winter and from glittery Innsbruck to snowy Tallin and sweet smelling Bruges, you’ve the pick of places that look even prettier with a touch of snow, frosty sunlight and a hot chocolate in hand. Here are a few cities we highly recommend.
Salzburg: the finest fairy tale city break in Europe
One city that never needs to try on the fairy tale front, Salzburg simply sits and looks like its own beautiful, Baroque self. In fact the only thing that makes it slightly better is a dusting of snow, which is why winter is easily the best time to visit.
Make it in December and the Christkindlmarkt will convince your kids angels are real and possibly spoil them for all other Christmas markets, forever.
Frosty ice rinks are plenty, in typically Austrian style, but the one you want is Eiszauber, under the Mozart monument in the heart of the old town.
And for such a stately city, Salzburg turns out to be surprisingly playful with both a Toy Museum and a Museum of Marionettes: endearing, yet also faintly macabre.
Sadly the vast Werfen Ice Caves are too cold to visit in winter, so tour the Hallein Salt Mine instead. The name doesn’t exactly scream, ‘fun’, but its slides, train rides, rafts and light shows, definitely do.
How to get there: direct UK flights to Salzburg take from 1 hour, 50 minutes
Arras: for the prettiest belltower in France
Less than three hours by train from London, Arras couldn’t be easier for a quick escape. Come before the end of December and you’ll find one of Northern France’s best loved Christmas markets bringing even more sparkle to the lovely Grand Place.
Worry not if you miss those festivities, Saturday is always market day here, so you can still stock up on Haut-de France’ goodies in the new year. Introducing kids to chocolate ‘Rats d’Arras’, is a particular pleasure. As is telling them the rat has been the symbol of Arras since the 14th century.
Although honestly, it’s hard to believe anything remotely rodent-y could co-exist with its Flemish façades, graceful colonnades and Le Beffroi d’Arras – said to be one of the prettiest bell towers in all of France.
How to get there: London to Arras by train takes from 2 hours, 26 minutes eurostar.com
Tallinn: snow’s practically guaranteed on this city break
How lovely Tallinn looks is no secret, so it’s besieged in summer. Yet the fact that it’s delightful in winter doesn’t cut through so much.
Arrive in December or early January and you’ll be in time for the quaint Christmas Market: younger kids will pester you to take the road train tour, please give in to them.
Then go for a glide round Vanalinna Uisupark ice rink in the late afternoon when the sinking sun blushes up the frosty Old Town.
Tallin might be small-ish but there’s plenty going on. Find your bearings early with a climb up to the Patkuli platform overlooking the city. If kids have a hankering to get kitted out in medieval chainmail, take them to Epping Tower.
Café Maiasmokk will satisfy teen cravings for vintage glamour or the Banned Book Museum will do the opposite. And for a break with pre-schoolers, try the pretty Estonian Children’s Literature Centre.
How to get there: direct UK flights to Tallinn take from 2 hours, 45 minutes
Innsbruck: another snowy city break in Europe
Innsbruck is easily one of Europe’s most magical winter cities, from a soaring mountain backdrop to its cute Christmas Market where stalls sell handmade toys and folk art instead of the usual tat.
This is Tyrol and there’s a tendency to snow, so even wandering around the medieval old town takes you into fairy tale territory.
However, if it’s a truly spellbinding walk you want, cosy up and take a turn round LUMAGICA in the Imperial Gardens where creative light installations dot a one kilometre long trail that enchants even the youngest of trekkers.
You can ski in Innsbruck too, of course, but you can also catch the Hungerburgbahn in the heart of the city and ride to the Top of Innsbruck at 2,300m just to admire the view, and you really should, it’s spectacular.
How to get there: direct UK flights to Innsbruck take from 2 hours
Stockholm: for skating, saunas and enchanting islands
Stockholm is a city that knows how to do winter, which only makes it all the more loveable. Snow is practically a given here, as is ice, and skating.
There are cheerful rinks all over the city all winter, but if you want authentic head to the frozen lake at Hellasgården for a skate and a sauna.
Of course you need to wrap up warm or get better acquainted with Swedish coffee culture and the quaint cafés where it’s indulged – hot chocolate is served too. And always make time for a wander round atmospheric Gamla Stan – Old Town.
Then, when kids feel fidgety and you don’t want to go sledging – another city tradition – catch the ferry to Djurgården, the island home of Skansen, the world’s largest open-air museum. It hosts a charming Christmas market in December, but keeps its Winter Light trail glowing until well into the new year. And if you’re in the mood for more culture, both The Vasa Museum and Abba Museum are islanders too.
How to get there: direct UK flights to Stockholm take from 2 hours, 30 minutes
Basel: the city break with a carnival vibe
We can’t promise snow in Basel, although lack of the white stuff doesn’t diminish its winter enchantment.
The Christmas market here is one of the largest in Switzerland and draws in crowds with its stately Münsterplatz Christmas tree; glittering with eyecatching ornaments from the old town’s Christmas shop, Johann Wanner.
If you hold off your visit until February you’ll catch the ancient Carnival of Basel justifying its place on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.
But whenever you go this winter, wait till late afternoon, then climb the illuminated stairwell of St Martin’s Tower for a bird’s eye view of this pretty city twinkling up for the evening.
How to get there: direct UK flights to Basel take from 1 hour, 37 minutes
Bruges: the most spellbinding city break in Europe this winter
Bruges is charming in summer, but somehow it suits winter better, when the light is low, frost is high and there are no tourist boats on the canals to remind you it’s not the 15th century, and you won’t bump into Van Eyck on the Grote Markt.
If all that sounds a little tame for sparkle-seeking kids, visit in December or January to catch Winter Glow. Part Christmas Market, part light trail and all atmosphere, the only downside is its artificial ice rink. Seriously Bruges?
You might get snow here, but it’s more likely just to be as cold as cold can be: a downside of all those romantic canals.
On the upside, you’ve the perfect excuse for a turn round the cosy Choco Story, chocolate museum or reason to get good and greasy at The Frietmuseum: chocolate and chips, a classic winter combo.
Take reel-seeking teens in search of Rosary Quay, Boniface Bridge and ridiculously quaint Chocolatier Dumon. And if you’ve young feminists in tow, a visit to the beautiful Beguinage is a thought-provoking way to spend a winter afternoon.
How to get there: London to Bruges by train takes from 3 hours, 25 minutes
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