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Europe in Winter: Top Holiday Destinations

Winter is an extraordinary time to visit Europe. It’s the season of Christmas markets and Krampus runs, winter solstice festivals and carnival celebrations, skiing and winter sports, thermal baths, and winter sun getaways. 

If you visit Europe in December, we recommend traveling to Germany and Austria to experience the festive Christmas Markets, Krampus Parades, and thermal spas.

If you visit Europe between January and March, we recommend skiing in the Alps, or escaping the cold winter altogether in the Canary Islands.

If you visit Europe in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, consider participating in the decadent Carnival traditions of Cologne, Venice, Ptuj (Slovenia), or Nice. 

In this guide to the best winter holiday destinations in Europe, we’re sharing our favorite places to visit, based on our own personal experiences.

Fortress Hohensalzburg (Festung Hohensalzburg) in Winter, Salzburg, Austria
  • Winter Season: The winter season in Europe starts in December and ends in late March, or late April, depending on where you are. In southern Europe, April is already considered Spring. But, in the European Alps, April is still “winter.”
  • Top European Cities To Visit in Winter: Vienna, Salzburg, Cologne, Antwerp 
  • Top Winter Sun Destinations: Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and Malta
  • Car Rental: We recommend using the car rental platform to search for and book car rentals. This easy-to-use booking platform compares car rental deals from 500+ trusted providers, so that you can choose the best option for your trip.
  • Accommodation Booking: We book all our hotels and accommodations using the user-friendly and time-saving platform, because of their cancellation options and transparency (no hidden fees).

1. Salzburg, Austria

Kapuzinerberg Sunset View of Fortress Hohensalzburg, Salzburg Winter, Austria

When blanked in snow, Salzburg, Austria, is easily the most enchanting city in Europe in winter.

The baroque city of Salzburg is embedded in a romantic, alpine landscape, at the foot of a hilltop fortress. It looks like the backdrop of a fairy tale. 

Starting in mid/late November, Salzburg hosts a number of Christmas Markets, including the Salzburger Christkindlmarkt, which dates back to the 15th century.

Our favorite Salzburg Christmas Market is the Fortress Hohensalzburg Christmas Market, located within the medieval fortress high above Salzburg. This market is only open during the advent weekends. 

The city of Mozart and the Sound of Music is also one of the best destinations in Austria to see a Krampuslauf, or Krampus Run. 

A Krampus is a frightening half-goat, half-demon figure in the Advent customs across the Eastern Alps of Europe. A Krampuslauf is a performative parade of costumed Krampus, led by Saint Nicholas. To learn more about this tradition, read What is a Krampus Run

Around Krampus Night, December 5th, there are a number of Krampus Runs that take place in and around Salzburg. We saw the family-friendly Gnigner Krampuslauf, which was a procession of nearly 40 different Krampus clubs hailing from all over Salzburg State, Upper Austria, and Bavaria. 

Where to Stay in Salzburg | B&B Flöckner (budget), Hotel Goldgasse (luxury), or Hotel Goldener Hirsch (luxury)

Learn More: Salzburg in December

2. Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, Germany

Zum Wildschütz pork knuckle, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a ski town in the Bavarian Alps in Southern Germany, only 1-hour away from Munich.

This Bavarian town is a charming and laid-back destination for travelers who want to explore the outdoors (winter walks, sledding, etc…), go skiing, and visit nearby storybook towns like Mittenwald and Oberammergau. We particularly love Garmisch, because of the town’s cozy restaurants and mountainside huts, many of which are open in winter. 

We visited Garmisch-Partenkirchen during Christmas and New Year’s. We loved hiking through Partnach Gorge, walking around Lake Eibsee, and dining at Zum Wildschütz and Gasthaus zur Schranne.

Where to Stay in Garmisch-Partenkirchen | Olympiahaus (budget), Quartier (midrange-luxury), or Boutiquehotel Werdenfelserei (luxury)

Learn More: Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Winter 

3. Cologne, Germany

Nubbel Burning, Karneval Tradition in Cologne

Cologne, the fourth largest city of Germany, is one of the coolest destinations in Europe to experience Carnival (Karneval in German). In fact, Cologne takes Karnival so seriously that it’s dubbed the fifth season. 

Though Karneval starts on November 11th and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the most notable festivities take place in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Depending on the year, that could be late February, or early March.  

If you want to visit Cologne during Karneval, don’t miss the Cologne Rose Monday procession (Rosenmontagszug), an 8.7 km-long parade with 12,000 participants. This enormous spectacle takes over 5 hours. The parade participants throw over 300 tons of candy and 300,000 bouquets of flowers (Strüßjer) to costumed spectators. 

Our absolute favorite Karneval tradition is the Nubbelverbrennung, or the burning of the Nubbel. On the evening before Ash Wednesday, locals gather to burn the Nubbel, a symbolic straw figure that represents all sins committed during the Karneval season. After the ceremonial burning, participants link arms and sing Karneval songs for the last time. Ya’ll, it is WILD. 

Where to Stay in Cologne | THE QVEST hideaway (luxury)

Learn More: Cologne in Winter

4. Austrian Alps, Austria

Chairlift, Schladming Ski Area, Austria

Austria’s most sacred and beloved season is winter. Skiing is basically a religion. And, après-ski is the holy communion. 

435 ski resorts fan out across the Austrian Alps. 

The ski season in Austria commences in mid/late December and ends in late March, or even early April, depending on the snow conditions. 

If you like emptier slopes, aim for the week following January 6th. Most Austrians are on vacation between December 24th (Christmas Eve) and Epiphany (January 6th), as December 25th, December 26, January 1st, and January 6th are public holidays. March is another great month to ski. 

The most famous ski resort in Austria is St. Anton, which is now connected to Lech. That’s actually where my dad learned to ski in the 70s.

Ischgl (Silvretta Arena Ski Area) is notorious for its après-ski scene. 

Other celebrated ski resorts: Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Sölden, Kitzbühel, and Schladming.

Kati grew up skiing/snowboarding in the Austrian Alps and her favorite resort is Obertauern

Tip | If you’re planning a winter trip to Austria, don’t miss out on the thermal baths. We recommend visiting Aqua Dome in Oetztal, Tyrol, or Hohe Tauern Spa in Kaprun, Salzburg. You can visit these thermal spas for a few hours, the full-day, or stay the night. Learn more about the iconic Aqua Dome Spa in our Aqua Dome guide and Aqua Dome hotel review

Learn More: Schladming Ski Resort

5. Malta and Gozo Islands, Malta

Gozo Island in winter, Malta

Malta is an island country in the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily and North Africa. The Maltese Archipelago is made-up of three main islands, Malta, Gozo, and Comino, and a few islets. 

Inhabited since 5200 BC, Malta has an incredibly rich and turbulent history. The islands were ruled by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Sicilians, Ottomans, French, and British. In 1964, Malta gained its independence from British rule. 

Malta is a fascinating destination to visit, especially if you love history.

If you love vertiginous sea cliffs and coastal walking, Malta is also an amazing place to visit in winter. We spent a week hiking along Malta’s coastline in February and it was wonderful. I love sheer limestone cliffs and Malta delivers those in spades. 

Tip: If you only have time for one hike, we recommend the Xlendi Bay to Sanap Cliffs on Gozo Island. 

Top Accommodations | The Xara Palace Relais & Chateaux in Mdina (luxury),  Casa Asti in Valletta (budget), Ursulino Valletta in Valletta (midrange), and The Phoenicia Malta in Valletta (luxury)

Learn More: Malta in February

6. Antwerp, Belgium

August hotel, Antwerp in winter, Belgium

The city of Antwerp in Flanders is a melting pot of different cultures and influences. It’s a port city that embraces the world and all of its people. 

We love visiting Antwerp in winter, because of its vibe, architecture, breweries, boutique shops, and eclectic restaurants. 

You can easily combine a trip to Antwerp with Bruges, Ghent, and Brussels. The best way to travel around Belgium is by train, as the transit system is excellent and intuitive. Also, arriving in the grand Antwerp Central Train Station is an experience in and of itself. 

Here are some places in Antwerp you should bookmark:

Finch is a contemporary Asian-fusion restaurant serving flavorful and beautifully-plated tapas. 

Black Smoke is an American BBQ restaurant serving finger-licking brisket, steaks, burgers, and more. Black Smoke is housed in the same complex as De Koninck – Antwerp City Brewery. 

August is a contemporary hotel located in a former Augustinian cloister. Though certainly not a religious building anymore, August feels like a sanctuary. Check rates and availability

Where to Stay in Antwerp | Citybox Antwerp (Budget), Maison Nationale City Flats & Suites (midrange), or August (luxury).

Learn More: Winter in Antwerp 

7. Tenerife, Canary Islands

Anaga Rural Park in winter, Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

Tenerife is the largest island in the Canary Islands.

Home to the highest mountain in Spain, Mount Teide, and a remarkable spectrum of volcanic landscapes, Tenerife is a fantastic destination for hiking in Europe in winter.  

During our four-week trip to Tenerife (mid-December – mid-January), we deeply explored Anaga Rural Park, Teno Rural Park, and Teide National Park

The north is defined by lush, verdant landscapes and dazzling mountains that unfurl into the sea. The interior is characterized by rocky and barren Mars-like scenery. All around the island, there are gorgeous beaches, natural pools, and lovely towns. 

Follow this 7-day Tenerife road trip itinerary to discover the most magical corners of the island. 

Learn More: Tenerife in January

8. Gran Canaria, Canary Islands

Gran Canaria in winter, Canary Islands, Spain

Gran Canaria is the third-largest island in the Canary Islands, located between Tenerife and Fuerteventura. 

For better or for worse, Gran Canaria is famous for its beach resorts. 

The good news is that it’s quite easy to avoid those eyesores if you know where to go. If you identify with our travel style and you love the outdoors, spend most of your time in Agaete in the northwest and Tejeda in the interior. 

Agaete is the gateway to the fertile Agaete Valley at the base of the Tamadaba massif. 

In Agaete, you can eat fresh seafood along the town’s promenade, bathe in the Agaete Natural Pools (aka Las Salinas de Agaete / Agaete Piscina Natural), walk to the black-sand Guayedra Beach (Witcher filming location), and hike in Tamadaba Natural Park. We loved this San Pedro – Agaete hiking trail as well as this Agaete Valley to Tamadaba Natural Park trail.

Situated on the eastern edge of the volcanic crater of Tejeda, the white-washed town of Tejeda (1050 m) is arguably the most captivating town on the island. It’s also a spectacular base for hiking. During our time in Tejeda, we hiked to  Pico de las Nieves, Roque Nublo, Cruz de Tejeda – La Culata, and Cuevas del Caballero.

Recommended Itinerary | Gran Canaria Road Trip

Learn More: Top Things to Do in Gran Canaria

9. Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria

Vienna, the capital of Austria, is without a doubt the ultimate winter destination in Europe during the Advent season, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. 

We’re lucky enough to call Vienna home. Each year, we love seeing the city transform into the capital of Christmas. 

Starting in late November, Christmas markets mushroom across the city in front of Vienna’s most significant baroque and gothic buildings. With palaces, basilicas, and cathedrals forming the backdrop of the advent markets, you can imagine just how magical the city is in early winter. 

Additionally, many hotels, restaurants, and stores host “secret” rooftop Glühwein, or Punsch stands. So, you can also enjoy festive drinks in more low-key settings. 

Even without all the Christmas extravaganza, Vienna is still a fantastic holiday destination in winter. So much of what makes Vienna special are activities you can do in winter: drinking coffee and cake in Vienna’s traditional coffee houses, visiting world-class museums, going to the opera, and even bathing in the largest thermal spa in Austria (Therme Wien). 

Where to Stay in Vienna | Almanac Palais Vienna (luxury), the Guesthouse Vienna (luxury), or Rosewood Vienna (5-star luxury).

Learn More: December in Vienna and January in Vienna

10. Dolomites, Northern Italy

Path of the Larches, San Cassiano, Alta Badia

The UNESCO-listed Dolomites is a large mountain range in Northeastern Italy, stretching across five Italian provinces. 

The Dolomites boast the largest ski area in the world: the Dolomites Superski network.

With a high-concentration of excellent hotels, a constellation of Michelin-star-restaurants, and the most mesmerizing mountains in the world, the Dolomites are a premier winter destination in Europe for skiers, spa-wellness enthusiasts, and nature-lovers. 

Visit the Dolomites in December and you can see charming, Christmas Markets, and theatrical Krampus Runs.

The ski season runs from mid/late December through the end of March, or even early-mid April, depending on snow conditions. 

11. Baden-Baden, Black Forest, Germany

Friedrichsbad Thermal Spa in Baden-Baden, Germany
Copyright: Friedrichsbad

Baden-Baden is a spa town in Germany’s Black Forest, the region that inspired the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales. 

True to its name, Baden-Baden, meaning “bathing-bathing,” is a town famed for its mineral-rich calcium and magnesium thermal waters. 

It was the Romans who first discovered the healing waters of Baden-Baden and set up a wellness complex here for their soldiers and citizens. The foundations of the Roman bath ruins are still viewable below the Friedrichsbad bathhouse. 

Today, this historic spa town is home to two famous thermal bathhouses: Friedrichsbad and Caracalla Spa. 

Friedrichsbad was opened in 1877. In the late 19th century, it was considered the most modern bathing establishment in Europe. 

Friedrichbad is a very unique thermal spa, because all visitors progress through the same multi-step sequence of warm and hot dry air baths, a soap and brush massage, steam baths, thermal pools, and thermal water showers. 

Caracalla Spa is a 5000m2 thermal spa complex with a sauna area, bathing area, and beauty spa. 

If you visit Baden-Baden in winter, don’t miss out on the nearby Palais Thermal in Bad Wildbad, one of the most architecturally stunning bathhouses we’ve visited in Europe.

Where to Stay in Baden-Baden | Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa (luxury), Hotel Belle Epoque (luxury), Hotel der Kleine Prinz (midrange-luxury), Roomers Baden-Baden (luxury)

Learn More: Black Forest Travel Guide

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Moon & Honey Travel is an independent blog created by two passionate hikers. We are able to provide free content to you, because of ads and affiliate links. When you make a purchase using one of these links, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Happy travels and happy trails, Sabrina and Kati

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