Winter may not seem like the ideal travel time, but personally it’s my favorite. Things are a little bit cheaper and the throngs of tourists found in the summer months are long gone. Instead locals fill the streets as they scurry off to festivals and carnivals, allowing visitors the chance to feel like a part of the community for once instead of a camera-wielding interloper. To help convince you that braving the cold is well worth the effort, here are a few of my favorite cold weather travel destinations.
Brussels was one of my first introductions to the benefits of winter travel and it is still one of my favorite destinations regardless of time of year. In December, Brussels hosts the Winter Wonders Festival, a politically correct term for what is essentially a massive Christmas market. The fun starts in the iconic Grand Place, which hosts a gigantic Christmas tree and at night features a light and music show that can’t be missed. It loops every 15 minutes, so don’t worry about missing it. From there follow your nose along the side streets and meander through the stalls that have a little bit of everything from hot mulled wine to snacks and of course gifts. My favorite spot is located in front of Church of St. Catherine where the majority of stalls are housed in addition to a Ferris wheel, ice skating rink and a rotating array of musicians. I’ve been twice and I would gladly go every year if I could. The festival is just a lot of good, honest fun and while the weather WILL be grey and cold, I think that only adds to the experience. While you’re in town be sure to see the other more famous sites like the Old Town, the Atomium and all of the delicious chocolate shops found around town.
This is actually a bit of a misconception. Given its name, most first time visitors expect Iceland to be freezing, and while it’s definitely chilly in the winter it’s not as extreme as one would think. Iceland hovers around the low-mid 30s in January, which is the same or warmer than a lot of the US at the same time. Meteorological phenomena ensure that this island nation never gets too hot or too cold, which is perfect for tourists. There’s plenty to do year round and especially in the winter months, from enjoying the thermal pools found around the country to more adventurous pursuits like diving, snowmobiling, glacier hiking and ice cave exploration. Don’t make the mistake that so many other tourists make though and skip Reykjavik. It’s a great city and a fun place to walk around and explore, window shopping and stopping off for a snack or two.
It was cold, very cold, when I visited Venice in December. For whatever reason, many of us typically think of Italy as a warm destination, which it is – in the south and during the summer. Venice is not in the south and it was anything but summer as the cold wind bit through my jacket, but it was those weather conditions that ultimately made the experience so very special. Venice is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world and in the warm summer months is frankly mobbed with people. Yet there I stood in the middle of St. Mark’s Square with only a few other brave souls. It was remarkable and I felt like I had the city all to myself. That experience instantly proved to me the tremendous value of traveling in the winter. Walking around the Doge’s Palace and later navigating the labyrinthine alleys and streets of Venice we were joined by other tourists, but not that many. Not once did I have to wait in a line and I even had to wake a sleeping gondolier to take us around for a brief cruise. It made me fall in love with the city, one that I may not have liked had it been overrun with other tourists.
It may seem odd to include two Belgian cities on this list, but that is a testimony to not only how much I love this small country, but how great it is to visit in the winter. Bruges tends to get all of the attention, but nearby Ghent in my opinion is just as much fun to visit. Strolling along the beautiful canals, which I personally like better than the ones in Amsterdam, and learning the layout of the city at the same time is just a lot of fun. There is a holiday market in front of the massive St. Bavo’s Cathedral, but the real fun in exploring the city is in its food. From mustard to hams and even beers, Ghent prides itself on a long and festive culinary tradition. The best place to learn about this, and Flemish food in general, is at the Het Groot Vleeshuis. Housed in an old meat market, this innovative space showcases the best foods of the area, morsels that can only be found in Flanders. Free tastings and quick lessons in the traditions are available for anyone and is an easy and non-threatening way to learn your way around Ghentian cuisine.
To paraphrase the old quote, I think Paris is a good idea no matter what time of year it is. Turns out, December is one of its best months. I’ve been to the City of Lights many times and so when we visited during the Christmas season it was just for a quick day trip, a chance to briefly reconnect with the city I love so very much. I joined a special food tour of the city, one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made. The tour took us through small markets, through pastry shops and bakeries sampling the delicious seasonal food and learning more not only about Paris’ food history, but the city’s unique Christmas traditions. It was a fantastic primer and I really enjoyed standing shoulder to shoulder with Parisians as they bought their special Christmas cakes to take to the next party. My partner and I finished out the day by strolling through two Christmas markets, one along the famous boulevard the Champs-Élysées and the second immediately in front of the Eiffel Tower. It was the Tower market that impressed me the most, not for its wares or snacks, but for the impressive backdrop. There is nothing like standing there, sipping hot cocoa and watching as the Tower lights up for the evening. It’s pure travel magic and is but one of the many reasons why I love this city so very much.
Where are your favorite places in Europe to visit when it’s chilly outside?