Europe may seem like more of a summer destination—hopping around the Greek Islands, cruising the Amalfi coast, or lounging on the French Riviera—but Europeans know all too well that the vast continent is just as enjoyable in winter. Whether you're looking to escape the cold or hit the slopes, there are a ton of destinations that are better suited to Europe's colder temps (and it goes beyond the English countryside). To get a better sense of the best-kept secret destinations beloved by Europeans in winter, we tapped five in-the-know Londoners.
It's no secret that with dreary rains and cold temps, the Brits need to escape London once in a while—but where do they go in Europe? Their answers surprised us—from summery Italian destinations to the frigid temps of Russian cities—there's a little something for every type of traveler. Don't delay your next Euro trip any longer: These are the best winter destinations in Europe that are even better when the temperature drops.
TO ESCAPE THE COLD Madrid
"If you want to escape the cold, Spain is always a good bet to have at least a slightly warmer winter escape," says Alessandra Ford-Balazs. "If you go to Madrid, stay in the Old Town, either in a hotel or at an Airbnb. In general, Spain has an incredible selection of houses available on Airbnb, so take advantage, save money, and become a local for a couple of weeks. Get lost in the Old Town, and as you walk along the beautiful cobblestone streets, admire the incredible architecture, the old boutiques, as well as the new fashion concept stores. This way you get to explore the underbelly of the city. Go to Museo Nacional Del Prado and one of the amazing food courts that spread throughout Madrid. You can't go wrong with tapas."
Beyond Madrid, Balazs also recommended Barcelona as a destination of choice for winter. "Go on an Antoni Gaudi tour, and enjoy his architectural designs. Plop yourself on the beach, visit the beautiful old church with stunning views, or go see some art at small independent galleries. While molecular gastronomy has become all the rage across the world, Tickets, a restaurant in Barcelona created by brothers Ferran and Albert Adrià, is still one of the most incredible experiences of my life to date. Book well in advance, and throw your expectations out the door. This isn't a normal dinner. It is a 360-degree/4D experience that uses every sense."
For fashion icon Roberta Benteler, nearby Portugal is the ideal winter escape. "Portugal is perfect for some winter sun, as it has the best climate in Europe and will usually be around 20 degrees and sunny during that time of year," she says. "Head to the Six Senses Hotel in the Douro Valley for a weekend of wine tasting, relaxing spa treatments, delicious food, and beautiful scenery."
"We absolutely love Venice in winter," says hotel heiress Lydia Forte of Rocco Forte Hotels (and one-half of the infamous Forte sisters). "We're half Venetian, so it must be in our blood. It's so mystical and foggy when the water floods into St. Mark's Square and all the lights and architecture of the city are reflected in the water. There aren't any crowds or tourists that time of year, and you get to enjoy one of the most beautiful cities in the world completely to yourself."
"Venetian food is some of the most delicious, as it's influenced by the global trade that the Venetians mastered in the 13th to 15th centuries with spices and fried foods," adds Forte. "It's more international than the cuisine in other parts of Italy. I love Osteria al Castelletto da Clemi in Conegliano just outside of Venice. There's a lovely older lady who cooks a different menu for you every day. You basically eat in her home, which has 30 covers and the food is simple, hyper-local, and delicious. There's not a tourist in sight. In town, Antiche Carampane and Osteria Santa Marina are both delicious, low-key, and off the beaten tourist track. Do have a Campari spritz at Harry's Bar too."
British blogger and TV host Louise Roe agrees with the off-season choice. "I love Venice in the winter because it's less stinky. In the heat, that city is beautiful, but the stench is pretty bad, so I like visiting in the winter and getting up super early to beat the crowds. In Venice, the Danieli is a stunning hotel with a chic bar. I remember staying there with my family when I was about 12 and falling in love with the charm and history of the place."
Stroll in Style
TO HIT THE SLOPES Salzburg
"Salzburg is a wonderful place to escape to in the winter," says Benteler. "It is the most picture-perfect little city and is very romantic during the festive period, as it's nestled between snow-covered mountains. It is home to the most beautiful Christmas market and the best Austrian restaurants and patisseries. There is decent skiing, and you must see a play or a Christmas concert in its world-famous festival hall." For dinner, she recommends Der Goldener Hirsch and Schlosswirt Aigen, while Schlosshotel Fuschl is her hotel of choice. For coffee and cakes, she heads to Kaffee Tomaselli (a real Austrian Kaffee Haus) and Patisserie Fürst.
Balazs, who also escapes to Austria in the winter, recommends partaking in all the winter sports: sledding, skiing, and ice skating, of course, "but in Austria and Switzerland, they also take their tobogganing seriously," she says. "Walk around the small adorable towns that are festive and filled with lights everywhere and the little stalls in town squares that specialize in everything you could imagine. And have Gluhwein, raclette, and fondue."
For Roe, her ski destination of choice is Megève in the French Alps. "It's a magical place full of gorgeous chalets, great skiing, and even better aprés ski. I have always wanted to spend Christmas there—one day!"
Balazs isn't one to shy away from adventure, and in the winter, she heads to chilly Iceland. "Go caving, ice trekking, or enjoy the natural springs," she says. "Iceland was created to be enjoyed amid the ice. You can be on a glacier on top of a volcano in a place called Eyjafjallaökull next week if you wanted to. I would go for the sole purpose of the amusement of coming back home and having my friends try to pronounce the name Eyjafjallaökull."
As far as accommodations go, Balazs likes to mix it up between short-term rentals and luxury hotels. "There are so many interesting and unique hotels, so it is worth doing your research to see what you like and that the hotel fits your needs. We stayed in Airbnbs until the Ion Hotel, which we only went to at the very end of the trip. It is pricey, but if you want to spoil yourself or someone you love, the Ion Hotel could not come with more glowing recommendations (including my own)."
TO EXPLORE A NEW CITY Munich
"We adore Munich during the holiday season," says Forte. "The Christmas Market on Marienplatz features heaps of beautiful handmade crafts and ornaments made by amazing glass blowers and wood carvers, and festive music is played from the balcony of New Town Hall. We also like to do some of our holiday shopping along the famous Maximilianstraße. When we go, we always stay at The Charles Hotel so we can mix a bit of work with play during our visits. After a long day out and about in the city, we love to wind down with dinner at Sophia's, the hotel's cozy restaurant and bar, which features botanical-themed dishes and unique cocktails with herbs and spices. Munich is also home to some incredible Michelin-starred restaurants such as Restaurant Dallmayr and Tantris. For traditional Bavarian fare, we head to Zum Franziskaner, and a couple of our favorite cocktail bars in town are The Golden Bar and Schumann's."
The German metropolis isn't short of things to do. "In addition to the outdoor holiday festivities, winter is the perfect season to spend some time indoors at Munich's incredible museums," adds Forte. "Lenbachhaus Museum is one of Munich's most notable art galleries, and Nymphenburg Castle is not to be missed. Last but not least, we love sampling local delicacies at the Viktualienmarkt food market."
"St. Petersburg is magical in the winter," says Irene Forte, the other Forte sister. "The city looks so beautiful when it's covered in snow, and the Neva River is frozen over, which makes it all worth braving the cold weather for. There is plenty to do, including cross-country skiing, ice skating in city parks, or sitting in the cozy cafes to warm up while watching the snow fall. We stay at Hotel Astoria—it is centrally located in one of the most beautiful areas of the city, directly across from St. Isaac's Cathedral. We always make time to enjoy the lovely afternoon tea service at Hotel Astoria's iconic Rotonda Lounge. Tsar is a must if you're looking for more traditional Russian food, and Terrassa is a great option if you want amazing city views, but we also love Café Botanika, a cozy vegetarian spot that also has delicious super juices. For cocktails, head over to Mayakovsky Bar, and try out the different flavors of its house-infused vodkas. And we always pop into the hotel's Astoria Café for our caviar fix while in Russia."
While in St. Petersburg, Forte notes a few things not to miss. "It's worth seeing a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theatre and visiting the Hermitage Museum, which has an unbelievable collection of art. New Holland, the historical island dating back to the 18th century, has quickly become an important stop on the St. Petersburg culture map due to an incredible redevelopment project. Visitors can enjoy leisurely strolls and meals throughout beautiful parks, gardens, and pavilions."
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