Chestnuts crackle over an open fire, jingle bells echo through the air and snowflakes melt on your finger tips. Winter in Europe is as magical as it looks on the silver screen.
Whether you’re a Love Actually fan or prefer The Holiday’s quaint British countryside, I can guarantee you’ll find the Christmas spot of your dreams on this continent.
I’ve lived here my entire life – from Austria to Russia – but winter has always been less about travel and more about spending time with my family. This year I decided it was finally time to explore the best winter destinations in Europe. To really explore.
Eager to see as much as possible during my limited time off I started researching my options. That’s when I stumbled upon Contiki’s European Magic trip while browsing STA Travel. It was a 9-day bonanza that would take me to eight countries. From the Eiffel Tower to the Venetian canals, from Munich’s beer halls to Amsterdam’s Red Light district it was the perfect snapshot of winter Europe.
I was a little nervous about going. I’m not a big fan of group holidays or fast travel, both of which the itinerary was full of. But long story short – this adventure ended up being one of my favourite trips of 2017! Have you ever been on a Contiki trip? If not (and even if so), would you be interested in a detailed review? Let me know in a comment below.
All I’m going to say for the time being is that a) I highly recommend this trip and b) you should book it via STA Travel. Their experts will be able to book your flights to fit in with your itinerary and you can secure your place on a tour with a deposit from £60. That’s enough about the logistics though. Let’s talk about these beautiful winter destinations we got to explore during our trip around Europe…
We started our journey in world-famous Amsterdam – a city I’d visited many times before. I know it has a reputation for wild parties and crazy nights in coffee shops (which sell everything but coffee). But there’s a lot more to it than mindless fun.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t take advantage of Amsterdam’s incredible nightlife. Just make sure you have enough energy left over for a bit of exploring. My favourite thing to do is just take a stroll along the canals and admire the gable houses that line them. Check out De 9 Straatjes while you’re at it, one of the city’s quirkiest neighbourhoods full of independent cafes and old bookshops.
The Amsterdam Light Festival is an annual winter event you shouldn’t miss. Renowned artists from all over the world transform the city into a twinkling spectacle that attracts thousands of visitors. My favourite way to enjoy it is on a river cruise like the one Contiki organised for us. The open bar was particularly helpful as this was the first night of our trip and most people were travelling solo!
To get a feel for what the trip was like don’t forget to watch the video above. I’m immensely proud of it – it’s probably my favourite video I’ve ever created. With more than fifty on my YouTube channel that’s saying a lot…
2. Rhine Valley
Germany’s Rhine Valley is like something straight out of a storybook. The Rhine river meanders between forests and vineyards, overlooked by the occasional Medieval castle. If one of Khaleesi’s dragons happened to fly overhead you’d probably just sigh and say: “I guess they’re real then, huh?”
On our Contiki tour we only got to visit one of the local towns. It’s called St. Goar and it looks deceptively calm. I say deceptively because this wine growing region offers quite a few opportunities to get rowdy. Don’t miss the opportunity to try the famous local ice wine and perhaps buy a bottle for somebody special. They better be special, because one bottle costs more than €30!
Speaking of presents, you can buy three other great souvenirs in St. Goar. They are hand-painted beer steins, wooden cuckoo clocks and Birkenstocks. I didn’t buy anything but was seriously tempted by a few of the limited edition beer steins.
We didn’t get to visit it on the trip but while you’re in the area you also need to see Eltz Castle, pictured above. It’s one of the most stunning castles I’ve ever seen in my life and one you shouldn’t miss.
Munich is synonymous with Oktoberfest in many people’s minds, but it’s a great destination year round. I particularly love their Christmas markets – the one of Marienplatz is beautiful without being nauseatingly busy. It’s a great place to try local specialties like crispy sausages, Apfelstrudel or Knödel (dumplings) in any form.
But let’s get back to my first sentence about Oktoberfest. I’d be lying if I said most of my time in the Bavarian capital wasn’t centred around beer. How could it not be? The region makes up more than half of Germany’s beer production. They even have their own set of beer purity rules which was outlined back in 1516.
There’s no way you can come to Munich without visiting Hofbräuhaus am Platzl. It’s one of the city’s most visited attractions, so if anyone asks your third stein of beer is basically sightseeing in liquid form. You won’t be the first to do so. From W. A. Mozart to Vladimir Lenin, Louis Armstrong to John F. Kennedy, this traditional beer hall attracts people from all walks of life.
They also serve local food. I tried the pork knuckle before I went vegan, and thought it was quite good – just don’t get the boiled kind. Don’t worry fellow vegans, you’ll still be able to find something to snack on. Every now and then a waitress will walk by carrying a tray full of giant pretzels so pick one up while you’re there.
In terms of beverages I highly recommend the Weissbier, which replaces the traditional malted barley with wheat. It’s cloudy, relatively sweet and way too easy to drink. Another local specialty is Radler – half beer, half lemonade. As our tour guide promptly pointed out, that means it’s “only half as good as it could be”. But if you’re planning on having more than a couple of beers it might be a wise choice, as they come in one litre glasses.
Innsbruck was made for winter shenanigans. The picturesque capital of Austria’s Tyrol region has centre-wide Christmas markets, as well as a 2,637 metre tall mountain. You can literally go from sipping gluhwein to having a snowball fight up on the slopes in half an hour!
For some proper sightseeing climb the main tower on Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse. That’s also where the famous Golden Roof is located. The Imperial Palace, locally known as the Hofburg, is also nearby.
To add some sparkle to your day visit Kristallwelten. Built close to the Swarovski factory in Wattens, the museum holds rare creations like an ornate crystal tree by Alexander McQueen. Their garden also features cute fairytale figures that light up the snow around them.
If you’re not into jewellery but want to escape the cold, I’ve got just the thing for you – schnapps. From sweet raspberry-infused liqueurs to clear spirits the local booze vendors will keep you warm inside out.
As for going up the mountain, it doesn’t come cheap but it’s well worth it. The Nordkette is part of Austria’s largest nature park and a fun place to see even if you aren’t going to ski or snowboard.
This was my fifth time in Venice but my first winter visit. We got extremely lucky with the weather – it was sunny, warm and absolutely magical. December is a great time to visit because there are fewer tourists than in the summer. It’s still really busy but definitely more manageable.
I know Venice is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of winter destinations in Europe. But mamma mia, is it a good one! Don’t expect the same level of commitment to Christmas markets as you’ll see in Germany. Instead, you can look forward to some of the best food on the planet and a gondola ride in a fluffy sweater.
As I mentioned, I’d already been to Venice four times before visiting with Contiki. But you know what? I feel like I still have so much left to discover. I did have one pretty special experience while I was there – and it’s all about Bellinis.
Have you ever had a Bellini? You know, a tall glass of champagne mixed with peach juice. It was developed in the 1940s by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice. On my latest trip there I decided to finally visit its birthplace and see what all the fuss was about. My friends and I walked through the bar’s inconspicuous doorway and were greeted by a troupe of waiters in white suites.
To my dismay they led us upstairs. There was nobody there, save for an older gentleman eating his lunch and reading a newspaper. “Could we get a table by the window?” I asked. I was met with furrowed brows and a quick shake of the head. Fine. The Bellinis arrived in little stemless glasses and with a hefty price tag of 22€. “Ugh,” I thought. “What a waste of money.” My mind changed as soon as the sweet concoction touched my lips. It was unlike any Bellini I’d ever tasted before.
“It’s local white peach purée,” the gentleman noted a while later. We started chatting to him and my dismay quickly gave way to wonder. Who was this intriguing man? I soon found out, as he pressed a freshly signed copy of his book into my hands. His name was Arrigo Cipriani – he was the current owner of Harry’s Bar and son of Giuseppe. He is one of the most interesting people I‘ve met in a long time and it’s a memory I won’t soon forget.
Sadly I have no advice on how to orchestrate a meeting with Arrigo. All I’m saying is, keep your eyes open while you’re in Venice and don’t be afraid to just get lost…
I knew next to nothing about Lucerne before visiting and in a way it’s still shrouded in mystery. That’s partly because we explored it after sunset, but also because it’s just one of those places. As the dark blue sky hovers over its wooden bridges and crystalline lakes it’s easy to believe it’s enchanted.
You may be wondering why we didn’t get much daylight in this picturesque Swiss town. It’s because European days are very short in the winter. This time of year it gets dark around 4pm! Keep that in mind while planning your Christmas itineraries and don’t forget that snow is no longer a given in this part of the world. We got lucky this year with fluffy white blankets stretching as far as the eye can see, but it doesn’t happen every year.
Lucerne’s best known sight is Kapellbrücke, Europe’s oldest covered wooden bridge. Don’t forget to look up as you cross it! The beams support large triangular paintings depicting the city’s history up until the 17th century when they were painted.
As far as this list goes, Lucerne is your last opportunity to explore those traditional Christmas markets. There’s an impressive variety of them here. You’ll find everything from a handcraft market to a Christkindlimarkt inside a railway station. Venite on Mühlenplatz even has stands from twenty different countries which will introduce you to traditional Christmas items from around the world.
In terms of present shopping you’re in luck – Switzerland was made for it! You can get anything from scrumptious chocolates to the world’s most renowned watches, and even Swiss army knives for the adventurers in your life.
This was my second trip to Paris and I feel like I finally got it! It’s still not my favourite city, but I definitely felt the magic in the air. Not even the heavy rain could stop me enjoying a stroll around the Eiffel Tower and exploring its cosy cafes.
I also got to visit the world-famous Moulin Rouge which was incredible. If you decide to go I’d potentially advise against booking the full dinner and just attending the show. The food wasn’t bad but you can definitely find better in Paris.
If you want to see some opulent Christmas displays don’t miss Galeries Lafayette. The posh department store has one of the biggest decorated trees I’ve ever seen. The decorations are on par with those on New York’s Fifth Avenue or Harrod’s in London.
But my favourite thing to do in Paris is to just walk around. Oh, and to eat although that’s just me in general. To combine the two head over to Rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter – a wonderful, narrow, crowded market street. Those are Hemingway’s words from “A Moveable Feast”, not mine, but I agree wholeheartedly. It’s my favourite street in the French capital and it looks beautiful around Christmas, with ropes of fairy lights strung overhead.
Finally, if you’d like to go out for a drink somewhere slightly off-the-beaten-path I’ve got you. Try the eclectic and sign-less Bubar or Latin-themed La Pirada for some of the strongest long drinks you’ll ever find.
Have you ever been to any of these beautiful winter destinations in Europe? Or have you visited them during the summer? Let me know in a comment below, I love reading your thoughts!
Disclaimer: My trip was sponsored by STA Travel and Contiki. As always, all opinions and terrible puns are my own.