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Winter wonderlands in Europe to explore this holiday season

Explore some of Europe’s most festive cities this winter, with holiday markets, carol services and more.  | By Paul Oswell | November 2, 2022

There’s something about the light, misty mornings and crisp blue skies that give even the most familiar cities a magical quality during the winter holiday season. Grab a chunky-knit sweater, pull on a bobble hat and check out our top picks for a charmingly cool winter getaway.

  • Carols and holiday fairs: See the best of the United Kingdom in lively London or at a festive fair in Cambridge

  • Historic hallmarks: Admire awe-inspiring architecture in Barcelona and Cologne

  • Legendary lights: Reykjavik’s glittering holiday light displays include an opportunity to witness the northern lights

London

There’s something unique about London in the winter. From the twinkling lights of the Southbank at dusk to snow-dusted mazes and the warmth of afternoon tea and evenings in the pub – the English capital comes alive over the holiday season.

The seasonal displays along the main shopping streets will give your getaway a festive glow. There’s also an old-world feel to the West End’s historic streets creating scenes straight out of a Charles Dickens novel. Get into the spirit of the season on the ice rink in the decorated courtyard of Somerset House for the chance to skate around the gorgeous 40-foot (12-meter) Christmas tree, or see the whole city lit up from a pod on the London Eye.

There’s a tranquil beauty to the city’s parks at this time of year, and after an invigorating afternoon walk, there are entertainment options aplenty. Catch a traditional caroling performance and modern festive arrangements at the Royal Albert Hall or drop into a more intimate service at Westminster Abbey. And don’t forget to fuel up at the pop-up food stalls all over the city during this time — Covent Garden and Borough Market’s offerings are two of our favorites!

Barcelona

In this coastal Spanish city, winter temperatures rarely drop to chilly levels and the sun-seeking crowds have dispersed to reveal a different city to the one enjoyed in the heat of summer.

Strolling around well-known attractions like Park Guell or the Sagrada Familia church becomes more pleasurable with fewer people. Local shoppers return to the Boqueria market, bringing with them the delightful authenticity that makes it a true foodie hotspot. The mystique and atmosphere of the Gothic Quarter is heightened in the fading sun of late afternoon — just add churros and hot chocolate to complete the experience.

If the temperature dips, then there’s no better place to warm up than in the Palau de la Musica Catalana, one of the most distinctive concert halls in the world. This art nouveau masterpiece in Ciutat Vella (Old City) district is a spectacular venue for holiday concerts, with its iconic stained-glass ceiling and stunning murals.

Reykjavik, Iceland

Dramatic landscapes of black sand, lava fields, volcanoes and boiling geysers make Iceland one of the most unique places in the world to visit year-round. Throw in a wonderfully walkable capital city – Reykjavik – and a warm and inclusive culture, and there really is no better destination to add to your winter getaway list. There isn’t much daylight at this time of year, but the locals make up for it with beautiful holiday lights that give the capital a magical ambiance, especially if there’s a fresh layer of glistening snow.

Head to the countryside for ample opportunity to try some of the best winter sports, like snowmobiling, glacier hiking, skiing or ice-caving. One big attraction in winter is the northern lights, which are best viewed between November and February. Marvel at the glowing green, white, pink and purple rays that soar across the dark skies in one of nature’s most incredible shows.

If you’re looking to add a little rest and flair to your stay, head to the Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel, Curio Collection by Hilton. It’s an idyllic base for year-round exploring and is within walking distance of such must-visit sights as Harpa Concert Hall. Best of all, this eclectic urban retreat features a traditional Icelandic bathhouse (complete with an original 19th-century stone wall).

Cambridge, England

There’s an enchanting serenity to Cambridge at this time of year, and so much culture and learning that you can almost feel your IQ rising as you wander through manicured university courts or Grantchester Meadows. Catch the winter mood on your getaway by punting along the Cambridge Backs, where the college lawns meet the River Cam. If you’re lucky, you might even float past one of the riverside carol concerts.

One of the best winter activities that locals enjoy is the Wimpole Estate Illumination Trail. Set on a scenic National Trust property, the trail is a celebration of light, with lasers and elaborate sculptures, as well as festive soundscapes to complete the seasonal atmosphere.

Oh, and don’t forget to pick up any last-minute gifts at the quaint winter wonderland fair at Parker’s Piece common and enjoy a glass of mulled wine or seasonal snack while you browse.

Cologne, Germany

Known as the Cathedral City on the Rhine, Cologne has a lot to offer: Quaint streets, a must-visit microbrewery on almost every corner and the staggeringly imposing Cologne Cathedral in all its Gothic glory.

In December, there’s also gluhwein, spectacular light displays and some of Germany’s most celebrated traditional holiday markets. The city boasts seven large markets, each with its own theme, and different things to buy, eat and see. One of the most popular is the Heinzels Wintermarchen, which has a woodland theme replete with gnomes and magical creatures, for a winter vibe akin to walking through a living fairy tale.

Winter is one of the best times to visit Cologne’s famous Chocolate Museum, where you can take a tour, enjoy samples and then drink a piping hot mug of hot chocolate in the riverside cafe as you watch the boats sail past.

So, grab your favorite winter layers and head for cooler climes to discover the charming streets and fascinating attractions in these delightfully festive winter wonderlands.

Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”

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