Forget those images of sun-kissed Spanish sands in the travel brochures. There are snow-doused Christmas markets and world-class ski resorts to get through in Europe that we’re certain can stoke the wanderlust just as much. Yep, the colder months are a fantastic time to travel the continent, just as you’ll discover in this list of the best places to visit in Europe in December.
From iconic winter sports hubs high up in the French Alps to fairy-tale German cities to the tundra of Lapland in Scandinavia, there’s a good range of spots that will help you channel those festive vibes. But there are also options for the sun seekers and the history lovers. They await around the Med, offering plenty of sunshine and temperatures that hover in the high teens even at this chilly time of year.
Some places – like the ski resorts and festive market destinations – will see a spike in both prices and visitor numbers around December time. Others – like the Mediterranean cities and beach escapes – will probably be a whole load cheaper and quieter than you’d find in June or July. It’s really up to you and what you’re after for that December getaway…
Germany supposedly invented Christmas or, at least, many of the traditions associated with it. As such, just about any German city will feel a little bit magical in December but perhaps none more so than Cologne. This is one of Germany’s most beautiful destinations and it really comes alive during the peak of the winter. In particular, tourists flock to Cologne for its world-famous Christmas fayres.
There are several Christmas markets in Cologne, with the largest being right in the town center, next to its spectacular cathedral. These are the most visited Christmas markets in Germany, attracting a staggering four million people a year! They’re fairy-tale experiences, with stalls selling sizzling blood sausages next to tasty gingerbread, mulled wine and twinkling baubles for the tree back at home. If you’re lucky, a dusting of snow will make this an even more Christmassy experience that the whole family will fall in love with.
And when you’re done shopping for Santa decorations and glugging the gluhwein, why not plan a trip out to the uber-romantic Rhineland that extends south from Cologne. It’s a land of charming towns and villages with cobbled squares and hearty beer halls, all topped by the occasional castle that looks like something plucked from a horror novel.
No matter where you’re from in the world, you probably associate Christmas with snow. That’s because, in our culture, we believe that Santa lives in Lapland. Well, what if you could visit Santa for real? Well, you can. He lives in a town called Rovaniemi which is open to the public. That’s what makes it among the best places to visit in Europe in December. If you have kids, then this is like the ultimate version of Disneyland.
Located in the far north of Finland, Rovaniemi isn’t the easiest place to reach. It’s quite expensive and becomes even more so around the Christmas season. However, there’s a good reason for this. It’s truly the most Christmassy place on Earth. Even if you come at the very start of December, you’ll feel this magic.
The city itself is incredible, sitting among unspoiled natural beauty. From there, you’ll want to visit Santa Claus Village for the ultimate Christmas experience. This theme park is like none other on the planet and offers the most authentic experience of Christmas for you and your family.
If you’re seeking the best of European winter, then Kiruna is a fantastic option. This town, located in the far north of Sweden is among the most desirable destinations in Lapland. There’s no Santa Clause Village here so it’s not a Christmas experience as such but it does offer something even more spectacular: the Northern Lights. This is the ideal December destination for couples.
Like anywhere in Scandinavia, getting to Kiruna and staying there isn’t cheap. You’ll need to fly to Stockholm and then take the sleeper train all the way through the incredible Swedish wilderness. Once you arrive, you’ll find yourself in a tiny town, filling you with a deep sense of remoteness. If you need to truly get away this winter, head to Kiruna.
This wild location is home to some amazing animals, including bears. You won’t see bears in the winter but you might spot some moose or reindeer and you’ll have the chance to go dog sledding. On top of this, you’ll have the chance to stay in the world-famous ice hotel. That alone makes the trip an exciting one but, of course, the main attraction is the Northern Lights.
If you want to visit a Nordic country but can’t afford the likes of Norway, Sweden, or Finland, then head to Tallinn. Estonia’s capital has its own winter charm that makes it well worth visiting. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with untouched architectural beauty. It also houses one of the best Christmas markets in Europe.
Tallinn residents have been putting up and decorating a Christmas tree in the Old Town since 1441. This tradition continues to this day and is one of the oldest examples of decorating a tree for Christmas in the world. Estonians have really embraced the spirit of Christmas.
Estonia is a safe, modern, and stunning country that many tourists overlook. You shouldn’t, though. It’s affordable and incredibly beautiful, especially during December after a steady snowfall. This Baltic state is rarely on the itinerary of first-time travelers to Europe. However, those who go often find that they prefer it to anywhere else. Get ahead of the crows and visit Estonia while it’s still cool and relatively unknown. If you get the chance, you’ll love spending December in Tallinn.
Zako…where? Look at the map of Poland and trace your finger right to the far south of the country. You’ll notice how the topography lines get closer together there. Well…that’s the Tatra Mountains, which score the horizon with summits more than 2,000 meters above sea level. Right at their base sits the charming winter capital of the country: Zakopane.
It’s a gorgeous little clutch of wood-built cottages and homes, each topped with smoking chimney stacks and fronted by carved balconies. The main street is Krupowki, a long run of Polish highland taverns that sell smoked cheeses and pork knuckles with vodka to warm you up (which is needed, since thermometers can drop to -25 here in December!).
You can choose in Zakopane. Will it be skiing and snowshoeing adventures in the surrounding national park? Or will it be chilling in the lux hotel? We mention the latter because Zakopane has some of the finest five-star spa hotels in the whole country – think outdoor hot tubs in the snow and whatnot.
Not everyone wants to embrace the cold during December. Perhaps you’re more interested in going somewhere a little warmer and escaping the bleakness of winter. In this case, you’ll want to head south. One of Europe’s most southern cities is Dubrovnik. It has as much charm as any northern European city but without the freezing temperature.
It won’t be warm enough to swim but it will still be fairly mild. Temperatures in Dubrovnik average 57°F (14°C), which is warm enough to enjoy. If you’re someone that hates the cold, then this might be more tolerable. Dubrovnik is by far one of the best places to visit in Europe in December, mostly for its incredible beauty. As you wander around the rocky coastline, through the labyrinth-like streets of the Old Town, and up the crooked steps towards amazing views, you’ll understand why this city is so special.
The setting for many Game of Thrones scenes, Dubrovnik has an ancient charm. Its city walls are among the oldest in the world and its coastal location offers stunning natural beauty. Croatians celebrate Christmas just like everybody else. They just do it among slightly better weather. For those who hate the cold, a Dubrovnik December is ideal.
Seville has often been described as the frying pan of Europe. Despite its amazing beauty, many people are scared to go there. It’s roasting hot and yet not particularly close to the sea. That means that you can’t even go for a swim to cool off. When the summers are reaching more than 100°F (40°C), this can be almost unbearable.
However, if you visit Seville in December, then you get a whole different experience. The weather during this time is a much more manageable 62-68°F (17-20°F). If you’ve always wanted to visit Seville for its unmatched architectural beauty and wonderful Spanish culture, then why not do it in December? You’ll get to experience all that without worrying about suffering from heatstroke.
Spain is a religious country so it’s a great place to visit if you like this side of Christmas. You’ll get to see how Catholics celebrate this special occasion. At the same time, the population of Seville is young and you’re bound to have a lot of fun nights out as you celebrate the festive season.
Chamonix is the home of alpine skiing. Whizzing downhill with sticks attached to your legs was literally invented here, and the town has given the world a whopping number of world champions plus not one, but two Winter Olympics. Look for it wedged into the long, narrow Chamonix Valley in the far eastern French Alps of the Haute Savoie region.
First thing’s first: The skiing. There’s no doubt that most people come here for the slopes in the winter time. December can be touch and go, because there’s no guarantee that conditions will let all the resorts open this early. But recent winters have been promising, and Chamonix touts a number of ski fields, from advanced Argentiere to beginner and family friendly Les Houches.
But there’s loads to do here in December even if you don’t ski. Take the world-beating cable car to the heights of the Aiguille du Midi and you can gaze across the jagged Alps to Italy and up to the summit of Mont Blanc itself. Head to the Mer de Glace and you can lay eyes on a colossal glacier tongue and understand the growing effects of climate change on the European mountains.
Sometimes, December is about taking a real break. You want to go somewhere far away and experience something completely different. While Europe is a vast and diverse landscape, there’s nowhere quite like Iceland. An island located far from the mainland of the European continent, Iceland is truly one of the most unique landscapes on the planet.
Furthermore, Iceland really comes alive during December. That’s when it’s at its best and the time when you should plan your visit. You’ll be able to experience the beauty of winter, with thick snowfall being likely. Reykjavík is the most northerly capital city in the world. If you’re looking to head north this Christmas, does it get better than that?
Iceland is a powerful and dramatic island. As nice as Reykjavík is as a base, make sure you take the time to explore the more remote areas of this country. For most people, visiting Iceland is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially considering the high costs of this trip. If you get out to nature, it will be a trip that you’ll never forget.