As holiday season approaches, many European cities transform into fairy-tale winter wonderlands. Snow blankets the rooftops of Prague, a giant Christmas tree sprouts by Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace, and stalls spread out along the streets of Frankfurt for one of Europe’s largest seasonal markets. But all this festivity brings huge crowds.
There are plenty of places, though, where you can find a more intimate experience. Head to some of these European cities if you want to avoid the masses but still get fully in the Christmas spirit.
The 9th-century capital of England is bewitching at any time of year, but December is especially beautiful in Winchester. This peaceful market town lights up during the holiday season, with a Christmas market and an ice-skating rink in the shadow of the medieval cathedral.
Attending a service at the cathedral is worthwhile even if you’re not religious; there’s something truly enchanting about hearing Christmas hymns echo through the longest nave in Europe. Don’t miss a ride on the Watercress Line steam train, which runs special excursions around Christmas with mince pies and wine for the adults and gingerbread for the kids.
The cobbled squares, historic homes, and enormous, imposing castle in this gorgeous Bavarian town are the perfect setting to make all your Christmas fantasies come true.
A market features handicrafts by Bavarian artisans, and spectacular lighting displays illuminate the city. There’s organ music by candlelight, horse-and-cart rides through the picturesque streets, and plenty of glühwein to go around. Don’t miss the statue of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who famously brought the Christmas tree to England in the 1840s.
Lithuania’s capital is one of Europe’s most underrated cities, offering a feast of baroque architecture and a fascinating medieval old town. A romantic destination in winter, as snow frequently settles on the streets come December, it also has not one but nine Christmas markets.
On various dates throughout December you’ll find mulled wine, pastries, and other traditional fare in Cathedral Square and plenty of gifts and decorations in Town Hall Square. For something a little different, time your visit with the International Christmas Charity Bazaar on December 1 to pick up holiday goods from around the world, or head to the Design Square (December 18–23) for unique finds by Lithuanian designers.
This lesser-visited Belgian city is a brilliant festive break, all dimly-lit, cozy pubs with roaring fires and superb traditional beers. Squares throughout the city have alfresco seating with plenty of heaters and blankets; families should head to the Groenplaats for fairground rides to entertain the kids—the excellent Mercado food hall with its global cuisine and gin bar will keep the parents happy.
Head to Grote Markt, where the Town Hall sparkles with lights and the historic homes that fringe the square are illuminated after dark. Here you can browse more than 100 stalls with crafts from local designers, artisans, and charities. Indulge in a Belgian waffle, then retire to a table at Elfde Gebod, a traditional pub where hundreds of statues of the Virgin Mary look down on the drinkers.
Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
This tiny Italian town of just 6,000 people sits between the peaks of the mighty Dolomites. A ski resort, it’s doused in powdery snow for most of winter, making it a picture-perfect Christmas destination.
There’s a market selling handmade candles and decorations throughout December, best browsed with an Italian wine in hand after a traditional snack of roasted chestnuts. Take to the slopes by day, and spend your evenings thawing out in one of the town’s superb pizzerias.
This small town in northeastern France exudes romance year round, but come Christmas time, it’s even more beguiling. Its canals and cobblestoned streets, lined with half-timbered historic houses, are perfect for a brisk winter walk. On Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the season, children’s choirs take to the water on illuminated boats and sing carols to passersby.
For the kids, head to Place Rapp, where an ice rink, roller coaster, and carousel will keep them entertained. Parents should venture underground and into the city’s Alsatian wine cellars—such as Maison Martin Jund or Domaine Karcher et Fils—where folk celebrations and events are held throughout December. Tastings are, of course, essential.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Once Germany’s second-largest city, Rothenburg ob de Tauber is today one of its best-preserved walled medieval towns. It’s the ultimate Bavarian fairy tale—all turrets and timber and clock towers—and is a famous stop on the Romantic Road, a route that connects a series of quintessentially German towns and cities. Most visitors favor the town in summer, but come during winter for a wonderfully evocative visit.
Take the Night Watchman Tour to get insight into the gritty life here during the Middle Ages and learn about some of the town’s key buildings, then head to the main Christmas event: the Reiterlesmarkt. It’s got all you could want in a German Christmas market, and until 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays you can enjoy a spectacular view over the festivities from the Town Hall tower.
Croatia isn’t an obvious winter destination, and the city of Zagreb is all the better for it. The traditional market has been serving sausages and mulled wine for years, but the recent addition of rakija bars and outdoor music concerts has made the city an even more exciting Christmas stop.
Do your holiday shopping in the Design District—the Croatian Design Superstore has books, furniture, jewelry, and many more Croatian-made goods—before heading to the “New Advent” celebrations at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where alternative DJs spin tunes and up-and-coming artists and designers showcase their work. Not far from Zagreb is the ski resort of Sljeme, should you fancy a more active adventure.
Wander its pretty streets with Christmas lights strung overhead, ducking in and out of boutiques and cafés, before settling down in a bar. Or feast on traditional Christmas treats such as gingersnaps and marzipan in the Kødbyens Food Market. For the kids, the Tivoli Friheden amusement park is completely transformed for the holiday season and a magical way to spend a day.