9 Perfectly Christmassy European Cities Without the Crowds

Get your festive fix at one of these more relaxed European locales.

9 Perfectly Christmassy European Cities Without the Crowds

In Vilnius, Lithuania, the Christmas spirit fills the air in Cathedral Square.

Photo by krivinis / Shutterstock.com

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.

Winchester, England

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.

A festive Christmas market by night and under a blanket of snow in Coburg, Germany

A festive Christmas market by night and under a blanket of snow in Coburg, Germany

Photo by Val Thoermer / Shutterstock.com

Coburg, Germany

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.

Vilnius, Lithuania

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 17–22) for unique finds by Lithuanian designers.

Festive lights sparkle at the Grote Markt in Antwerp, Belgium.

Festive lights sparkle at the Grote Markt in Antwerp, Belgium.

Photo by Henryk Sadura / Shutterstock.com

Antwerp, Belgium

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. As part of the holday festivities, a new window of the town hall is lit each night leading up to Christmas, like an architectural Advent calendar.

Cortina, unlike many other towns this close to the Austrian border is thoroughly Italian, so you can expect the locals to indulge in the traditional evening passeggiata, strolling and window-shopping. So take to the slopes by day, and spend your evenings in town, walking the car-free Corsa Italia before thawing out in one of the superb pizzerias.

A snapshot taken on Christmas Eve in the French city of Colmar

A snapshot taken on Christmas Eve in the French city of Colmar

Photo by kavalenkau / Shutterstock.com

Colmar, France

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.

Medieval Rothenburg ob de Tauber gets decked out come Christmastime.

Medieval Rothenburg ob de Tauber gets decked out come Christmastime.

Photo by irakite / Shutterstock.com

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.

A twinkling winter wonderland awaits in Zagreb, Croatia, during the holidays.

A twinkling winter wonderland awaits in Zagreb, Croatia, during the holidays.

Photo by Dinko Galic / Shutterstock.com

Zagreb, Croatia

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.

Aarhus, Denmark

Hunt down some holiday hygge in Denmark’s second city this Christmas—Aarhus has small-town charm and festive cheer aplenty.

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.

This article originally appeared online in October 2018; it was updated on September 12, 2019, to include current information.

>> Next: Stranger Than Santa: Europe’s Most Unusual Christmas Characters

Lottie Gross is a travel writer based in Oxfordshire, England, who has spent the last four years exploring her home isles to become an expert on all things Britain. She has over a decade’s experience as a travel writer and has specialized in dog-friendly travel across the U.K. and Europe, penning various books on traveling with pets, including Dog-Friendly Weekends.
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