I threw open the door of the sauna—where it was somewhere between 158 and 194 degrees Fahrenheit—and raced as fast as my bare feet could take me toward the water of Copenhagen’s Harbor. Climbing down the ladder into the 44-degree water, I felt the temperature disparity hit me and let out a yelp that was half delight and half “what am I doing?”
It was January 16. And no, I’m not an extreme adventure traveler. I was participating in a regular part of Danish culture because winter bathing is said to boost circulation and provide a type of natural high. Something I desperately need in the dead of winter.
It’s well known that Copenhagen is a sparkling wonderland in the run up to Christmas, complete with festive markets, æbleskiver pancake balls, and gløgg (mulled wine). But there’s something I love about visiting Europe’s big cities in the weeks and months that follow the holidays. After the lights are taken down and the cities empty out, I find that’s when these destinations are their most authentic selves and you have the best chance of seeing how locals truly live—including dipping themselves in nearly frozen water to boost their mental and physical health. Cold weather be damned, indeed.
When I spent a week in Paris post-Christmas a few years ago, I noticed there was a quiet hum in the air. Maybe it was the metro worker strike or the fact that many restaurants were closed for an extended holiday break because none of the trains were running, but I reveled in the emptiness of the city while walking through its parks, museums, and shops that still retained that magical je ne sais quoi that makes Paris so popular.
One spring break in college, instead of going on a Caribbean cruise with my roommates, I booked a flight to Berlin in March to visit friends studying abroad and somehow managed to get into Berghain, a club with one of the world’s most notoriously difficult door policies. (Pro tip: When there aren’t a ton of tourists flooding the city, it’s easier to blend in with the locals . . . as long as you keep your mouth shut.)
Still skeptical? My recent trip to Copenhagen reminded me of all the reasons why I love visiting Europe in the dead of winter—beyond the lack of crowds. Let me convince you:
It’s cheaper to get there (and stay)
The period leading up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve is one of the most expensive periods to fly, according to the flight deal tracking service Going (formerly Scott’s Cheap Flights). But somewhere around January 7, airfares drop 70 to 80 percent according to Going’s historic data, making January and February two of the cheapest months of the year to travel.
Those savings continue on into early spring, too.
“The cheapest months to travel to Europe in 2023 will be February, March, and April,” said Jeff Klee, CEO of CheapAir.com. “These shoulder season months offer the best value, with (for example) March airline tickets running 42 percent less than the most expensive month, which is July.”
How much do those savings look like specifically? For January through March travel this year, Going found deals between $245–$386 for round-trip fares to Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, Brussels, and more from 12 U.S. cities, including Boston and Baltimore.
This translates to more affordable hotels, too. Even in notoriously expensive cities like Copenhagen, it was easy to find hotels under $200 per night this January. For a weekend stay, I paid $175 per night for a standard room at the new 25Hours Hotel Copenhagen, part of the German hotel brand that is akin to Ace Hotels in design and price point. Its June 2023 rates? Nearly double what I paid in January.
Winter bathing culture means you won’t be stuck indoors
Swimming in Copenhagen’s harbor is a popular summer activity, too, and sauna culture is practiced year-round in Nordic countries. But I’ve found the benefits—both physical and mental—were more noticeable when I added an ice cold bath outdoors to the mix last January at Butchers Heat sauna in Copenhagen’s harborside Refshaleøen neighborhood.
It’s been said winter bathing can improve circulation while also boosting endorphins and your immune system. And while scientific evidence is inconclusive, I can vouch I was more awake after my sauna and icy dip session (despite being jet lagged from my flight) and felt that natural high I normally only get after a long cardio session.
There are carnival treats you can’t get any other time of year
In New Orleans, you get King Cake during Mardi Gras season, which typically takes place between January and February each year. Of course, carnival season also exists in Europe and comes with plenty of its own seasonal treats. In Denmark, carnival is known as fastelavn. And fastelavn isn’t properly celebrated without fastelavnsboller, a type of cream-filled bun that you can find at bakeries throughout the season—but not at any other time of the year. (In Sweden, you’ll find a similar treat known as semla with cardamom-flavored dough and almond paste hiding under the whipped cream.)
In Copenhagen, one of the best traditional fastelavnsboller can be found at Sankt Peders Bageri in the city center. For a modernized take on the seasonal pastry, head to Hart Bageri over in Frederiksberg. This season, Hart’s version featured a flaky croissant dough filled with black currant jam, mascarpone cream, with whipped cream and black currant powder on top. It’s rich, messy, and totally worth planning an entire trip around if you have a sweet tooth.
(Note: Carnival was on February 21, 2023, but you can start planning ahead for 2024 when Fat Tuesday falls on February 13.)
Winter sales and VAT refunds = savings galore
If I had delayed that post-Christmas trip to Paris by a few weeks, I would’ve been able to take advantage of les soldes, the annual sales that run from mid-January to February across the city. And it’s not just the shops and department stores in Paris that celebrate these end-of-season sales. When I arrived in Copenhagen in the middle of January, I scored leather gloves and cashmere balaclavas for under $40 and came across sweaters from popular Danish brands like Ganni and Stine Goya for half off. Just don’t forget to get the VAT tax refunds, too, for even bigger savings.
Yes, it’s dark and cold. But cozy culture is just better here.
Hygge isn’t only a clever marketing campaign by the Denmark Tourism Board. The cozy above all mentality that’s pronounced “hoo-ga” is ingrained in every aspect of the culture here, from its tasty pastries to the candles that light up every tabletop and window as soon as it gets dark.
And that darkness is no joke—the sun didn’t rise before 8:30 a.m. and started to fade around 3:30 p.m. each day of my trip. Yet somehow the seasonal depression and existential dread that grips me each winter back home in New York fizzled out the moment I dropped my bags and entered the lobby bar at the Nimb Hotel and settled into a massive armchair in front of its fireplace.
When dining out in New York, ambience is usually granted by fake candles or tiny lamps placed on dinner tables. But in Copenhagen? Fireplaces are never simply for decoration, the candles are real, and electric lighting is never fluorescent. Though travel is always a mood booster for me, the feeling of contentment I had snuggled into that fireside armchair or later that week chatting about Austrian natural wines under the warm glow of paper pendant lamps at the Ved Stranden 10 wine bar was unparalleled.
And even though I eventually had to return to the drab gray cold of New York, winter didn’t seem so bad anymore. I had two more hours of sunlight each day, and I had brought home a bunch of candles to recreate that cozy wine bar vibe at home. Plus, you know that post-vacation slump that hits after returning home from a tropical beach trip? Nonexistent, since I didn’t have to reacclimate to the cold all over again.