If you’re in desperate need of a winter escape, or the travel bug just can’t wait for summer, then book yourself a ticket to one of the best places to spend Christmas in Europe.
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When it comes to Christmas breaks, Europe has endless possibilities. There are tiny seaside towns with deserted beaches that bake in the midday sunshine. There are grand cities, where you can enjoy candlelit dinners by crackling fires. And there are rural villages, where locals pause on the way to market for a gossip session with their neighbours.
Whatever your idea of a perfect Christmas destination, Europe can deliver.
We lived in London for 10 years, which is the ideal place to spend winters (and summers) hopping around Europe. Our last 6 years as nomads has allowed us to fill in the gaps, so we’ve now been to almost every country in Europe.
That is to say, we’ve had plenty of time to explore Europe’s best (and worst) destination and choose our top picks for…
The Best Places to Spend Christmas in Europe
European Christmas FAQ – Answered!
How do they celebrate Christmas in Europe?
Christmas in Europe is a vibrant mix of twinkling lights, carols and concerts, atmospheric midnight masses, and plenty of holiday cheer.
The season lasts from Advent at the beginning of December, right up until Epiphany, which lands on January 6. So if you’re thinking of spending some time in Europe for Christmas, you’ll have plenty of chance to revel in the especially festive atmosphere.
For most Europeans, Christmas Eve is actually the big ticket day, when families typically gather for a feast and a trip to mass. Some families will exchange gifts on Christmas Eve as well, though in a few countries, gifts are unwrapped on Christmas Day.
Unlike North Americans, Europeans aren’t quite so focussed on the commercial aspects of Christmas. Though they do give gifts, the food, drinks, and family time are far more important.
Every country has their own weird and wonderful traditions and ways of celebrating — but wherever you decide to go, you can be sure that you’ll be able to find your fill of Christmas spirit.
Christmas markets in Europe
Christmas markets are a huge deal in Europe, and you’ll find some of the biggest and best ones in Germany and the surrounding countries.
Christmas markets usually start at the end of November or beginning of December and most close down on December 26 or during the first week of January. Markets are often open all day long and well into the evening, even on Christmas Eve, so market shopping can be a fun thing to do after dark.
Europe’s Christmas markets are usually festooned with twinkling fairy lights and, if you’re lucky, a light dusting of snow. Festive music and family chatter forms the soundtrack and the scents of gingerbread and mulled wine permeate the air. Wander the stalls with a drink in one hand and a sweet treat in the other.
Shoppers will want to leave extra room in their suitcase to take home the hand-crafted wares, from ornaments and figurines, to dish towels, clothing, and jewelry.
Is everything closed during Christmas?
Holiday closures around Europe vary country by country and city by city.
In general, big cities have fewer closures and more services available than small towns. Countries that are more religious have more closures than those that lean towards the secular.
For example, we spent plenty of Christmasses in London, a mostly secular city, and there was always something fun and exciting to do, even on the big day itself.
However, the year we spent Christmas in a tiny town in Greece, we were the only tourists in town. They had to open the hotel for us and there was only one restaurant open all week. They made a special dinner for us on Christmas Day but would have been closed if we hadn’t been around.
As a general rule:
- Museums and other tourist attractions: Most will be open in the run-up to Christmas Day but few open on December 25.
- Offices, post offices, banks, and other services: Expect many to be closed for at least a week around Christmas Day.
- Grocery stores and other stores: Generally open until Christmas Eve, and then reopen on December 27. Some grocery stores only close on Christmas Day. Many convenience stores stay open throughout the holiday.
- Hotels, B&Bs, other accommodation: Most stay open, as Christmas tends to be a busy tourist season.
- Restaurants, bars, clubs: In cities, most places are open in the lead-up and days after Christmas. However, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many smaller places shut down. For those days, I’d suggest deciding where you want to eat ahead of time and emailing to make a reservation. Often, restaurants offer a special Christmas menu, so expect to pay more than you would at other times of year. Alternatively, stay in an Airbnb that has its own kitchen and cook your own Christmas Dinner.
Best Places for a Storybook Christmas
If you want a Christmas holiday straight out of Hans Christian Andersen, where snow falls in big fluffy flakes, sticking to your nose and eyelashes, these places should be at the top of your list.
While we can’t promise a white Christmas (that’s climate change for ya), we can promise days of wandering down narrow, twisty streets, and evenings curled up by the fire with a mug of steaming hot chocolate.
1. Bern, Switzerland
Nothing says Christmas quite like the snowy winter wonderland of Switzerland. The romance of Bern’s medieval old town decked out in gold lights for the Christmas season is possibly unparalleled in Europe. There are, of course, fantastic Christmas markets, plenty of cozy cafes where you can warm up with a hot chocolate, and lots of shopping if your Christmas list needs some crossing off.
When you first arrive in Bern, take a guided walk through the 800-year-old city to orient yourself and learn more about some of Bern’s top attractions, like the 13th-century Clock Tower and the Gothic Cathedral.
But the best winter activity in Bern? Hit the slopes of the Gurten for some of the best toboganning action you’ll ever see.
2. Transylvania, Romania
Are you a fan of those creepy fairytales, where wicked fairies and handsome vampires walk among us? Then Transylvania is your perfect Christmas destination.
Its charming towns, like Brasov and Sibiu, feature huge town squares where you can sip hot apple cider while nosing around the outdoor Christmas market. Depending on your age and upbringing, the soaring church spires and roofs with eyes will have you looking over your shoulder for vampires, werewolves, or the Ghost of Christmas Past.
3. Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina
Earlier this year, I spent a few days in Sarajevo and absolutely fell in love with the city. Nestled in a narrow valley, with mountains rising on all sides, the city is as picturesque as it is enticing.
Yup, Sarajevo might just be the perfect winter city break in Europe.
4. Aarhus, Denmark
When we visited earlier this year, I fell in love with Aarhus, Denmark. It is small enough to be walkable and bikeable but big enough to be a cultural destination as well. The addition of a Christmas market, tobogganing, and festive concerts during the holidays fills Aarhus with the Christmas spirit.
Don’t miss our transformational travel guide for 2 days in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is one of our favourite cities in the world and Christmas time is one of the best times of year visit.
The Dutch really know how to celebrate Christmas and in Amsterdam, the Christmas spirit flows through every canal, street, and square. In Dam Square, a 20-metre-tall tree is decorated with 4km of lights, and you’ll find carol singers, musicians, food, and drinks to entertain you. In and around Amsterdam, there are Christmas markets to satisfy all tastes.
During the Amsterdam light festival, where light sculptures designed by artists from around the world light the canals, your Amsterdam evening canal cruise will be even more spectacular than normal.
Plus, you can visit Amsterdam’s Ice Village in Museumplein, where you can go ice skating, shop for Christmas trinkets, and eat and drink the best Dutch holiday treats.
Grab our pro tips for making the most of your trip to Venice!
If you’ve been longing to experience the romance of Venice but just can’t stand the thought of all those crowds, Christmas is the perfect time to go. The weather can be hit or miss (usually miss), which means most tourists stay away at this time of year. You’ll get to enjoy the fairy lights twinkling on the canals in peace.
Every Christmas, Venice is decorated with thousands of lights and even gondoliers dress up their gondolas with festive decorations. There are several Christmas markets in Venice, plenty of places to sample holiday apertivo, and lots of classical concerts to attend. Shop for a Murano glass Christmas ornament to makes the perfect souvenir of your Christmas in Venice.
Finally, for a quirky Christmas experience, plan your trip for mid-December, when hundreds of Santas run through Venice’s narrow streets in the Santa Claus Run.
7. Prague, Czech Republic
On the first morning of our first trip to Prague, we woke up to fluffy snow falling lightly past our window. What could be more Christmassy than treading across cobbled squares as snow gathers on the rooftops?
It gets even more festive when you start searching Prague’s historic cafes for the best cup of hot chocolate in the city. That alone could become a full-time occupation—one I would willingly accept as my Christmas duty.
The Christmas markets in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square will provide all the food, drink, and Czech-style Christmas cheer that you could want.
(Don’t miss: Our guide to finding the best vegan food in Prague) →
Best Places for a White Christmas in Europe
8. Hallstatt, Austria
One year, just before Christmas, my Mom and I took a trip through Austria, where my grandfather was born. The entire country is one big Christmas card, but Hallstatt, a tiny mountain village in Salzkammergut, wins the Christmas crown.
The gingerbread houses of Hallstatt cling to the shore of Lake Hallstatt and the mountains rise steeply all around. With snow falling gently on cobbled streets and the town’s lights dancing in the glassy lake, Hallstatt might be the most romantic Christmas town on Earth.
I should probably go there with Stephen next time!
9. Tromso, Norway
We have been to Tromso, Norway in high summer and experienced the midnight sun as it dips briefly below the horizon before rising again on a new day.
Though locals have warned us against it, I’d love to experience the opposite; I imagine cold dark days sitting wrapped in a blanket by the roaring fire, reading classic novels and sipping glass after glass of Aquavit. When I did venture outside, it would be to feel the soft crunch of snow underfoot and to gaze in awe at the mysterious Northern Lights as they dance overhead. Gorgeous.
10. Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland
If you think Santa comes from the North Pole, you have obviously never met a Finn. Santa really hails from Rovaniemi, Lapland, so there’s no way we could leave the frosty northern town off of our Christmas list.
We’ve never been there, but with the chance to sleep in an igloo, go ice-climbing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, plus getting to visit Santa at his office (his home is in a secret location), Rovaniemi seems like the perfect Christmas destination.
If you think Santa Claus comes from the North Pole, you have obviously never met a Finn. Santa really hails from Rovaniemi, Lapland, so there’s no way we could leave the frosty northern town off of our Christmas list. At Santa Claus Village, inside the Arctic Circle, you’ll be able to visit the jolly old elf in his office (his home is in a secret location) and meet some of his many reindeer friends.
We’ve never been to Rovaniemi, but with the chance to sleep in an igloo, go ice-climbing, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, plus viewing the Northern Lights, Rovaniemi seems like the perfect Christmas destination.
Best Places in Europe to Spend a Sunny Christmas
I’m not going to lie – if you’re looking for a hot sun-drenched Christmas where you can lie on the beach in your bikini 24 hours a day, Europe is not going to provide it. Even the warmest European destinations get a little chilly in the winter.
But, if you just want a place where the bright, hot sun shines most of the day and you can curl up by the fire at night, here are our four favourite places to spend a sunny Christmas in Europe.
11. Gran Canaria, Spain
If you want serious winter warmth without leaving Europe, the Canary Islands — which sit farther south than much of the Sahara Dessert — are the best place to get it.
Spend Christmas Day lying on the beach re-upping your Vitamin D stores and then head out for turkey and all the trimmings, provided by one of Gran Canaria’s many Christmas-minded restaurants. Sounds a lot like Christmas, minus all the stress!
12. Palma de Majorca, Spain
If you’re after warm weather but you don’t want to give up on the Christmas atmosphere, a winter break in Palma de Majorca delivers the best of both worlds. On average, it’s 10 degrees warmer than most European cities and you’ll get much more sunshine than you would up north.
Meanwhile, every building is adorned with Christmas lights twinkling their little hearts out and the Christmas market is the perfect place to find hand-crafted decorations for you Palma hotel room. If you want to engage in the true meaning of Christmas, grab a spot in the Palma Cathedral for its spectacular Midnight Mass.
13. Algarve, Portugal
Photo by Bruno Carlos via Wikimedia Commons
Last year for Christmas, Stephen and I secured a housesitting gig in the Algarve, thinking we’d have a hot sunny Christmas while all our friends in the north shivered in their big winter coats. And we were right!
By day, there was nude tanning by the pool (sorry, no photos!) and yoga on the rooftop. But don’t forget to pack your wooly hat and your scarf because when the sun goes down in the Algarve, so does the temperature!
We got to spend a few days on this little island nation last year and it was as exotic as it gets without leaving the EU. There will be plenty of opportunities to take long walks on the beach or sit in the sun with a cocktail in hand.
But Malta is much more than beaches – it’s a fabulous cultural and historical destination as well, with atmospheric walled cities, dusty side streets, and a north African vibe. Very Game of Thronesy!
While on Malta, make sure to leave a day for exploring the gorgeous island of Gozo. See the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Ggantija Temples, The Citadel of Rabat, and some truly stunning landscape on a full-day Gozo Island tour.
Old world Italian culture, adorable hill towns, mountains of delicious food, and the hot Sicilian sun makes Sicily one of our favourite winter destinations. Also, let’s not forget about the free flowing red wine that is cheaper than apple juice (and much more fun). Plus, cannoli. Can we go back right now?
16. Kalamata, Greece
Photo by G Da, CC BY-SA 3.0
When we were very small children (OK, we were 25) we spent an idyllic Christmas in the town of Kalamata, Greece, on the very southern coast of the Peloponnese Peninsula.
We were the only tourists in town and we had to beg the villagers to roust the innkeeper from his slumber to rent us a room. Every night, at the only open restaurant in town, we were plied with free ouzo by the proprietor and by day, we were invited for coffee with curious locals.
It was all very exotic, romantic, and the perfect place to spend our first Christmas away from our families. I suspect Kalamata has progressed somewhat in the intervening decades but I’ve no doubt you’ll still find a charming, welcoming, and above all, sunny town!
Best Places for a Christmas City Break
It’s no secret that Europe has some of the most amazing cities on Earth. You can visit world class museums, stroll along city walls, soak up the festive atmosphere at a Christmas market, and then end the day dining at some of the best restaurants in the world.
A city break at Christmas is especially fabulous because you can smugly watch the locals rush off to do their holiday shopping while you sip on red wine in a snug little pub, congratulating yourself on deciding to spend your money on travel instead of stuff.
These are our picks for the best places in Europe for a Christmas city break.
17. Monte Carlo, Monaco
For a high-rolling Christmas with plenty of sunshine and party potential, head down to Monaco! The spectacular cliffside sea coast will take your breath away during the day, as will the veritable forest of Christmas trees that grows annually in Casino Square.
Your evenings will be dominated by formal wear, champagne, cocktails, and high-stakes poker. Of course, no holiday season in Monaco is complete unless you stick around for the most impressive New Year’s Eve celebrations anywhere in Europe.
18. Dubrovnik, Croatia
At any time of year, wandering Dubrovnik’s mysterious streets is a romantic journey through history. Though you won’t see any snow on a Dubrovnik Christmas holiday, the Dubrovnik Winter Festival lights up the city with winter cheer. To add to the festivity, cosy up in D’vino Wine Bar with a glass or a tasting flight of Croatian red and watch the city go by.
Did you know Dubrovnik also makes a fantastic place for a Game of Thrones-inspired vacation?
19. Salzburg, Austria
I was raised watching The Sound of Music every Christmas which means that Salzburg and Christmas are synonymous in my mind.
With its romantic cobbled lanes and alleys decked with lights and boughs of holly, and plentiful coffee houses serving the world’s best pastries, Salzburg is ideal for a winter getaway. Even if you’re more Mos Def than Mozart, make sure to catch a classical music concert while there for the full Salzburg experience.
If you too were raised on The Sound of Music, make sure to take the Original Sound of Music tour, where you’ll get to see filming locations including the Von Trapp family estate, the abbey where Maria was a problem to be solved, and the gardens where the Do-Re-Mi scene was filmed.
20. Helsinki, Finland
Photo by Sigketill via Wikimedia Commons
Whenever we travel to northern Europe in summer, people always say “It’s lovely now but you wouldn’t want to be here in winter!” But that’s not entirely true.
Helsinki in the summer is gorgeous. But Helsinki in the snow and cold, with its array of fabulous architecture and snug cafes where you can while away an afternoon, makes it one of our best places to spend Christmas.
Plus, the Helsinki Ice Park is a great opportunity to get out on ice skates and then warm up with perfect cup of hot chocolate afterwards.
Our guide to things to do in Turin will make you decide to go!
We have had a long-lasting love-affair with Turin, Italy’s most underrated city. Wandering the colonnades and squares of this once-royal city is impressive at any time of year, but at Christmas, the lights and decorations make the streets sparkle with magic. Turin is surrounded by the Alps, which create a magical snowy backdrop and offer great opportunities for skiing, snowshoeing, and ice climbing.
You might not want to sample Turin’s exceptional gelato at this cold time of year, but hunt down Turin’s warming sweet treats: hot chocolate (it was invented here) and Bicerin (you just have to try it!). Plus, Turin has more than it’s share of interesting museums which are great places to stay warm if the weather turns cold.
Turin also does markets exceptionally well, and there are several Christmas markets where you’ll find plenty of local specialities to sample.
22. London, England
Photo by Christine Matthews
As the place where we learned the meaning of “Chrimbo” and that Christmas is not complete without a LOT of unbridled drinking, London holds a special Christmassy place in our hearts. The Christmas party season in London is unparalleled—if your calendar isn’t full of corporate-sponsored free-food free-booze shindigs you’re missing out!
(Don’t miss our guide to the best vegan food in London‘s fabulous east end) →
If you’re not a London resident, you can always get in on the Christmas fun by visiting the massive Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, the next best thing to being in Bavaria for Christmas.
For an up-close look at London’s sparkling Christmas lights and the famous window displays in Harrods and Selfridges, book a London Christmas Lights tour on a classic open-topped London bus.
Of course, it’s not just these places in Europe that call to us during the holidays.
If we could beam ourselves home to family and friends right now, we would. The problem is, our favourite people are scattered across the globe so unless we hop on the back of Santa’s sleigh, we’ll never get to see even half of them.
So here’s to all of you, our favourite folks, wherever you may be in the world!
We wish you a very merry Christmas and peace, love, and happiness for the new year.
More Travel Tips for Europe
We’ve got lots of other posts to help you plan a perfect trip to Europe.
♥ Happy Christmas and Merry Holidays, Stephen & Jane