The summer is officially over if you couldn’t tell. And only way we know how to deal with the bleakness is to book ourselves a trip. But with all our holiday allowance used in the summer and our funds taking a beating too, we’re going to have to settle for a city break. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have options! So whether you want to relax before the Christmas rush or even want to get into the festive mood, here’s what we think are the best winter weekends city breaks in Europe…
If you’ve only got enough holiday left to take a Friday and you want to get in the mood for Christmas, look no further than Bruges. The medieval city is basically a fairytale if Ralph Fiennes is to be believed and when the temperatures drop this Belgian masterpiece really does come into its own. The musk of fresh waffles fills the airs, horse-drawn carriages fill the cobbled streets, and crafted Belgian brews fill your belly.
During winter, Bruges has one of the largest Christmas markets on the continent, with wooden chalets surrounding a glittering ice rink next to the 83m-high belfry. It’s also much easier to get to than many realise; you can catch the Eurostar from St Pancras International and with a quick change a Brussels, you can reach the city in just 3 and ½ hours. Small, beautiful and easy to get to, Bruges really is the ideal European winter city break.
The Nordics are naturally one of the best places to visit in winter. And when it comes to culture – art, design, fashion and food – no other city in Scandinavia comes close to competing with Copenhagen. Only 2 hours away on a plane, the Danish capital has it all with bars, galleries, restaurants, museums, shops and sites dotted around the city.
But at Christmas, the city transform itself. Tivoli Gardens in the heart of Copenhagen is a must for anyone visiting over the Christmas period. Essentially a giant theme park with 43 restaurants and a plethora of market stalls, over Christmas you can see over half a festive million lights, hear the Tivoli Youth Guard plays Christmas tunes and visit Santa Claus in his cozy bazaar. Perfect for all the family.
The weather doesn’t really matter when it comes to Dublin. Famed for its cobbled streets and abundance of traditional pubs, whether it blazing summer sunshine or bitterly cold wintertime, this social hotspot is begging to be explored with an array of things to do. Temple Bar is where the city’s livelier escapees are performed and you really should head to the Guinness Storehouse for a tour – even if you’re not into the black stuff.
But it’s not all booze and singalongs. For the more cultured Joes of you, the beautiful grounds of Trinity College are well worth a stroll – especially at Christmas – while the Old Library and its Book of Kells is as popular as ever with tourists. If you do go around Christmas time, one of Dublin’s biggest markets is the popular 12 Days of Christmas Market at Dublin’s Docklands, with over 80 stalls selling everything from wooden toys to warming mulled wine.
Germany will always be perfect for a European city break. But around Christmas time, we make Cologne its standout. The West-German city hosts numerous markets throughout the run-up to Christmas with the most famous being held just outside Cologne Cathedral. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the largest yuletide market in the country with over 160 festive stalls.
If you’ve got little ones, Cologne has plenty else to offer too. The Alter Markt has a Santa’s grotto, a puppet theatre and stands filled to the brim with toys. The Rudolfplatz is also well worth a visit with young and old transported to the world of the brothers Grimm. Cologne is only 4 and ½ hours away from London by train too, so it couldn’t be more perfect for a 3/4-day break.
If you really are looking to watch the pennies before Christmas then you don’t even need to cross an ocean to unwind this winter, with a romantic weekend away in Edinburgh difficult to beat. Not only does the city have plenty to do and see – with the strolls around the Castle and the Old Town absolute musts – Edinburgh also comes into its own when the temperatures fall and snow dusts the hilly streets.
At Christmas, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the capital from the top of the Big Wheel, skate on the St Andrew Square oval ice rink, or sample some festive delights from one of Edinburgh’s numerous Christmas markets. It’s also the perfect break if you’ve got kids thanks to Santa Land which can annually be found in Princes Street Gardens.
Amsterdam is undoubtedly one of the biggest bargains in Europe with flights in abundance and always relatively cheap. The Dutch city has the ambience of a European metropolis but does away with many of the big city annoyances – primarily, size. Amsterdam isn’t the biggest city in the world which means you can walk or cycle, as the locals do, pretty much anywhere.
But its lack of square miles doesn’t mean it’s dull. Anything but. The canals and buildings mean it’s great to look at it – especially when the snow settles – while its galleries and cafes make it perfect for culture vultures. But as we’re sure you’re aware, Amsterdam is just as superb for a rebellious weekend away with your mates before the mad Christmas rush. A city break must.
Another Scandi location on our list, Bergen is one of the best kept secrets in Europe. Found at the start of the stunning Norwegian fjords and enclosed by breath-taking mountain views, you’d struggle to find many more picturesque cities on the continent than Bergen. Packing a rich musical and maritime history, as well as a thriving student social scene, the city has plenty of things to do, with museums, shops, restaurants and pubs throughout the city centre and well into the University in the south.
The picture-perfect old town of Bryggen, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is impossible to miss and is a great place to meander. While true Bergen’s nickname as ‘The City of the Seven Mountains’, spectacular hilltop views of the city are available in every direction if you don’t mind a short trek uphill. Bergen is also the ideal base if you want to check out the stunning Norwegian Fjords. For more info on Bergen, check out our City Guide!
For more Scandinavian city break options, here’s 7 Nordic cities we think you should visit.