The medieval Estonian capital is an enchanting place to visit any time of the year but, during the colder months, Tallinn’s Old Town becomes a winter fairytale of snow-covered red rooftops and cobbled streets. The best views of the city can be seen from the iconic spire of St Olaf’s Church which dominates a skyline of turrets and steeples. Pick up a Tallinn Card (€25/24hrs) when you arrive for free entry and discounts on lots of other attractions, public transport, food and drink. Estonians have always loved their beer, although the recent trend for craft beer has led to many microbreweries springing up around Tallinn. Nevertheless, a beer costs just over £2 and you can find dinner for as little as £5 in some parts of the city.
In December, visit the city’s Gothic town hall (the last surviving in Northern Europe) and you’ll find a cheerful Christmas market in the square, presided over by an enormous Christmas tree that has taken centre stage since 1441 – making it the first ever tree to go on public display in Europe. Treat yourself to a warming glass of mulled wine or grog as you browse the selection of woollen socks and mittens, locally handmade crafts, sweet liqueurs and Estonian chocolates. For those with a sweet tooth, a trip to Estonia’s most famous confectioner is well worth a visit. Try your hand at candy-making, or get in the festive spirit with a marzipan workshop at the Kalev Chocolate Shop and Sweets Mastery in Rotermann Quarter.
What better place for a winter escape than the magical setting for many a Grimm Brothers’ fairytale: Germany’s Black Forest. Once snow falls, this mountainous region of dense forests and picturesque villages becomes a real-life Narnia, all ancient trees weighed down by icicles and spectacular white-blanketed horizons. Make your base in nearby Freiburg, often considered one of the most beautiful cities in southern Germany. A charming university town of cobbled squares and medieval houses, Freiburg boasts one of the best Christmas markets in the whole of Germany, where you can pick up homemade souvenirs and feast on grilled sausages, sauerkraut and gingerbread. Not exactly diet-friendly, the region is heavy on deliciously comforting winter food – don’t miss out on its speciality beers, horseradish soup and its infamous black forest gateau.
Not to worry, there are ample opportunities for healthy woodland hikes to walk off the calories. If you’re keen to enjoy the fresh winter air, and you’re lucky enough to find a white forest on your arrival, then the nearby nature centres at Feldberg Mountain and Ruhestein Pass offer guided snowshoeing tours of the woodlands. Another way to see the Black Forest is by train and a regional day ticket costs as little as €23, offering some outstanding views of the Baden-Württemberg area.
If the thought of icy streets and frozen forests leaves you cold, then brighten up your winter with a trip to Valletta, on the isle of Malta. Famously known to bask in 300 days of sun a year, Malta enjoys mild temperatures even in December, with daily averages varying between 13°C and 20°C. At only 3 hours’ flight from the UK, Malta is an easy alternative to longhaul flights to sunny shores. Although the winter brings a higher risk of poor weather, the dramatic drop in prices for flights and, in particular, accommodation, make it an ideal time of year to explore this Mediterranean archipelago.
Its historic capital, Valletta, is a magnificent city that has been awarded the prestigious title of European Capital of Culture 2018. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has been described as ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’, including a harbour that dates back to the Phoenician era and the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum, an underground temple over 5000 years old. The Manoel Theatre, one of the oldest working theatres in Europe, is a stunning baroque building that stages a host of Christmas concerts and celestial choirs during the winter months. For the best views of the city’s most beautiful architectural spaces, time your visit for late January when the Valletta International Baroque Festival is in full swing throughout the city.
Lesser-known Wrocław (pronounced vrots-wahf), Poland’s fourth city, offers much of the allure of Kraków on a smaller scale (and without the number of tourists). Last year’s European Capital of Culture, this charming city is fast becoming a lively arts hub of theatres and is home to some major Polish film festivals. Used as the stand-in location for a 1960’s East Berlin in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Cold War thriller, Bridge of Spies, and set to feature in the upcoming Valley of the Gods, starring John Malkovich, Wrocław won’t stay under the radar for long.
Characterised by its beautiful architecture and colourful houses, Wrocław’s picturesque streets – complete with a winter dusting of snow – make it a cheerful destination to explore at leisure during the colder months. Divided up into islands by the Odra River, this medieval city is a maze of cobblestoned lanes and bridges, gently sloping riverside parks (perfect for sledging) and impressive market squares, punctuated by the city’s many church spires. The twin Gothic towers of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist can be found on their very own ‘Cathedral Island’ (Ostrow Tumski) where, at dusk, you can watch the lamplighter illuminate all 103 of the gas lamps by hand.
A popular winter destination in the 19th century for British aristocrats and rich families (Queen Victoria was a regular visitor), stylish Nice offered a warm and bright antidote to dreary English Decembers. No longer a refuge reserved for the rich, Nice’s fresh sea air and lively atmosphere provide a welcome break during the darker months, at a fraction of the price of other, more far-flung winter sun spots. This unofficial capital of the Côte d’Azur is well-served by low cost airlines and with plenty of modestly priced hotels (and only a 2 hour hop away), it’s a guilt-free escape from the gloom.
During the Christmas period, Nice is an enjoyable mix of traditional markets and showy light displays, including the illuminated palm trees that line the Promenade des Anglais. Take a walk by the beautiful, festive display windows at the Galleries Lafayette department store and be sure to visit the giant animated nativity scene (complete with moving animals) at Place Rossetti. Or take it all in from the view atop the giant winter Ferris wheel in Paillon park. Since no winter getaway, even to the beach, would be complete without snow, take the bargain-priced SnowBus (tickets €5) up into the mountains for the day. Non-skiers can enjoy the alpine ambience while exploring the village of Valberg, or warm up with a raclette lunch followed by some mulled wine at a cosy chalet.
Only a half-hour drive from Brussels, Leuven offers stunning architecture, excellent restaurants and charming culture for a reduced price – and without the heaving crowds. Famous for being a university town, with the oldest university in Belgium, the Flemish town of Leuven is full of lively cafes and bars where you can treat yourself to a sugary waffle or sample the Belgian fruit beer. The Capital, just around the corner from the ornate Town Hall (one of the world’s prettiest Gothic buildings), specialises in an enormous range of Belgian beers and claims to have the largest collection of beer in the world (over 2000). For reasonably priced and hearty traditional meals, try out Notre Dame Quasimodo where you can indulge in their Flemish pot roast with brown Leffe sauce, followed by ice cream with Advocaat.
The best way to see Leuven is by foot and, during the winter, the city manages a range of festive walks, including a tour of the famous and not-so-famous musical venues of Leuven with everything from rock to Gregorian chanting and Christmas carols. Wintertijd (or winter season) marks the start of a four-week-long series of festive events, starting with the Kerstmarkt (Christmas market) which has over 170 stalls of gifts and seasonal treats. For a different perspective, climb the clock tower of the university library (after stopping to visit its beautiful reading rooms) and enjoy the 360 degree panorama of the city.