Even for the Grinchiest travelers (of which I’m one), traveling to Europe during the holidays is a captivating experience. Between the glimmering lights and the lingering smells of holiday treats, the best European cities to visit in December are those that fully embrace festive traditions and customs.
From the absolute best destinations for Christmas markets to fairytale-like cities and even a few places to watch the northern lights, these are some unforgettable places to travel this December in Europe:
1. Davos, Switzerland
High up in the Swiss Alps lies the snowy paradise of Davos. Whereas most ski towns in the Alps have to produce snow for their slopes in December, the high elevation here lends itself to having more than enough fresh powder for skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and other wintry activities.
The town of Davos is small and quaint, what you might expect from a Swiss mountaintop town. December is an ideal time to visit, as the twinkling lights and increased snowfall create an idyllic scene. For outdoor lovers who are eager to hit the slopes, Davos is the best European city to visit in December.
Find out more about visiting Davos, Switzerland in the winter here.
2. Berlin, Germany
When it comes to visiting Berlin in the winter, dressing for the weather and knowing where to go and what to do is key. After all, the city has a reputation for being dark and cold this time of year. This certainly shouldn’t be a deal breaker, though, because there is a plethora of things to do here that are actually better in the winter.
For starters, the Christmas markets in Germany (and especially in Berlin) are absolutely magical in December. Cities around the world try to replicate them, but there’s nothing quite like the OG ones you’ll find here. Warm yellow lights illuminate stalls selling everything from ornaments to snacks and mulled wine. Although these markets are incredible throughout the country, Berlin’s are special because they are more multicultural (there’s even a Japanese one!) and quirky, breaking free from German tradition.
Besides hitting up the Christmas markets, December in Berlin is also a great time to check out one of the city’s famous spas, like Vabali, for a bit of pampering. Since the high season in Berlin is during the summer months, December is perfect for checking out some popular sites, as the crowds will be thinner.
3. Stuttgart, Germany
December is arguably the best time to visit Stuttgart. The overall atmosphere is nothing short of magical this time of year. There numerous Christmas markets throughout the city and nearby, each with its own theme, so you might be tempted to see as many as you can. Check out this video for a full rundown on the best ones in Germany:
Other things not to miss out on in Stuttgart in December include the Winter Light Festival in Palace Square, the Markthalle Stuttgart, and the Stuttgart Library. Though these last two attractions are year-round places of interest, they’re extra special in December, when they take on their own version of holiday cheer, just like the rest of the city.
In case you want to venture outside of Stuttgart, there are plentiful day trips that are easily accessible via train. For example, the quaint town of Tübingen, just an hour’s ride away, is enchanting in the month of December.
4. Cologne (Köln), Germany
Cologne (Köln in German) is one of the best cities to visit in Germany, no matter the time of year. However, the gothic architecture it’s famous for is particularly beautiful in December when Cologne dresses up for the holidays. This is a great alternative to Berlin, as Cologne is smaller and more laid-back, with fewer crowds at the Christmas markets and other attractions.
There are seven Christmas markets in Cologne in December, each with a different theme. Whether you venture to all of them or just a few, this is an essential item on your itinerary.
Karneval is also in full swing in December. This is one of the largest street festivals of the year and the absolute best place to get in touch with German culture. It features vibrant celebration full of live music, lots of dancing, traditional German feasts, and plentiful beer.
5. Rovaniemi, Finland
Rovaniemi is part of Finnish Lapland and the undisputed home of none other than Santa Claus himself. Can you imagine a better place to visit in December, when St. Nick is in full Christmas-preparation mode? You’ll find him in the Santa Claus Village in the Arctic Circle of Rovaniemi.
This town is also home to the majestic SnowHotel, which is carved from snow each year, ever-changing in its design. There are also glass igloos with transparent domes that allow guests to watch the northern lights above from the comfort of their beds. You can book both here.
Keep in mind that December is by far the most popular time to visit Rovaniemi, so make sure to book well in advance if you want to live out your Arctic winter dreams here.
6. Saalbach-Hinterglemm, Austria
Touting itself as the coolest ski resort in the Alps is Saalbach, a gorgeous mountain retreat in Austria that is perfect for your December adventure. This is easily one of the most epic places to hit the slopes. Not only does Saalbach have an excellent variety, ranging from absolute beginner to pro level, but the views of the Alps create a backdrop that feels almost surreal. In case you want to take a break from skiing, you can also go for a powdery mountain snowshoe hike.
You can also explore the adorable streets of Saalbach Hinterglemm, which are decorated this time of year with sparkling Christmas lights. Visitors love staying at Boutique Hotel Anybody, as it’s only 300 meters from the ski lifts.
7. Vienna, Austria
This enchanting city is actually the first one that comes to mind when I think about the best European cities to visit in December. Much like Germany, the Christmas markets in Austria are legendary. The twinkling golden lights and wafting aroma of roasting chestnuts (literally, chestnuts roasting over an open fire!) and smoky Viennese sausages characterize the atmosphere here in December.
Vienna is a hub for art, cinema, and music in Europe — great news if you need a break from walking through the Christmas markets, which are outside in the cold. There are numerous art museums to peruse, from the essential Kunsthistorisches Museum to the Albertina. Another great indoor alternative to the Christmas markets is a visit to the Edelstoff Design Market, which has a special section just for Christmas items.
8. Reykjavik, Iceland
Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights — and a visit to Reykjavik this December grants you a spectacular opportunity to see them. Due to the urban light pollution, your best bet is to do a tour outside of the city, where you’ll have a better chance of seeing the aurora borealis.
Although December is the darkest time in Iceland, with only five hours of daylight, Reykjavik makes up for the lack of sun with plenty of Christmas markets and beautiful lights throughout town. Plus, the increased snowfall in December almost guarantees a white Christmas. Unlike other countries that only celebrate Christmas for a day or two, Iceland marks this holiday for 26 days, from December 11 to January 6. For this reason, Reykjavik might be the best European city to visit in December for diehard Christmas fanatics.
In case you want to escape the city, you can also embark on an epic road trip along the Golden Circle or Ring Road, although the heavy snowfall might make the journey a bit treacherous. Find out what else there is to do in Iceland here.
9. Abisko, Sweden
Speaking of northern lights, another stellar place to see them in December is Abisko, Sweden. This rugged Arctic destination is one of the best places on Earth to see the aurora borealis, although it’s certainly remote and extremely cold (find some packing tips here). In fact, temperatures can dive below zero Fahrenheit on occasion. If you’re unafraid of the cold, though, this is one of the most magical places to be in December.
Abisko can barely be categorized as a city, as it’s more of a small gateway town to Abisko National Park, which is home to herds of reindeer — you might even be able to spot them trotting through the snow in town! The reindeer are just the beginning of the charm of Swedish Christmas, however. The Swedes go all out for this holiday; apart from Midsommar, it’s the biggest celebration of the year. Even in small towns like Abisko, the entire month of December is full of festivities.
10. Prague, Czechia
Apart from being an ideal European destination for budget travelers, Prague is also a culturally rich city that is especially charming in December, with snow-dusted cobblestone streets, Christmas markets smelling of gingerbread and cinnamon pastries, and an eclectic mix of holiday celebrations that showcase Prague’s uniqueness.
The most notable Christmas market and a great place to start exploring is in Old Town Square, where you’ll see a gigantic Christmas tree and booths surrounded by some of the city’s most venerable buildings. Prague’s Jewish community also celebrates Hanukkah at this time (check a calendar, as the date shifts each year), so may experience an interesting mix of traditions here.
December is the perfect time to enjoy Prague’s gastronomical scene as well; some of the most traditional dishes are hearty stews with meat and starchy vegetables. Czechia is also famous for its beer, which you can try on a craft beer tour.
11. Copenhagen, Denmark
If you’re chasing the ultimate hygge feeling this December, look no further than Copenhagen. Let’s face it, the Danish have mastered the art of creating cozy spaces, which is why spending the holidays here is so enticing. Throughout the capital in December, you’ll find golden Christmas lights twinkling, ice rinks full of people skating, and small shops selling sweet holiday treats.
One of the most famous ice rinks is the Frederiksberg Runddel, where you can rent a pair of skates and join the pack on the ice. From there, head to the Tivoli Gardens, where you’ll find a Christmas-themed carnival, a traditional Danish holiday market, and all kinds of delicious food and drinks. Some special things to try are gløgg (spiced mulled wine), risalamande (a type of rice pudding), and æbleskiver (sweet fried dough balls).
Copenhagen in December is the epicenter of all things cozy, making it one of the best places to visit during the holidays.
12. Riga, Latvia
Latvia escapes many travelers’ bucket lists, which is why it’s one of the most underrated countries to visit in Europe. That said, Latvia’s capital, Riga, is an incredible off-the-beaten-path city to visit this December.
Like other cities throughout Europe, Riga has three beautiful Christmas markets. The most famous is the one in Doma Laukums, which is only open on weekends. Another is the Livu Laukums market, which is more modern and has a gigantic Christmas tree made from wood planks at its center. The most unique of the three is in Esplanade Park, which has an entire section called the Rabbit Village, complete with a rabbit church and tiny rabbit houses.
One of the best things about visiting Riga in December is that there are far fewer crowds than in other European destinations. Riga is smaller and quieter, and gives visitors a chance to see how locals celebrate the holidays in their own unique way.
13. Edinburgh, Scotland
Edinburg does Christmas lights like no other city, boasting one of the most impressive displays in Europe. You’ll find an incredible example of this Christmas cheer on George Street, which is also the site of one of the city’s largest Christmas markets. The markets here are German-style but have their own Scottish identity, serving traditional fare like venison burgers and Scottish beer. On George Street, you can also rent a pair of skates and go ice skating, which is a local favorite festive activity.
Many American holiday traditions come from the UK, so visiting Scotland in December gives you a neat look into their origins, like eating turkey and potatoes and sipping hot toddies, that shape how we celebrate across the pond.
14. Bruges, Belgium
Bruges is famous for its scenic canals, which have earned the city its nickname, “Venice of the north.” While you can’t explore the canals in the winter, you can enjoy this beautiful city’s immaculate scenery and festive holiday atmosphere. Take a horse-and-carriage ride through the twinkling town at nighttime, or make your way to the sweet Christmas market, which is rumored to be the best in the country.
Bruges’ ornate architecture takes on a mystical quality during the holiday season. The castle-like spires and stepped gable roofs on the buildings in Markt Square lend the place an antique feel, which looks even more magical at night with the sparkling yellow and red lights.
If you choose Bruges for your winter getaway, don’t miss out on a chance to learn how chocolate is made and visit a chocolate museum. After all, Belgian chocolate is some of the best in the world, and what could be more festive this December than snacking on some while you peruse a Christmas market?
15. Budapest, Hungary
Visiting Budapest in December is an intensely sensory experience. The streets fill with the smell of warm spices and cakes, and the inner city turns into a fairytale-like masterpiece of lights every year. Vörösmarty Square is the place to be in Budapest during the holidays, as this is where the most impressive light displays are, along with the largest of the city’s Christmas markets, which are full of food stalls selling stuffed cabbages, traditional goulash, and local wine.
Another fantastic way to enjoy Budapest in December is to hop on the winter tram (line 2), which has thousands of tiny blue and white lights and runs along the Danube Promenade, with some of the best views in the city. Budapest is also home to Europe’s largest natural ice skating rink, the City Park Ice Rink.
No matter how you choose to explore the city this December, Budapest is sure to charm you with its holiday cheer.
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Whether you’re hoping to hit the slopes or cozy up in a festive city, mulled wine in hand, I hope this list gives you some inspiration for your December travels this year. Maybe you can even visit several of these cities during your European winter adventure. Which place sounds like the best European city to visit in December to you?