Whether you’re after a much-needed dose of winter sunshine, or whimsical snowy scenes, Christmas markets and light festivals, the seemingly endless winter months are an excellent time to plan a last-minute break. For many of Europe’s most touristy cities (hello, Venice), the off-season is also a rare chance to have the best spots all to yourself. Escaping London’s chilly climes doesn’t always have to involve long-haul flights to the Southern hemisphere, either. These are the winter city breaks we’re lusting after during the colder months.
Prague, Czech Republic
You’ll need thick coats and woolly hats for Prague’s bracing winter climes, but it’s worth it to see the Czech capital glistening on a frosty winter’s day, its rooftops sprinkled with snow. Tog up and climb to Prague Castle, stopping for a traditional cherry wine along the way. Also, be sure to book tickets for a seasonal show like The Nutcracker at the National Theatre. The other big draw of winter in Prague is the Christmas markets, the biggest and best of which sprawls across the Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square and Peace Square Market. Here, you can pick up local trinkets like wooden carved Christmas decorations, candles and nativity sets, serenaded by various carol-singing choirs.
Stay: Mandarin Oriental Prague, visit mandarinoriental.com
We all know the allure of hopping on the Eurostar and arriving in Paris in time for lunch. Stay on a couple of hours longer, however, and you’ll find yourself in the unofficial capital of French gastronomy: Lyon. The metropolitan city has around 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as bustling markets like Les Halles, filled with Lyonnaise specialties. Winter is an excellent time for long, convivial lunches in one of the bouchons, followed by festive strolls around the historic centre, Vieux-Lyon. In the second week of December, the Lyon Light Festival (Fête des Lumières) sees the city centre illuminated with over 30 creative light installations.
Stay: Mama Shelter Lyon, visit mamashelter.com/lyon
Venice is wonderful all year round but there’s a special magic reserved for the misty mornings and cold nights of winter. La Serenissima really comes into its own at this time of year, when the crowds abate, and you suddenly have the romantic canals all to yourself. Time your trip for December, when the streets are ablaze with twinkling lights and the shops are filled with artisanal gifts. In February, meanwhile, the ancient Carnival is in full swing with elaborate costume parades, masquerade balls and deep-fried, sugar-dusted fritole. Wander the streets and soak up the debauched atmosphere, before warming up over a glass of vin brulé.
Stay: Baglioni Hotel Luna, visit venice.baglionihotels.com
New York, USA
There’s nothing quite like a city break to the Big Apple for getting into the holiday spirit. Make like the feel-good holiday films and go window shopping along Fifth Avenue and ice skating at the Rockefeller Center or in Central Park. Strolling around Manhattan, you can enjoy the novelty of the heated sidewalks before stocking up on festive foods at Trader Joe’s. Over in Brooklyn, meanwhile, myriad boutiques allow you to buy one-off Christmas gifts to take home. The city also has all sorts of light displays, including the mile-long Lightscape at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and a Chinese-inspired Winter Lantern Festival at Queens County Farm.
Stay: The Hoxton, Williamsburg, visit thehoxton.com
Surrounded by mountains on one side and sea on the other, Oslo ticks all the boxes for traditional colourful buildings and cutting-edge contemporary architecture. Compact yet cultural, you’ll find world-class museums and a booming modern art scene on your doorstep, as well as wintry strolls around one of Europe’s most walkable cities. Near-constant darkness during the winter months is made up for by that inimitable Scandi cosiness, and all sorts of indoor activities. It’s also one of the world’s greenest cities, with excellent public transport and a diverse food scene that’s leading the way in sustainability. The best time for snowy weather is actually January and February, when you can take a day trip for skiing or sledging.
This dreamy port town on the Atlantic coast is only a three-hour drive from Marrakech, but it’s a world away in terms of pace of life. Like Marrakech, the beautiful port town also stays in the high teens or early twenties all year round. Think blue and white houses, palm-lined avenues and cobbled streets, stylish riads and a bohemian surf community. For a small seaside town, Essaouira also has a dynamic and diverse food scene, with plenty of farm-to-table restaurants and cocktail bars.
Stay: Heure Bleue Palais, visit heure-bleue.com
Winter is one of the most underrated times to visit Tuscany’s Renaissance capital, which enjoys a fraction of the visitors and the chance to admire artistic treasures without the insufferable heat of July and August. Gelato is replaced with ultra-rich hot chocolate, cioccolata calda, from spots like Pasticceria Buonamici and Cortese 900. The smell of roasted chestnuts drifts from street vendors around Piazza della Repubblica, and trattorias serve hearty dishes like tagliatelle al cinghiale (pasta with wild boar ragù). Via Tornabuoni is an excellent upmarket street for picking up Italian Christmas gifts, while there’s also a traditional Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce. From January to March, you’ll find a whole programme of events taking place – from white truffle festivals to live jazz nights, museum lates to Pitti Uomo men’s fashion week.
Stay: 25Hours Hotel, visit 25hours-hotels.com
Seville’s Mediterranean climate makes for a short-haul city break with a far milder winter than many European cities. February and March are a perfect time to soak up a bit of much-needed winter sunshine while you explore the city’s unique medley of Roman, Christian and Muslim architecture, with temperatures in the teens. The main bonus of travelling at this time of year, aside from avoiding the 40ºC summer heat, is the lack of crowds, meaning you can hit the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, hard-to-book restaurants and superb architecture all on your own.
Stay: CoolRooms Palacio Villapanés, visit coolrooms.com
As the world’s most northerly capital, Reykjavík is the place to go for wintery pursuits. Lit by the glow of Christmas lights, the quirky and creative city centre is seeing something of a culinary resurgence, with cool cafes, a buzzing nightlife and epic music scene. A short drive outside the city will give you amazing access to the Northern Lights on certain clear nights, while the crisp air is a welcome break from more congested cities. Less than an hour from Reykjavík, meanwhile, you’ll reach the world-famous Blue Lagoon for a day of pampering.
Stay: The Reykjavík Edition, visit editionhotels.com