The Best Places to Visit in Europe in December

The 15 Best Places to Visit in Europe in December (2024)

From Christmas markets and carol concerts to polar nights and winter sunshine, December is one of the most diverse times to visit Europe. Head north and you can experience the cold chill of an Arctic winter in remote destinations like Tromso or Reykjavik, while in Finnish Lapland, a trip to Rovaniemi will bring you to the mysterious “home” of Santa Claus and his many reindeer. 

See in the New Year in style by experiencing the Scottish tradition of Hogmanay in Edinburgh, soak up the thermal waters in Budapest, and gorge on beer and frites in Bruges for a perfect December break. And if you need a little sunshine, then the Canary Islands are never too far from the Spanish mainland.

But no list of the best places to visit in Europe in December is ever complete without plenty of festive market recommendations. We’ve got you sorted, with historic German Advent markets in Dresden and Nuremberg, and lesser-known markets in Zagreb and Strasbourg

With so many places to travel in Europe in December, you might not know where to begin. That’s why we’ve compiled our list of the absolute best European winter destinations for you. Stick to these fun and unique European getaways, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this beautiful part of the world. 

Don’t forget to check out our web story: The 15 Best Places to Visit in Europe in December

The 15 Best Places to Visit in Europe in December

1. Reykjavik, Iceland 

Places to Visit in Europe in December: Reykjavik, Iceland

Iceland is a land of extremes, and in winter, the days are incredibly short, the weather is freezing cold, and the landscapes are frozen solid. But don’t let that put you off. In fact, embrace the Icelandic extremes in December, and you’ll have an incredible time exploring this island nation at the “wrong” time of year.

We recommend basing yourself in Reykjavik, where the city very much continues to function, even with temperatures regularly dropping below freezing and no more than five hours of daylight on the longest day of the month. You’ll see a side of Iceland that’s far removed from those long summer days, which are by now a distant memory. 

December is the best time of year to see the Northern Lights, and you can join a tour out into the icy tundra around the Icelandic capital in search of this natural phenomenon. Icelanders are equipped with heavy-duty vehicles to beat the snow, and you can tour through the Golden Circle around Reykjavik, seeing the steaming geysers bursting from the ground and being awed by the frozen waters of Gullfoss. 

And if the cold starts to beat you, there’s nothing better than a dip in thermal waters. Reykjavik’s most famous spa is the Blue Lagoon, and while it’s certainly spectacular, it’s also very touristy. For a fraction of the price, you can visit the local public pools in Reykjavik, which are also all heated by geothermal energy. 


2. Nuremberg, Germany 

Places to Visit in Europe in December: Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg is one of the most classic places to visit in Europe in December, and although its Christmas market is one of the busiest in Europe, it’s easily one of our favorite festive experiences. 

Nuremberg is home to gorgeous medieval architecture, and throughout the Advent Season (from late November until Christmas Eve), the Old Town plays host to the centuries-old Christkindlesmarkt. Wooden stalls, carol singers, Christmas lights, and copious quantities of Gluhwein can be found in the Hauptmarkt, and the surrounding streets and squares, as Nurembergers embrace the festive spirit with due aplomb.

You’ll be visiting one of the oldest Christmas markets in the world, with a recorded history dating back to at least the 17th century, and possibly even earlier. There are some unusual traditions at the Christkindlesmarkt, the name of which translates into English as the “Christ Child Market.” 

Local women compete in the run-up to Advent to be selected as the Christ Child, a role which sees them dressed as a white angel in the market’s opening ceremony before making various other appearances throughout Advent. 

Once the market is opened, you can gorge on local dishes like the famous Nurnberger Rostbratwurst (grilled sausages) and lebkuchen (a type of local gingerbread) as you soak up the Christmas festivities in Germany.


3. Edinburgh, United Kingdom 

Things to do in Europe in December: Edinburgh, United Kingdom

One of the best places to travel in Europe in December is Edinburgh, a magnificent city that’s gearing up for its Christmas and New Year extravaganzas. 

The Scottish weather is notoriously bleak, and you’ll have to endure low temperatures and regular downpours as you explore the city’s best sights. Luckily, there’s always a cozy pub for you to jump into (try The World’s End), while Edinburgh’s traditional food is very much geared up for winter (try the haggis, of course). 

Edinburgh has a wealth of indoor attractions to see. Edinburgh Castle‘s ramparts might be windy, but the museums inside offer a fantastic insight into Scottish history. The National Museum of Scotland is an even deeper dive into the past, while Holyrood Palace and its stately rooms are an excellent place to learn more about the British Royal Family. 

Then there’s the Scottish Parliament, the Museum of Edinburgh, and of course, who can miss out on a visit to The Scotch Whisky Experience? Throughout December, Christmas markets pop up all over the city, including at the popular East Princes Street Gardens. Stay on for New Year’s and you can immerse yourself in Hogmanay, the traditional Scottish way to round off the old and see in the new. 


4. Bruges, Belgium

Europe in December: Bruges, Belgium

Bruges is a fairytale European destination, and if you’re lucky with the winter weather, you may even get to see this Belgian city covered in layers of snow. In particularly cold winters, the city’s canals have even been known to freeze solid, adding to the wintry allure you’re searching for.

Throw tall Christmas trees, carol singers, and Advent light shows into the mix, and you’ve got yourself one of the best places to visit in Europe in December. Market Square in the center of Brugge is thrown over to traditional Christmas market stalls, and you can browse for gifts and souvenirs as you enjoy a warm mug of mulled wine.

Things to do in Europe in December: Bruges, Belgium

There’s a smaller market at Stevinplein, too, while a trip to the Minnewater ice rink has long been a favored Christmas excursion. Bruges is famed for its beers and frites, and in December, you’ll love snuggling up on a heated terrace or in front of a roaring fire as you sample the best brews in the city. For frites, head to the quirky Fritemuseum, where you can learn all about the history of this classic Belgian take on French fries. 


5. Ljubljana, Slovenia 

Europe in December: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, with its dragon bridges and turquoise river, is one of our favorite European cities, and December is a surprisingly fun time to visit. Although temperatures can drop below freezing, you’ll love the crisp winter air as you stroll along the tall river banks or take a cruise along the Ljubljanica River.

Ride the funicular to Ljubljana Castle, where you’ll have spectacular views over the red roofs of the city. If it’s raining, pop into the National Museum of Contemporary History or the Slovenian Ethnographic Museum, and if the rain holds off, then explore the street art and galleries of the Metelkova District, a former military district that’s been transformed into a quirky base for artists, activists, and musicians. 

Ljubljana throws itself wholeheartedly into the Christmas spirit, and you can visit the festive markets at Preseren Square, where you can try seasonal Slovenian treats like potica (a sweet, festive bread) while warming up with a hot mug of mulled wine. Slovenian cuisine is hearty and wholesome, too, and you’ll love digging into a big bowl of jota (a stew) or a steaming plate of Štruklji (dumplings) in the cold evenings. 

You can even take a day trip from Ljubljana to Lake Bled, which is just an hour’s drive north of the Slovenian capital. Hidden away in the Julian Alps, this alpine lake is glorious in the winter, when its mountain peaks are capped with snow. 


6. Dresden, Germany 

Europe in December: Dresden, Germany

Dresden is home to one of the best Christmas market experiences in Europe. This historic German town has hosted its Striezelmarkt since 1434, making this the oldest Christmas market in the world.

Back then, the Striezelmarkt was a simpler one-day market held at some point in the week leading up to Christmas. The market was named after the struzel that was sold here, a specific type of stollen cake that’s eaten in Dresden at Christmas time. 

Today, the Striezelmarkt has expanded over nearly six centuries into a festive market that hosts upwards of 200 stalls in and around the Altmarkt, in Dresden’s old town, for the entire Advent period. It’s busy, it’s historic, it’s fun, and you can enjoy traditional struzel alongside a hot mug of Gluhwein! 


7. Tromso, Norway 

Places to Visit in Europe in December: Tromso, Norway

For a seriously unique December experience, why not catch a flight to the Arctic Circle? That might sound just a little crazy, but the winter season is one of the most impressive times to visit Tromso, Norway’s Arctic capital.

Located deep within the Arctic Circle, it’s a 2-hour flight from Oslo to Tromso. Oslo will seem positively tropical in comparison to Tromso, but you’ll quickly fall in love with the unusual way of life eked out this far north.

Daylight is almost nonexistent this time of year, but you’ll come to appreciate the almost ephemeral glow that accompanies the sun’s ragged attempts to rise above the horizon. The city, home to some 65,000 people even in the winter, is surrounded by ice-free fjords, which are spectacular in December. Take a boat cruise in search of the Northern Lights (there’s no better time to see them!) and warm up later with a trip to the sauna. 

Tromso is very much a winter sports playground in December, with ample opportunities for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. You can also visit the local Sami people, many of whom still herd reindeer across the tundra. Join a Sami experience to learn about their distinct way of life, their language, and history while meeting the reindeer and enjoying Arctic activities like dogsledding. 


8. Zagreb, Croatia 

Places to Visit in Europe in December: Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, the understated Croatian capital, is one of the best places to travel in Europe in December. Zagreb might sit at the crossroads of Central and Southern Europe, but despite having a colorful history that’s been shaped by the Romans, Slavs, Habsburgs, and Yugoslavians, the city is almost always overlooked in the summer months.

Tourists prefer the beaches and islands of Croatia’s Adriatic coastline and ancient walled cities like Split and Dubrovnik. But in the winter, Zagreb really comes into its own, as the city’s squares are filled with festive markets and Christmas cheer (head to Ban Josipa Jelačića Square and King Tomislav Square).

Have your fill of mulled wine and seasonal Croatian treats like fritule (a type of sugary donut), then escape the chill as you tour through Zagreb’s best museums. Start with the curious Museum of Broken Relationships, get nostalgic at the Zagreb ‘80s museum, and explore Yugoslavian art at the Croatian Museum of Naive Art


9. Rovaniemi, Finland 

Europe in December: Rovaniemi, Finland

Ask the Finns, and without hesitation, they’ll tell you that, yes, Santa Claus does exist. And how can they be so sure? Well, Finnish people know that Santa Claus lives in Lapland, where there’s an entire city dedicated to Christmas. 

With savvy marketing, Finnish Lapland cornered the Christmas tourist market when they built the Santa Claus Village in 1985. Located just outside of Rovaniemi, a remote city in northern Finland, you can meet Santa, meet the reindeer, and cross the Arctic Circle, which runs through the center of the village.

It’s the perfect place to find that Christmas cheer, and given how close you are to the Arctic Circle, it’s a guaranteed white December. Rovaniemi has become a trendy winter break destination in recent years, and in addition to visiting Santa Claus Village, you can meet reindeer herders, learn about the Sami way of life, ride snowmobiles, and learn how to dog sled, too!


10. Budapest, Hungary

Europe in December: Budapest, Hungary

Budapest is a fantastic city to visit no matter the season, but we particularly enjoy the Hungarian capital in December. 

We love the festive hubbub in the city’s Christmas markets, where huge portions of hot goulash are served in enormous, hollowed-out bread bowls. There’s pork knuckle, kolbasz sausages, and chimney cakes, while the mulled wine and palinka (a local type of schnapps) are free-flowing in the winter air.

Wrap up warm and you can spend your getaway bouncing from one market to the next. Start in Vorosmarty Square, where you can find the biggest market in Budapest, stroll along to St. Stephen’s Basilica, where carol singers liven the streets, and then cross the Danube to Buda, where traditional Hungarian gifts are sold on the hill from wooden market stalls. 

Budapest can get cold in December, with temperatures frequently dropping to lows of 0°C. That makes the city’s famous thermal baths all the more welcome, and you’ll love dipping into the warm waters of the Gellert Thermal Bath or enjoying the delightful contrast of the heated outdoor pools at the Széchenyi Baths, which are the largest in Budapest.


11. Canary Islands, Spain

Places to Visit in Europe in December: Canary Islands, Spain

So far, we’ve focused on the classic wintery experiences you can enjoy in Europe, but we know that not everyone enjoys the cold. In fact, some people just want to escape the colder climes of northern Europe and find themselves a little winter sun in December.

If that’s you, then you’ll want to book yourself a flight to the Canary Islands. Although they’re part of Spain, the Canary Islands are located a good two-hour flight south of Madrid, and they’re closer to Africa than they are to mainland Europe. The islands – of which there are eight, including Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and La Gomera – are very much Spanish in character, having been ruled by Spain since the 15th century. 

The Canary Islands are positively warm in December, with temperatures reaching highs of 21°C or 70°F (compare that to Iceland, Norway, or Finland, where temperatures rarely rise above freezing!). You can score great deals on flights and resorts, which are much quieter in the low season, and you might even find it warm enough to take a dip in the sea. 


12. Zermatt, Switzerland 

Places to Visit in Europe in December: Zermatt, Switzerland

If you love snowcapped mountains and winter scenes, Zermatt is one of the coolest places to visit in Europe in December. This is one of Switzerland‘s most iconic mountain getaways, and the small town of some 6,000 people sits at an altitude of 1,620 meters (5,315 feet) above sea level.

This means that in December, you can expect Zermatt to already have a smattering of snow. The town sits in the shadow of the famed Matterhorn, a distinctive mountain peak that rises to a height of 4,478 meters (14,692 feet). 

Although the Matterhorn is Switzerland’s most recognizable mountain, Zermatt is, in fact, surrounded by other, higher mountains, too, including Monte Rosa, which at 4,634 meters (15,203 feet) is the highest mountain in the country.

You can learn about the history of Zermatt and its association with mountaineering at the Matterhorn Museum before taking the cable car to Klein Matterhorn, which sits at an altitude of 3,883 meters (12,740 feet). In December, the ski season might just be starting, in which case you can rent a chalet and hit the slopes of the Swiss Alps. 

Zermatt really is an adventure playground, and you can try your hand at everything from mountaineering to tobogganing. The town is also located at the end of the Glacier Express, one of the most spectacular mountain train rides in Europe. 


13. Vienna, Austria

Places to Visit in Europe in December: Vienna, Austria

Vienna is a dream in winter, which is why the Austrian capital is one of the best places to go in Europe in December. 

Vienna’s festive season is already in full swing, as the city’s Christmas markets will already have opened to great fanfare at the end of November. The Advent Season in Austria is long but eventful, and the build-up to Christmas sees Vienna’s public squares packed out daily with market stalls and carol singers.

Head to the Rathausplatz, Vienna’s main square, and you can indulge in Gluhwein in front of the city’s historic town hall. Ice skating is a particularly popular winter pastime in Vienna, and the Rathausplatz is also home to one of the best outdoor ice rinks during the Christmas season. 

Special Advent concerts are held within St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where you’ll enjoy not only a celebration of all things Christmas but a celebration of Europe’s classical composers, including the likes of Mozart and Bach.

And of course, there are countless historical and cultural attractions you can also visit in Vienna in December. The Schoenbrunn Palace hosts its own festivities, for example, while Belvedere Palace, the Sigmund Freud Museum, and the Leopold Museum are must-visits. As you explore Vienna, you might even run into a Krampus, the terrifying anti-Santa from European folklore that runs riot during Advent! 


14. Copenhagen, Denmark

Europe in December: Copenhagen, Denmark

Denmark‘s cozy hygge concept comes into its own in the long winter months, and once you’ve embraced the lifestyle, you’ll quickly see why this is one of the best places to go in Europe in December. 

In Copenhagen, it’s not only the festive season, but the “hygge season,” as Danes wrap themselves up in woolen jumpers, hats, scarves, and socks before warming up next to a roaring fire. 

Wrap up warm yourself and you can brave the chill temperatures to explore the Danish capital’s Christmas markets, while Tivoli World is transformed into a veritable winter wonderland in December. The canals of Nyhavn occasionally freeze over, while ice skating rinks, winter saunas, and festive food markets are plentiful all over Copenhagen. 


15. Strasbourg, France 

Things to do in Europe in December: Strasbourg, France

One of our top places to visit in Europe in December is Strasbourg, a French city by the German border that’s home to the European Parliament. 

But while you can take a tour through the parliament buildings and learn all about Strasbourg’s cross-border history (the city changed hands between France and Germany countless times in centuries past), in December, you’re really here for the Christmas market. 

Strasbourg’s Germanic influences (the city sits on the banks of the River Rhine, which is the border with Germany) ensure that the Christmas market tradition is strong here. The city has hosted a market since 1570, and it’s now one of the oldest in France, if not one of the oldest in all of Europe.

Different markets sprawl across the city these days, but the most traditional are focused around Cathedral Square, where you’ll find countless wooden stalls offering everything from mulled wine to Christmas tree decorations.

There you have it! The 15 best places to visit in Europe in December. What’s your favorite European destination to visit in December?


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Author

  • Richard Collett

    Richard is an award-winning travel writer based in Southwest England who’s addicted to traveling off the beaten track. He’s traveled to 75 countries and counting in search of intriguing stories, unusual destinations, and cultural curiosities.

    Richard loves traveling the long way round over land and sea, and you’ll find him visiting quirky micronations and breakaway territories as often as he’s found lounging on a beach (which is a lot).

    When he’s not writing for BBC Travel, National Geographic, or Lonely Planet, you can find Richard writing for the Wandering Wheatleys or updating his off-beat travel blog, Travel Tramp.

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