Winter doesn’t mean you have to be bundled inside and not go anywhere. Instead, it’s the perfect time to explore destinations while fewer tourists are about, and winter can give a whole different perspective to a place. Eastern Europe with its beautiful cities and plentiful Christmas markets are the perfect choice for a winter trip. These cities located in the eastern and central, or even northern part of Europe, according to the UN, but they’re a great starting point for exploring more of Eastern Europe in winter. Sure it’s cold, but pack your coat, hat, and scarf, and consider some of the following as travel destinations this winter!
1. Budapest, Hungary
The capital city of Hungary straddles the Danube River. The hilly Buda side gives beautiful views over the flat side of Pest, dominated by the enormous Parliament Building.
Budapest in winter still provides a chance to see the main sites of the city and experience the Ruins Pubs at night, quirky bars set up in abandoned buildings across the city.
A trip to one of the numerous Roman Baths is a Budapest must do. There is nothing quite like tiptoeing over the freezing tiles to take a dip in the thermal outdoor pool at the Szechenyi Baths as the sun goes down.
Not to mention the Chimney Cake, or Kurtoskalacs, cake wound around a cylinder and baked over hot coals, before being dusted with sugar and sometimes walnut or cinnamon! I’ve stuffed my face with this in a few places now, but the best was the genuine article from the Christmas Markets in Budapest.
2. Prague, Czech Republic
The colourful Baroque Buildings of Prague’s Old Town Square are worth the visit at any time of year, but during the early winter months, they surround one of the best Christmas Markets in Europe.
Traditional warm drinks like mulled wine, mead, and grog are available, as well as a honey liquor.
There are all sorts of different food options to try, from the more traditional Prague Ham smoked over an open flame, and grilled cheese with jam and bread, to the newer influences like Langos, a Hungarian flatbread topped with cheese and sauce, and a Czech version of crepes.
Added to this are all the usual delights of Prague, from the Charles Bridge lined with statutes of 30 saints to the Prague astronomical clock, the oldest working clock of its kind in the world. If you visit outside of the Christmas Market season you can still expect to warm up with delicious dumpligs and stew in many of the restaurants. There are so many wonderful things to see in Prague Old Town!
3. Bucharest, Romania
The snow transforms Bucharest in winter and allows you to see a completely different side of one of the best cities in Romania. Gone is the outdoor furniture from the streets, replaced by piles of snow instead! Everything slows down in Bucharest in winter, and while it’s definitely cold, there are plenty of wonderful places to warm up. Try a one of the cosy tea houses, or Carturesti Carusel, a huge bookstore. Cismigiu Park is like a winter wonderland, covered in snow, and it has an ice-skating rink in the middle of it too!
If you want to explore further, consider the Palace of Parliament, which is the second biggest building in the world after the Pentagon, or visit one of the charming churches during the day or night.
4. Dresden, Germany
Dresden is usually known for the spectacular rebuild after the devastation of WWII. The Frauenkirche, a baroque style church which you would never know had been reconstructed, but for some of the bricks being slightly blackened by fire, is at the centre of this city.
The Dresdener Striezelmarkt lays claim to being the oldest Christmas market in Germany and is one of the most traditional.
The main square holds stalls filled with real traditional handmade Christmas gifts like candleholders, glass blown decorations, lace, textiles and pottery, much of it from the local area, and the stalls themselves are brilliantly decorated.
Dresden Christollen is the main food to try, a traditional German bread originally made here.
It’s also worth noting Dresden can be visited on a day trip from Prague by train!
5. Vienna, Austria
Vienna, home of artists like Mozart and Beethoven, palaces, museums, and amazing historic and contemporary buildings.
In the winter these sites can all still be enjoyed, and viewed from one of the many horse-drawn carriages dotting the streets.
Once again there are numerous Christmas markets if you go in the 6 weeks before the event, so many so I couldn’t choose a favourite, although the one outside the Rathaus had the most delicious filled donuts the size of my head!
I visited on a cold and rainy day, but the grand buildings and the atmosphere were not diminished by the grey and as the lights came on early in the evening the city lit up magically.
Vienna is only a 2-hour train ride from the next destination, so both could easily be visited together.
6. Tallinn, Estonia
Although the UN declared Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia northern European countries, I had to at least include one of them as a winter destination, since it’s close to the others on the list! Winter is when Tallinn is at it’s most charming, with snow sprinkling the rooftops of the Old Town. Throughout most of the winter, Estonia will be relatively quiet, and you can wander many of the eerily quiet streets almost alone. Listen to the church bells and explore the small alleyways. Just be sure to pack for the winter!
If you visit in December then you’ll see a few more people, thanks to the Christmas holidays. Marzipan is a popular treat at the Christmas markets, and of course, you’ll need a mug or two of mulled wine to warm up! You can also try numerous other Estonian winter foods (many involving blood, like blood sausages or blood pancakes!). Work it all off ice-skating on Harju Street or sledding down Lauluväljak!
7. Bratislava, Slovakia
The charming city of Bratislava is also found on the banks of the Danube river. The old town is pedestrian only and has a number of unique and lively bars and cafes. A short walk up a hill nearby is the castle of Bratislava.
There might be a bit of theme here, but once again there is a great Christmas Market in the Old Town square. This market is especially fun at night when it becomes crowded with revellers enjoying the entertainment while they crowd around heaters and drink a number of varieties of mulled wine to keep warm. The food and drink are also fairly cheap, making it a great budget winter destination.
If eating and drinking outdoors in winter isn’t really your thing, or you visit outside the market time then the numerous eateries in the old town will have something for everyone. My favourite was the sweet or savoury crepes from a little hole in the wall cafe!
8. Sofia, Bulgaria
If you’re shivering just thinking about visiting Bulgaria in winter, then consider this: Bulgaria has some of the most affordable skiing and snowboarding there is! It’s well worth visiting Sofia in winter, where you can get the best of both worlds, the city life and the outdoors that it. Vitosha mountain is located 20 minutes from the city centre, and you’ll find smaller and less crowded ski resorts close by as well.
When you’ve had enough of the slopes, you can return to Sofia and warm up with some delicious Bulgarian food, or with Rakiya (brandy) or mulled wine at the Christmas market (yes… I have mentioned this everywhere, but it’s so good!). Visiting in winter means there’s no need to feel guilty about spending some of your time indoors, exploring Bulgaria’s 8000-year history in the museums or go to the board games bar that has over 150 board games.
9. Krakow, Poland
Krakow has so many sites to offer, whether you visit in summer or winter. Visit Wawel Castle and the Old Town, or head to the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) to explore and see what was once Oskar Schindler’s Factory, and is now a really great museum about Krakow in the lead up to and during the war.
If you have the time there are day tours to the Wieliczka Salt Mine with its amazing carved paintings made from salt, and an entire salt chapel underground, complete with salt chandelier.
Don’t miss trying the Pierogi! We found a 24-hour pierogi place not far from the Old Town Square, with the menu consisting of colour paper hung on clipboards strung along the wall. They had both savoury and sweet options, and I could easily eat every meal there without complaint.
Nearby to Krakow is Auschwitz, which can be visited on a tour or is easy to get to on your own. Going to a place like this can be very difficult, and visiting in winter really brings out the horror of the conditions the people held there had to endure.
10. Berlin, Germany
Berlin is geographically in the east of Europe so I’m including it on this list, although technically it’s more central and now it may be more associated with the west!
I’ve heard fantastic things about Berlin in the summer, but when I had the chance to visit last winter I wasn’t about to say no because of the season. There are fewer tourists at that time, probably because it was at times freezing, but the numerous free museums offer an excellent refuge from the elements! They are also some of the best museums I’ve been to.
Of special note is the Tranenpalast or Palace of Tears, a museum made at Friedrichstrasse Station, the former border crossing between East and West Germany.
Other Berlin sites include Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag Building, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Potsdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz (both of which have great Christmas Markets!) and of course the Berlin Wall, found at different places all over the city.
The East Side Gallery is where the wall has been painted with stunning art and messages by artists from around the world. I’d really recommend a visit to Bernauer Strasse, where you can see how the wall literally divided streets and families, and the Berlin Wall Memorial where you can view a preserved slice of no man’s land.
11. Lviv, Ukraine
I’ve opted for Lviv over Kiev, just by a smidge! It’s closer to the other cities on this Eastern Europe in winter list, and it’s well-known for it’s Christmas atmosphere, with numerous folk festivals and nativity shows. The distinctive churches and squares become home to numerous charming scenes and the city is like a fairytale come to life. Lviv is home to many different architectural styles and many different religious buildings. It’s truly a multinational city in the west of Ukraine.
Also, Lviv is known as the chocolate capital of Ukraine. Need I say more? Maybe that it’s also the coffee capital, so you’ll be able to warm up with almost any style of coffee you can imagine in one of its many cafes. And of course, there’s a Christmas market…
I’ve purposely stuck to mostly capital cities that will give you a proper wintery feeling, but there are so many opportunities to explore outside of these too! The ski fields in many of these countries are extremely well priced, and mountain villages are sure to give you the real charm of visiting Eastern Europe in winter. Then there’s always the option to head south where it’s a little warmer, and experience somewhere like Dubrovnik or Kotor in the quieter winter season.
Just don’t think winter in Europe means you need to stay inside and not travel, especially when there are so many places to get great mulled wine to warm up. Just remember to pack your winter travel gear!!!
Have you visited Eastern Europe in winter? Is there somewhere I’ve missed or somewhere you like to travel in winter?
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