Noticed how every year, Christmas seems to start earlier? This year, in many parts of Europe, it started to surface in October (along with Halloween decorations): lights, trees and garlands are already gracing streets and windows in many of the most beautiful European cities as romantic Christmas markets, picturesque ski resorts, Christmas and New Year’s festivities get the finishing touches for an unforgettable holiday season.
Then there are the lists of the ‘best Christmas festivities’, ‘best Christmas markets’, ‘must-have end-of-year travel experiences’ t0 help guide your decisions if you’re planning to travel to Europe to finish this eventful 2022.
Here, based on some of the most reliable sources, I offer ten of the best recommended destinations for a truly memorable winter experience on the old continent.
Among the top “25 Travel Experiences You Must Have” put together by a five-person jury at the New York Times, the region of Andalusia in the south of Spain appears prominently.
With its mild weather of ‘almost-summer sunshine’, fewer tourists (except at Christmas), golden sandy beaches along its long coast, the white summits of the Sierra Nevada, famed cities full of legendary heritage and a wealth of special celebrations, parades and carnivals, Andalusia is definitively one for the bucket list.
Starting with the architectural treasures left by the Islamic civilization during the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula from the 8th to the 11th centuries that include Seville’s Alcázar Palace, the Mezquita-Catedral of Córdoba and the storied Alhambra in Granada “glittering in honeycomb muqarnas and moonlight-washed, waterway-threaded gardens.”
Then, from the centuries-long reign of the catholic church and monarchy that followed, the great cities of Andalusia “became spectacular palimpsests of divergent faiths superimposed on top of each other” evident in extraordinary monuments like Seville’s 15th-century Gothic-style cathedral — built on the footprint of an Almohad mosque whose graceful minaret was repurposed as a church tower — and Córdoba’s Renaissance cathedral that “bursts from the austere, rhythmic heart of the mezquita, itself built atop the remains of a sixth-century Visigothic basilica,” as explained by the New York Times.
“Beyond its beauty, Andalusia is a tribute to the indelible marks that cultures and communities leave on one another across time and space.”
Norway’s Northern Lights are another inescapable presence not only on the New York Times list.
The aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, is an elusive natural phenomenon as unpredictable as it is extraordinary that illuminates the sky “with dancing streaks of saturated yellow, pink, purple and green, a tangoing of solar gas and Earth’s magnetic field rendered in Technicolor.”
Places located where the Arctic Circle begins, some 66.5 degrees north of the equator, are considered prime viewing spots. Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia are top ones.
“Lofoten, an archipelago off Norway’s northwest coast, offers one of the most picturesque backdrops for witnessing this mercurial sight. There, a coastline framed by jagged peaks, sweeping fjords, sandy beaches and rorbu, old fishermen’s cabins painted cherry red and pine green, makes for a serene visit, day or night. Winters on the archipelago are long (November to April) and dark (for five weeks in December and January, the sun doesn’t even rise), so consider them a prime time to settle down on a north-facing beach (Unstad and Gimsøy are particularly beautiful) or sink into a hot tub at a heritage fishing lodge, neck craned skyward — and wait. The anticipation is half the fun,” writes Aileen Kwun in the Times.
And if you happen to be in Norway, there are two other winter destinations ranked high on many lists:
Bergen, like in ‘Frozen’
Bergen, Norway, known as the inspiration for Arandelle, the magical kingdom in Frozen, and also as the world’s biggest gingerbread town, “where you can pay a visit to many art museums, and aquariums, as well as go shopping in the nearby markets under a very special Christmas atmosphere,” is recommended by Schengenvisainfo.
Oslo, the beautiful Norwegian capital with unequaled and cheerful sites, Christmas trees, many winter activities like skiing and sledding at slopes located within a short ride and the most unique Christmas fair held at the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History should also be on the itinerary.
Rovaniemi: Santa’s town
“Rovaniemi, Finland, is the capital of Lapland and is known as Santa Claus’s hometown. It’s also where he keeps his office and welcomes people year-round. Visitors can get a unique passport stamp and send postcards directly from the Santa Claus post office.
Located in the Arctic, the place is also an excellent spot to watch the northern lights, one of nature’s most spectacular sights. Visitors can also go on a dog sled trip and learn more about the Lappish culture.”
The #1 spot on The Travel’s list is Transylvania, ‘A Surprisingly Romantic Destination’: “When visiting Romania, travelers should go beyond Bucharest and include Transylvania in their plans.
Bram Castle is also a must-see, year-round stop. But, but it looks especially magical when it’s snow-covered. The region has many other incredible towns, and those wanting to explore Christmas markets should head to Cluj, Sibiu and Brasov.
The region has excellent slopes at Poiana Brasov, where visitors can also enjoy spas and hot tubs. People dreaming of snow-capped villages should check Sighisoara, which UNESCO lists as a World Heritage Site.”
The Travel list includes two more unexpected destinations:
Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and the northernmost “capital in the world“ is the ultimate destination for nature lovers and arguably the most famous spot on the island, mainly during summer when the hot springs attract hundreds of tourists, the guide writes. “The city offers many activities all winter, including seeing the northern lights and diving into the geothermal spas that become even better when the temperature drops.”
Bled Lake, Slovenia
Bled Lake in Slovenia is one of the country’s most famous sights, renowned for its mild, healing climate and thermal lake water. The lake “becomes even more beautiful when it’s snow-covered,” according to The Travel. “It’s the perfect time to explore the area with almost no tourists and lower prices. For tourists visiting Lake Bled in December, there’s an excellent Christmas market where they can also try traditional foods and drinks.”
For many, Prague is among the most romantic cities in Europe — particularly magical in winter and included on most lists of the continent’s best Christmas markets.
The Czech Republic’s capital offers many ice skating rinks in the parks, castles and museums to visit with shorter lines than during the rest of the year and the famous Christmas markets.
“This year, celebrations for Christmas in Prague will begin on November 26 and end on January 6, 2023,” writes EBD. “During this time, the Old Town Square in the Czech capital will fill with wooden stalls, and merchants offering Christmas goods like mulled wine, hot roasted chestnuts, gingerbread biscuits or the typical food in Czechia – Christmas cookies or Czech grilled sausages.
The city is also well known for its spectacular Christmas tree, decorated with traditional Czech blown glass balls, a perfect setting for unforgettable photos to fill the book with this year’s memories.”
The main Christmas markets in Prague are held in the heart of the city – in Old Town Square as well as in Wenceslas Square. Smaller markets are also held at other locations.
Many destinations in France, with their enchanting Christmas markets, snare first places on many lists of the best in Europe and the world — and Colmar and Strasbourg are usually among the top.
This year, the Christmas market in Colmar opened on November 24, and visitors will be able to have an unforgettable experience until December 29.
Colmar has the ambience of a magical Old Town and when decorated for Christmas it’s like being in a fairy tale. The town center consists of various architectural treasures which blend wonderfully with the lighting especially designed to bring out the heritage of the town.
Strasbourg, a UNESCO world heritage site, is a beautiful city throughout the year, but when it dresses for Christmas, it becomes one of the most acclaimed in the world — its title of “Capital of Christmas” well earned.
The city’s “must-experience” Christmas market appears on practically every list of the ‘best in Europe’ and worldwide. It’s the oldest Christmas market in Europe, having started in 1570. Since then, the city has continued its tradition, remaining one of the top destinations to be visited during the Christmas period.
“Strasbourg, birthplace of Christmas celebrations, invites you on a true sensory journey,” writes EBD. “From the fairy-like lights to the delicious aromas, let yourself be carried away by the city’s warm atmosphere, marvel and wander around the 300 wooden chalets set up in the city’s historic centre. With its majestic Great Christmas Tree sporting a dress of lights, and its countless illuminated streets, the Capital of Christmas takes you into an enchanted and richly decorated city that will enthrall young and old.”
Along with Strasbourg, Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, has been repeatedly named Best Christmas holiday destination in Europe by European Best Destinations.
“Zagreb and Strasbourg (both thrice-awarded) are out of competition but still among the favorite Christmas destinations for travellers,” according to EBD. `’Zagreb is the only destination awarded the title of Best Christmas Market in Europe three consecutive times.”
Zagreb’s “magical offer” spread around the city includes a renowned ice skating rink on King Tomislav Square, food and drink kiosks that fill the cooler evening air with spicy aromas, music and art exhibits.
This year’s Advent includes a rich program of indoor and outdoor concerts and exhibitions that will run from now through January 7.
EBD’s Best Holidays Destinations
In partnership with more than 350 European tourist offices and the Eden network created by the European Commission to promote sustainable tourism, EBD releases its list of the 20 best holiday destinations based on the votes of thousands of travelers who placed more than 100 markets at the top of their rankings.
“The selected ones are not only alleys of chalets but cultural and artistic events with concerts, creative workshops, Christmas lights, fireworks, shows and ice rinks and are committed to sustainability, offering local food and artisanal products,” the organization explains.
This year’s list includes Budapest, Hungary, (twice voted Best Christmas holiday destination); Basel, Switzerland; Tallinn, Estonia; Metz, France; Brussels, Belgium; Vienna, Austria; Govone & Asti, Italy; Craiova, Romania; and Leipzig, Germany.