What are the best places to visit in Europe in December?
December is, hands down, one of the loveliest months to plan a European city break. While snow isn’t a given, festive cheer and yuletide festivities are always a guarantee. Christmas markets tend to crop up in late November and stick around until either Christmas Eve or just after New Year’s Eve.
But there’s much more to Europe in December than markets. Skiing is possible in some of the mountain ranges while cities generally have a ton of events as well as foodie and wellness opportunities.
This guide will shine a light on the places to visit in Europe in December for markets, winter sports, and maybe even a bit of hygge.
Best Places to Visit in Europe in December
Eggnog and mittens at the ready! These are the best places to visit in Europe in December with confirmed dates for this year’s Christmas markets where applicable.
1. Cologne, Germany
Seeing as Christmas markets sprung out of Germany, you can rest assured that the nation continues to hold true to the tradition. Christmas in Germany is a wonderful thing to experience.
Cologne is one of the best European cities to visit in December for Christmas markets. The 2022 offerings will launch on 23 November and close for the season on 24 December.
Principal markets are sited in front of Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) and the Old Market (Alter Markt). However, there are dozens scattered across the Innenstadt that you will stumble upon. Follow your nose whenever you catch a whiff of gingerbread, mulled wine, or sizzling sausages!
Meanwhile, the hop-on, hop-off Christmas Market Express takes the pressure off your feet by shuttling you around the markets.
Beyond the markets, you can easily fill one day in Cologne – at the very least! The city is the setting of one of the most impressive cathedrals in Europe. You’ll see Kölner Dom anyway while you’re at the main market, however, you can also climb the 533 steps to the top of the bell tower.
2. Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn is one of the more offbeat European cities to visit in December. This beautiful city on the Baltic Coast is one of the best-preserved medieval heritage centers in Europe. An impressive string of castles and churches with a fusion of architectural elements studs the defensive walls.
Temperatures can plummet as low as 23°F while daylight hours drop to six hours. However, Tallinn Old Town (Tallinna vanalinn) is illuminated with warming lights in the lead-up to Christmas while taverns entice with Estonian kali and craft cocktails.
Besides, Old Town Square is swallowed up by its annual and award-winning Christmas market. Food stalls are the typical spread of soul-stirring hot wine and cider and pork with sauerkraut as well as Estonian potato salad.
At the heart of the action stands a giant spruce twinkling with baubles and lights. A Christmas tree has been erected here since 1441 – making Tallinn officially the first European country to display a Christmas tree.
This year’s market will run from 25 November 2022 until 8 January 2023. At the same time, you will find an ice skating rink on Harju Street.
3. Val Thorens, France
So where is one of the most reliable places to visit in Europe in December if you want to see some snow? Or even, hit the slopes?
As Europe’s highest ski resort, Val Thorens gives you the greatest odds. Located at an altitude of 2,300 meters, the highest runs extend to 3,230 meters. The season generally kicks off in late November; the launch date for 2022 is 19 November.
Ski slopes accommodate novices through to advanced skiers seeking to go off-piste. Pro-skiers can clock panoramic views across France, Switzerland, and Italy from the Cime de Caron peak before flying down a choice of three red and black runs.
Meanwhile, the après scene at Val Thorens is exemplary, with lively bars and gourmet dining. Resort accommodation spans chalets, apartments, and hotels.
Note that in general, the ski season in the majority of European ski resorts starts after Christmas.
4. Hallstatt, Austria
In terms of soaring mountain views with minimal effort, Hallstatt is one of the best places to visit in Europe in December.
The postcard-pretty village is located on the western banks of Lake Hallstatt (Hallstätter See). Its center is small and walkable, with a sequence of viewpoints and photo spots along the shoreside. Market Square hosts an annual one-day Christmas market with this year’s event taking place on 8 December 2022.
For even better views, you can visit the Hallstatt Skywalk – a free observation deck next to the salt mines (Salzwelten). Admission to the salt mine carries a fee and you’ll need to ride the funicular up, both are available year-round.
Skiing near Hallstatt is dependent on the snowfall. Sometimes, there is sufficient powder in December but this varies from year to year. Visiting later in the month increases your likelihood of getting out on the runs.
Scenic gondolas and ski slope access at Dachstein Salzkammergut are touted to open for the winter season on 24 December 2022.
5. Vilnius, Lithuania
Another of the more offbeat European cities to visit in December has to be Vilnius. Much of your stay will be spent roaming the winding alleyways of Vilnius Old Town (Senamiestis). After all, you can appreciate the best things to do in Vilnius, such as Gediminas Castle Tower (Gedimino pilies bokštas), regardless of what the weather sends your way.
But, the jewel of your December visit will of course be the markets. The key ones occupy Cathedral Square (Katedros aikštė) and Town Hall Square (Rotušės aikštė). You’ll find that the former is more traditional in style while the latter has a more modern vibe. In fact, the trees reflect this too with the Town Hall Square one being more experimental.
This year’s dates are confirmed for 26 November 2022 until 8 January 2023. What’s especially great about the markets of Vilnius is that they have a cozier vibe in comparison with some of the larger ones in Western Europe.
In tandem with the market, you will find an ice skating rink at Lukiškių Square (Lukiškių aikštė). Plus, exploring the awesome bars in Vilnius is especially appealing on winter evenings. While snow isn’t guaranteed in Vilnius, it’s one of the cities where chances are slightly higher.
6. Bruges, Belgium
As the producer of some of the best chocolate in the world (sorry, Switzerland), Bruges deserves recognition for being one of the best places to visit in Europe in December – for hot chocolate! Chocolate shops are more common than ATMs, and there is even a museum devoted to the moreish treat.
Medieval-style The Old Chocolate House is one of the classic picks for hot chocolate. Despite the hype, the quality does not disappoint. However, it does get pretty busy so you might prefer to stray a little further afield and check out Tea-Room De Proeverie.
Naturally, life in Bruges during December revolves around the yuletide market in Market Square (Grote Markt). Flanked by the distinct townhouses that make Bruges resemble a holiday card at any time of year, this one is especially scenic. This year’s market is in the diary for 25 November 2022 until 8 January 2023.
However, do tap on a side visit to the Christmas boutiques Bruges is known for. There are two directly opposite the Bruges Beer Experience on Breidelstraat where you can pick up whimsical trinkets to take home.
Bruges is one of the most romantic winter European destinations. Bundle up in your woolens and take a brisk stroll north of the town center to visit the windmills. Hoist yourselves up the Belfry for frosty views then split a portion of mussels and French fries washed down with a flight of Belgium beer – delicious.
7. London, UK
London is one of the European cities to visit in December for a little bit of everything. There are tons of great unique things to do in London.
Holiday film screenings, window shopping, yuletide markets, festive afternoon tea menus, and wintery events take place throughout the month in the run-up to Christmas.
One of the most popular markets is located at the London Southbank, right next to the London Eye. However, if you venture further east to More London at London Bridge and the Tate Modern, these markets are generally quieter. For thrills, check out Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland.
London’s epic (and free) museums are a pure delight year-round but the addition of a pop-up ice rink only earns a few extra brownie points for the Natural History Museum. Furthermore, if you splash out on one exhibition while in London, make it the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year – open in late October.
And when I say London has it all, you can even ski! Skieasy in Chiswick might not have mountains but it more than makes up for that with a great environment and precise instruction from the ski trainers.
8. Nuremberg, Germany
Sited in the Hauptmarkt and connecting streets, Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt is one of Europe’s best Christmas markets.
Occurring since 1628, the organizers stay as faithful as possible to the original event. Food revolves around Nuremberg Bratwurst and the town’s iconic gingerbread.
Each year, a local woman adopts the role of the Nuremberg Christkind. Donning a long white gown and a golden crown, she makes appearances at the fair and spreads goodwill among the visiting families.
This year’s Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt will open with its usual ceremony on 26 November and conclude on Christmas Eve.
Beyond being one of the best European cities to visit in winter for markets, you can check out the rest of the historic attractions in this picturesque town.
Also in the Hauptmarkt, the aptly named Beautiful Fountain (Schöner Brunnen) sits in front of the humble yet splendid Frauenkirche.
Kaiserburg Nürnberg (the Imperial Castle of Nuremberg) grants a unique perspective of the city and is worth the climb.
9. Verbier, Switzerland
Verbier is another contender for the best places to visit in Europe in December for early bird skiing. As with Val Thorens, the resort opens in late November – with this year’s opening slated for 19 November 2022.
This alpine village is the gateway to the 4 Vallées ski area, which includes Thyon, Veysonnaz, and Nendaz. Certain runs on the Mont Fort Glacier grant a glimpse of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc.
Although typically associated with advanced runs and off-piste adventures, there is a selection of nursery slopes and ski schools for newbies.
With its glamorous image and posh clientele, Verbier is an expensive pick for a ski getaway. However, it is one of the best options for skiing in December if you have the funds.
10. Budapest, Hungary
Bisected by the River Danube, Budapest is divided into two distinct cities in miniature: Buda and Pest.
Pest is the side where you’ll want to base yourself during your winter stay. Vörösmarty Square Market holds the main Christmas market with a smorgasbord of lángos, goulash (gulyás) soup, and chimney cake (Kürtőskalács).
Meanwhile, the square in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István Bazilikaoccupies) is another contender with its wonderful light projections.
Over on the Buda side, you can explore the historic attractions of Fisherman’s Bastion (Halászbástya) and Buda Castle (Budai Vá). The architecture in Budapest is truly unique.
Although Budapest’s thermal baths are a year-round attraction nothing beats the experience of getting that contrast of temperature during the winter months. Head to the Széchenyi Baths (Széchenyi Gyógyfürdő és Uszoda) for the open-air experience.
Prices start at a very respectable 7,100 HUF (17 USD) making Budapest one of the best budget-friendly winter European destinations.
11. Edinburgh, UK
With its endless supply of pubs, museums, and galleries – you’ll not fail to have a fantastic time in Edinburgh even in the coldest months.
Edinburgh is one of the best places to visit in Europe in December for New Year’s Eve when Hogmanay grips the city. Hogmanay is the Scottish celebration of New Year. It follows a similar vein to elsewhere in the UK, but the Edinburgh version is huge – often declared the best place in Europe to ring in a new year.
Hogmanay in Edinburgh is an open-air festival in Princes Street Gardens that runs for three days, culminating on 31 December. Highlights generally include traditional ceilidh dancing and music, fireworks, food stalls, and a procession by torchlight.
The event is ticketed with the release going out in October; it’s recommended to sign up for newsletters to stay abreast with the street party.
12. Tromsø, Norway
If you are interested in seeing the Northern Lights during a European trip this December, Tromsø, Norway is one of the most reliable places you can go to see them.
Located only three and a half hours from London, it’s easy to get to and will be one of the most unforgettable trips you ever take.
While seeing the Northern Lights anywhere in the world is never guaranteed, the lights have been seen in Tromsø between September and April, so coming in the middle of that period in December increases your chances even further.
You can also expect not to see the sun while you are visiting this city in Europe in December. It’s called Polar night and it lasts from the 27th of November to the 15th of January. The sun doesn’t come up at all during this time period. That alone is worth experiencing in my opinion.
But besides seeing the Northern Lights (and no sun!), there are quite a lot of things to do in Tromso including seeing the Arctic Cathedral and whale watching in the Polar night twilight.
13. Finnish Lapland
Do you want to see Santa Claus and where he lives? Then you should plan to visit Finnish Lapland in December.
Whether you are traveling with kids or you’re just a kid at heart, Finnish Lapland is one of the best places to visit in Europe in December.
Santa Claus’ village is near the town of Rovaniemi and is located in the Arctic Circle which means it will be very cold, however, it also means you get to visit the Arctic Circle!
You can ride snowmobiles, chat with Santa, see his reindeer, or hang out with dog sledding huskies. It’s also one of the best places in Europe in December to see the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights.
You can read more about the village and all of the things to do there on their website here.
14. Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen is one of the most magical places to visit in Europe in December.
Denmark is where the word hygge comes from. Hygge is defined in English as the “quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”
It is exactly what you want in winter and it is easy to find in Copenhagen in December. Cafes have tables outside with blankets so that you can enjoy that fresh winter air, chat with friends, and still stay warm.
One of the best things about Copenhagen in December is visiting Tivoli Gardens. The amusement park is located right in the center of Copenhagen and during the month of December it transforms into a winter wonderland with fun events, shows, and markets to explore. You can check the schedule and book tickets on their website.