Every area of Europe celebrates the winter season differently, putting on time-honored festivities in cobblestone-lined streets and town squares with centuries of religious history. Eat, drink and be merry in any of these listed destinations with established Christmas and New Year’s events; whether you desire a sunny retreat or a snowy respite near the Alps, a memorable holiday is guaranteed in any European town with a cathedral and nutcrackers for sale.
Visit These 8 European Cities This December
One of Europe’s most iconic and celebrated major cities, Prague’s incredible bounty of UNESCO World Heritage landmarks, old-fashioned architecture and lovely Vltava River has tourists coming back year after year. In the winter, temperatures can get quite chilly (about 30 degrees Fahrenheit, on average), but with museums like Museum Kampa, the Prague Museum of Decorative Arts and the House of the Black Madonna, plenty of indoor fun is possible. Last-minute Christmas shopping couldn’t be easier, as there’s souvenir and artisan boutiques in every corner of town. On the holiday itself, make your experience a classy affair by seeing a performance at one of Prague’s famous theaters, like Laterna Magika or the National Marionette Theatre, or entertain your younger family members at the Christmas market at Old Town Square—a celebration featuring a huge, dazzling tree, a petting zoo and a Nativity scene.
Just a stone’s throw from France’s coast—a short ferry’s ride from St-Malo—is Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands (governed by the British Crown). Along with historical sites like the Jersey War Tunnels and postcard-ready castles (Mont Orguell and Elizabeth Castle), tourists love the 48-mile walking trail that encircles the whole of Jersey, above dramatic cliffs. St. Helier, Jersey’s capital and most populous city, is absolutely the best place to stay during the festive month of December, when an ice skating rink opens up at Fort Regent, holiday carolers take the Royal Square and La Fête dé Noué winter markets sell French food and Victorian ornaments. Make room in your schedule for the December 11 Battle of Flowers Christmas parade for an eye-catching procession down St. Helier’s Esplanade, or the Boxing Day Cavalcade on December 26, during which locals from the Old Motor Club show off their prized vintage cars.
This Croatian capital deserves far more attention as a Christmas haven, since its wide avenues and public parks make for natural outdoor gathering spaces. Its tree-lined streets light up with cultural pride and free live music, from ice sculptures in the Gradec neighborhood to daily Advent activities in Zrinjevac Park. Check out the nativity scene at St. Dismas Chapel, a rare place of worship dedicated to righteous criminals, or take a gander at the Gothic-style Zagreb Cathedral, St. Mark’s Church or the Baroque Church of St. Catherine. Finally, do not miss the small but provocative Museum of Broken Relationships, which displays donated artifacts of failed romance from around the world, with intimate descriptions of the former owners’ heartbreak.
Part of Spain’s Andalusia region and the birthplace of painter Pablo Picasso, Málaga’s warm winter temperatures and golden-yellow beaches appeal to travelers tired of getting snowed during the holidays. Its blend of Moorish and Andalusian culture makes for diverse food options that include Moroccan fare in addition to seemingly hundreds of tapas bars. Stare at either Picasso’s classic works at his dedicated museum, or look at more modern art hanging in Centro Pompidou de Málaga; those willing to walk up a hill should visit The Alcazaba, a lovely Moorish fortress that Ferdinand and Isabella wound up capturing during the Reconquista in 1487. Each year on December 28, the Málaga Main Verdiales Festival has “pandas” (local troupes of musicians) playing joyful holiday songs and dancing in ways that date back to Phoenician rule. December 28 also marks Día de los Santos Inocentes, Spain’s equivalent of April Fools’ Day—so get in the spirit and think of good, clean family pranks to play.
Unsurprisingly for a country that’s almost 90 percent Catholic, Italians—and in this case, Sicilians—pull out all the stops when celebrating Christmas. In Palermo, located on Sicily’s northern coast, one can find huge, illuminated trees and enchanting holiday markets in areas like Piazza San Domenico and its nearby Mercato Vucciria during December; with those Mediterranean temperatures, walking around town feels pleasant, no matter how late you’re out and about! (Wear a light jacket, to be safe.) Between visits to enormous cathedrals, consider (if you’re brave enough) visiting the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, a downright terrifying, yet fascinating collection of thousands of embalmed and mummified corpses, even those of small children. For a lighter outing, stroll through Orto botanico di Palermo, a neoclassical botanical garden with elegant greenhouses, centuries-old man-made ponds and a population of parrots who have relocated to this arboretum.
Vienna has one of the most brightly lit and extravagant Christmas decor known to European tourists, with chandeliers adorning major streets and trolleys covered in wreaths and ornaments. Out of this Austrian city’s many impressive holiday markets, the Christmas Village at Belvedere Palace is generally less crowded than the market in front of City Hall, and runs through December 23. From December 27 to January 1, take a look at Schonbrunn Palace’s New Year’s Market; this enormous Baroque “summer house” has sprawling grounds and gardens that lead to the Tiergarten, also known as the Vienna Zoo—the oldest zoo in the world and still one of Europe’s highest-rated. Museums of interest include the Esperanto Museum, the Sigmund Freud Museum, the Vienna Observatory and Haus der Musik, among many, many others. Don’t forget to order some authentic wiener-schnitzel with a stein of local beer!
7. Lyon, France
Lyon, the next major European city west of Geneva, has all the luxuries of French sightseeing and fine dining, and then some, especially during the month of December. Its location makes Lyon rather chilly (averaging 43 degrees Fahrenheit on daily highs), but not too cold to go out and enjoy its signature festival, Fête des Lumières, during which residents put up mind-blowing light sculptures and optical feats all around the city between December 8 and 11 (for 2016). In addition, Lyon hosts a large Christmas market through December 24 at Croix-Rousse, selling all the trinkets and fancy French condiments one can fit in a suitcase.
A destination very much off “the beaten path” for mainstream tourism, Sighișoara is reportedly one of the best-preserved walled cities, and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Among its collection of very old buildings is the birthplace of the real man who inspired Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”, Vlad Dracul; a church once used to house lepers and facilitate preaching to the afflicted; and Sighişoara Trinity Church, a pristine Romanian Orthodox Church overlooking Târnava Mare River. All over town, there are places to get soothing tea and handmade crafts to bring home, and underground cellar breweries that define timelessness. To get a stunning view of the snow-covered village, climb to the top of the clock tower in the center of town for an enviable panorama, or perhaps just a birds-eye photograph.
This article was written by Juliana Cohen.