For some, there’s nothing more magical a season than winter. The muffled sound of snow falling. The purity of the white flakes covering buildings, cars, and usually busy streets. The warmth from a cup of hot chocolate in your mittened hands.
While a fresh coating of snow tends to lend an air of sophistication to any city, there are some cities that are just downright magical in winter. Maybe it’s the combination of the snow and lights or the usually bustling streets that have come to a standstill. Either way, we’ve found 15 cities that you just have to see in winter.
1. New York, U.S.
Some cities suit a season. For me, New York comes into its own in winter. Sure it gets cold (colder than, say, London) but the sky is an electric blue, the sun shines, and when it snows it buckets down, no half-measures, covering the streets and parks in a blanket of serene white. The city seems suspended in time after a snowfall; sounds are hushed, faces flushed, and the Christmas lights in the department store windows twinkle even brighter.
2. Venice, Italy
Venice is a marvellously eerie place of footsteps echoing along misty alleyways. It can be bitingly chilly when the wind whips down from the Dolomites, and damp — sometimes very damp indeed as acqua alta blurs the edges between pavement and canal. But it is also far less packed, blessed with magic days of blue skies, and less expensive than in high season.
Berlin becomes a whole other city in winter. The lakes freeze over, the pavement seating is packed away and the sprawling infrastructure of cafés, bars, museums, galleries and theatres comes into its own. That said, if you visit in December you’ll find a very lively outdoor scene thanks to the Christmas markets, which range from small, charming and neighbourly to huge, glitzy and central. Note that temperatures can plunge into the minuses; bringing some warm layers is strongly advisable.
4. Madrid, Spain
Madrid is the highest capital city in Europe (2,178ft/664m), which means crisp, cold weather in winter. The sky is usually still startlingly blue, however, and you can sit at a pavement café in the bright sunshine in the afternoon after visiting the Prado.
5. Nice, France
Rich and noble Britons wintered in Nice in the days when they had class rather than simple celebrity. They did so to get away from tough northern weather, and to find themselves, gratifyingly, among their own. It’s about time that we reinstated a practice still eminently rewarding for the classier among us. Here’s the Med without the summer squeeze, and nippy at the edges. One may eat outside at lunch, but it will be woollies by dusk. No matter. France’s fifth city, throbbing with museums and galleries, also has the restaurants, bars and clubs to see you through cool nights.
6. Rome, Italy
There’s a particular raking light that can transform the warm colours of Rome’s buildings to jewel-like clarity in winter – but wrap up well against the icy northerly tramontana wind that accompanies it.
7. Barcelona, Spain
Unless you’re a real beach bunny, there is no better time to visit Barcelona than in winter. While summer is rammed with visitors and autumn and spring are when the (surprisingly torrential) rains fall, winter tends to see dry, azure blue skies, and a lot of empty streets. It is also the time when the cultural calendar swings into action, and often sees the best exhibitions of the year. Temperatures rarely dip below 5C, and can be considerably warmer, even in January.
8. Vienna, Austria
Despite the low temperatures (which can drop well below zero even during the day time), there’s plenty of life on the streets of Vienna in winter. In fact, with frequent clear blue skies, and often a crisp layer of snow, it can also be at its most beautiful. Even if you do start to get a little chilly, few cities are quite so well-equipped with cafés and bars in which to warm up.
9. Quebec, Canada
Quebec is a winter wonderland with more than 100 inches of snow a year. The photo above shows Old Quebec City, which is an historic part of the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
10. Amsterdam, Netherlands
The gabled houses along the canals appear as crisp as ice; in the cosy welcome of a wood-panelled café, you can sip Glühwein beside an open fire. The city lights up with festive good taste, and museums vie to lure you inside for the long winter’s run. Temperatures can plummet well below zero, and a chill wind blows in from this flat land. When that happens there’s plenty indoors to detain you; when it doesn’t, a brisk walk along the canals is still one of Amsterdam’s greatest delights.
11. Paris, France
In winter Paris transforms from City of Lights to City of Fairylights. Even the Champs-Elysées comes into its own with Christmas illuminations in the trees, fir trees at the Rond-Point and a Christmas market in wooden chalets along its lower reaches. Stay warm with hot chestnuts sold in the street and prepare to feast on oysters, foie gras and bûches de Noël (yule logs).
12. Reykjavik, Iceland
With its thermal springs, Northern Lights and winter sports, Reykjavik is a place you don’t want to miss in winter.
13. Malmo, Sweden
Sweden’s third largest city is one of the earliest and most industrialized cities in Scandanavia. Snow can fall between December and March but it melts quickly, so catch the gorgeous winter scenery while you can.
14. Ljubljana, Slovenia
Dating to the Middle Ages, Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia and its largest city. Snow is common from December to February.
15. London, United Kingdom
The Houses of Parliament as seen in the snow in London, U.K.