Wow, it’s already September! I can’t quite wrap my head around just how quickly this year is flying by; it seems only a few weeks ago that I was cycling my way around Cuba.
I can already feel the seasons changing. The nights are drawing in and the leaves are beginning to fall from the trees. Before long we’ll be buying pumpkins and making soup, and snuggling up in front of the fire toasting marshmallows and sipping warming mugs of hot chocolate.
Yep, winter is well and truly on its way!
So what better time to think about that perfect winter getaway, whether that be skiing up on the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain or chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland.
Here are six suggestions for that perfect European winter break.
My first trip to Granada was many years ago in 2007, when my boyfriend’s dad used to live in a little village in the mountains not far from the city. I’ve since visited the city several times, usually combined with a few days skiing or attempting to snowboard up on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, just an hour’s drive from central Granada.
I love the fact that it’s possible to ski all day up in the Sierra Nevadas and then spend the evening meandering through Granada’s streets. Whether you choose to while away your evenings drinking tea and smoking shisha in one of the city’s numerous tea shops, or enjoying a beer and taking advantage of the free tapas, there is definitely something more quintessentially Spanish here than you’ll find up at the ski resort. And Granada can be surprisingly warm and sunny during the winter months.
Top Tip: Don’t miss a visit to the world-famous Alhambra and an aimless wander through the cobbled streets of the ancient Albayzín.
I took my boyfriend here for a surprise birthday trip away in January last year. I scored some incredibly cheap flights with Norwegian Airlines (who incidentally are the only airline I’ve travelled with who offer free WiFi on board!) and a private room in a modern, cosy, centrally-located hostel.
Sweden’s ‘second city’ boasts a wealth of beautiful neoclassical architecture, as well as chic boutiques, vintage emporiums and cozy cafes – many of which are housed inside 17th century wooden houses that were not long ago slated for demolition. If you’re looking for somewhere you can experience an abundance or art, culture, and some of the freshest seafood around, then Gothenburg should definitely be on your list!
Top Tip: It gets dark at around 3:30pm in Sweden’s winter months so make sure you get up early to make the most of your day. Doing so will also mean that you’ll also be able to take advantage of the incredible free breakfasts many of the hostels include in their room prices.
I visited Iceland just over two years ago in March 2014. It was the closest (and therefore cheapest) place that we could fly to that we had the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights from. We based ourselves in Reykjavik, the country’s quirky and colourful capital, bursting with creativity and culture, and with a vibrant nightlife and music scene to boot.
There are fine museums and art galleries, world-class restaurants, cosy cafes, and geothermal pools scattered throughout Reykjavik’s sparsely populated streets.
Sometimes you can see displays from the streets of Reykjavik but unless there is very strong solar activity, your best chance of an Aurora sighting is to get out of the city as far away from light pollution as possible. There are lots of companies who will take you out in search of the Lights; we went with Viator. You can read about our experience here.
Top Tip: Don’t miss a visit to Harpa (the interior is incredible!), a climb up to the top of Hallgrimskirkja and some fresh seafood at the Sea Baron, down by the harbour.
If you’re looking for a budget break away from the UK, you can’t go wrong with beautiful Riga. We scored return flights with Wizz Air from Liverpool for just £30 each.
Riga’s Old Town – now a Unesco World Heritage Site – is a fairytale kingdom of gothic spires and winding, cobbled lanes flanked with pastel-coloured gingerbread-style houses. And with a fine dusting of snow, everything manages to look utterly magical.
There’s an Art Deco quarter (including a fascinating museum where you can play dress-up in fancy hats and capes), a cat cafe (a huge bonus in my book!), and countless stores where you can shop for traditional Latvian mittens (Hobbywool offers a good balance of quality and price).
Top Tip: Climb St. Peter’s Church spire for the best views of the city and don’t miss a visit to Folkklubs for the best night out in Old Town Riga. The food here is tasty and cheap (mains are available from under €5), there is a long list of delicious craft ales to sample, and you can enjoy live Folk music at least five nights a week. Book a table in advance though, it gets busy!
Another great destination to choose if you want to spend your days up on the ski slopes and your evenings soaking up a bit of local culture and avoiding ski resort prices.
Unlike a lot of ski resorts that are purpose-built around the slopes, Bansko is a quaint little cobblestone town located at the foot of the Pirin mountains that also happens to be a ski resort in the winter.
Bansko is surrounded by lakes and pine forests, and nearby Banya (just five kilometres away) is famous for its thermal mineral springs. There are regular bus services from the country’s capital, Sofia.
Top Tip: For an authentic Balkan dining experience head to Mehana Dedo Pene near Sveta Troitsa church. The atmosphere is cosy and inviting, the food is delicious (and served in traditional clay pots), and the portion sizes represent amazing value for money.
Occupying both banks of the river Danube, Bratislava has one of the smallest historical centres around. Its cobbled streets are lined with baroque palaces, medieval towers, colourful churches, and quirky statues.
It’s a lovely place to visit in the run up to Christmas when the Old Town sparkles with decorative fairy lights. You can sip warming mugs of Verene Vino (mulled wine) while being entertained by one of the traditionally-dressed local musicians.
Vienna is only an hour away by bus so you could always split your winter break between two very different – but equally appealing – capital cities.
Top Tip: Bratislava has become famous for its quirky statues; see how many you can spot and who can pose for the most amusing photo with each one. Oh, and stay at Downtown Backpackers Hostel, it’s amazing!
Do you have anywhere you would add to this list? I’m always open to new suggestions for that perfect European winter break!
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