Some cities were made for the cold. New York with its roasted chestnuts and skating rinks, Venice with its mist and Carnival masks, Budapest with its steaming baths and cosy, cobbled lanes. No crowds, cheaper flights, locals reclaiming the tourist-free streets: summer steals all the brochure headlines, but winter is where some towns are at.
So grab your coat, tie your scarf, and discover which cities put the “win” into winter, the best things to do in each of them, and where to warm the cockles before turning in.
Words by: Jeremy Lazell
Budapest’s tangled alleys swelter in summer, but in winter they cosset you from the cold, the cobbles and coffee houses whisper with the ghosts of a grand, Austro-Hungarian past. With the Opera House in full swing, ice rinks in castle grounds, and steam rising off the bath houses, it’s the only time to come.
Don’t miss: the “ruin pubs”. Housed in reclaimed tenement houses and abandoned factory buildings, they’re the hippest ticket in town. Szimpla Kert was the first to open and is still a paragon of cool, with live music, movie nights and furniture made from a scrapheap of recycled goods including a Communist-era Trabant.
Bath houses are the big winter draw. Gellert and Szechenyi are famous but crowded, 16th century Veli Bej the oldest in town and the one locals target for a quieter soak.
It’s ice rinks a-gogo in Budapest over winter. The Christmas market below St Stephen’s Basilica has the prettiest, but City Park has the best: built in 1869 just below Vajdahunyad Castle, it is the largest ice rink in Europe, with a beautiful neo-Baroque pavilion.
Winter one-off: The Nutcracker at the indecently ornate Hungarian State Opera House is the pre-Christmas favourite for Budapest’s ballet fans; the Magic Flute and La bohème the opera to target in the New Year.
The Snug: eat, drink at be Magyar at Doblo, a cosy Jewish Quarter wine bar with more than 200 varieties of Hungarian wine and belt-busting ham and cheese platters.
Januar kalt, das gefallt – January is cold, and that’s how we like it. Not kidding. Germany’s capital gets bone-bitingly cold in winter, and Berliners love it, filling cafes with frost-fleeing chatter, packing the cultural calendar with festivals.
Don’t miss: any number of cultural events, including Berlinale film festival (Feb 9-19), Transmediale art fest (Feb 2-Mar 5), and the opening of the Barberini modernist museum in Potsdam (Jan 23). Or join Berlin’s Kultur-Vultürs at the utterly enchanting – and free – classical concerts in a piano restoration workshop in Uferhallen cultural centre.
Overrun in summer, Tiergarten park is eerily, magically quiet in winter, the creeks frozen over, the grass blanketed in snow. A walk between sculptures is the perfect cobweb-buster, then thaw out at Vabali Spa, a tourist-frei, Bali-meets-Berlin sanctuary of saunas, steam baths and steaming outdoor pools.
Opened in early 2016, the Boulder Klub in Kreuzberg is a spectacular indoor climbing wall and great place to hang out with Berlin’s hipsters.
Winter one-off: the annual snowball fight between Kreuzberg and Neukölln in Görlitzer Park is a hoar-frosted hoot (2pm, Dec 31), then carry on partying at Tiergarten’s New Year’s Eve extravaganza, with DJs, laser shows and fireworks over Brandenburg Gate.
The snug: escape the Tiergarten cold with fireside coffee and cake at the park’s candlelit Cafe am Neuen See.
More than 22 million tourists visit Venice each year – in summer it’s like they’re all on the same pavement as you. But winter? That’s when La Serenissima lives up to her name, the crowds gone, the low sun turning the mist sepia, the city reclaimed with a raft of riotous festivals – there are plenty of things to do in Venice in the winter months.
Don’t miss: Puccini’s La bohème, the highlight of a stellar winter season at La Fenice, the outrageously opulent, €90 million opera house – tickets in February go for a snip. Then make a like a local with cichete – Venetian tapas – around the corner at Osteria de Carla.
Acqua alta, literally “high water”, hits Venice three or four times every winter, when high tides and the Scirocco force seawater up the Adriatic and into the lagoon, turning St Mark’s Square into a surreal – but stunning – Sea of Tranquillity. Opened in January, welly specialist, Acqua Marea is the essential first stop.
The bus is the quickest way in from the airport, but per favore, take the Vaporetto. Yes, it takes an hour and a quarter to reach St Mark’s Square, but you get the greatest airport transfer on earth, chugging across the lagoon and into the Grand Canal via the Rialto Bridge, Gritti Palace and a string of beautiful Byzantine facades.
Winter one-off: Carnevale, a riot of masked merriment spilling onto the streets, is Venice’s big winter draw (February 11-28).
The snug: Caffe Florian is Italy’s oldest coffee house, drawing a Who’s Who of literary greats, including Goethe, Proust and Dickens. Make like Casanova, who girded his loins here every day with a hot chocolate.
The city that gave the world the coffee house simply makes sense in winter, its cosy pubs and buzzing wine cellars beckoning under damp, dark skies lit by gleaming gothic spires and baroque domes. Throw in some of Europe’s best galleries and museums, opera houses and concert halls, and winter is simply what Vienna does best.
Don’t miss: Karlsplatz Chriskindlmarkt. Yes, Christmas markets are old (Santa’s) hat in Europe, but this one, bang in front of perhaps the finest baroque church in Europe – is a tat-free (Christmas) cracker, with all items first passed by a committee to guarantee they’ve been handcrafted by the stall holders themselves.
The Museumsquartier is a cultural Promised Land of museums and galleries, its central courtyard a hive of light shows, live music, and art installations, fuelled by hot punch pop-up tents and Glühwein stands (until December 23).
You could watch a cage fight at Vienna’s State Opera House and still feel culturally enriched: outrageously ornate, dripping in crystal and gold, it is one of Europe’s great opera and ballet theatres, and the place to rub shoulders with the city’s ball-gowned burghers. Verdi’s Otello is the winter big-hitter.
Winter one-off: every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in December, St Stephen’s Cathedral stages a stunning, candlelit advent concert, with Vienna’s Chamber Orchestra performing Bach, Mozart, Handel and Schubert in the very place where Mozart was married.
The snug: Freud, Trotsky and Lenin all swore by Cafe Central (now 140 years old) which specialises in artery-choking torte below grand vaulted ceilings and marble pillars. Etwas Alkoholisches, vielleicht? The dark, woodpanelled Loos Bar is the place for something stronger.
It doesn’t do drizzle, New York: just crisp blue skies or a winter wonderland of snow. Either way, you win. At Christmas you will find many of the best things to do in New York: skate on the ice rinks, view the festive shop windows and visit the eggnog pop-ups, the city is a Santa’s sack of Yuletide treats.
Don’t miss: the “Christmas Windows”. Macy’s started it in 1870, and nothing says Big Apple Christmas today like a walk along (and around) 5th Avenue, with department stores from Barneys to Bergdorf competing for the best display.
The Rink at the Rockefeller Centre – 80 years old in 2016 – is the skating rink of choice with its iconic Christmas tree, but boy, is it crowded. For a proper twirl and the best skyline-selfies in town, get your skates on in Central Park instead.
The Rockettes at Radio City is the standard winter tip, but we say catch the Knicks instead: the basketball is a winter institution, and your best bet of spotting an A-grade NYC sleb, with Woody Allen, Spike Lee, Jay Z and Beyonce all Madison Square Garden regulars.
Winter one-off: Mark Rothko’s Dark Palette exhibition at Pace Gallery in Chelsea (until January 7).
The Snug: Le Baricou is a hip Williamsburg bistro with worn leather armchairs a wood-burning stove in the lounge out back – the perfect spot to defrost with Brooklyn’s finest.