Some cities in Europe are infinitely better to visit in winter than summer. Without the crowds, the harassed locals, the hordes of school kids, and long queues for everything from entry to the Cathedral to the public lav, suddenly the experience becomes far richer and more relaxing; in fact, positively romantic.
Crisp cold days are decidedly better for walking ancient streets snuggled up to a loved one, as the brightly lit cafes and shops entice you in to meet the locals and get a real feel for the city you’re in.
In winter you’re a visitor, not just another damn tourist – always a better feeling.
Because it’s generally snowy at this time of year, and oh so romantic. Heat up in the atmospheric cafés, restaurants and galleries, and immerse yourself in the plethora of exhibitions and concerts going on from January to March.
The big attractions
To get your bearings head to St. Olaf’s Church which sits high above the city and dates back to 1267 when it was the tallest church in Europe. From here you’ll see the ancient warren of cobbled streets and fortified walls that make up one of Europe’s most attractive city centres.
Once in the walled Old Town go to Toompea Hill- the residential area of the former aristocracy where the imposing Alexander Nevsky Cathedral stands. You can’t miss Town Hall Square, ringed – surprise, surprise - by the Town Hall, and beside it you find the ancient pharmacy, which is still operating on the site it has occupied since 1422.
Surprisingly few people manage to find The Museum of Occupation, but it’s well worth locating (at Toompea 8) In the period from 1940 to 1991, Estonia was occupied briefly by Nazi Germany and then for four and a half decades by the USSR. The history of this difficult period comes to life in through high-tech audio-visual displays and art.
The Botanical Garden which covers 110 hectares and contains more than 8,000 plant species, is certainly worth a look - and yes, there are Hot Houses to warm up in.
The stunning Baroque Kadriorg Palace was the summer residence of Russian Tsar Peter 1, and today stands in the centre of its namesake’s seaside suburb, just outside Tallinn, housing the Estonian Art Museum's foreign collection of thousands of European and Russian works from the 16th century on.
Finally, don’t miss the Health Museum (Tervishoiumuuseum) where Tallinn’s school kids learn all about the human body at this old-fashioned and somewhat disturbing museum. On one floor, interactive displays teach younger kids all the systems in the human body, while the upper floor has photos and models designed to scare older kids away from using drugs or from ever having children. Don't visit before, during, or after lunch.
Ceramics, glassware, jewellery and paintings are all good value and good quality here. Heavy woollens are excellent value, as are the Russian-inspired souvenirs.
Go in March for the Mohacs Carnival, which includes a legendary parade on the Sunday before Lent featuring scary masks, dancing and the burning of winter's coffin on a bonfire. Copious amounts of goulash and Bull’s Blood vino on offer.
The big attractions
Budapest is two cities in one. Until 1873, the royal palaces of the posh part: Buda, on the hilly West bank of the Danube, literally looked down on the citizens of ‘Pauvre Pest’ on the East bank, but then the two cities merged to create a capital packed with beautiful buildings, riverside walks and a bustling nightlife. Buda is still quieter, greener, and has more historic buildings than Pest. The Royal Palace and the Castle Hill district are only slightly upstaged by the magnificent Fishermen's Bastion, with its panoramic views across the Danube to Pest. Pest is an altogether livelier place, with its pavement cafes, neo-Classical Parliament building, State Opera House, St Stephen's Basilica and designer shops.
Antiques, leather goods and crafts are all great in Budapest. The main shopping area is south of Vorosmarty Ter in Pest, and the streets around Vaci Utca are awash with designer shops. For antiques hit Falk Miksa Utca.
The Brown Cafes look so inviting, the walks down the Canals are just sooo romantic, the Christmas Markets and the locals are just so damn cheery that it does your soul good to go there.
The big attractions
The Rijksmuseum has 400 masterpieces on display, including Rembrandt's 'Night Watch' and Vermeer's 'Woman Reading a Letter'. In the Van Gogh Museum you’ll find more than 700 of the artist’s paintings and drawings, including the world-famous 'Sunflowers', 'The Bedroom' and 'The Potato Eaters'.
Anne Frank Huis is a fabulous visit – incredibly moving, even to this day. If you didn’t already know Anne Frank and her family hid here for two years during World War II; a bookcase marks the entrance to the sober, unfurnished rooms in which she wrote her famous diary.
Diamonds anyone? If money’s tight take home delicious cheese, chocolate, beer and cookies. Also clogs and a huge variety of flowering bulbs.
It is the ultimate Christmas Market city and chocolate-box beautiful in the snow. There’s nothing like hearing ‘Silent Night’ in the city it was written in.
The big attractions
Hard to choose as the whole centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but if reduced to just three:
Hohensalzburg Fortress rewards you with a magnificent view over the city; built in 1077 it’s Salzburg’s landmark.
Mozart Square – not surprisingly, a statue of Ludwig dominates the square which was unveiled in 1842 in the presence of Mozart’s sons.
In a skyline punctuated by church spires, there is no mistaking the distinctive dome and towers of Salzburg’s early Baroque cathedral. Inside, among the stucco swirls and paintings, is the Gothic font where Mozart was baptised (and speaking of him, don’t miss his birth-place and house, also in the city).
‘Mozartkugeln’ – Mozart chocolates are a must, and Austrian linen/embroidery is also worth a look. Dirndls and ledershosen are in many shops, and there lots of good outdoor sports gear on offer here too.
In a word, Carnival. On February 6 Lenten madness takes over bringing with it great atmosphere with floats, costumes and parties aplenty. From 10 - 20 February a major International Film Festival hits town bringing in Hollywood’s best.
These events aside, Berlin is heaving with brilliant museums, galleries, bars and coffee houses, all of which are perfect when the light has gone and the temperatures dip. In summer you have to queue for ages to get into the Pergamonmuseum (housing 19th German plunder of the Ancient World); in winter, just stroll in and enjoy the space.
The big attractions
The Brandenburg Gate is to Berlin what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, only with a lot more history and significance. Built in the late 18th century as the main entrance to the city, for decades it acted as a barrier between the East and West. And speaking of significant barriers, these days there isn’t much left to see of the Berlin Wall, but it’s got to be visited. Take the U-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz to see a brightly graffitied section of it, along with a watchtower which used to stand in this former no-man’s land.
The Berliner Dom is one of Germany’s most impressive churches. Built at the end of the 19th century, it’s lavishly decorated both inside and out and is the final resting place for the royal Hohenzollern family.
A reminder that it was not only allied countries which suffered during WWII is the Gedächtniskirche. This partially destroyed church was bombed and never rebuilt. It still manages to chill passers by.
There are over 50 museums in Berlin, but head for Museum Island and you’ll see the city’s best. Two not on the island but worth seeing are the Topographie des Terrors, a museum based in the former Gestapo headquarters that examines what went on under interrogation. And, of course, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, built on one of the famous crossing between West and East. It presents a graphic history of the many heroic attempts at escape from the East.
Wallow in kitsch at Falbala on Knaackstraße 43, where you’ll find a wonderful jumble of clothes from decades past to have a rake through. Another spot to shop for some flaky souvenirs is the flea market at Bahnhof Friedrichstraße, held Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays. Berlin’s main department store is KaDeWe at Tauentizenstraße 21. This is Germany’s Harrods, with great clothes and a stunning food hall.
Katie Wood has written on travel for over twenty years and is the author of 39 travel guides.