I’d really like to get a away for a long weekend city break this winter; where are the best cities to go during December, January and February?
You’re right to think about a city break over the winter – most people plan their city breaks for the shoulder seasons, but by going in the winter you should get good deals, empty museums and tables at the best restaurants in town.
I’d advise avoiding December, when you’ll meet Christmas shoppers and visitors travelling to spend Christmas with friends and family, and go for either late November, or better still January and February, when hotels are quietest (bar the Valentine weekends).
Starting in Belgium, Bruges is a great winter city – and apart from its brief fame following the release of the eponymous film, it’s little known to many of us. There are a host of Christmas-related events that continue into January, including the Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival, which runs to January 16, and even the ice rink in Market Square is there until January 9.
The city is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and has a network of canals running through it, with the houses plunging into the water on both sides.
Visitors to Bruges tend to start in the Grand Place, whose Belfry tower will be familiar to those who watched the film. The Gothic architecture, churches and town hall will have you reaching for the camera, but if it’s too cold to ogle the building (average temperatures are around 5C in January), there are a few interesting museums, including the Diamond Museum and the Memling Museum for art housed in a former hospital chapel.
You’re sure to enjoy the two Belgian obsessions – beer and chocolate – at some point in your stay, but avoid indulging in these, or any meal for that matter, in the touristy restaurants near the Grand Place because they tend to be overpriced. Instead ask at your hotel for a recommendation for somewhere that offers good value and is popular with locals – or better still – ask a local!
My recommendation on where to stay is a gorgeous guesthouse called Number 11. It is a restored 17th Century townhouse and has just three bedrooms, plus a wood burning stove that you can gather round at the end of the day. It costs around £270 for two nights over a weekend in January and there’s a two-night minimum stay.
Austria’s winter visitors mostly comprise skiers, but they’re missing a trick by not spending time in Salzburg, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city’s Altstadt district, or old town, on the south side of the Salzach River is a showcase of fine Baroque architecture and you can spend a day wandering between its squares, churches and cafes. The city makes much of its most famous export, Mozart, so it’d be a shame not to learn more about the maestro at the museum and at his former residence.
Better still, time your visit to coincide with Mozart Week (January 21-30) and you can indulge in performances of his work by some of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors.
If you do fancy a day on the slopes, there are shuttle buses from the town centre that will take you to the piste in about an hour for around £10 return.
One Salzburg hotel that comes highly recommended by my fellow travel journalists is Blaue Gans Hotel which is an old inn that has been converted into a contemporary hotel. It costs from around £110 a night and is right in the centre of the old town. The restaurant has had some good reviews for its modern take on traditional Austrian dishes, like goose dumplings and calf’s cheek with polenta.
Iceland has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the last couple of years, but consequently, has come down a bit in price. Reykjavik is an exciting winter city where short days mean you should organise to spend at least some of your time indoors, enjoying the stunning food, nightlife and museums.
The Smaratorg Tower has 20 floors, and the advantage of hosting some restaurants, cafes and shops all in one building, plus great views of the city. If you’re happy to brave the cold, you’ll be rewarded with all sorts of fascinating finds at the Kolaporti Flea Market , plus a chance to taste some zany Icelandic food like “hákarl”, a snack made from shark that’s been fermented in brine and buried underground, or the more palatable “plokkfiskur”, a hearty fish stew.
There are also countless day trips to do from the city, including the famous Blue Lagoon, although if you want somewhere a little less touristy, the Golden Circle Tour takes you a little further from the city centre and can be done in a day on a group tour or with your own hire car. It takes in Geysir, the name from which all geysers take their name, where you can walk among the spouting thermals.
There’s also Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, a vast waterfall, and glacial river, and Thingvellir, a place of Icelandic legend and a natural amphitheater in a National Park. Of course, the weather may put paid to your day trip, but never fear, there’s plenty to do in the city centre – art, cuisine and music, being some of the highlights.
I’d advise staying somewhere modern and fun as it sums up the spirit of the place. If you want a great value hotel that is in a central spot, try the CenterHotel Thingholt, which costs from £70 per night and is close to the Laugavegur, the main street. It’s clean and simple, and there are wonderful views from the restaurant.
The great thing about winter city breaks is you have no expectations for the weather – you know it’s going to be cold, and possibly wet, so you’ll never be disappointed when the sun doesn’t shine. Just go prepared with good walking shoes, an umbrella, waterproofs, plenty of layers, and an armoury of things to do, with plenty of hot drink stops along the way.
Answer by Ginny Light – TimesOnline travel editor
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