If you can look past the plummeting temperatures and long dark nights, winter is a hugely rewarding season in which to visit Central and Eastern Europe. Frozen rivers, frosty branches and (if you’re lucky) cobalt skies are only part of the story.
City life is at its most vivacious at this time of year, spa tourism takes on a whole new appeal, and seaside towns offer a degree of contemplative quiet you don’t always get in summer. Meanwhile, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all gearing up for centenary celebrations next year, so there's never been a better time to head eastward. Here are 10 places that should be on your radar this season:
Hemmed in by tottering grey alps, Lake Bohinj possesses a rare, almost eerie beauty. The meadows east of the lake are something of a mecca for cross-country skiers, although there are plenty of downhill options a ski-bus ride away.
The lake itself freezes over in winter, becoming what is arguably the most breathtakingly scenic skating rink in Europe. The surrounding villages are famous for their fruit brandies – local viljamovka (pear brandy) or brinjevec (juniper spirit) are guaranteed to warm the body and free the mind.
The great ports of northern Europe are all the more evocative when experienced on a cold, grey (and preferably misty) winter’s day. And Gdańsk, with its gabled medieval warehouses and gothic churches, is an outstanding example.
Soak up the red-brick post-industrial feel of the quaysides before enjoying a bracing stroll on Sopot beach, just up the coast.
Set among the dense pines of the Dzukija forest, Druskininkai is a charming mix of olde-worlde health resort and modern spa. Treatments are based on natural cures – a 15-minute soak in a mud bath (comprising local mineral water, peaty soil and twigs) is a genuinely restorative treat.
Just outside town is Grutas Park, a compelling collection of erstwhile communist-era monuments uprooted from their pedestals in the revolutions of 1991.
A lot of East European cities achieve a climax of social activity around Christmas and New Year, only to spend the next three months sleeping it off. Belgrade, on the other hand, just carries on regardless. With the riverside drinking scene taking a rest, it’s in winter that the boisterous restaurants of Skadarlija and the hipster bars of Savamala really come into their own.
Belgrade is a notoriously gritty city that looks at its best in snow, rain and sludge; the expansive strolling area of Kalemegdan Fortress is at its dramatic best in stark winter conditions.
Robustly popular with Czechs but largely off-radar to outsiders, the rolling Krkonoše mountains mark Czechia’s border with Poland. Their foothills are dotted with resorts: Špindlerův Mlýn has everything you need for an active winter holiday, with a fistful of spa and swimming facilities, and plenty of cheek-stinging country walks.
There are few better ways of enjoying Budapest’s celebrated mineral-bath culture than by taking a dip in the outdoor pools of the Szechenyi Baths. Underground thermal springs guarantee a water temperature of 38ºC, producing an otherworldly canopy of misty vapour.
One other good reason to visit Budapest is its famously winter-warming food. Goulash is the hot, paprika-seasoned dish of choice; you should also consider halászlé (“fish stew”), a spicy fresh-water treat you are unlikely to get at home.
Baltic winters can be exhilarating, especially if you are there for a weekend rather than the full five months.
Tallinn is Europe's most decorous (and dare we say, coolest) Baltic city, and its turreted towers and soaring spires look even more enchanting when seen under a dusting of snow. Take a stroll along the old-town battlements and cut some shapes on the open-air ice rink before warming your innards with a glass or two of spicy mulled hõõgvein.
8. Ohrid, Macedonia
There’s nothing like a cold crisp winter day to tease the magic out of an ancient town like Ohrid. A popular lakeside resort in summer, Macedonia’s medieval capital is virtually deserted outside high season, creating ideal conditions for exploring its narrow cobbled lanes and spellbinding churches.
The current poster-girl of Mediterranean tourism nowadays receives over a million visitors per year – although you’ll find most of them surging through the Old Town somewhere between April and October. Come outside these times and you’ll have this walled masterpiece almost to yourselves.
It’s in the winter that Dubrovnik is reclaimed by locals, lending an authentic flavour to the café life. The climate is mild and you might even consider swimming: average sea temperatures rarely fall below 14ºC.
For a real taste of skiing Central European style then head for Stary Smokovec in the shadow of Slovakia’s High Tatras. With its Belle-Epoque hotels, half-timbered pensions and Ruritanian railway station, it looks like something out of a gothic novel.
The facilities are reassuringly modern, however, especially the electric train that whisks you to the pistes at nearby Hrebienok. The slopes at Jakubkova lúka just above town are perfect for sledging – and it’s only eight kilometres from Poprad airport.