Whether you’re a culture enthusiast or you’re simply dreaming of one day witnessing firsthand the timeless magic of a cobblestone-laden medieval town, Europe is probably at the top of your bucket list.
While a majority of travelers deliberately avoid winter, taking Transatlantic trips in summer instead when it’s warmer, the colder months are in fact some of the best to experience the Old Continent, as they concentrate a large number of events and cities that would normally be jam-packed suddenly become eerily quiet.
If you don’t mind the cold weather, or you think red-roofed old towns look even more picturesque when dusted with snow, we bring you 4 of the most beautiful yet less-obvious European spots to visit this winter:
The so-called ‘Europole’, Strasbourg is a French city straddling the border with Germany. In fact, you can effortlessly travel between downtown Strasbourg to Kehl, a German border town across the River Whine, along which the frontier runs, in just under half an hour.
Needless to say, due to its proximity to Germany, and its status as a former German city lost following a succession of wars, Strasbourg has retained a Germanic character, seen in the many half-timbered houses that line the narrow alleys of the Old Town and the locals’ strong preference for beer over wine.
With its landmark Cathedral, with gigantic flying buttresses and a magnificent Gothic clock, and bucolic canal district of Petite France, it is one of France’s most beautiful cities, and each season has its very own charm, but we’re inclined to say Strasbourg looks its prettiest in winter.
It’s when the world-famous Christkindelsmärik, or Christmas market is held, between the Cathedral and Place Kléber. One of the largest in Europe, it draws millions of tourists every year, drawn to the Franco-German delicaces, the smell of rich Alsatian sausages, and mulled wine.
Thousands of Christmas lights are also distributed along the Old Town, creating an enchanting atmosphere not easily found at other times of the year.
Though Strasbourg does not host nonstop Transatlantic flights, it is easy to reach from Paris, with fast-speed TGV trains operating between both cities and shortening the commute time to just under two hours – faster than the five-hour drive.
Not too far from Salzburg, on the German side of the border and at the gateway of the mysterious Black Forest, lies Freiburg im Breisgau, most commonly shortened to Freiburg.
Home to a pastel-colored Old Town, an imposing Cathedral that survived two World Wars, one of the oldest universities in Germany, and runnels that travel along the whole extent of the historic district, and according to urban legend, will result in you marrying a local should you ever accidentally step into one, it is a small German city full of intrigue.
As it is not as popular as Nuremberg or Rothenburg ob der Tauer, two of Germany’s other best-preserved medieval-era cities, Freiburg can feel less touristy and thus more pleasant to stroll, especially in winter when the summer and autumn crowds are gone.
If you’re lucky enough, you might visit during a snowy day, when the red tonality of the roofs is only barely visible through the virgin white, and street vendors selling hot sausages and melted chocolate by the Little Venice canal will help you feel warm and cozy inside.
Much like Strasbourg, Freiburg has a historical Christmas market that’s not to be missed, open daily from 10 am to 8:30 pm from early winter through mid-January.
The closest major airport to Freiburg is Frankfurt International, an entry point for several Americans flying into Europe in the low season.
In the far Eastern reaches of Europe, right before Russia, Estonia is a country most Americans tend to skip altogether when planning a winter trip across the continent, either due to misconceptions relating to safety or sheer lack of knowledge on its inestimable cultural wealth.
It may share a border with an unfriendly state, but it is a member of both the European Union and NATO, officially safer than many Western countries as it is considered a Level 1 destination by U.S. authorities, and with a medieval heritage that puts other European nations to shame.
Tallinn is the cultural heart of Estonia and a city that strangely seems to truly come to life in winter; when medieval fairs are held, and natives dress up accordingly, the Christmas lights are on, and there is a high chance snow will settle along the winding cobbled ways.
Tallinn Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Europe’s best preserved medieval cores, and it’s a magical setting to get lost in and explore in winter.
Croatia is a country best known for its pristine Adriatic beaches, ocher-colored ancient citadels, and Game of Thrones filming locations, but it can make for an incredibly idyllic winter getaway.
Zagreb, the hugely overlooked capital, was crowned multiple times as one of the best Christmas destinations in acknowledgment of its massive Christmas market, among the largest in the Balkan Peninsula, and festive decoration.
Old Town Zagreb is divided between the Upper and Lower parts, and taking the funicular ride to Lotrscack Tower, you will be met with a sweeping panorama of the majestic domes and stately buildings, and tall, modern skyscrapers lying beyond the medieval core.
Some of the best things to do in Zagreb in winter include waking up early to buy local produce at the Dolac Market, climbing the Lotrsack watchtower for a privileged view of the Old Town and its red roofs, visiting St Mark’s Church, easily recognized for its colorful tiles depicting the Croatian coat of arms, and going for dinner at Tkalciceva Street, a Bohemian corner filled with quirky bars and restaurants.
Zagreb is a great starting point for exploring Central Croatia, also:
In order to escape the agitated city life, you can always take a bus out to the Sljeme mountain, a hiking spot often covered in snow, the frozen-over Plitvice Lakes, and Varazdin, a small traditional Northern Croatian town near the border with Hungary.
Learn more about incredible European winter destinations that are not overrun with tourists and that will not break the bank here.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com