With the first flurries of snow, Switzerland, Austria and Germany transform into winter wonderlands. Plan for long, scenic ambles through their atmospheric city centers, which feature all manner of cozy cafés, delicious eats, high culture and exceptional shopping.
Best of all, once you’ve been sated exploring the city, both locals and visitors can enjoy an abundance of longer walks in the woods located a short drive or rail trip out of town. From the Taunus to the Alps, the region’s mountain ranges are at their most spectacular during this special season.
As always, check for closures and travel restrictions before planning your trip.
With Germany’s largest international airport and a buzzing cultural scene, Frankfurt is an underrated cosmopolitan gem. The reconstructed Old Town makes for a wonderful winter walk.
Peruse the luxury shops on Goethestrasse, and then stop for a bite at Kleinmarkthalle, a massive market hall where vendors hawk everything from Persian cuisine to sashimi. Be sure to stock up on local delicacies, including hundreds of varieties of artisanal sausage and Frankfurt’s famous “green sauce,” made with sour cream and herbs.
For an escape from the urban bustle, visit Frankfurt’s Green Belt, a sprawling park full of hiking trails and bike paths that surrounds the city. After the first snowfall, the Chinese Garden, an artfully landscaped oasis, is especially magical for a walk.
Berliners will say that their city is more akin to a series of villages than a true metropolis. The best way to discover the capital is to explore each of its eclectic neighborhoods by foot.
Start by taking in the Christmas lights along Kurfürstendamm, a glitzy promenade often likened to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Then take in the grand baroque architecture of Museumsinsel, home to a cluster of world-renowned museums.
Keep an eye out for the nearby Humboldt Forum, a highly anticipated art museum set inside a restored palace. For a glimpse of the city’s gritty brand of cool, walk from Kreuzberg through Neukölln along the banks of the Landwehr Canal, a willow-lined waterway with an abundance of stylish cafés, bars and restaurants.
Nestled along the Rhine River, Cologne has thousands of years of history reflected in its architecture. After gawking at the majestic spires of the Cologne Cathedral, roam along some of the city’s most famous shopping streets, including Hohe Strasse and Schildergasse.
If you’re traveling with kids — or want to see the city from epic heights — stroll from the shops at Schildergasse to ride the enormous Ferris wheel in the Rheinauhafen. Though Carnival remains the most popular time of year to visit, Christmas and New Year’s are also especially lovely, with decorations twinkling throughout the old city center.
Marvel at this culture capital’s glittering skyline as you walk along Hamburg’s Zaha Hadid–designed Niederhafen River Promenade. The current jewel in the city’s collection of “starchitecture” is the Elbphilharmonie, which features an undulating glass structure set atop a landmark building by Herzog & de Meuron.
Stay for a concert, and then explore the nearby Speicherstadt, or “warehouse city,” a historic district and UNESCO World Heritage Site. But don’t head back to your hotel hungry. No place exemplifies Hamburg’s thriving gastronomic scene better than Fang & Feld, where chef Sebastian Michels serves regional German cuisine with a contemporary twist.
Walk to the sprawling gardens of the Nymphenburg Palace to mingle with locals, then warm up with a coffee and a slice of König-Ludwig cake at Schlosscafé im Palmenhaus. For authentic matcha and vegan treats, head towards Tushita Teehaus, a Japanese-inspired teahouse near Gärtnerplatz.
The banks of the River Isar are especially picturesque during the winter months and also make for a scenic stroll. Art-lovers should be sure to stop by the Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art (MUCA), as well as the famous Pinakothek der Moderne, which houses the largest collection of industrial design in the world. While Bavaria is very much smitten with tradition, there are lots of places to explore contemporary culture as well.
Bahnwärter Thiel, comprised of decommissioned subway cars and shipping containers, is home to a thriving alternative scene, with graffiti, techno, contemporary art installations, and live music. To sample Bavarian cuisine with a modern twist, pay a visit to the Westend Factory or Xaver’s.
Locals take their fashion here seriously, which is why it’s worth stocking up on bespoke footwear at Ed.Meier, a shoemaking company founded in 1596 to serve the royal court, as well as stylish Bavarian garb at Ludwig & Therese.
This Swabian city is lovely for a short weekend getaway, especially when the holiday lights are up along Königstrasse, the longest pedestrian shopping street in all of Europe.
The decorations here always promise to be especially stunning thanks to displays like the Glanzlichter exhibition, composed of thousands of tiny LED lights strewn over 110 trees. There’s also a series of highly Instagrammable light installations on Schlossplatz, the main city plaza.
Mozart’s birthplace is particularly striking in winter when snow glistens on Alpine peaks in the distance. The Altstadt, or historic city center, is both beautifully preserved and so compact that it’s a breeze to see most of the sights on foot. Wander through the Mirabell Palace Gardens and across the Makartsteg footbridge, which features hundreds of locks left by generations of lovers.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Restaurant Mirabell to try traditional Austrian delicacies like the can’t-miss dessert, Salzburger Nockerl. This sweet soufflé is unique to the city and is said to represent Salzburg’s surrounding hillsides.
Start your stroll through Vienna in the gardens surrounding the iconic Schönbrunn Palace. Take a moment to pause on your scenic stroll to warm your hands on a Viennese coffee, which comes topped with a plume of whipped cream.
Viennese coffee culture is so special that UNESCO deemed it a piece of Intangible Cultural Heritage. And it’s no wonder why. With their vaulted ceilings and superb pastries, Café Central, Café Landtmann and other grand coffee houses have been the sites of intellectual discussions by the likes of Leon Trotsky and Sigmund Freud over the years.
Finally, end your walk by strapping on a pair of ice skates and going for a twirl on the rink in the Rathausplatz in the heart of the city.
There’s charm aplenty in the winding, cobblestone streets of Geneva’s Old Town. Spend an afternoon window-shopping the luxe boutiques selling designer labels, covetable watches and jewel-colored chocolate pralines. Then snap a few photos in the Place du Bourg-de-Four, a historic city square, and along the Treille Promenade, an elevated path offering a sweeping panoramic view.
At the end of the day, banish the winter chill with a bubbling pot of fondue at Les Armures, set in a refurbished 13th-century stone building. To order like a local, ask for the traditional moitié-moitié fondue, made with equal parts Gruyere and Vacherin Fribourgeois.
Although Zurich has a reputation as a fast-paced financial hub, locals in this Swiss city value pleasure as much as business.
Wander along the Limmatquai, a picturesque pathway along the banks of the Limmat River, or take in the sight of the ritzy stores along the Rennweg, a wide promenade dating back to the Middle Ages adorned with fairy lights during the festive season. Finally, head to Lake Zurich around sundown, where you’ll find locals gathered along the shady Seepromenade.