Cosy and compact, packed with things to do, and offering all kinds of seasonal treats and delights, these small European cities are perfect for a short break during the festive period.
Christmas illuminations in Lucca (Dreamstime)
It doesn’t get much cosier than this Tuscan walled city. Hugged by solid, five-metre wide walls, Lucca is a maze of narrow cobbled streets, candle-lit restaurants and cosseting cafes. It’s where Puccini lived and wrote his operas, and that air of chic sophistication still permeates the city
Head to Piazza dell'Anfiteatro where the buildings are lit up with festive illuminations. Climb Torre Guinigi, topped by a tree, for a stunning view of the city. Or simply tuck into a hearty Tuscan feast at one of the city's highly rated restaurants.
For those of a more active disposition, the ski slopes of Abetone are a short hop away. Ski lift day passes are very affordable, especially compared to other ski regions.
Nearest budget airport: Pisa
Nidaros Cathedral in winter (Dreamstime)
Founded in 977 and the Norwegian capital for 200 years, Trondheim is a compact, beautiful city that boasts a stunning natural setting and a host of cultural, foodie and outdoor activities to keep you busy.
Set on a bay, with Nidelven River winding its way through the city centre, Trondheim is home to northern Europe’s second largest cathedral (Nidaros Cathedral), the old district of Bakklandet and lively, colourful wharves. The Stiklestad Cultural Center celebrates Norway’s Viking history and marks the site of one of country’s bloodiest battles.
The UNESCO-listed village of Røros, a quaint cluster of wooden buildings and cosy cafes, is within easy reach, as are the stunning national parks of Trøndelag. If your luck is in, the Northern Lights may put on a show as well.
Nearest budget airport: Trondhiem
Mask parade held every February (Dreamstime)
A lively university town that leads the world in implementing green technologies, Freiburg is a delightful medieval metropolis at the foot of the Black Forest. Its Altstadt (old town) is a charming jumble of gabled houses, cobbled squares and old world cafes. And the annual Christmas Market on the Rathausplatz is considered one of the most beautiful in the whole of Germany.
In winter, the nearby Black Forest becomes a wonderland of white, with the huge, ancient trees iced with snow and frost, offering bracing walks or spectacular scenic drives by either public or private transport. Every February, the city celebrates Fasnet, a centuries-old tradition of masked and costumed performances in the streets.
Nearest budget airport: Freiburg
Plaza de la Reina, Valencia (Dreamstime)
A beguiling mix of old and new, Valencia offers an intriguing blend of ancient culture and modern architecture. And with average daily highs of 15°C, it means you’ll get to enjoy the city at a relatively comfortable temperature but without the summer crowds.
There’s plenty to do over the festive period too. The cathedral, allegedly home to the Holy Grail, is a magnificent place to experience a traditional midnight mass on Christmas Eve. And the New Years’ fireworks, centred around the futuristic City of Arts and Science, are arguably the most spectacular in Europe.
Don’t forget the food. Even in the winter months, the historic Central Market is a cornucopia of delicious treats. The city’s world famous paella is sensational any time of the year.
Nearest budget airport: Valencia
The streets of the medieval fortress in Sighișoara (Dreamstime)
The 12th century citadel is the heart of the city, a jumbled collection of gabled houses and home to a church, monastery, clock tower and weapons museum. It was also where Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Dracula, was born. The house has become something of a pilgrimage spot for horror fans, with the top two floors converted to restaurants where vampire-theme evenings are held.
The city also makes an excellent base to explore the fortified churches, like Blertan and Apold, that dot the mountains around this part of Transylvania.
Nearest budget airport: Cluj-Napoca
Winter in Colmar (Dreamstime)
Nestled next to the German border in the Alsace region of France, Colmar is a picture-postcard collection of cobblestone streets, gingerbread cottages and gothic cathedrals. The restaurants serve hearty Alsace fare and wine from local vineyards that specialise in Riesling and Gewürztraminer variations.
The city’s annual Christmas markets are considered the best in France, but it is in Colmar's hidden corners that the best surprises wait. The African collection in the local museum, for example, holds over 1,000 objects from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope, all donated by local residents. There's also a scale replica of the Statue of Liberty on the outskirts of town. (The original in New York was designed by local boy Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi.)
30 minutes away, in the mountains behind the city, the beautiful Lac Blanc ski resort offers an active day on the slopes for skiers of all abilities.
Nearest budget airport: Strasbourg
Lincoln cathedral illuminated at night (Dreamstime)
Sitting high on a hill that rises majestically over the flat fens of Lincolnshire, the city of Lincoln has always been an important centre in English history. The Romans used it as their capital in eastern England, and William the Conqueror made a beeline there to build a castle barely two years after the Battle of Hastings.
A recent influx of students and enterprise has revitalised Lincoln again. The cathedral quarter, dominated by the city's huge gothic cathedral, has been spruced up, a new museum has been built within the castle walls to house an original copy of the Magna Carta, and countless restaurants, cafes and bars have popped up along Steep Hill, the pedestrianised road leading down to the city centre.
Small and compact, Lincoln is best discovered by following the Heritage Trail walk linking many of the historic attractions in the city centre. Grab a leaflet from the Tourist Information Centre on Castle Hill. Make sure you allow plenty of time for ‘rest stops’ in the authentic local pubs.
Nearest budget airport: East Midlands
Main image: Winter sunset in Valencia (Dreamstime)