What makes a city romantic? It’s a combination of many things: atmosphere, architecture, food, music, history. Romance in winter also has practical requirements: Is there somewhere cosy to escape the cold? Is it cold enough to encourage cuddling, but warm enough to prevent frostbite?
Paris, Venice, Florence – these cities inspire proposals and play backdrop to countless romantic comedies. They are some of the go-to destinations for Valentine’s Day getaways. But there are plenty of other romantic cities in Europe. We’ve listed our five favourites to inspire your next romantic winter holiday.
Two distinct cities, Buda and Pest, separated by a river, joined together in 1873. The romantic symbolism is obvious. Both sides of Budapest exude old-school elegance: the hills and cobbled streets of Buda as well as the nightlife and world-class shopping of Pest.
Heat things up with a dip in a thermal bath. Budapest’s abundant thermal springs have earned it the moniker ‘City of Spas’. Széchenyi Baths are the oldest in the city, with palatial architecture and outdoor pools that are open in winter so you can swim under the stars. For a bit of bacchanalia, you can visit Lukacs Baths for a weekend bath party with laser lights, cocktails, and electro music.
If you want to keep the chill, skate at one of the city’s outdoor rinks. City Park’s rink is the most popular, with the Vajdahunyad Castle providing a spectacular backdrop. If you’re visiting for Valentine’s Day, February also happens to be the end of Farsang, the Hungarian carnival season that precedes Lent. Enjoy masquerade balls, colourful parades, and lavish feasts to mark the transition from winter to spring.
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Most romantic spot: A candlelit cruise down the Danube River at night. Admire the twinkling lights of the city’s two sides with a blanket and a mug of mulled wine to keep you warm.
Copenhagen is known as ‘bike city,’ but there’s romance to be had as well. Despite being Denmark’s capital, the city has a laid-back vibe, creating its own style by mixing modern design and architecture straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy-tale. Denmark often tops world happiness surveys; if you visit, you’re almost guaranteed a storybook happy ending.
Biking in Copenhagen is a must. Wide, designated bike lanes and GPS-enabled city bike rentals make it a breeze. Explore the city on your own or take a themed bike tour. Other modes of transportation have their own joys. Tour the canals in a heated boat to get a real feel for the city. Ice skate on one of the city centre’s frozen lakes for a bit of magic.
Copenhagen is the epicentre of Nordic cuisine. Food here emphasises purity, simplicity and seasonality without sacrificing deliciousness. And it doesn’t all come at a high price. There are many affordable high-quality restaurants including Bror, Manfreds, Baest and Amass.
If you’re doing a Valentine’s Day holiday, February is a great month for music in Copenhagen. With both Vinterjazz and the Frost festival, there are dozens of concerts featuring both Danish and international musicians.
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Most romantic spot: Bryggebroen, a pedestrian and cyclist bridge tucked behind a shopping centre. Couples leave love locks there – some inscribed, some heart-shaped – and throw the key into the water to symbolise the strength of their love.
Those who describe France’s second-largest city as ‘a smaller Paris’ are selling Lyon short. Lyon has its own appeal: a rich history, some of the best food in France, and access to the Alps. Winter is cold and dry, but with warm breezes from the Mediterranean Sea, couples can still enjoy the outdoors.
Two rivers – the Rhône and the Saône – trace through Lyon. The Presqu'ile neighbourhood sits between them, making it perfect for beautiful evening strolls. The Musée des Beaux-Arts, an elegant art museum housed in an old convent, is also here. Vieux Lyon, or Old Lyon, is one of the most extensive Renaissance districts in Europe and is a protected cultural site. Here, wandering through the stone streets or sipping a coffee outside feels like time travel.
Lyonnaise cuisine owes a lot to its geographical location, with access to produce year-round, fresh fish and meat, as well as wine from Beaujolais and the Rhône Valley, two of France’s top wine-producing regions. Between Michelin-starred restaurants run by famous chefs to bouchons serving rustic, homey meals, you will be sure to eat well.
If you want to combine your city break with a mountain retreat, the Alps are only an hour’s train ride away. You can while away the days skiing or snowboarding with your sweetheart, or just sit by a fire and gaze at the snow-covered peaks.
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Most romantic spot: The ‘traboules’ or hidden passageways of Saint Jean, in Old Lyon. Originally built for silk-weavers to transport their wares, these narrow paths wander through restored courtyards and spiral staircases, perfect for getting lost.
Amsterdam is a city like no other: small enough to walk or bike everywhere, but big enough to consistently excite and entertain. Equal parts charming and chill, it’s the unofficial capital of bohemian living. And all the feelings that go along with coupledom – togetherness, comfort, warmth – the Dutch describe with one word: gezellig. It has no exact English translation, but it does translate into a wonderful romantic holiday.
Cosy up at one of Amsterdam’s traditional ‘brown cafés’, pubs named for their dark wood interiors and low lighting. Try a Dutch beer or a local jenever (Dutch gin). Or take in some culture with the world-renowned Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, in an evening programme or a free lunchtime concert. Snuggle screen-side at the waterfront Eye Film Institute or the eccentric Pathé Tuschinski Cinema. Both have love seats perfect for cuddling.
Most romantic of all, stroll along the canals. The historic mansions restored to their gilded glory, the bridges glowing with lights, the calm canal water – what could better set the mood? It might be cold, but that’s all the more reason to hold hands.
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Most romantic spot: Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), illuminated by hundreds of lights at night. Its name derives from the original bridge, which was so narrow that two pedestrians couldn’t pass each other.
A city that’s hot even when it’s cold, Madrid has unbridled energy and charisma. Chocolate and churros, paintings and plazas, tapas to share, jugs of sangria…it all adds up to create a dreamy destination. The wide boulevards and grand public squares express a deeper part of the city’s personality: Madrileños are famously open and welcoming. Soak up some of their spirit with a romantic getaway to the city.
Even in winter, most days are bright and sunny, warm enough to roam a park (with a hat and gloves). Parque El Capricho's exquisite 18th-century gardens on the city’s outskirts are a local favourite. A bit more central is El Cerro del Tío Pío, made up of seven hills that offer panoramic views of the city.
Madrid is notorious for its non-stop nightlife. Dinner doesn’t start until 10pm, so nights typically end with the sunrise. The tapas culture is so strong that ir a tapear is an activity unto itself. Head to the La Latina neighbourhood and sample dishes at each of the many bars.Have a sherry or a glass of cava for a nightcap, and if you’ve caught the Madrid spirit, go out dancing with your partner until dawn.
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Most romantic spot: Templo de Debod, a 2,000 year old Egyptian temple gifted to Spain. Located on a hill overlooking an expansive park with a lake, it’s most magical at sunset.