New Year’s Eve: 10 last-minute city breaks in Europe

Budapest

Why go Hungary’s capital sparkles in winter and likes to party, so it’s a great place to see in the new year. There’s festive cheer on tap, with fairylight-strewn streets, chestnut sellers and ice-skating in City Park (the largest rink in Europe), to a backdrop of Vajdahunyad Castle. The Christmas markets on Vorosmarty Square and at the Basilica run until 1 January, with concerts, folk dancing and stalls selling mulled wine or pálinka (fruit brandy) and traditional chimney cake (cinnamon and sugar-coated dough). New Year’s Eve (Szilveszter) is celebrated with fireworks over the Danube, and it’s worth booking one of the many river cruises with dinner and DJs. Fisherman’s Bastion at Buda Castle offers a near-perfect panorama over the city (free and open 24/7, but likely to be crowded).

Historic thermal baths offer respite from the winter cold (and help for hangovers). Some, like Széchenyi Baths, host hedonistic spa parties – on 30 December there’s a big bash with DJs and light shows (first wave of tickets sold out, but premium tickets from €75).

With its mixture of art nouveau, baroque and neoclassical buildings, this is a city that rewards an aimless wander, with pit stops at grand cafes such as the 19th-century Művész Kavehaz. The endless choice of great drinking spots include “ruin pubs” in abandoned buildings: try the Extra in District VII for a lively night out.

Book it A four-night trip with Travel Republic costs from £449pp, departing Stansted on 28 December with Ryanair, with B&B accommodation at the central Atrium Budapest Hotel.

Madeira

Why go Madeira’s New Year’s Eve fireworks won the Guinness World Record for the biggest display in 2006, and they are still the biggest in Europe. They are set off from several points in the capital, Funchal, including the city centre and the waterfront. There are great vantage points all over the city, but Santa Catarina park has particularly good views. Watching from the sea is fun: there are lots of booze-fuelled boat trips from the harbour (such as VMT Madeira, €120 for three hours, booking essential).

Tourists can blow away the cobwebs along with locals on New Year’s Day by taking the Madeira Plunge, a charity sea swim at noon. With January temperatures in Madeira averaging 17C, it is a lot more appealing than an outdoor dip in the UK. That mild weather makes Madeira a great year-round walking destination, too – a hike along a levada (water channel) will get 2019 off to a healthy start.

Visitors staying for a week can round off the festivities with a free Twelfth Night concert in the municipal gardens: Cantar os Reis is based on the lively songs traditionally sung by troupes going from door to door (8pm, 5 January). Those staying longer can head to Santa Cruz, Madeira’s second city, for the Santo Amaro festival, marking the end of the Christmas holidays, with stalls, music, food and a candlelit procession (15 January).

Book it Tui has seven nights B&B in Funchal from £320pp, including flights from Birmingham on 31 December, staying at the three-star Dorisol Buganvilia, a five-minute bus ride from the centre.

Stockholm

Why go For a slightly more cerebral New Year’s Eve, Stockholm is a smart choice. The main celebration is at Skansen (skansen.se), Sweden’s oldest open-air museum, on the island of Djurgården. Entertainment starts at 8pm with singing and dancing, and culminates with a recitation of the poem Ring Out, Wild Bells by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The tradition began in 1897; these days the poem is always read by a famous Swede and broadcast live on TV.

Skansen has fantastic views over the city for the midnight fireworks, and a cafe (open until 1am) and restaurant (booking essential). Evening tickets are £14 for adults (children go free), or there are new day and evening combination tickets (£17 adult/£5 child). These give visitors the chance to visit the historical buildings decorated for Christmas, meet the reindeer and other animals, tour the gardens and stock up on Swedish textiles and ceramics at the museum shop.

On New Year’s Day, early birds can try an introduction to ice skating (8am daily, £139, iceguide.se). This six-hour experience for beginners (or rusty skaters) includes a Nordic skating lesson, followed by a tour on the frozen Baltic Sea or a frozen lake, plus lunch around an open fire. For a less energetic morning, take a stroll around the unusually deserted city, then sample Sweden’s favourite hangover cure: kebab pizza.

Book it Ryanair, Norwegian and SAS fly to Stockholm from several UK airports. Stay at the Archipelago Hostel in a 17th-century building in the old town (twin rooms from £80 over New Year, archipelagohostel.com).

Vienna

Why go The party starts early on New Year’s Eve with a city-wide trail from 2pm (until 2am, events.wien.info). The city centre is a giant street party, with live music zones playing styles from rock to operetta; festive food and drink stalls; and booths selling Bleigießen kits – traditional kits for telling fortunes with molten metal. Dance schools provide free outdoor waltz lessons in the afternoon and, at midnight, the main shopping street, Graben, turns into an open-air ballroom. There are firework displays in the town hall square, Rathausplatz, and Prater park.

Vienna is known for its Christmas markets, but there are several over New Year, too. They are found on Maria-Theresien-Platz (27 -31 Dec), Schönbrunn Palace, with jazz concerts every day (27 Dec to 6 Jan), Riesenradplatz (until 6 Jan), with rides and a circus. There’s also the Imperial and Royal Christmas Market on Michaelerplatz (until 1 Jan); and the covered Advent Pleasure Market at the Opera House, which sells food by Austrian producers (until 31 Dec).

Pop-up punch terraces are a Viennese trend this winter: Klyo by the Danube Canal serves mulled wine, sausages and toasted almonds (until 6 Jan); there’s also the Punch Deck on the Pool Boat (all winter), and the rooftop bar at the Lamée hotel (all winter). For more outdoor fun, Little Ice World is open until 6 Jan in Rathausplatz, and has a 3,000 sq metre ice rink. It reopens as Vienna Ice World on 18 Jan with an even bigger “ice landscape”, including skating paths and curling lanes (until 3 March).

Book it Ryanair, easyJet, British Airways and Austrian fly to Vienna from several UK cities. Hotels are almost all booked up but try the 25hours Hotel Vienna, a cool circus-themed hotel in the museum district (doubles from £156 a night, minimum four-night stay over New Year.

Dubrovnik

Why go Dubrovnik is magical (and less crowded) in winter. Visitors started to cotton on to this after the launch of its winter festival five years ago. This year’s programme includes free guided tours of the old town (10am, Saturdays in Dec and Jan) and free open-air concerts on Stradun, the main street. Booths around the city streets serve festive food and drink, and all buses are free after 5pm (until 6 Jan). And whatever the weather, on Saturdays and Sundays it is guaranteed to be snowing in front of the Pile gate at noon.

Lapad, the peninsula north-west of town, has lots for families. The North Pole Station offers storytelling, dancing, crafts and cookery (to 13 Jan). There is also an ice rink and a free Advent train (until 6 Jan).

New Year celebrations start on 29 December with a gig by the Gipsy Kings; there’s also a children’s concert, traditional Croatian vocals, and a New Year’s Day classical and popular concert, accompanied by oysters and sparkling wine. On New Year’s Eve, there are carols in front of St Blaise’s Church at noon, then the party gets going on Stradun at 9pm, with fireworks at midnight and bar-hopping into the early hours.

Book it British Airways, easyJet and Jet2 fly to Dubrovnik from several UK airports. Stay in Dubrovnik Old Town Hostel, a boutique hostel in a 400-year-old building just off Stradun (twin rooms from £30, dorm beds from £15 B&B).

Copenhagen

Why go Kickstart 2019 in one of Europe’s coolest capitals. Copenhagen marries the historic (medieval centre, cobbled streets and impressive palaces) with the best of contemporary Scandi chic (seriously stylish shops, a hot bar and restaurant scene and great galleries) – and it’s easily navigated on foot or by bike.

Come winter the city ramps up the fairytale vibe, particularly in Tivoli Gardens, a 19th-century amusement park, which glitters with Christmas lights and stalls selling festive doughnuts and mulled wine.

On New Year’s Eve, there’s a firework display here at 11pm (watch from the open-air stage area), while other fireworks action across town is best spied from Queen Louise’s Bridge over the rectangular lakes between the centre and Nørrebro.

At midnight, people gather in City Hall Square to hear the clock tower chime in the new year. Restaurants and bars will be buzzing – try lobster rolls at Hooked in Nørrebro (gethooked.dk) or street food such as hot dogs at Dǿp on Kobmagergade street. It’s a good idea to eat early; the Queen’s New Year’s Eve speech is at 6pm, and streets are quiet before the mayhem.

Outside the city centre, the former shipyard area of Refshaleøen island is alive with cafes, restaurants and bars – and has winter hot tubs at CopenHot for a warming post-party soak overlooking the water (cheaper on Wednesday and Sunday “hot days”, £24, copenhot.com).

Book it Ryanair, easyJet, Norwegian, British Airways and SAS fly to Copenhagen from several UK airports. A&O Copenhagen Nørrebro is a hostel with dorms and double rooms, with beds over New Year from £31 (aohostels.com).

Reykjavik

Why go The land of fire and ice lives up to its name on New Year’s Eve, when about 90 bonfires are lit across the country. There are 15 or so in Reykjavik alone; one of the biggest and most central is on Ægissíða street, by the sea. Some bonfires are accompanied by Icelandic singing; most start about 8pm and finish by 10pm, which can be a good time to see the northern lights.

After the fires, everyone goes home to watch Áramótaskaup (Skaupið for short), a satirical TV sketch show that has been running on 31 December since 1966. But that doesn’t mean the party is over – just before midnight, they all come back out to let off an astonishing amount of fireworks, with profits going to Icelandic Search and Rescue Association, which does life-saving work, is run by volunteers and is a cause close to most Icelanders’ hearts.

One of the most popular spots for lighting and watching fireworks is in front of Hallgrímskirkja church – which is also close to plenty of bars. Other good sites include the Pearl at Öskjuhlíð; the Sun Voyager sculpture or Harpa concert hall on the waterfront; or reflected in Tjörnin, the city lake. There are organised bonfire and fireworks tours (such as £94), but Reykjavik is a small city and easy to explore independently. After the fireworks, most locals go to house parties, but bars in the centre stay open until at least 5am.

Winter is a good time to take a self-drive tour of Iceland’s ice caves, glaciers and waterfalls, with the chance to see the northern lights. See the Guide to Iceland website for itineraries.

Book it Wow Air and Wizz Air, easyJet and Icelandair fly to Reykjavik from several UK cities. Stay in Kex, a hip hostel in an old biscuit factory in central Reykjavik (dorms from £32 over New Year).

Lausanne

Why go On the shore of Lac Léman (the French name for Lake Geneva), the Swiss city of Lausanne offers a picturesque New Year escape, with its medieval centre and backdrop of snow-capped mountains. New Year’s Eve is the last day of Lausanne Lumières, the annual festival of lights, with installations by 12 artists, from projections to sculptures, around town (see festivallausannelumieres.ch for a map). The “burning of the cathedral” – a dramatic light display held every year since 1904 in memory of fires that devastated the city in 1368 and 1405 – is at the heart of the festivities, with crowds gathering for champagne and mulled wine.

There’s a concert at the cathedral before the show, starring the $6m Boston-made organ, and midnight fireworks over the lake. Expect great food and drink, too: the nearby Lavaux vineyards produce the best wines in the country.

Besides lakeside walks, the Olympic Museum is a must-do (Lausanne is home to the International Olympic Committee), as is trying fondue at Pinte Besson, the oldest restaurant in town. Don’t miss out on the free transport card for anyone who books a night in a city hotel – it also brings discounts on boat trips and museum entry.

Book it Geneva is the nearest airport, a short train ride away. Easyjet, British Airways and Swiss fly there from several UK airports. Europe’s largest freshwater aquarium, and its partner hotel Aquatis has doubles from £100, or the Swiss Wine Hotel & Bar opposite the cathedral, with a popular wine bar, has rooms from £122 room-only.

Palma de Mallorca

Why go The Mallorcan capital offers more laid-back Spanish New Year celebrations than party-hard Madrid or Barcelona – and slightly warmer weather. There are festive vibes aplenty, with light-strewn trees, market stalls selling sweet treats such as almond nougat, and the maze of streets in the old town takes on a magical air.

Start the evening snacking at tapas bars such as cavernous Cellar Sa Premsa or busy but relaxed La 5a Puñeta , whose bar is laden with fantastic pinchos. Revelry focuses on Passeig del Born, with live music, light shows and dancing, and around the town hall on Plaça de Cort, where crowds gather to hear the clock strike midnight. New Year is welcomed with the eating of one grape for each stroke – a tradition said to bring luck and prosperity – and fireworks light up the sky above the 13th-century cathedral.

The fun continues until 6 Jan, when the wise men arrive by ship and lead a colourful procession through the streets, with more fireworks and partying into the early hours (and more presents for the kids). Between festivities there are great bars, galleries and boutique shops to explore in the city and in lovely villages and beaches without the summer crowds.

Book it Love Holidays has three nights at the Palma Bellver by Melia on the seafront from £427pp room-only including flights from Gatwick on 29 Dec.

Cologne

Why go Berlin may be a more obvious choice for New Year frolics, but Cologne, the cultural hub of north-west Germany, is a lively under-the-radar party city. The pubs and beer halls (Cologne has more per head than any German city) will be buzzing with revellers – try Peters Brauhaus for schnitzel and Kölsch.

Young party animals head to lively Zulpicher Strasse, while bars such as Roxy and Subway in the picturesque Belgian Quarter appeal to a slightly older crowd. There are over 70 nightclubs too. Odonien is one of the best-known, a many-storey junkyard and artists’ workshop-turned-clubbing mecca featuring Berlin-based house DJ Niko Schwind on New Year’s Eve (tickets €20).

For the best views of midnight fireworks over the Rhine, try the redeveloped Rheinaufhafen waterfront complex, Frankenwerft in the old town, or Deutz on the right bank for a quieter spot. By day there’s the striking twin-spired cathedral to explore, modern art at Museum Ludwig or impressive Roman artefacts at the Romano-Germanic Museum . Look out, too, for artist-designed nativity scenes at 110 sites around town, from shop windows to inside churches, until 6 Jan (tours are available too through koelner-krippenweg.de)

Book it Ryanair, Eurowings, Flybe and British Airways fly to Cologne from several UK airports. 25hours Hotel The Circle has doubles from £110 room-only. There’s a New Year’s Eve party in its Monkey Bar, which has amazing rooftop views, but it will set you back €100 a head (with three drinks and a midnight snack).

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