Winter holidays aren’t just about skiing - many cities in the Northern hemisphere are magical at this time of year
With festive Christmas markets and plenty of indoor entertainment, there’s plenty to do on holiday in the winter. What’s more, it’s low season, so prices are cheaper, plus there’s the chance to really see how locals live day to day. Here’s our pick of the best places to immerse yourself in a winter wonderland.
1. Tromsø, Norway
Set above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. A sighting is never guaranteed, though, so it’s just as well that the city offers quite a few other outdoor experiences, all under the soft glow of a perpetual twilight. Dog sledding is a great way to see the surrounding countryside, spotting wildlife like reindeer and elk along the way; the indigenous Sami people offer reindeer sledding, which is more sedate but offers insight into their traditional way of life. Don’t miss the opportunity to go on a whale safari, which departs from Sommarøy Island, two hours from Tromsø; humpback, killer and sperm whales can be spotted. Indoor activities include the world’s northernmost aquarium, Polaria, and the world’s northernmost brewery, Mack.
2. Amsterdam, Netherlands
The run-up to Christmas is a festive time in Amsterdam, and the season kicks off with Sinterklaas Parade at the end of November. Sinterklaas, or St Nicholas, who closely resembles Father Christmas, enters the city via a procession of floats on the canal and then makes his way through the streets handing out candy to onlookers. He also brings presents to children if they’ve been good, but on December 5 instead of Christmas Day. Other highlights during the winter season include a light festival from the end of November to the end of January, where the city is transformed into an illuminated spectacle through installations and projections. There are also several Christmas markets, with the main one being at Museum Square, where the pond is turned into an ice-rink.
3. Montreal, Canada
While heavy snow blankets Montreal in winter and it can get very cold, the city by no means goes into hibernation; instead, it becomes a veritable winter wonderland – and after Christmas, too, when some cheer is definitely needed. Igloofest is an electronic dance festival that takes place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 18 January to 3 February next year – the dancefloor is outdoors, but you’ll soon warm up. Another top event is Montréal en Lumière, from 22 February – 4 March. It’s one of the largest winter festivals in the world and includes food, music and art, and culminates in Nuit Blanche, an all-night extravaganza with over 200 events, most of them free, connected by a free shuttle service.
4. Cork, Ireland
Ireland’s second city is often overlooked in favour of Dublin but has much to recommend it: along with gorgeous neoclassical architecture, there are world-class museums, galleries and churches, and a flourishing local food and craft brewery scene. True, in winter it’s rainy and cold, but temperatures don’t dip below 5C (40F) and there’s little chance of snow. Visit in November and catch Cork Film Festival. While it’s a showcase for Irish films, it’s not exclusively so; international features, documentaries and shorts are also screened. In December, the city has plenty of festive events, from a Ferris wheel and food market on the Grand Parade to a Christmas concert at Cork Opera House. Foodies should take a tour of the best places in the city to eat with Fab Food Trails, which combines visits and tastings at the best places in the city. A whiskey and food trail is also available.
5. Vilnius, Lithuania
OK, it rarely gets above freezing in winter in Lithuania, but Vilnius’ 13th century old town – now a UNESCO World Heritage site – becomes magical in winter, with a dusting of snow transforming the cobbled streets into something out of a fairy tale. Take a free walking tour and discover the city’s main attractions while you learn about its history and culture. Afterwards, warm up in a cosy pub or restaurant – Lithuanian food is fantastic, and there’s a thriving nightlife scene throughout the year. If you visit between late November and the end of December, the Christmas Market is quite a sight; stalls are set around a giant Christmas tree that’s festooned with thousands of lights.