Looking for the coolest destinations in Europe? Visit during November to February, the European winter season. Northern skies are glowing, ski slopes are glistening and Christmas markets are magical.
The winter wilderness of northern Sweden is a magical experience
The Icehotel at Jukkasjärvi is built from scratch every winter using 2 500 gargantuan ice-cubes from the frozen Torne River and 30 000 tons of snow and ice (or ‘snice’). The hotel has a church, exhibition hall, lobby, bar and 65 rooms including 15 “art suites” each individually decorated by artists from different nationalities. Their work is open to the public during the day. To walk from the carved ‘ice-belly of a whale’ in one suite, into a crowd of ice statues in another, before finding yourself face-to-face with a frozen transparent ice dragon, is a joyously eccentric experience.
But this hotel is just one highlight of an extraordinary region. Dog sleds and reindeer sledges are enjoyable, but the thrill of powering up a snowmobile and racing off into the wilderness of northern Sweden is joyous. As the sun sets, the snow glows, trees become shadows and the wind whips your visor, the world is reduced to a 40kmph slither and a headlight-illuminated snow track. The fantastic swirls of colliding charged particles known as the Northern Lights – or aurora borealis – illuminate the incredible Christmas card landscape like dancing ghosts from September to March.
Slovenia’s hottest winter destinations
At 2 202 meters Kanin is the highest ski resort in Slovenia. It forms part of the Julian Alps, a spiky range that punctures the clouds from Northern Italy to Slovenia’s Triglav National Park. Every frozen waterfall, narrow pass, bottomless gorge, claustrophobic cave or pine-coated mountain has a human story to tell. From the top, you can see the sloped roofs of Bovec and the emerald green of the winding Soča River. Over the ridge are Italy and the glistening Adriatic. In two hours you can be on the beach.
There may be wonderful slopes in Chamonix in France, at Ischgl in Austria or in St Moritz in Switzerland, but Bovec and Kanin feel like delicious secrets. They are destinations lesser known internationally. If skiers feel like a change from the sun-drenched, south facing slopes of Kanin, they can always catch the bus to the Italian side of the mountain in the north to enjoy the experience of skiing in two countries in one day.
Christmas shoppers have a ball in the romantic winter wonderland of Vienna’s festive markets
Winters in Austria will deep freeze your nose and curl your toes, but Vienna at Christmas will melt your heart like no other city. From November to December each year, more than 40 festive markets set up stalls in the Austrian capital. The most popular one is the City Hall market This market has 145 stalls, a 32-metre Christmas tree and 27 kilometers of wiring just to power the decorations. It’s a big attraction at this time of the year.
Each market also has its own unique flavor. The market on Rathausplatz is popular with families because of its range of children’s activities that include everything from candle-making to carol singing, while at the Old Market at Freyung, held in the heart of the city’s historic center since 1772, the main attractions are traditional Austrian handicrafts and food.
Of course, these markets may be the jewels in Vienna’s Christmas crown, but the winter soundtrack of the city is a treasure trove of live music events. These events range from concerts by the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir and extravagant performances at the State Opera House to free concerts by the Vienna Philharmonic at Schönbrunn. The palace and gardens of Schönbrunn are just a 15-minute metro ride away from Vienna. In the 17th century it was originally modelled on Versailles Palace outside Paris and was used as a summer residence by the Habsburgs. Today it is the most visited sight in the whole of Austria. In addition to Imperial rooms, grand scale art, endless gardens and, incredibly, the world’s oldest zoo founded in 1752, there is a glorious Christmas market.