Winter in northern Europe tends to be a little too dark, wet and cold… We just want to escape it and live happily ever after in the summer. But what if we told you there are actually great places to be during this time? What if we told you some places look straight out of a fairy tale under the snow?
Here at Travel Den we believe many places are overlooked as merely summer destinations. In fact, with a touch of frost glistening in the low winter sun, the enchanting silence of padding through the white blanketed roads, looking out over glassy iced lakes; all of these and more can make escaping to a winter wonderland a magical idea. So make yourself an eggnog, pull up a blanket and take a look at our picks for the most spellbinding places to be this winter…
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
The chocolate box pretty Bavarian town of Rothenburg undergoes an annual transformation into the quintessential snowy winter wonderland. Since the beginning of the 15th century the medieval Old Town has been home to ‘Reiterlesmarkt’, a special Christmas market lined with authentic Bavarian stalls. Shoppers can wander along the narrow, winding streets around the beautiful Town Hall filling their baskets with everything from delicious traditional cookies and pastries, handmade crafts, candles, local chocolates, Christmas decorations and souvenirs.
Don’t miss Rothenburg historical town hall, built in the 13th century, the Old Town Walls, a gatehouse built in the 1500s and the famous Plönlein, the most instagrammable spot in the city. Spending more time here? It’s worth visiting the imposing Klingentor tower, constructed between 1395 and 1400.
To learn more about the picturesque old town, visit the Rothenburg museum, housed in a former Dominican convent. Established in 1936, the museum details life in the convent, which was dissolved in the 16th-century, including a look at the historic living quarters. You’ll find here a well-preserved 13th-century kitchen, artifacts showcasing the town’s Jewish heritage, and a display of European weaponry, from the Stone Age to the 19th century.
Arriving in Tallinn is like stepping into a Disney movie; fairytale turrets rise up from the old medieval stone town, carts rattle over the cobblestones and blankets of snow cushion the grandiose merchant houses and barns which line the antiquated lanes.
Tallinn is an eternally enchanting town yet during the long winter months it takes on a whole new level of magic as the turrets glisten in snow and the Christmas market lures you in with offers of steaming bowls of homemade soup and warming glasses of Glögg.
Why not also hop on a sled and fly along snowy trails led by a friendly team of huskies or ice skate on the glassy iced lake in Tallin? Afterwards you can look forward to warming up again with a traditional sauna….you can always leave the ice swimming to the locals!
Richmond Park, UK
King Henry VIII may have lopped off a few heads but we in London do have something to thank him for; the prevalence of beautiful large parks such as Richmond Park, which happened to be one of his favourites as he used it as a hunting ground.
Many like Richmond Park are also filled with an abundance of wild deer, you often see them leaping and galloping through the woodland or grazing by the roadside. It is one of those places where you really do feel like you’ve been transported to the quaint English countryside during the Middle Ages.
As the snow begins to fall here you will see a plethora of people on sleds, snowball fights, as well as the avid hikers who enjoy a brisk walk through the 2500 acres of the park and then a cosy traditionally English lunch in a nearby Richmond pub.
Schloss Neuschwanstein, Germany
Appearing on a peak above the picturesque village of Hohenschwangau in southwest Bavaria, stands the enchanting Schloss Neuschwanstein, which formed the inspiration behind the Disney Sleeping Beauty castle.
The rather extravagant King Ludwig II planned this statuesque fairytale home himself, albeit with the help of a stage designer rather than an architect. King Ludwig dreamt of this castle as being not only a grand stately home for himself and his myriad of possessions, but as a giant stage on which to recreate the world of Germanic mythology, inspired by the operatic works of his close friend Richard Wagner. The most fantastical room of all is the Sangersaal, bedecked with grand gilded chandeliers and ornate frescoes on the walls depicting scenes from the opera Tannhauser.
If you visit Schloss Neuschwanstein during the winter months it is even more strikingly beautiful as the surrounding forest is dusted in snow. We suggest hiring a car so you can also visit the nearby medieval town of Hohenschwangau which is also home to a castle, King Ludwig II’s family home to be precise, so you too can follow in the footsteps of this flamboyant gentleman. Then tuck into a traditional Kaiserschmarnn (a scrambled pancake served with sweet apple puree) and a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
Welcome to the picture-perfect Unesco listed lakeside town of Ohrid, popular in the summer for swimming and sunbathing, yet enchanting in the winter for walking and musing. Pad along the blanketed cobblestones breathing in the cool air scented with pine leaves, incense from the Byzantine churches and the sweet scent of oven-baked bureks.
The lake Ohrid is one of the oldest in the world, and its beauty is at its peak during winter, when its desert and mysterious; in winter, the ancient Ottoman houses on the shore of the lake disappear in the morning mist and the wooden boats scattered around the lake look like ghosts on the shore. It’s so quiet and beautiful that you feel like staying here for hours.
Take an early walk along the idyllic waterfront as the morning mist wraps around the traditional Ottoman homes that flank the icy shores of Lake Ohrid, before exploring the narrow cobbled lanes and finding a cosy nook to enjoy a hearty Macedonian breakfast and strong coffee.
In the winter months Brasov is transformed into a winter wonderland with layers of fresh snow blanketing the rooftops of pastel-coloured houses around the square. There’s a relaxed, romantic feel as you meander through Brasov’s narrow cobblestone streets passing charming 13th-century buildings.
As you take in the abundance of history this city has to offer you will be transported back in time. Up above on the snowcapped hills overlooking the medieval square lies Poiana Brasov, a small skiing destination that draws the crowds during ski season.
Brasov is one of Romania’s most visited destinations and for good reason; it’s situated in an ideal Transylvanian location, making it an ideal base for exploring the region. Venture to the nearby Carpathian mountains or visit Bran Castle to explore the myth and intrigue of the legend that is Dracula.
Lake Tahoe, California
Lake Tahoe is eternally beautiful yet its stunning landscape enters another dimension come the winter. If you are an avid ski bunny then feel free to head straight for one of over a dozen ski resorts, or perhaps try snowshoeing or ice-skating.
For those less keen on skiing there is plenty on offer to entertain all age groups; take a dip in one of the many hot springs looking out over a beautiful vista, try a long nature hike with a spot of bird watching, go on a stargazing trip or enjoy Tahoe’s vibrant night life scene. Lake Tahoe gets an incredible average of 125 inches of snow a year, so you could always just make a snowman.
The Best view of lake Tahoe, is perhaps from the top of the Heavenly Gondola Ride, with its 9,123 feet high observation Deck. Don’t miss taking a stunning walk in the Emerald Bay State Park, a gorgeous park surrounded by forested hillsides of glacier-carved granite. At the center of the striking blue water, you can admire a small islet. If you like architecture, definitely stop by the Scandinavian castle, Vikingsholm.
On the southwest coast of Iceland you will find the picturesque Gullfoss waterfall in the canyon of the Hvítá river, which leads to Langjökull, one of the largest glaciers in Iceland.
When Gullfoss partially freezes over in the winter it takes on a majestic beauty that leaves you breathless.
The freezing waters turn incredible shades of turquoise and blue which contrast vividly with the bright white snowcapped rocks. Come here to witness the rarity of untouched natural beauty and let it move you.
Harbin City, China
Midway isn’t the only city to celebrate winter with icy themed celebrations. Harbin, the chilly Chinese city celebrates the winter season with a magnificent Ice & Snow Festival, which sees an avalanche (no pun intended) of visitors every year to see the magnificent ice sculptures created by teams of artists.
Visitors can wander through, up or over, these epic structures which are often record breaking in size and become even more enchanting at night when they are lit up in a surreal kaleidoscope of colours.
Once you have had your fill of clambering over icy monuments you may want to try a spot of dog sledding or ice skating under the traditional Chinese lanterns.
The quaint town of Midway located just west of Heber City is a fabulous place to be in the winter season.
Many people visit to see the huge collection of ice castles built annually by teams of artists; climb in and explore the winding tunnels and turrets of these intricate structures.
There is also skiing, horse-drawn sledding and even scuba diving to keep you entertained. Yes, scuba diving! Thanks to the geothermal caldera which provides pleasant bath-like waters even in the depths of winter.
The stunning landscape of Abisko is home to many reindeer and other Nordic wildlife. Known as the ‘Swedish Lapland’ this beautiful wilderness is home to a national park, and best of all, clear sightings of the aurora borealis. But will you hear the Northern Lights singing as so many claim they do?
Spend your days experiencing traditional Swedish life including dog sledding, ice fishing, and traditional downhill skiing using cross-country skis. Perhaps you’ll even be lucky enough to spend time with the Sámi people and get to meet some local reindeer.
Uludağ, previously revered as the ancient Mysian Olympus is now a modern day winter wonderland. Forming the highest mountain peak of northwestern Turkey, one of its main attractions is the Olympos Teleferik, a cable car ride that offers a breathtaking vista of the mountain and ocean beyond.
The panoramic windows allow visitors a 360-degree view of the land below. Come here for skiing as well as a myriad of other winter sports or simply sip your coffee admiring the view amongst Turkey’s jet set.
Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina
Located in the Los Glaciares National Park, the Perito Moreno glacier is three miles wide and has a depth of approximately 558 feet. If you’d like to get a closer look at the vivid cerulean ice pack then head to the northern end of Perito Moreno, where there is a glacier cave that visitors can either explore by foot or by boat.
The most pleasant time to visit the glacier is from November to March, temperatures are more mild during these months and on a sunny afternoon you’re more likely to hear the deep thunderous sound of cracking ice, due to the fact that Perito Moreno Glacier is actually one of the few advancing glaciers in the world, so as the size increases, the front of the glacier gains large cracks and crevasses that eventually cave off creating an exciting natural show.
Visiting at this time of year also means that you will be treated to the sight of an abundance of beautiful alpine flowers flanking the glacier.
The enchanting Kirkjufell mountain looks truly beautiful under a blanket of winter snow. Magically shaped it appears to have stepped straight out of a fairytale. Landscape photographers flock here to photograph this majestic mountain, particularly as its often seen at night with the mystical Northern Lights as a backdrop.
Also worth a visit is nearby Grundarfjörður, a small picturesque town with a population of only 900 people.
Jigokudani Monkey Park, Japan
The Jigokudani Monkey Park located within the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, gets heavy snowfall for about four months each year. The local snow monkeys are wise enough to know that this area also has an abundance of hot springs where they can kick back and relax as they warm up.
Locals and visitors alike come to see the playful monkeys enjoying their afternoon dip and also check out the steam vents which shoot hot steam into the air.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
No doubt you will recognise this famous scene which adorns many a jigsaw puzzle and is a favourite of landscape photographers the world over. The stunning Lake Bled can be found in the Julian Alps region of northwestern Slovenia.
Bled Island is the beautiful gem in the centre of this picturesque lake. Many people think that the tower on the island belongs to a fairytale Slovenian castle, yet it actually belongs to a Baroque church dating back to 1465. This church is very special to the local Slovenians who also tell the story that a temple devoted to the ancient Slavic goddess Živa once stood in the place of the present church.
During the winter months Lake Bled becomes truly magical as the lake turns a frosty blue and the forest clad mountains encircling the lake become snowcapped and shimmering in the low winter sun. Admire the view from a lakeside cafe as you sip coffee and enjoy a local delicacy – the delicious Bled cake.
The vast wilderness of the islands of Svalbard have fascinated travellers for a long time. Teeming with wildlife, arctic nature, and old mining towns are all found on the archipelago which have a haunting and eerie beauty distinctly their own.
Not only is it a prime location to catch the aurora borealis, but the region also experiences something called the Polar Night, which occurs between November and January. During a Polar Night the sun never rises and the lightest the sky becomes is a bright blue twilight. This optimises your chances of spotting the aurora borealis and perhaps you’ll also spot the polar bears that inhabit this area.
Whitefish, Montana, USA
The exciting and energetic mountain town of Whitefish, right on the doorstep of Glacier National Park, comes into its own during the winter months. Enjoy the fantastic skiing, after all it has been named one of the “Top 25 Ski Towns in the World” by National Geographic.
Off piste make your way downtown where you will find restaurants serving a great variety of cuisine, local breweries, quaint shops and galleries with that small town charm.
If traversing across snowy abysses on a single track railway bridge doesn’t completely terrify you then you may be tempted by this.
The Langwieser Viaduct transports a train that looks rather like the Polar Express which takes you through breathtaking alpine landscape to get you from one side of Switzerland to the other. Photo opportunities galore and certainly one train journey you’ll never forget.
The picturesque village of Engelberg located in the Uri Alps was originally built around a medieval monastery. Indeed Engelberg Abbey still functions today and remains at the heart of the community, hosting recitals in the evenings.
Engelberg makes for a fantastic central base to explore nearby Mount Titlis, a foreboding 3,200-metre peak perfect for high-speed downhill skiing. Make your way to the summit to take the opportunity of walking through a glacier and crossing the highest suspension bridge in Europe.