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No matter what your idea of a winter escape, from snowy wonderlands to sun-kissed beaches and cities that seem designed just for romance, these European destinations are sure to motivate you to get packing.
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Iceland may sound like a place you’d have to endure brutal cold if you visited in the winter, but you’ll be surprised to find that despite its name and latitude near the Arctic Circle, this season here is relatively mild, thanks to the warm Gulf Stream temperatures. In fact, the weather in New York City can be much harsher than it is in Reykjavik, and it’s often comparable to cities like London or Amsterdam. While you will need to bundle up, it’s worth the effort as you’ll be able to take in some of the world’s most extraordinary landscapes, made even more beautiful this time of year with everything from endless ice fields, glistening blue glaciers and brilliantly blue ice caves to partially frozen waterfalls. Add in the fact that you’ll have the chance to watch the northern lights, and Iceland is hard to beat. Just a short drive from the capital city and you can be in the legendary Blue Lagoon, enjoying the soothing warm waters while sipping a refreshing beverage and gazing at the magnificent surrounding scenery.
Sagres is an increasingly popular winter vacation destination located off the southwestern tip of the Algarve. It draws lots of golfers and surfers to its cool, sun-kissed beaches in the winter. This is the time when Atlantic swells are the most consistent and at their peak, while those picturesque stretches of sand are free from summer crowds. There is also a multitude of golf courses, like the 18-hole Boavist and Espiche, located in an ecological preserve, bringing enthusiasts hoping to play a round or two in the pleasant warmth of the sun. When clouds roll in, storm watchers appreciate the chance to watch and hear the massive waves that crash to the shore. Then there are also a host of pretty fishing villages, majestic castles and scenic walks among cork-oak trees.
One of the most beautiful towns in Croatia, Rovinj is a former Venetian vassal state on the azure Adriatic. It was once an important seaport and a town of sailors and fishermen, but today, it’s one of the most popular destinations in the Mediterranean. While travelers come from all corners of the globe to enjoy a summer holiday, an increasing number arrive in the chillier months of the year, thanks to Rovinj’s favorable weather conditions and mild climate that allow visitors to say goodbye to those winter blues and enjoy wandering the uncrowded cobbled streets lined with art galleries, shops, lively bars and eateries, under the warmth of the sunshine. As many properties significantly discount their rates this season, accommodation is much cheaper too.
The most famous peak in The Alps, and arguably the world, is located near the spectacular village of Zermatt. The Matterhorn towers over the border between Switzerland and Italy at nearly 15,000 feet high. The car-free Alpine village itself sits at an elevation of over 13,000 feet and is especially enchanting in the wintertime when it’s all aglow against the icy backdrop of the mountains. You can ride a cable car to the summit to enjoy Europe’s highest scenic outlook, and of course, the area also offers the chance to indulge in world-class spas, enjoy renowned premier skiing and even horse-drawn sleigh rides.
While temperatures in Venice aren’t warm in the wintertime, many feel this beautiful City of Canals is at its very best during this season, particularly under a dusting of snow. And, visitors also enjoy hotel rates that are the lowest they’ll be all year. Skip the crowds by avoiding the weeks around the Carnevale di Venezia Festival, and you’ll benefit from shorter lines to popular attractions as well as a better chance of experiencing the more authentic side of Venice that most high season visitors miss. Bundle up and take a stroll through the thick mist that often settles around the canals, it makes for especially striking atmospheric photos. You can still enjoy the gondolas too, as they run year-round, and when it’s chilly the gondoliers offer blankets to cuddle up in.
If you’re really into Christmas, meaning the whole shebang, including Mr. and Mrs. Claus, then a visit to Rovaniemi, Finland is a must. Located just north of the Arctic Circle, this is the “official” residence of the man himself (and the woman behind him, of course). Here you can meet the jolly ol’ fellow in a glistening winter wonderland of snow-covered pines and even reindeer. Pack your serious winter clothing, and look forward to tobogganing in the pristine snow, embarking on sled dog rides, gazing at the northern lights or even going on a reindeer safari. Bring the kids too, they can make cookies with Mrs. Claus and even enroll in Elf School. For the ultimate Santa/frosty experience, stay atthe Arctic Snow Hotel, which is constructed ever year out of snow and ice.
Hungary’s capital offers lots of charms, and an abundance of cultural influences have affected it throughout its long history, making it even more intriguing. It also tends to be more affordable than many other European cities, including Vienna and Prague. No matter what the season, you can enjoy gazing at the magnificent buildings in Baroque, Neoclassic and Art Noveau style, exploring the host of galleries and museums and partying until the sun comes up at the bars, night clubs and pubs. In the wintertime, you can watch or join other skaters that glide across the ice on the huge rink at picturesque central park. Hitting the ornate Turkish thermal baths afterward is the ideal way to warm those chilled bones.
Abisko, Sweden is another fabulous spot for those who’ve always wanted to experience spending the night in an ice hotel. Located in Swedish Lapland, this is a place designed for winter lovers. The sun may not rise for several weeks during the season, but it’s those many hours of darkness that makes it one of the best places on Earth for watching the northern lights, which can be viewed nearly every clear night. Stay at the Icehotel, located in Jukkasjärvi, and you can take an overnight excursion to search for them and enjoy sleeping in “cool rooms” that hover around 23 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you’re into skiing or snowboarding but want to enjoy a more budget-friendly destination, head to Slovakia to enjoy some of the best at a more affordable price. With its breathtaking scenery, world-class boarding and skiing as well as magnificent mountain scenery, more and more travelers are discovering the joys of a winter escape in this Central European nation. Jasna is Slovakia’s top ski resort, with its long descents flanked by snow-covered spruce trees among the ruggedly picturesque Tatras Mountains.
The Svalbard archipelago is set between the Greenland and Barents seas, 1,000 miles from the North Pole, and about three hours by plane from Oslo. It’s not only another fantastic destination for those that want to see the northern lights, but it offers everything from close-up encounters with icebergs and glaciers to an incredible abundance of wildlife. Known as one of the last great untouched wilderness areas in Europe, these tiny islands are home to more polar bears than people, with less than 3,000 calling it home. In addition to polar bears, you’ll have a good chance of spotting walrus, seals, reindeer, polar foxes and all types of birds who co-exist in this harsh, but beautiful landscape. It’s so remote that it hosts the Global Seed Vault, which provides a safety net against the accidental loss of diversity in case of a major regional or global disaster. In addition to aurora and wildlife viewing, you can enjoy dog sledding, skiing, and snowmobiling.