Winning tip: Tobogganing in Zurich
The best way to see Zurich is from the top of its own mini mountain, Uetliberg, from where you get a view of the whole city, the lake and the countryside with mountains in the distance. It’s particularly magical in winter when everything is dusted with snow and the toboggan run is open – two miles of downhill fun from Uetliberg to Triemli! You can hop on a direct train from Zurich main station to the mountaintop, which takes just 20 minutes and costs CHF8.60 (around £7) one way. Take in the views and then hire a sledge for the journey down the Schlittelweg. Night sledding with flashlights is also on offer for those who want to take it up a notch. Finish off a day of outdoor fun on the mountain over a cheese fondue or with a glass of mulled wine or hot chocolate at one of the many Christmas markets around the city.
Food, wine and fairytales in Tallin
Estonia’s capital is a fairytale town, small enough to not feel overwhelming on a two- or three-day break. The food is fantastic – reindeer or fish with fruit and sweet, sharp sauces. Breakfasts are cured meat and fish with dark tasty bread. Coffee shops with huge comfy sofas welcome you in for a warming hot chocolate and brandy after a gentle morning walking through the beautiful old town. And they let you stay all afternoon, moving on to wine and then more amazing food. Get stuck in Fat Margaret’s Tower, pretend to be a spy meeting in the park, and go to the charming little cathedral. It’s an extraordinary city.
Tübingen’s chocolate festival, Germany
Less than 30 miles from Stuttgart lies the town of Tübingen, a university city that combines a stunning medieval backdrop of colourful buildings with the atmosphere of a cosmopolitan student hangout. For six days in late November and early December, the old town hosts the popular ChocolART festival, where chocolatiers from all over Europe come to display, discuss and sell their delicious creations. It’s an ideal occasion to soak up the winter atmosphere of this beautiful Swabian town, as you wander through the stalls with a warming cup of hot chocolate in hand, watching the demonstrations and sampling chocolates as you go.
Festive markets in Aachen, Germany
So easy to get to on Eurostar Plus trains, four hours from London. I was overwhelmed by the choice of drinks at the markets: every drink I had one day was alcoholic, drunk in cosy outside bars. Restaurants were busy at night but we found one or two with space in the evening. We had a great time at Aachener Brauhaus after the markets closed, staying there until 3am on Saturday night.
An oasis of calm in Munich
Bored with interminable dark “old masters” interspersed with famous paintings you can’t see for crowds? Try the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Because it’s undergoing renovation, it is currently quiet and costs only €4. Being half shut protects you from overdoing it, but there are still plenty of fabulous works, with time and space to enjoy those that catch your eye. In the selfie era it is fitting to see Albrecht Durer’s stunning depiction of himself in 1500, which invented the genre. Two other selfies not to miss are a very young Rembrandt, and Rubens with his newly-wed wife. The restrained, touching nature of the latter is a vivid contrast to the surrounding plethora of massive, all action technicolour Rubens, with their magnificently un-photoshopped expanses of flesh. The Neue and Moderne Pinakotheks are just as good. But under no circumstances buy a day ticket for all three. These are places to dawdle, then go for a beautiful Bavarian beer.
Foodie delights in Ghent, Belgium
Ghent is the perfect place to enjoy a snug city break. It’s easy to get to by train, being only a half hour from Brussels. The city’s Design Museum in the elegant old Hotel de Coninck is the perfect place to hide away during the icy winter days. But Ghent is also a real foodie city, offering more than just waffles and frites. De Superette is fantastic restaurant/bakery housed in an old supermarket in a residential street near the station, serving stone baked pizzas and local, seasonal dishes which diners can see being prepared in the open plan kitchen. With seats only a few feet away from the blazing oven, the restaurant is ideal for defrosting after a chilly day spent exploring. Just a few steps outside the picturesque centre is Rustpunt, a monastery that also offers cosy B&B rooms. The ancient setting is incredible, with huge gardens offering a real oasis within the city.
Views and more, Oslo
Not everyone thinks of heading north in the colder months, but Oslo offers light and warmth in the darker season. Norwegians are big into having things warm and cosy and make extensive use of candles and open fires. A stroll down Karl Johans gate, the main street, will put you in the mood. There are outdoor ice rinks around the city, with skates for rent. For a stunning view by night, take the T-Banen (metro) up to Holmenkollen and get out and walk to the world famous ski jump. Take the metro further up and walk to historic Frognerseteren cafe, which also offers a breathtaking view over the city. Stay at nearby, heritage-rich Lysebuhotel, which specialises in gourmet food and wine and can arrange cross-country ski rentals, which you can start using right outside the door.
A trio of restaurants, Vienna
When winter temperatures in Vienna drop, here’s where to go. Warm up at Gulaschmuseum, feasting on bowls of comforting, hearty pork and beef goulashes with knődel (dumplings) and boiled potatoes. Go traditional with Vienna’s most famous dish, wiener schnitzel, at Figlmüller, where queues are long and tender veal cutlets in crisp, golden breadcrumbs hang over the plate edges. It’s served simply with potato salad, washed down with jugs of wine. Indulge at Griechenbeisl , one of the oldest restaurants, with a maze of cosy, candlelit, intimate dining rooms.
Christmas markets of Krakow, Poland
As a Brit abroad, there is something oddly beautiful about inhaling the frozen air of Poland in the depths of winter. Your nose hairs freeze, but you still feel fresh. Krakow is one of the most underrated winter holiday destinations. The food is excellent. Travel is affordable. History is at your fingertips. The locals are wonderful. On top of that, all of the unique Christmas gifts you could possibly find are available in the main square.
Make a splash in the cold: Bergen, Norway
Bergen, even when the fjords are too wet and dreary to visit, is still a relaxing destination for a winter break in Norway. The city offers plenty of distractions, many costing nothing once you’ve invested in a Bergen Card. This timed card allows free travel on public transport, rides on the funicular railway up to Floyen mountain, and entry to many of the art galleries and museums. I bought the 72-hour card for £38, which is a bargain when entry to the aquarium alone is £20. Then after an afternoon exploring, you can retreat to one of the cosy cafes and admire the Christmas lights reflecting on the deep waters of the harbour, like centuries of visitors before you.