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Winter cities - Europe

European short stays in the colder months aren’t just for skiers. You can still get your fill of culture, food and history at destinations across the continent without going near a slope. Bundle up for Alicia Miller's pick of weekend breaks, where – from steaming saunas to freshly baked strudel – winter is welcoming

Bergen Norway

Embrace the Nordic outdoors with dramatic fjord trips and seawater dips. Then sink into plush velvet sofas and get ready for a feast of sea urchin, scallops and caviar

Carved by dramatic fjords and mountains, Bergen feels a little bit like it’s at the end of the world. It’s a sensation that’s only intensified in winter, when the surrounding peaks are dusted with snow, the waters ripple to icy peaks and, in the frosty air, the city comes to life as a base for snowshoers, sledders and cold-water swimmers. For the outdoors enthusiastic, this frosty Norwegian city is a kind of paradise.

Start the exploration by hopping on a cruise to the Unesco-protected Nærøyfjord, a wild waterway that is as its most epic when the passageway is blanketed in powder. Then, after an afternoon wander through the old town, Bryggen – the stuff of postcards with its colourful rows of Hanseatic waterfront warehouses – warm up with lamb shank with fennel mashed potatoes at Wesselstuen which has been turning out Norwegian classics since 1957 in a frescoed, wood-beamed space that oozes comfort.

Seafood, plucked from the freshest waters, is a Bergen speciality, and the likes of precious sea urchin and king crab are at their best during winter. Make a beeline for Cornelius Seafood Restaurant on Holmen island to raid the raw bar of oysters, prawns and scallops while taking in dramatic fjord views – the 30-minute boat ride there is half the fun. Or make for central, upmarket Restaurant Lysverket where minimalist Nordic-cool environs – dark walls, wood chairs, metallic pendant lights – set the scene for a blow-out, multi-course feast of scallop quenelles with shellfish bisque, followed by gold surgeon caviar with jellied consommé.

There are plenty of local ways to burn off excess calories. Brave bathers can go swimming at Nordnes Sjøbad seawater baths ahead of a steaming sauna. Skiers are, of course, well catered for – head to Voss Resort a couple of hours away, where off-piste options join family-friendly trails. When you want to take it easy, Bergen has wonderful places to curl up, too. A former bank, Opus XVI hotel is run by relatives of 19th-century composer Edvard Grieg, who hailed from Bergen, and channels his glamorous era with plush velvety sofas and soaring columns.

If you’re here for Bergen’s outdoorsy vibes, go cabin-chic at The Hanseatic Hotel where each room is different, but pops of style in the form of glassy chandeliers and opulent Versailles-style bed covers keep the natural wood-lined ones feeling current and cool. It’s just one example of how, in Bergen, though cosy creature comforts are always at hand, the wilds are never far away.

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Budapest Hungary

Nowhere will you snap a more picturesque snowfall in the city scene. And that’s before you wander the cinnamon-scented Christmas markets and peruse those made-for-winter menus

Tumbling snowflakes, sugar-dusting the turrets of Buda Castle; vast Christmas markets, scented with cinnamon-topped kürtőskalács (chimney cakes); atmospheric ruin pubs serving up cockle-warming Unicum herbal liqueur: Budapest really comes into its own when temperatures drop.

Even before snowy season appears – though it does so relatively reliably, every late December, January and February – the nip in the air gives the Hungarian capital a cosy vibe. Early winter sunsets allow the castle, on the west side of the city, to glow warmly with regal illumination as early as 4pm, in view of shoppers and commuters as they bustle down the banks of the Danube. A cruise snaking along the river is one way to take in the scene, but art deco Four Seasons Gresham Palace with its rooms backing on to the river, has one of the single best views. Saying that, if you visit the hotel in December, you may find it difficult to tear your eyes off the hotel’s opulent lobby Christmas tree – known to attract a queue of selfie-snapping locals around the block.

Winter in Budapest gets cosier still. Spend an afternoon poaching any tired muscles at the Széchenyi Baths one of the largest medicinal baths in Europe. Dart from interior steam rooms and pools to the sprawling outdoor area where, surrounded by wedding-cakey buildings, steam unfurls from the sultry waters.

Then, get eating – because Hungarian food was made for cool days. Try rib-sticking classics given a contemporary twist at VakVarjú – honey-plum soup with noodles or pan-roasted mangalitza pork, say. Or opt for a brimming bowlful of goulash from wine bar BorBíróság because there’s hardly a serve more suited to winter in these parts, except, perhaps, the restaurant’s tender osso bucco with tomato, onion and lemon-garlic risotto.

Budapest does fine dining, too, and nothing’s more comforting than settling down to an elaborate multi-course feast, knowing there’s nowhere better to be. Book into the Michelin-starred Borkonyha and you can feast on decadent plates of pigeon, duck liver pâté and truffles. Wash it down with a plummy glass of local red wine, and any lingering sense of chill will be banished.

Spend the rest of your days in Budapest taking in the city’s photogenic architecture, all the more perfect when framed by a flurry. Skate on a glassy rink at the City Park – one of Europe’s largest – visit those cool ruin bars or join the local children on makeshift sled rides in Normafa Park, in the Buda Hills, the cityis truly a winter playground for all ages.

Finally, curl up under the covers in a sublime hotel. Budapest has no shortage of snug winter-friendly stays that are full of character. Try the shabby-chic Brody House – a 10-room stay that channels the city’s faded grandeur – or make for Baltazár a restaurant and pub with art-splashed rooms just a few minutes’ walk from that enticing wintry scene of Buda Castle.

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Hallstatt Austria

The inspiration for the magical town in Frozen, this Alpine pin-up invites visitors to crunch along narrow snowy streets lined with painted houses before tucking into fresh-baked strudel

Pretty Hallstatt, perched in the Austrian Alps, is a looker at any time of year. But come winter, this lakeside village really transforms into a scene straight out of a fairy tale. Or, you might say, a Disney film since it was supposedly the inspiration for Frozen’s picturesque Arendelle.

The rows of 16th-century buildings painted in yellow, pink and red make an eye-catching contrast to the snowdrifts, and golden hues from warm lighting bounce off the icy blues of the lake. As for the narrow streets, they are, blissfully, a wee bit quieter than in summer as many of the million or so visitors that come to this pin-up village every year make a beeline in warmer months.

They’re missing out. In winter, when you hop on the ferry that connects Hallstatt’s train station to the village, you’ll be treated to a dramatic entrance: cascading mountainside dappled with snow and majestic white trees; cheery, centuries-old houses with pitched roofs and glowing windows; shops selling fresh-baked goodies and schnapps. A more quintessentially Alpine winter scene is hard to imagine.

Crunching around the snow-lined streets, gawping at the village’s beauty, is the main activity in Hallstatt. But before you head out exploring you’ll want to drop your bags. The hotel standard here, as you might guess, is on the boutique side, with traditional guesthouses such as Fenix Hall home to just a dozen simple rooms, with furry cushions and natural pine floors. Likewise, Hotel I Da Mitt serves up city views alongside bedrooms with wood-beamed ceilings and filling breakfasts. Wherever you book in, along with a warm bed for the night you’ll get the chance to beat the day trippers – rising, before they arrive, to a village freshly blanketed in snow. And at the end of the afternoon, a bath spiked with salts from Hallstatt’s own salt mine awaits you – the local shops sell them by the bagful.

You’ll need fuel for exploring – and for climbing the series of staircases that stitch Hallstatt’s buildings to the mountain rockface. So start your day at medieval Café Derbl where you can munch warm Bavarian milk-cream strudel, chased with plenty of steamy coffee. Then, once you’ve explored the village, strike out beyond to ski or snowboard at Dachstein Krippenstein or explore the aptly named Giant Ice Cave which are two favourite activities when snowflakes fill the skies.

Of course, this being Austria, you can’t go far wrong with a cheek-reddening pint of Stiegl beer – head for the welcoming pub Bräu-Gasthof Hallstatt or, for something a bit more refined, make your way to restaurant Im Kainz which dishes up crafted but hearty plates such as duck breast with red cabbage and bread dumpling.

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Tallinn Estonia

The locals beat thermometer dips by taking to the sauna, often interspersed with ice skating, theatre and nose-to-tail fine dining

Perched on the bracing Gulf of Finland, photogenic Tallinn is truly underrated. And, from the illuminated medieval streets of the old town to the slick alfresco skating rinks – and the epic frozen landscapes, just outside the city centre – this is a European capital that knows how to have fun all year round.

There’s one particular reason to love winter here: sauna culture. Steaming is a local obsession, and nothing banishes the sub-zero chill like a tour of the city’s public saunas. Start at retro Kalma Saun one of the city’s oldest – dressed in mint green chequered tiles – then move on to Heldeke which pairs sauna-ing with a theatre showing comedy, burlesque and live music. Or combine your sauna experience with that other great Estonian love, beer. At Põhjala Brewery a rotating selection of tipples brewed in house are paired with sessions in an on-site sauna for up to eight people. After your sweat session, sink a few pints while tucking into the brewery’s Texas-style barbecue: think 12-hour-smoked brisket cooked on oak and mesquite wood.

If you’re not into beer, Tallinn does cool cocktails, too. Sip a Banana Lollipop (Hampden Estate rum, Lillet, dry curacao, homemade banana soda, lime) at Whisper Sister and you’ll be transported to balmy tropical isles, or take in drinks alongside panoramas of the snow-dusted city from Fotografiska Tallinn a rooftop bar in a photography museum. Come dinner hour, the latter also dishes up nose-to-tail cooking, with roasted Jerusalem artichoke and sea buckthorn sauce. But if you have just one restaurant on your must-try list, make it 180 Degrees a Michelin-starred spot from chef Matthias Diether. It sets the bar for Estonian fine dining with crafted dishes featuring wild deer, local mushrooms and smoked eel.

In between all the spa-ing, drinking and eating, winter Tallinn will keep you on the move. Spend afternoons ice-skating on vast pop-up rinks, visit the Christmas market if travelling in December or wander along the city’s port, to get a sense of the wild and frosty expanse of the surrounding terrain. And when it’s time to hang up your skates for the night, there are plenty of stylish hotels waiting. In Tallinn’s scenic old town, Vanalinn, Schlössle Hotel has rooms with exposed stone walls and beamed ceilings that feel equal parts cosy and smart. Meanwhile, at Hotel St Petersbourg expect thick throws and a frothy hot tub for coddling pre-bedtime soaks.

Talvine tallinna vanalinn kaupo kalda 2016 Credit Kaupo Kalda

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Reykjavík Iceland

Snowmobile trips across icy landscapes, geothermal bathing, the northern lights, and don’t forget hot cinnamon rolls – there’s little this capital city doesn’t offer winter travellers

On the one side there are wilds, whipped by winds and laden with snow, but on the other, it’s geothermal hot springs, candlelit restaurants, cafés turning out fresh cinnamon rolls. This delicious cold-hot contrast – along with the chance to see the world-famous aurora borealis – is the hallmark of the Icelandic winter. And it’s exactly this that makes capital Reykjavík one of the true northern stars on this winter city list, as it always delivers in December, January and February.

The stark contrast begins from almost the moment you land. Hop from the airport into a taxi, and make for 101 Hotel – you’ll be welcomed with a flickering lobby fire and slick monochrome interiors, as well as floor-to-ceiling windows that let you watch the snowflakes dance outside. Then, as they pile up in the historic old town streets, join locals catching up over great food and drink. Wrap up for the 10-minute walk to Braud & Co where the city’s finest artisan pastries are served up in a street art-covered building. Freshly baked croissants, vanilla buns and cinnamon rolls taste even better when they’re eaten following the chilly meander past quaint panelled buildings painted in red and navy.

The feasting continues at Dill where organic, sustainable produce is showcased over a tasting menu – starring the likes of carrot with buttermilk and barley, and skyr, the Icelandic strained yoghurt staple, for dessert. Or try Matur og Drykkur where Icelandic classics are reimagined in an old salt fish factory by the harbour.

When you’ve had your fill of Reykjavík’s fine eats, it’s time to discover Iceland’s remarkable natural beauty: explore Langjökull glacier by snowmobile, go whale watching, visit Katla Ice Cave. Or, of course, chase the northern lights. In these darkest months of the year – the sun rises as late as 11am
and slinks below the horizon as early as 3:30pm in winter – seeing the natural flashes in the clear night skies is more likely than ever. Tours departing from downtown will take you to prime viewing spots, where you’ll nibbles waffles and sip tea while on the look-out.

But to get another hit of that Icelandic hot-cold contrast there are few better places to head for viewing than the Blue Lagoon. Here, west of the city centre, snow softens the black volcanic landscape – and steaming geothermal pools of aquamarine water let visitors poach comfortably in the cool evening air. As a day visitor you can bob here as late as 9pm, watching for aurora borealis flickering in the skies. But book into one of the two design-forward on-site hotels, and you get significantly more sky-gazing time. The Retreat is the luxury option, with contemporary rooms in warming volcanic greys – and in some cases, doors leading right into the warm lagoon waters, allowing for an impromptu dip at leisure. A dedicated northern lights wake-up call will ensure you don’t miss the show, no matter what time of night they appear.

How to pass the time while you’re waiting? A mud treatment in the spa is certainly one option, but you’d be remiss to miss the on-site Moss restaurant. One of the finest in Reykjavík, headed up by former London Texture chef Agnar Sverrisson, it turns out minimalistic plates with almost exclusively locally soured ingredients – even Icelandic-grown wasabi.

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