You haven’t seen Europe until you've been there in winter
In the Northern Hemisphere, winter means chunky knits and snuggling up in front of the fireplace with cups of steaming hot chocolate, not to mention ice skating in the open air and sleigh rides.
“Lush green hiking slopes emerge as pistes. Lively city squares transform into fairy tale Christmas Markets. Summer cocktails along the river become Glühwein in cosy cafés. Among the benefits of travelling to Europe during winter is that there are fewer tourists and it’s more affordable, but you can still enjoy a different flavour of Europe,” says Teresa Richardson, Managing Director of The Travel Corporation, the parent company of Insight Vacations.
Insight Vacations reveals its top picks for South African travellers headed north for a magical winter experience in Europe:
1. Germany’s Christmas Markets
The festive season in old-world German towns will feed your Christmas spirit. Think twinkling markets stocked to the brim with Yuletide delights and towering Christmas trees.
Soak up the Weihnachtszauber, Christmas magic, at the Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin's most magnificent square, framed by the Concert Hall and French and German cathedrals.
In Dresden, explore Dresdner Striezelmarkt, Germany's oldest Christmas Market. Meet local traders, who will introduce you to a taste of delicious Glühwein and Christstöllen, a Christmas cake dating back to medieval times. Snap up some holiday pics of the record-breaking Christmas pyramid, a full 14 metres high.
Winter insight: As you browse the markets keep an eye out for Räuchermann (smoking man), he’s a hollowed out ornament with a hole leading to his pipe. An incense candle is placed inside him so that he appears to smoke as it burns.
2. Seamless sightseeing in Salzburg and Lucerne
Sit back in a luxury coach as you journey through Switzerland, Austria and Germany. The views are spectacular.
Pass the beautiful Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria and cross the Austrian border into glorious Salzburg, one of the most beautiful cities to visit during winter. Follow your expert guide through the formal gardens of Mirabell Palace and take a moment to admire the city skyline, crowned by the majestic Hohensalzburg Fortress.
In Lucerne, Switzerland, take the cable car for the best views of Mount Pilatus and Lake Lucerne.
Winter insight: In Lucerne, a highlight will be the The Lion of Lucerne, the iconic sculpture of a dying lion, carved into a limestone cliff and dedicated to the heroic Swiss Guards who died defending King Louis XVI during the French Revolution.
3. Imperial Rome with more carbs, less cold
You won’t have to worry about feeling the cold when you’re indoors, especially in Rome, where Insight Vacations offers a VIP visit to the Vatican Museum, led by its local guides.
There is also behind-the-scenes access at the Bramante Staircase, a section of the Vatican usually closed to the public, which you will visit before exploring St. Peter’s Basilica.
Winter insight: Winter in Rome is the best time to fill up on heavy spaghetti alla carbonara, and winter treats like panettone (sweet bread), hot chocolate and frappe. Ask your Travel Director to point you in the right direction during your first evening out on a passeggiata - a traditional evening stroll.
4. No crowds in Paris
In winter, Paris transforms into one of the most stunning cities in Europe with white rooftops and iconic monuments dusted in snow. Best of all, there are hardly any crowds.
Travelling in a small group means you can slip through areas unnoticed, where Parisians go about their daily lives. Indulge in local delicacies from a patisserie, boulangerie, fromagerie and chocolatier while you thaw out.
On a free afternoon, why not see the city from the iconic Eiffel Tower? But, if you want to see the whole city with the Eiffel Tower in view, head to the Montparnasse Tower in the district of Montparnasse.
Winter insight: A leisurely way to get to Paris without losing precious time travelling to and from the airports, is from London’s St. Pancras Station on the high-speed Eurostar. It’s a comfortable rail journey which takes you via the Channel Tunnel - the longest undersea section of tunnel in the world.
5. Russia in winter wonderlands
Russia completely transforms in winter, with the festivities of the Russian Orthodox Christmas in full swing close to December.
Russia is visa-free for South African passport holders who can experience the annual International Winter Festival in St. Petersburg, which showcases an array of culture from the regions of Russia and Christmas traditions from all over the world.
Next, board the high-speed Sapsan train and relax in modern luxury while you move on to Moscow in just a few hours. Moscow’s Christmas Markets are stocked with unique art pieces and classic Russian ornaments, and are a wonderful way to end your trip.
Winter insight: St. Basil's Cathedral is simply gorgeous to gaze up at during winter. As your Local Expert will recall, It was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century to commemorate a military victory. It was also nearly stolen and taken to Paris by Napoleon.
“Winter is the best time of year to beat the crowds and discover Europe’s best cities in a new light. This season, get your coat and cozy scarf ready, and join a well-planned guided holiday so that you’re not left out in the cold,” concludes Richardson