1. TROMSØ, NORWAY
Visiting Tromsø feels like heading into the North Pole itself. It’s the northernmost town in the world; snowfall begins early in the year in October, and when the sun sets on 26 November, it won’t rise again until 21 January. This is the polar night – all the better to set off the city’s magical Christmas lights, and best of all, the Aurora Borealis. The port town is one of the world’s most famous places to see the Northern Lights, and you can swap sunset and sunrise views for flickers of pink, blue and green in the sky.
Be there for the first Saturday of December to watch the lighting of the famous Christmas tree in Stortorget, the city square, and for a thought-provoking experience, visit the impressive Tromsdalen Church, also known as the Arctic Cathedral. Christmas markets abound in Europe, but Tromsø’s are dedicated to local foods, produce and crafts.
Grab a sweet, syrupy crowberry cordial or steaming coffee (brewed over an open fire!) and explore the specialities: salted lamb and semi-dried cod, both more appealing than they sound! And you didn’t come all this way not to get the best possible view of the northern lights. Hire a dogsled or reindeer sleigh to do it in traditional style, or pack up your skis and and head out of the city to fully bask in the beauty of the sky.
Think of Christmas in Europe and Vienna is the first city to come to mind, with its historical architecture, cultural riches and famed Christmas markets. But for a truer experience of an Austrian white Christmas, head out west to Innsbruck. The city is by no means a backwater, but it isn’t quite so prominent on the beaten tourist track, so you’ll stand less chance of being elbowed at the markets.
At Innsbruck, you can’t escape the Alps – their towering, snow-covered presence commands every view. Nor would you want to escape them. Everything in Innsbruck feels quainter and more special in contrast to the mountains, whether that’s tiny local shops selling hand-carved wooden ornaments, or even the glittering Swarovski flagship store (one of Innsbruck’s claims to fame, and worth visiting if just to be blinded by the shine).
Don’t miss out on the Nordkette funicular – it’s a tourist mainstay, but for good reason. It was designed by legendary architect Zaha Hadid, and is the most incredible way to experience the surrounding landscape, blanketed by snow. In the evenings, keep warm with a hot mug of glühwein (mulled wine) and wend your way through the unending Christmas markets. There’s one in each quarter of the city, even one at the Hungerburg station of the funicular. The biggest and best is the market that takes over Innsbruck Old Town, with an enormous tree lighting up the famous Goldenes Dachl. Be there at 5.30pm to see trumpeters playing traditional Austrian Christmas songs.
Things you didn’t know: Sapporo and Munich are sister cities, a fact that gives Sapporo’s annual German-inspired Christmas market at Odori Park new meaning. The market starts in November, and goes all in for the German-style cheer and beer, with concerts, workshops and Christmas fare spilling out of the park. For a quieter, more contemplative winter’s walk, slide off to the accompanying White Illumination, a beautiful light installation that takes place alongside the market at Odori Park. It’s a stunning spectacle made for Instagram, and reportedly uses over 500,000 light bulbs.
Snow is all around at Sapporo – pick up a sled and coast down the sidewalks, or head to one of the city’s many ski resorts. Snowfall is constant, so you’re always guaranteed a fresh layer of powder. Mount Moiwa is great for beginners, and at Fu’s Snow Area, non-skiers can try their hand at luge, the terrifying Olympic sport, or the slightly less intimidating snowscoot. Afterwards, make plans to rest your bones at a super sento bathhouse, the modernised versions of traditional Japanese bathhouses, or take a day trip to one of the famous hot springs like Jozankei or Shikotsu.
JEJU ISLAND, SOUTH KOREA
Jeju Island is beautiful in spring and summer, but it takes on a whole different kind of beauty in winter. The flower-filled fields give way to stark, snow-covered scenes – and with far fewer tourists waving their selfie sticks in the air. You don’t come to Jeju Island at any time of the year to stay indoors, so pack your hiking boots and enjoy a breath of fresh air. There are hiking trails all over the island but for a satisfying day’s climb with an incredible reward at the end, pick one of the six trails up the volcanic Hallasan mountain (Yeongsil and Eorimok are the easiest, with wooden steps along much of the path) for an incredible view from the peak.
Would you rather view the island from a different vantage point? Wrap up for a horse ride and take in the scenery from one of many guided tracks around Jeju. And make time for a celebrated Jeju winter speciality: gamgyul and hallabong. These are varieties of tangerines indigenous to the island, and you’ll see them growing all over the place. They’re famed for their sweetness and juiciness – you can tell the difference between the two because the hallabong variety has a distinctive bulge at the tip.
Kashmir is one of the most wildly romantic places in the world, with its soaring views of the Himalayas and the glittering Dal Lake. And come winter, when the place is covered in a serene blanket of snow, Kashmir takes on an ethereal beauty hard to find anywhere else – and perfect for celebrating Christmas. Take a traditional boat ride on a shikara out into the partially frozen lake – or if you’re more adventurous, walk through the Zanskar Gorge for the famous Chadar Trek. You’ll be trekking on the heavily frozen river which takes on the appearance of huge plates of agate, through the beautiful Hemis National Park.
If hiking frozen rivers is not your preferred way of spending a Christmas getaway, head to the bustling Raghunath Bazaar in Kashmir’s winter capital, Jammu. You’ll find rich and delicate embroidered pashminas, Kashmiri handicrafts, silverware and beautiful Kashmiri silks which make perfect gifts. Stop for a restorative, steaming plate of harissa, the local winter delicacy. It’s a heavily spiced, deeply satisfying stew of lamb and rice, cooked overnight and traditionally eaten for breakfast, though you can get it until noon if you’re willing to queue.