As the temperature begins to drop in Europe – or rather plummeted immediately on August 29, a date technically marked as summer – my daydreams start to drift to snowy cities, Christmas markets and cosy cafes. With that in mind, I took a look at the range of tours on offer to decide which would be my perfect snapshot of Europe in the chilly winter months.
While southern Europe can be great to explore in the quieter period over winter, as oppose to when it is thronging with tourists in summer, there is something a bit sad about gazing at the Mediterranean Sea thinking how wonderful it must be when it’s warm enough to swim. If I’m going to travel in winter, I want to embrace the colder temperatures to have the real experience. I have also always wanted to see the Northern Lights and visit Santa in Finland, so I looked for tours that visit Eastern European countries and Scandinavia.
I don’t want to be in too much of a hurry, so I chose a tour that lasts for 37 days – the Red Star Special 2018, operated by Topdeck.
The tour starts and ends in Berlin, Germany, where I have previously been in the middle of January, so I know firsthand how this will be the perfect, abrupt introduction to the colder temperatures. From Berlin the tour travels north to Copenhagen in Denmark. Having lived in Denmark I am quite familiar with Copenhagen. It’s a perfect place to explore a small yet picturesque city centre where buildings are painted in various colours in an effort to brighten the short winter days, then warm up with hot chocolate topped with generous servings of whipped cream.
Stockholm is next. While very similar to Copenhagen, Stockholm is perhaps slightly more on the grand scale when it comes to architecture – but like its Danish counterpart, the Swedish capital offers a charming old city centre that is both very photogenic and walkable. These are places built for cold temperatures, and they distract from the potential misery by offering a lovely setting with restaurants and cafes serving reviving drinks and comfort food.
From Sweden the tour heads through various parts of Norway, which my research tells me offer as good a chance as any to see the famed Northern Lights – something that has long stood on my bucket list. From Norway, the itinerary continues in Finland with Rovaniemi the first stop. Rovaniemi is known as the home of Santa Claus, and is also a prime place to see the Northern Lights if I were to somehow miss them in Norway. Santa Claus Village can be found here, and I can certainly imagine spending a day hiding from adulthood there.
After a couple more stops in Finland, including Helsinki, which my Finnish friends tell me is wonderful – especially if you like seafood – the tour hops over to Tallinn, Estonia. Tallinn has also been a destination near the top of my list for some time; in fact, it is probably one of my top must-visits in Eastern Europe based on the recommendations of well-travelled friends.
Following a couple of days in cobble-stoned, church-spired, red-roofed Tallinn, the Red Star Special continues in Russia.
First, stopping in beautiful St Petersburg, then Novgorod and Moscow. I have been to both St Petersburg and Moscow, but would happily visit these stately cities again. This is certainly not the warmest corner of the earth, but the buildings are unlike anything I have seen elsewhere and the grand squares are nothing short of magnificent. The history is rich, there are many museums, and once again, you are in a place where locals know how to fend off the cold with cosy dining venues and bars – so being inside becomes quite an appealing concept.
Latvia and Lithuania are next on the list; two places I have heard are up-and-coming as prime travel destinations, making now an ideal time to visit before they become more expensive and lose any of the authentic culture that awaits. From Vilnius in Lithuania, the final stop is Warsaw, Poland – another city I have visited and fallen in love with, to which I would be happily return for a good dose of pierogis and wodka.
The tour concludes in Berlin, providing an ideal opportunity to continue further exploration of the continent from this prime travel hub, or fly on home with plenty of stories to tell.
Ready to find your ideal winter, spring, summer or autumn tour? Start searching here.
Courtney Gahan is an Aussie serial expat, traveller and freelance writer who has bartered with Moroccan marketeers, seen the sun rise at Angkor Wat and elbowed her way through crowds on NYE in NYC. Currently based in Amsterdam.