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Winter Holidays: Where's hot in the cold


Seasonal appeal:
Bruges is full of
charm when the
temperature drops

Seasonal appeal: Bruges is full of charm when the temperature drops

Seasonal appeal: Bruges is full of charm when the temperature drops

Over the next few months, airines and travel companies will be doing their best to sell you two types of holiday: skiing and winter sun.

But not everyone skis, and not everyone wants to spend a fortune on a long flight to a beach.

It's easy to neglect the fact that many destinations have a special atmosphere in winter. Snow, frost and ice transform a landscape, as do natural spectacles such as the Northern Lights. And, as long as you have warm clothes, intense cold adds a special drama to a city.

What's more, those cultures that are subject to a deep freeze tend to be good at keeping things cosy -- Viennese coffee houses and the saunas in Finland spring to mind.

So here are some places where winter adds to the attraction:

Vienna: Few cultures do cosy interiors better than the Viennese. Nothing beats the rush of warm air that greets you in a traditional coffee house as you step in from the cold. And one great strength about Vienna is its compactness: you can march briskly from sight to sight without ever getting too chilly. The December Christmas markets also add a special atmosphere.

Berlin: The other great, central-European capital is much less compact, but it has a superb, well-heated public transport system and some of the world's best concert halls, museums and cultural centres.

In winter, you have the luxury of seeing the Gemäldegalerie, the Pergamon or the recently restored Neues Museum without the crowds.

The Low Countries: Remember the Brueghel scenes of Flemish landscapes in the snow? Times have changed in Belgium and Holland, but several historic towns -- including Bruges, Ghent, Haarlem -- have changed little since the 16th and 17th centuries, and when there is a cold snap they can be particularly beautiful and timeless. Last winter was one of the coldest for years.

Who knows what this year will bring, but to catch the cities at their best, look out for falling temperatures and book at the last minute.

New York: We've all seen footage of the steaming vents in the streets of Manhattan. That atmosphere is at its best in winter when the city is certainly cold, but also typically very sunny (five hours a day on average, which is more than half the daylight hours).

Snow falls regularly, and there are few cityscapes to match Central Park after a blanketing the night before.

St Petersburg: Ice in the river Neva and on the canals, gilded domes glittering in the oblique sunlight, locals hunkering down in traditional winter garb and, unlike summer, not a single mosquito. Russian relish!

Iceland -- For an extraordinary landscape shaped by extreme cold and volcanic heat, and for the chance to see the Northern Lights and bathe in open-air hot-water springs.

You can build a winter visit around a short break in Reykjavik, taking day trips to sights such as the Blue Lagoon and Strokkur geyser.

Lapland: The silent plains of Finnish Lapland -- the conifers heavy with frost, the sun just breaking over the horizon and casting immense shadows across the sparkling snow -- are one of the great winter landscapes. And you have a great chance of seeing the Northern Lights.

You can visit as a skier (though the resorts are small and quite limited), but it's more fun to try husky sledding, reindeer sleighing or, if you don't mind the engine noise, snowmobile safaris, all of which are widely available, partly because of the large numbers people looking for things to do after a visit to Father Christmas.

Irish Independent