When you read about winter vacations, they usually involve skiing or snowboarding. But what if you don’t ski, and don’t necessarily want to learn either? I used to ski, but haven’t in decades, and yet, I am absolutely in love with snow and cannot imagine any better winter getaway than something involving a snowy experience. I love to wrap up warm, don sensible shoes, and get out and about in a city — or landscape that has been transformed into a winter wonderland by a snowy cover.
There are plenty of places in the world, and particularly in Europe, where you can simply enjoy the snow and have a fun wintery experience, involving walks through snowy forests, tobogganing, or simply après-skiing without the ski, and more.
If you feel like coming over to Europe, but either you or your knees don’t want to ski, yet you still want to be out there enjoying the snow, read on.
1. Dog Sledding, Finland
Imagine a perfect snowy landscape dotted with snowy trees, the sound of dogs barking, and a woosh of cold air in your face. Sitting wrapped up in warm blankets on a sleigh, with a team of huskies having the time of their lives pulling you through the winter wonderland, is my idea of a winter haven. Throw in a sighting of the Aurora Borealis and the Northern Lights. Can it get any better? To add to the thrill, you can also learn how to lead the dogs and sleigh yourself, taking charge if you wish to. There are plenty of different tours, even a sleigh “road” trip between huts, so you just need to pick one that suits your sense of adventure.
Pro Tip: Why not try your hand at ice swimming — a hugely popular pastime that has been proven to be enormously beneficial to your physical and mental health — while you are there? Brrr.
2. Tobogganing In Tyrol, Austria
While this list is not about places to go skiing, you can still have a lot of fun hurtling down a mountainside at great speed. How about going tobogganing in the mountains of Austria? It is amazing how many options you have with this idea. Would you believe there are more than 450 miles — some 80 plus runs — of designated, organized, and well-looked after stretches of tobogganing track in the western Austrian state of Tyrol alone? There are terrains for families, runs with lifts (so you don’t even have to pull your sledge back up the hill yourself), interconnected runs for variety, and even night-time tobogganing.
3. Snow Hiking, Arosa, Switzerland
When visiting friends in Switzerland one winter, they introduced me to the amazing stretches of hiking trails that go hand in hand with the ski slopes and allow both pastimes to be enjoyable in the same spots. There are countless, well-maintained trails of varying lengths and difficulty levels, where you can enjoy the mountains, the snow, the views, the huts for some lovely lunches, and a bit of warming mulled wine. You go up via gondola or ski lift and then you can walk for miles either between resorts or around the resort and either walk down or take the gondola back down. Occasionally, there are crossroads where skiers have the right of way.
Pro Tip: There is one particular trail, called the Squirrel Trail, where all through the season you can meet the cutest black squirrels with white tummies, and you even get to feed them.
4. Snowshoeing, Lofoten Islands, Norway
There is hiking and then there is snowshoeing. Donning snowshoes — a kind of tennis racket or short, non-slip skis, attached to your shoes that allow you to stay on top of the snow rather than sinking in — makes for easier walking and a chance to go off to the side of dedicated hiking trails; off-road, if you wish. The northern Norwegian region of the Lofoten Islands is superbly scenic any time of the year, but particularly stunning when covered in snow. And trekking through the countryside on a wide choice of shorter or longer, more difficult or beginner-level guided excursions is not only great exercise but also great fun.
Pro Tip: Even if you are used to hiking, get some extra exercise in before embarking on snowshoeing to get your fitness levels up.
5. Enjoy The Scenery In Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
How about a European winter road trip? You can drive to and around the National Park of Plitvice, unless there was some unexpected heavy snowfall, and can simply stop off at the various and numerous natural wonders in the region. This region is pretty much always enjoying snow in the winter, and the lake and its waterfalls often freeze to make for stunning sights. It is a perfect location for simply enjoying the scenery of a beautiful European destination that is at its most stunning in winter. Add to that the fact that there are fewer visitors plus reduced admission fees to the park, it’s all good news.
Pro Tip: Many hotels in and around the park are closed during the winter season, but Hotel Jezero stays open. And in winter, the views from the balconies are even better!
6. Stay At Icehotel, Sweden
Today, there are many hotels made from ice popping up from Norway to Sweden to Finland, but there is only one original. The Icehotel was first constructed in 1989 and was a trailblazer for a new and unique way of staying the night in the colder climates of northern Europe. Rebuilt every year, always complete with amazing art installations created by visiting artists from around the world, this is still a unique experience not to be missed if you are a winter-loving person. Sleep on ice blocks covered with reindeer skins, sip ice-cold drinks from ice-hewn glasses, and enjoy the surroundings in the daytime.
Pro Tip: Stay one night sleeping on ice and being surrounded by ice for the experience, but because the bathrooms and hot showers are not en-suite, you might want to decamp to the chalets belonging to the same hotel for the night after.
7. Climb A Glacier, Iceland
One of the most amazing experiences in my lifetime was climbing Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland. You can don crampons, grab an icepick, follow the leader who knows his way around the otherworldly landscape, and discover treasures that only snow and ice can offer. The glacier features turquoise-shimmering holes, caves under the glacier that are just magical, and views that are unique. Yes, it is a little tiring, but not anywhere as steep as mountain climbing, and you go at a slow pace with your guide always assessing the safety and comfort of each member in your group, and it offers you a huge sense of achievement, during and after.
Pro Tip: As it turned out afterward, when I went to the hospital back home, I climbed the glacier with a broken hand, so please don’t doubt your abilities or fitness level to do this. Trust me, if I can do it with a broken hand, it will be easy for you — and such an adventure.
8. Enjoy Après Ski Without The Ski, Chamonix, France
Après ski in the French Alps? Why not? You know you don’t have to ski to enjoy a good dose of après ski, right? In the cutesy resort of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, simply called Chamonix, in the French Alps, you can enjoy all the glamor, fun, and atmosphere of the ski set minus having to do the skiing. Nestled into the base of Mont Blanc, in closest proximity to Switzerland and Italy, but just about in France, Chamonix is a picture-perfect mountain village completely snuggled into a valley, with a gurgling river and mind-blowing scenery, gorgeous Alpine architecture, inviting cafes and restaurants, and cozy bars to enjoy your warming Après ski cocktails or hot chocolate. And then there are, of course, the pretty and expensive fashion stores that need exploring.
Pro Tip: As you are saving money on the skiing itself, why not treat yourself to the Wes Anderson-like Grand Hotel Des Alpes which has the white grandeur outside, complete with turret and blue shutters on the windows, but the cozy mountain-chalet feeling inside?
9. Whale Watching, Norway
And now for something truly spectacular in Norway: whale watching in winter, with a chance of the Aurora Borealis overhead. Between October and April is whale season on the islands of northern Norway, and sightings are 100 percent guaranteed. Setting off from Andenes, a settlement on the island of Andøya, you can catch a day or half-day whale safari cruise, and then, at night, go on an Aurora Borealis tour.
Pro Tip: Just don’t get excited about also seeing those cute puffins while you are there in winter. They don’t start arriving on the islands until late March, with the peak season in May.
For more winter experiences in Europe, check out these stories: