Edinburgh is one of the best places in the UK for a winter city break, providing frosty scenes, festive entertainment and cosy boltholes to embrace the season.
Why go now?
Summer may be the most favoured time of year for tourists to visit, when the population of Scotland's capital doubles, but they're missing a trick as immersing yourself in the sights and sounds of the magical winter allows you to see the city at its best.
Where to stay
Edinburgh is wonderfully walkable and you won't have to think too hard about getting around but you can stay in the thick of it all at the luxurious Sheraton Grand Hotel & Spa, where some of the contemporary Club Rooms are afforded with a spectacular view of Edinburgh Castle. The five-star hotel is warm and cosy from the moment you step through its doors, with an inviting fireplace and comfortable seating welcoming guests into the grand lobby. The stylish hotel features walnut furnishings and superb Scottish touches throughout, from its modern tartan rugs and Scottish granite floors to the artworks by Scottish artist Lynne Macpherson. Highlights of the Sheraton Grand include the renowned restaurant, the trendy bar serving more than 70 varieties of gin and an impressive spa.
Get into the festive spirit
If you're visiting in the run-up to Christmas you can make the most of the fabulous festivities that take place around Edinburgh. The European Christmas Market (19 November to 7 January 2017) returns to East Princes St Gardens in the heart of the city, bringing beautiful crafts, delicious food and unique gifts. Pick up delightful treats like gingerbread, Christmas tree decorations, cashmere scarves and vibrant lanterns. For a stunning show that will get anyone into the Christmas spirit, head for the west end of George Street to the Street of Light (21 November to 24 December 2016), a magnificent display of over 60,000 colourful bulbs of light alongside synchronised music by local choirs and musicians.
Where to relax
Whether you're planning a day holed up at the hotel or an afternoon of true R&R, there's nowhere better for a heavenly spa experience in Edinburgh than the Sheraton Grand's One Spa. Located in its own separate building which guests can access via a glass walkway, the sprawling spa has everything you could imagine: a 19-metre infinity edge pool, a hammam, saunas, a state-of-the-art gym and an indoor-outdoor Hydropool. It's easy to while away the hours soaking up the serenity here and the spa is open until 10pm for those who like to fit in some relaxation after a day of sightseeing. This season, One Spa has collaborated with Olympic silver medallist and open-water swimmer Keri-anne Payne to offer three spa packages so you can get the best out of your visit to the spa and allow your body to recover, recharge or relax during your short break. The Recharge package is for tired bodies and will leave you feeling calm and rejuvenated. It combines swimming pool exercises to encourage blood flow, before some rest and breathing exercises in the Thermal Suite and finally a soothing Face & Back Facial, which deeply relaxes your back, neck and shoulders, with an intensive facial and scalp massage leaving your skin rehydrated and both your body and mind revived.
Best way to keep warm
With 80 per cent of the UK's gin produced in Scotland, the drink of the moment can be enjoyed in more than a few decent places in Edinburgh, whether you're a purist or prefer it with a twist - it's also the perfect winter warmer. At Pickering's' Summerhall Distillery, housed in an old animal hospital and probably the only place where you'll find the spirit stored in animal cages, you can discover how gin is distilled and the botanicals used on an interesting tour. For a sophisticated setting to sip on a gin and tonic or a gin cocktail, the Sheraton Grand's colourful One Square Bar is a lovely, laid-back drinking spot you won't want to miss. There are dozens of gins on offer, including One Square Gin, created with the distillers at Pickering's and featuring Mediterranean liquorice, fragrant Scottish heather and notes of lime. If it's all things gin that takes your fancy, there are also gin tastings and gin afternoon tea to be had at the One Square Bar.
Where to feast
Eating out in Edinburgh is a terrific experience during the winter months, when the restaurants are scented with cinnamon, decorated with Christmas lights and fireplaces are lit. At Ghillie Dhu, just a short walk from the Sheraton Grand, you can enjoy a traditional Scottish atmosphere with cosy snugs and live entertainment every night as you dine on hearty dishes, ranging from roast parsnip soup to baked rainbow trout on a bed of risotto. The Sheraton Grand's own restaurant, One Square, is a destination in its own right and a chic space, serving inventive British dishes and delicious classics, such as a selection of 28-day dry-aged steaks from Scotland, slow-cooked lamb shoulder and organic salmon. In the heart of Edinburgh's old town, close to Edinburgh Castle, the Cannonball Restaurant & Bar offers exciting dishes, such as the smoked salmon plate with pickled ginger and homemade lemon vinaigrette in a brasserie-style setting featuring dark wood, tartan cushions and leather chairs.
Things to see
A stroll through town in winter is fantastic when the city is sparkling with frost. Start by taking in the beauty of Charlotte Square, one of the most magnificent Georgian squares in the UK where you can spot some fantastic historic features including the railings of the townhouses with their iron boot scrapers, the steps to the pavement which once allowed women to descend from carriages without landing in the mud and the blocked-up windows from when the window tax was introduced from 1748. Then, take in the views from Edinburgh and get a closer look at the city's many monuments on a walk up to Calton Hill, where the iconic Dugald Stewart Monument and National Monument of Scotland stand. Edinburgh Castle and a peek at the crown jewels should not be missed: be sure to visit in time for the firing of the One o'clock Gun - it's a unique sight. And the likes of George Street, Princes Street and the Royal Mile are beautiful spots for soaking up the city's marvellous architecture. The picturesque areas of Stockbridge, Grassmarket and the West End Village are also worth visiting.
Details: Sheraton Club Rooms start from £235 per night and include access to One Spa and the Club Lounge. The Recharge spa package at One Spa costs £115 for one hour and 20 minutes.
City breaks that are better in winter than summer
City breaks that are better in winter than summer
During the winter months, Venice's famous canals become far less crowded, the piazzas fall quiet, hotel prices drop considerably and the city takes on an eerie beauty that you won't find during the summer. Even in the off-peak season, you can still marvel at St Mark’s Basilica (with less of a wait to get in), take a foggy gondola ride and indulge in your favourite Italian foods. Mixing with the locals is easier too as Venice hosts a number of cultural events for residents, such as plays and musical performances, which tourists are welcome to attend. The fabulous Venice Carnival also takes place in winter. TravelSupermarket.com offers two-night breaks in Venice for under £99, including flights and accommodation.
Above the Arctic Circle in northern Norway, Tromso is one of the most fascinating city break destinations in the winter, offering a vibrant mix of outdoor activities, nightlife and places to eat local food. It is the best time to visit if you're looking to witness the Northern Lights and you can also discover Tromso's iconic Arctic Cathedral, explore the fascinating Polar Museum and the Northern Lights Observatory. There are plenty of activities to fill the days here too, from snowshoeing to dog sledding and reindeer safaris to horse-drawn sleigh rides. Inntravel offers a three-night Tromso city break, including a stay at Hotel With on the historic waterfront, a Northern Lights trip and flights from London Heathrow, from £775 per person.
There isn't a more magical time of year in New York than during the winter months when visitors can enjoy the lowest hotel room rates of the year, fabulous events such as NYC Restaurant Week and NYC Broadway Week, and see the city covered in snow. For travellers who land in the Big Apple for the festive period, there's ice skating under the 78ft Rockefeller Centre Christmas Tree and the magic of Broadway entertainment, with the highly anticipated The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular. The Bryant Park Christmas Village is perfect for wrapping up warm up with a cup of mulled wine, while the best hot chocolate in New York can be found at Jacques Torres Chocolate. Looking to splurge? Stay at The Chatwal New York, a five-star Midtown Manhattan hotel, where double rooms start from £480 per night.
As winter hits the Northern Hemisphere, the Southern Hemisphere basks in glorious heat and sunshine making it a great time to visit the beach city of Rio de Janeiro. To see it at its best you'll want to wait until the temperatures start to drop here in the UK as the colder it gets here, the hotter it is in Brazil. As our winter begins, Rio comes alive, with people flocking to the gorgeous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, while the bars and cafes Botafogo and Lapa become packed and create a wonderful, lively atmosphere in the city. Summer in Rio is all about enjoying the sun, sea and samba, when you can explore the arty Santa Teresa area, party at Rio Carnival and simply relax on the fabulous beaches. RealWorld offers seven-day holidays to Rio from £1,350 per person, including flights, four-star accommodation, tours and transfers.
A recent ranking by European package holiday specialist TravelBird revealed that Reykjavik is the number one most inspirational place to visit in winter, scoring 100/100 versus 32.86/100 in the summer. Iceland is known for its wintry landscape and snowy scenes, and winter is the most beautiful time to visit the capital, when there's never a dull day thanks to the array of events and festivals that keeps Reykjavik's energy buzzing. It's also the best time to catch the Northern Lights. During the festive season, Reykjavik offers a number of free activities which can only be enjoyed during winter, such as the Winter Lights Festival and the legendary celebrations of New Year's Eve. Stay at the cosy Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre, where rooms start from £180 per night.
Summer is the busiest and most expensive time to visit York: you’ll end up competing with the crowds and jostling for position to see the sights. York truly comes alive in winter, with its lamp-lit cobbled streets wonderfully atmospheric, the Minster cathedral looking majestic shrouded in mist and the ancient city walls providing a magical delight. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the scent of roasted chestnuts fills the air as St Nicholas Fair lines the streets with snug wooden chalets, mulled wine and twinkling lights. Winter is also the ideal time to learn York's Chocolate Story, a tour through the history of York's most famous chocolate-making families and their finest creations, and you can follow the Ice Trail across the city to discover 30 crystal-clear ice sculptures. Book a stay at The Grange Hotel, located just a five-minute stroll from the historic city centre, where overnight stays start from £99 per room.
Finland’s capital comes alive as the mercury drops, providing travellers with a variety of wintry experiences to delight the senses. Christmas lovers can bask in the lights lining Aleksanterinkatu, the city’s traditional Christmas street - or head to St. Thomas’ Market for a spot of shopping. Ice skating is a popular winter activity, with many people visiting the Ice Park in the Railway Station Square, and skiers can make use of almost 200km of well-kept trails in Central Park. Those wanting to heat up can experience three different saunas at Loyly: a continuously heated sauna, a once-heated sauna and a traditional smoke sauna. If you visit in January, be sure to taste blini - the thick, fluffy pancakes which originated in Russia are very popular with the locals. Complete your Helsinki experience with a stay at the centrally located, Nordic-inspired Klaus K Hotel, where rates start from €140 per night at weekends. Finnair flies from London Heathrow and Manchester to Helsinki from £117 return.
With the ball season reaching its peak in January and February, travellers to Vienna can celebrate the carnival season and waltz the night away with endless hours of dancing. Over 400 balls are staged each winter, frequented by 300,000 dance-loving visitors from all around the world. The three-quarter rhythm is supplemented by more contemporary sounds, offering enjoyable dancing for every taste. While in the city, you can enjoy Vienna’s clear blue skies with often a crisp layer of snow in the months of January and February and explore the various winter street markets the city has to offer. Flight Centre offers two-night breaks in Vienna, staying at the four-star Hotel Zeitgeist Vienna on a bed and breakfast basis and flying from London Heathrow, from £199 per person.
St Petersburg is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world and the former Russian capital really comes to life in the icy winter months. Barely 500 miles from the Arctic Circle, temperatures here can drop as low as -9C but the harsh weather can bring out the best of the city as the Neva River and nearby canals freeze over, locals wrap up in their finest furs and snowfall adorns some of city’s most iconic sights, such as the grand Winter Palace, St Isaac’s Cathedral and the Peter and Paul Fortress. Regent Holidays offers three-night city breaks at the Hotel Asteria on a bed and breakfast basis and including return flights, from £485 per person.
Located on the Saint Lawrence River, Quebec City is a mainly French-speaking city in Canada that dates back to 1608, with the only remaining fortified city walls in North America. The city is beautiful all year round but it really comes alive in winter when highlights include the Carnaval de Québec, the opening of Hôtel de Glace and a huge variety of winter activities, from snow sliding to relaxing at a Nordic spa. Strolling the snow-covered city is a treat, especially walks in the historic neighbourhood of Vieux-Québec, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which compromises the Upper town and Lower Town. Stay at the four-star Auberge Saint-Antoine, located in Old Quebec, from £116 per night.
Aberdeen offers the wonderful clarity of winter light in the UK, giving it a special atmosphere for a city break. The city is mostly built from granite which has its own ‘built-in’ sparkle and during the winter festival Marischal College, the world’s second largest granite building, is illuminated. The city is ideal for winter walks around places like the medieval Old Aberdeen or 'Fittie,' Aberdeen’s old fishing town. At the Aberdeen Winter Festival, there is the Christmas Tree Maze, the Christmas market and an ice skating rink, while the Hogmanay celebrations come with fireworks and live music. Stay at the four-star Caledonian Hotel, which overlooks the sunken Union Terrace Gardens, from £40 per night.