- Play in the snow
Northern European cities are accustomed to winter white-outs —from the epic snowdrifts that blockade the thoroughfares of Moscow, to the annual dusting on the spires of Prague. More memorable, perhaps, is seeing southerly latitudes transformed by an exceptional snowfall —believe it or not, Jerusalem, Athens, Rome and even Cairo have all witnessed the white stuff in recent years. More dependable than all of the above, however, is Istanbul, which has seen substantial snow for four out of the last five winters. Go in January for your best chance of seeing Ottoman domes adorned with a delicate snowy blanket, or to walk the bazaars of Eminonu as the call to prayer carries along the alleyways and flakes flutter silently down onto the shop canopies. Keep a keen eye out for salep — a warming winter drink served by merchants around the city, made from hot milk and the tubers of mountain orchids.
- Do some shopping
If the thought of stepping out of your front door to hit the January sales makes you shiver, then spare a thought for the Sami—the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland, who have braved temperatures as low as -40°C to attend the winter market in Jokkmokk every February for the last 400 years. Much more than just a market, the event doubles up as social gathering and cultural festival in the Swedish town, with music, food tastings and exhibitions filling the short winter days. Among the products on sale at the stalls are reindeer-hide shoes, traditional Sami knives and other, more airport security-friendly items like jewellery and knitware. Be sure not to miss reindeer races on the frozen lakes around the town — the animals are especially fond of veering off the course and galloping into crowds of assembled spectators.
- Try snowshoeing
The Dinaric Alps of the Balkans are the lesser-known cousins of the original Alps. Rising along Italy’s border with Slovenia, they run south beside Croatia’s jagged shoreline, reaching their grand finale at the snowy 2,694m summit of Maja Jezerce in northern Albania — the highest point in the range. Exodus has just begun offering snowshoeing treks in its shadow, biking through one of the least explored corners of Europe in the depths of winter. Lodging in rustic B&Bs, snowshoeing students spend days traversing alpine meadows and exploring tiny hamlets, thawing out with boisterous Albanian folk music performances come sundown. There’s also a short detour to the town of Prizren in neighbouring Kosovo, whose skyline is crowned with handsome minarets.
- Ice skate
Most winters, Amsterdam has a claim to the finest ice-skating spot in Europe, with a large rink directly outside the magnificent neo-Gothic Rijksmuseum. But foremost in the prayers of every Dutch skater is the chance of a series of sub-zero winter nights – cold enough that one fine morning, everyone might open their curtains to see the city’s canals frozen solid. Last taking place in February 2012, the Amsterdam canal freeze is far from guaranteed, but it is always greeted with much fanfare. Once the ice is declared sufficiently thick, the whole city sets out onto the waterways: skaters pirouette next to ice-bound barges, pedestrians slip onto their backsides and cyclists steer gingerly beneath the red-brick bridges – spires and gabled houses providing an unsurpassable backdrop.
- Take a hot bath
One happy side effect of Japan’s position on the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ is the onsen – geothermally-heated baths that double as social clubs. Perhaps the most exquisite during the chilly winter months is Takaragawa Onsen, where rock pools steam in a snowy ravine in the centre of the Japanese Alps. Here, as in most onsen, basic rules apply: all but one of the pools are mixed, everyone bathes in the nude (although ladies can don a sort of apron) and you might be turned away if you have tattoos (synonymous with gangsters in Japan).
Providing you’ve hitherto resisted the temptations of body art and/or organised crime, you’re free to submerge yourself in pools beneath snowy boughs. Takaragawa’s alkaline waters are said to cure nervous disorders and ease digestive problems (hopefully not while you’re bathing).
- Enjoy some carols
In the popular imagination, Scrooge’s London brings to mind cobbled alleyways, crooked rooftops and puffing chimneys. It might then come as a disappointment to learn that Dickens’s setting for the story is today among plate-glass office blocks and multinational corporations in the City of London. Fortunately, you can still find ghosts of Victoriana in the neighbourhood. Start with a swift pint in the Counting House — a Victorian boozer with a grand upper gallery and smoky timber surfaces close to Scrooge’s house in Cornhill — or else, head to the Jamaica Wine House, on the site of London’s first coffee house, and an establishment with which Dickens would have been familiar. In the wonderful Leadenhall Market, admire one of London’s finest Christmas trees, then — buoyed by Yuletide spirits — step into the stately church of St Michael’s Cornhill, whose bells Scrooge could hear clanging reproachfully from his counting house.