Picture a famous European city; Paris, Venice, Budapest… Beautiful places, awash with enticing culture, vibrant pavement cafés, refined architecture and a pervasive romance and charm that often defines Europe's great cities.
We're willing to bet, in the image of that iconic city in your mind, there are probably golden rays of sunshine lighting up the streets, city squares where impressed tourists surround lively street performers, and maybe the pleasant chatter of al fresco diners, punctuated by the occasional clink of a cool glass of wine.
It's time to redefine these stereotypes. So often, we focus on a destination during summer. Pause, though, and imagine Venice during winter. Strip away the golden, sunny hue from its elegant facades and replace it with something a little cooler, a little more crisp. Instead of iconic gondolas floating down sun-drenched canals, imagine instead the mist of a cool winter morning dancing above the waters, or the twinkling of the evening's Christmas lights reflecting back at you. Picture walking through an unusually calm St. Marks's Square, free from the tourists of the summer months. Imagine settling down in a cosy, dimly-lit bar overlooking the grand canal, ordering a comforting bowl of risotto and a glass of excellent local red wine, and soaking up the unique festive atmosphere of a destination so often overlooked at this time of year.
There's just so much we're missing out on when we don't travel in winter. Venice is but the tip of the iceberg; here are three more destinations that simply have to be discovered in winter.
The Rhine River, Germany
One of Europe's most loved rivers, the Rhine enchants visitors with its breathtaking scenery. Fairytale forests line its banks, turreted castles peeking through a canopy of green, and along the route you'll find yourself spoilt for choice by sleepy medieval towns, terraced vineyards, and scenic meadows.
You wouldn't be blamed for thinking that a cruise along the Rhine should be experienced in the midst of summer, but visit in winter and you'll discover a host of seasonal delights. Instead of dozing on the sundeck, warm up with a decadent hot chocolate as you watch the landscapes pass by. If you're lucky, you'll be greeted by a fresh dusting of snow atop the emerald green forests and a misty winter haze lingering around the legendary Lorelei Rock.
In winter, the towns and villages on the banks of the Rhine come alive with festive cheer; twinkling fairy lights, elegantly decorated Christmas trees, and cosy bars and taverns that offer a welcome respite from the cool outside air. And of course, there's the Christmas markets. Germany offers some of the best Christmas markets out there (no surprise, as it's where Christmas markets originate from) and those on the banks of the Rhine certainly don't disappoint. Discover medieval Rüdesheim, where no fewer than twelve markets offer up an enticing variety of international goods, or head to Cologne and soak up the unique atmosphere of one of the most popular Christmas markets in Europe.
Harz Mountains, Germany
Vintage steam trains, medieval towns bursting with timber-framed houses, cobbled lanes, and timeless landscapes of dramatic lakes and soaring mountains; Germany's Harz Mountain region is seemingly plucked from a fairytale. Visit in winter and you'll find it takes on an even more magical quality, as the wild landscapes transform under a blanket of snow.
The Brocken Railway is one of Germany's most scenic railways, offering a journey that's memorable year-round, but we think it takes on an especially nostalgic quality during the colder months. There's something about a steam train puffing through winter landscapes, steam evaporating into the frosted treetops, that means you can't help but feel a little sentimental. And at the summit of Brocken Mountain - the highest peak in the area - you'll discover that the views of the snowy, tree-lined hillsides below are more than worthy of a Christmas card.
Another great thing about Germany in winter is the food. There's nothing like finding a cosy café or pub, ordering a stein of excellent local beer and a plate of wiener schnitzel or bratwurst, and warming up with some of the best comfort food around.
Lake Lucerne, Switzerland
We can't talk about winter destinations without giving a nod to Switzerland, a place that embraces winter better than almost anywhere. It's hardly a surprise; this is a destination known for bustling mountain resorts and glamorous snow sports. Even the food screams winter - it seems that there's two times that you can acceptably feast on extensive amounts of cheese and chocolate - Christmas Day, and when in Switzerland.
Peaceful Lake Lucerne is one of Switzerland's most spectacular destinations at any time of the year, but in winter it showcases a different type of beauty, with a sprinkling of snow dusted across the landscapes and golden lights illuminating the lakeside towns.
The town of Lucerne itself, with its ornate churches, cobbled streets, colourful Old Town, and famous Chapel Bridge, is a delight to explore. In December you'll be greeted by the cheery traditional Christmas markets, but visit in January and you might catch the Light Festival - an annual celebration that sees special art instillations dotted around the city, all beautifully lit up on an evening.
For the ultimate in comfort food on a cold winter's evening, order some fondue. There's plenty of bars, cafés, and restaurants dotted around Lucerne that serve this tasty traditional dish, and settling down in a cosy restaurant corner - or sitting outside wrapped up in a warm blanket - and indulging in some delicious gooey Swiss cheese is the perfect way to soak up the wintry Alpine atmosphere.