The best snow and ice experiences in Europe
6. Look for the Northern Lights in Norway
To witness the Aurora Borealis unveil its swirling curtains of luminescent green across a star-studded Arctic night is one of travel’s ultimate tingly moments – but combine the cosmic light show with an epic landscape and you have something truly unforgettable.
Pick the right spot in Norway and – with luck – you can watch the northern lights dance above a snowy, dragon-back mountain range looming above a green-washed ocean.
An hour’s boat ride south of the Arctic city of Tromsø, Senja’s aurora displays can be spellbinding – particularly when viewed from one of the island’s northern peninsulas, such as Okseneset. Renowned for the dark night skies (and low light pollution) that are so crucial for aurora hunting, Finnmark in the far north of Norway is another hot spot.
Also see: Notoriously fickle, the northern lights should always be viewed as a bonus. Fortunately, Norway has plenty of other winter activities, ranging from snowmobiling and ice climbing to walking with Sami reindeer herders.
7. Spot orcas in Iceland
Seething through the fjords of West Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula, vast shoals of overwintering herring don’t go unnoticed by local hungry orcas. During March and April, large pods make a beeline for this fishy feast, often accompanied by schools of white-beaked dolphin and plungediving gannets.
Sometimes you can watch the sporadic feeding frenzies from shore as the orca herd the herring into bays. Your best chance of an encounter, though, is to join a whale-watching boat trip in Grundarfjörður – the low winter sun glittering on the sea beneath a meringue-whip of iceclad mountains.
Also see: Iceland is also a great destination for other winter adventures. A trip to Gullfoss, a waterfall that drops 32m in two stages, looks all the more dramatic, and eerily atmospheric, when the water freezes into glistening ice.
8. Try ice skating in Sweden
When the waterways of Stockholm freeze over, it’s time to strap on your ice skates and go for a spin around the Swedish capital.
The most popular natural ice skating rink is in Kungsträdgården, but you don’t have to venture far from the city to find yourself in a wilder world of snow-clad forests and frozen lakes – ideal for multi-day ice skating adventures led by local experienced guides.
Also see: For the ultimate winter wildlife challenge, Wild Sweden offers lynx tracking holidays in Lapland where you also have the chance of spotting reindeer and moose.
9. Attempt ice sailing in Estonia
Traditional sailing finishes in Estonia during October when boats are lifted out of the water before the Baltic Sea freezes over. But the vast expanses of smooth, flat ice in Haapsalu, Saaremaa and Pärnu are ideal for ice sailing.
Imagine a coffin-sized yacht on ice skates that’s capable of reaching speeds of more than 100kph… Ice sailing regattas are regular winter fixtures here; try it yourself at a local sailing club.
Also see: In the depths of winter, it’s possible to drive a car on Europe’s longest ice road, stretching 25km across the frozen Baltic Sea between the Estonian mainland and the island of Hiiumaa.
10. Feed reindeer in the Scottish Cairngorms
When winter bears down on the Scottish Cairngorms, this huge upland area – where 453 sq km lies above 800m – is transformed into an Arctic landscape with persistent snow, high winds and freezing temperatures.
No wonder the reindeer feel right at home. Currently numbering around 150 individuals, there’s been a free-roaming herd here since 1952.
At the reindeer centre in Glenmore you can hand-feed the creatures and stroke their velvety muzzles, but a guided hill walk (daily, except early January to early February) gives you a more authentic insight into their free-spirited lives.
11. Experience ice diving in Lake Baikal, Russia
Plunging to 1,637m, Siberia’s Lake Baikal is not only the world’s deepest lake, it’s also the most ancient (25 million years old) and the largest by volume (around one-fifth of the earth’s freshwater).
The lake freezes in January, but that doesn’t stop fearless divers descending into crystal-clear waters beneath the metre-thick frozen skin. Holding tethered safety ropes they enter a surreal world of ice grottoes and crevices created by upwelling currents.
A fleeting encounter with a rare, endemic Baikal seal is not unheard of. Divers must own an advanced open water certification.
Also see: Ice fishing through a hole on frozen Lake Baikal is an option too. Baikal omul is traditionally salted and smoked, then washed down with a warming swig of vodka.
12. Stop for a coffee and fika like the Swedes
Take a break from snowmobiling or husky sledding in Lapland and chances are your guide will suggest some fika beside an open fire. It’s stopping for coffee, but not as you know it.
Coarse ground grains are brought to the boil and then served with mozzarella-like cubes of coffee cheese or, for a shot of fatty energy, a slice of dried reindeer meat. Cinnamon buns also often accompany a fika ritual.
Also see: An annual gathering of the Sami for over 400 years, Swedish Lapland’s Jokkmokk Winter Market – in early February – is the place to sample local food and culture.