DREAMLIKE EUROPEAN VILLAGES THAT OFFER THE PERFECT BACKDROP FOR AN EXTRAORDINARY END OF YEAR
BY AMANDA McCOY
Tucked away along a narrow stretch at the base of a mountain where Austria’s limestone Alps meet the looking glass waters of Lake Hallstatt, this tiny historic village is famed for pastel colored houses, luxurious waterside cafés, and breathtaking vistas. Hallstatt has long seduced visitors with its deep rooted history and fairy tale charm its origins dating back long before luxury travel became big business. Home to a prehistoric salt mine lauded as the oldest in the world, this is also a UNESCO World Heritage site and considered one of the oldest inhabited villages on the continent. Though small, it’s bursting with sights and things to do, from shops offering precious gemstones and handcrafted jewelry to numerous vantage points presenting jaw dropping views of the lake, mountains, and 16th century alpine houses. The town’s Market Square is the perfect place to start, home to restaurants, cozy cafés, taverns, and souvenir boutiques.
Early winter brings unique charm, as snow collects on cottages and crowds begin to wane. Because of its remote location in the Salzkammergut Mountains, the best way to get here is by first class train from Salzburg or Vienna, which takes between three and four hours both routes boasting stellar scenery. The average temperature in December ranges from upper 20s (°F) to lower 30s, so bundle up.
STAY & DINE
(All hotel prices are per night, and for mid-December stays)
Hallstatt Hideaway is an adults only oasis perched on the edge of the lake, offering views of the water and surrounding snowcapped mountains. Its suites come with a host of amenities like fireplaces, private terraces, al fresco hot tubs, kitchens, and libraries. The Presidential Suite is a two story townhouse with floor to ceiling windows, a marble bathroom with lake views, and two entirely separate terraces (one with a whirlpool). Suites start at $325. Dr. Friedrich Morton Weg 24, 4830, hallstatt hideaway.com
The town is famed for intimate restaurants serving authentic Austrian fare, its establishments rarely skimping on portions. For upscale renditions of traditional local cuisine, Im Kainz (inside the Heritage Hotel) pampers with dishes like veal escalope, creamy pumpkin soup, and duck breast, along with regional wines and beers. Landungspl. 101, 4830, hotel hallstatt.com
For a more romantic experience, Braugasthof am Hallstattersee is a candlelit bistro serving Austrian and Central European delicacies in a white tablecloth setting. Be prepared for classics like schnitzel (seen above), wurst, and steaks, along with a selection of local and international wines. Seestraße 120, 4830, brauhaus lobisser.com
is colorful and historic town is in the Alsace region, along the German border and in the foothills of the vineyard dotted Vosges Mountains. A fascinating blend of medieval and early Renaissance architecture, its 13th and 14th century buildings have been preserved over the centuries and provide a vivid snapshot of a fluent community in the Middle Ages. Glide down the old cobblestone streets and canal flanked alleyways, all lined with colorful bourgeois mansions, traditional half-timbered houses, and historic Gothic churches. The Adolf House, located in the Place de la Cathedrale, is considered the oldest structure in town, constructed in the year 1350. Located along the Alsace wine route (arguably the white wine capital of France), Colmar specializes in Riesling and Gewürztraminer varieties.
Spring and summer see their share of visitors, but during the holiday season the town comes to singular life, with an abundance of markets and the aroma of spiced wine. Colmar is 300 miles east of Paris and easily accessible by train, and French wine enthusiasts can even make a pit stop in the Champagne region. Temperatures in December hover between upper 30s and lower 40s.
STAY & DINE
Located in city center, the five star La Maison des Têtes is comprised of 21 bespoke guest rooms, each with modern amenities that complement its historic bones. Rooms are separated into three categories Comfort, Charm, and Character, along with an additional family duplex. Character rooms measure nearly 500 square feet and feature private sitting areas that look out over the courtyard, plus thoughtful touches like a fresh bouquet of flowers and a courtesy plate with tea and coffee each day. $450 to $550. 19 Rue des Têtes, 68000, maisondestetes.com
Culinary experiences are taken seriously in the Alsace region, home to 27 Michelin starred restaurants, 10 of them in Colmar. L’Auberge de l’Ill, located in the five star hotel of the same name and just five miles north of the town center, carries two Michelin stars and a 70 year history. Headed today by the son of the original chef, this riverside wonder has indoor and outdoor seating, and it’s arguable which presents the more beauty. Inside, dine surrounded by stunning watercolors, Hermés printed fabrics, blown glass, and warm wood. On the veranda, the running river and weeping willow trees provide backdrops. e menu is a testament to classic French gastronomie, featuring dishes like roasted loin of suckling pig, Colvert duck, and “Sous la cendre” Truffle (a whole black truffle wrapped in a warm pastry). Tasting menu is $175. 2 Rue de Collonges au Mont d’Or, 68970, aubergedelill.com
ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER, GERMANY
When first approaching this medieval village in northern Bavaria, you’ll immediately notice the commanding brick walls encasing it, spanning two and a half miles and 42 towers. Often shortened to just Rothenburg, it is located in the Franconia region and sits along the famed Romantic Road (which stretches through forests and mountains from Würzburg to Füssen). The Old Town is a near perfectly preserved relic of Bavarian Middle Age townships towards the early Renaissance. Stroll the cobblestone streets dotted with half timbered mansions with red tiled roofs, then stop in a café to warm up with a cup of the region’s famous hot chocolate. Plonlein Corner is a must see, centered on a vibrant yellow home and flower covered water well. This picturesque intersection has captured the hearts of many travelers, including Walt Disney, and was featured in a number of Disney classics like Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast.
Winter is a glorious time of year to visit, as the crowds are lighter and the streets fill with vendors showcasing everything from local cuisine to hand blown glassware. The Christmas market (Reiterlesmarkt) is a 500 year old tradition and includes numerous cultural events in tandem with holiday shopping and dining. While strolling its stalls, be sure to try Rothenburg’s signature treat, “schneeballen” (meaning “snowball”), a short crust pastry ball dipped in either chocolate or sprinkles of powdered sugar. The average temperature in December is in the 30s, but there are plenty of quaint cafés and cozy restaurants to provide respite from the chill.
STAY & DINE
You won’t find the Ritz or a Four Seasons here, but that doesn’t mean the town is short on luxury. The Herrnschlösschen Hotel is nestled inside an 11th century mansion and features cozy manor style rooms and suites, an idyllic courtyard garden, and an on site sauna for frosty days. Its romantic restaurant is a delicious blend of old and new. Feast on the seasonally inspired menu, with fare presented under wooden beams and Gothic arches dating from 1526. Rooms start in the mid $200s. Herrngasse 20, 91541, hotel rothenburg.de
Zur Höll (meaning “to hell”) is perhaps Rothenburg’s most notable restaurant among tourists and locals alike. Inside one of the oldest buildings in town, this tavern makes diners feel as though they’ve crossed a portal through the ages (see photo above). It’s lauded for extensive Franken wine focused tastings and pairings, plus a rotating menu of traditional local comfort dishes. Burggasse 8, 91541, hoell rothenburg.de
This postcard town in the Swiss Riviera is a stellar stage for fine wine, five star restaurants, panoramic views of Lake Geneva and the surrounding Alps, and high end boutique shopping. Its serene natural setting has long attracted artists, writers, and other creatives in search of inspiration, including Charlie Chaplin, Freddie Mercury, and Prince. Lakefront position at the base of the Alps gives Montreux a mild microclimate, with average highs in the 40s during December. While not balmy, such conditions allow for peaceful walks along the lakeshore to drink in sights of 19th century inns and nearby vineyards. It’s also in a prime location for day trips to nearby wonders like the charming medieval town of Gruyères (famed for its eponymous cheese and numerous cheese houses), the island castle Château de Chillon (and its 14th century murals)…even glacier excursions for the adventurous trekker. Proximity to the Alps provides exceptional skiing opportunities.
The annual Montreux Noël takes place from late November to Christmas Eve, and is one of the largest holiday markets and celebration festivals in the country, featuring more than 160 vendors selling handcrafted gifts, artisanal desserts, and other upscale products.
To get here, book a panoramic carriage on the Golden Pass train line originating in Lucerne, where you’ll get a front row seat to the splendor of the Swiss countryside, passing glacial lakes, mountain ranges, tiny villages, wine estates, and miles and miles of snow covered plains.
STAY & DINE
Towering above the shores of Lake Geneva, Hotel Fairmont Le Montreux Palace is a grand example of early 20th century Swiss architecture. The award winning resort is a destination in itself, with 236 luxury guest rooms and suites, making it the largest hotel in the Riviera region. There are three restaurants and two bars on site, a sprawling full service wellness spa with Jacuzzis, hammam, saunas, and swimming pools, a state of the art fitness studio, and gorgeous outdoor sitting spaces overlooking the Alps. The suites (ranging from 484 to over 1,500 square feet) are dressed floor to ceiling in lavish décor like chandeliers and intricate crown moldings, with balconies that overlook the lake. Guest rooms start in the mid $300s. Av. Claude Nobs 2, 1820, m.fairmont.com
Born from passions for Jazz music and ne dining, the Montreux Jazz Café, in the Fairmont, is a must visit for first time (or repeat) visitors. Its founder, Claude Nobs, is also the creator of the Montreux Jazz Festival. The second largest such fest in the world, it is deeply woven in Montreux’s culture, and radiates throughout the walls of Nobs’ world famous establishment. The bright and airy eatery plays the sounds of musical greats while diners feast on comfort classics like a local Swiss burger, roasted chicken, and its locally renowned cheesecake. montreuxjazzcafé.com