There's a magic to Christmas in the northern hemisphere that's almost impossible to replicate. Already beautiful places – small towns, ancient cities, natural wonderlands – in North America and Europe are blanketed in snow and soaked in festive cheer. Markets pop up in town centres. Horsedrawn sleighs glide through quiet forests. Locals come out to shop, to socialise, to ice-skate, and to enjoy everything a winter in the north has to off er. For visitors, this is the perfect time to experience the culture and the atmosphere of a traditional yuletide celebration.
Vancouver is a city that doesn't miss a beat when the weather begins to cool and Christmas approaches. There's always something happening here to draw residents and visitors out: from markets to concerts, light displays to parades. Winter is the perfect time for a brisk walk through Stanley Park to enjoy the outdoors, to wander European-style Christmas markets, and to simply enjoy the unique, celebratory atmosphere that this time of year brings to North America.
DON'T MISS The highlight of Vancouver's Christmas attractions is the Canyon Lights display at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. From November to January each year, this stunning bridge, which provides views above treetops and canyons, is lit up with more than 250,000 lights that cling to its railings and support beams, bringing a festive glow to an already beautiful area.
Few towns capture the spirit of a North American Christmas quite like Banff , nestled in the heart of Alberta's Rockies. This is a place in which it's a pleasure to simply wander the streets and soak up the atmosphere, to look at the lights and Christmas displays in shop windows, to sip hot chocolate and stare out at the surrounding mountains. There's also the chance to ride the Banff gondola and enjoy views of snow-covered Bow Valley as you travel up the slopes of Sulphur Mountain.
DON'T MISS APT guests will enjoy a truly memorable Christmas Day at their leisure in Banff, with plenty of time to explore the town on this special occasion and see how the locals celebrate on the 25th. Later, the group will meet for a festive drink at the Fairmont Banff Springs before enjoying a special Christmas Dinner with all the traditional trimmings.
The area surrounding Lake Louise is stunningly beautiful at any time of year. This is the heart of the famed Banff National Park, an area of thick forests of cedar and larch, of rugged snow-capped mountains that reach to the sky, of the grand Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise commanding views of it all. This is a particularly spectacular place to visit in winter, as the lakes freeze and are blanketed in snow, and as the forests and mountains turn to unblemished white. Lake Louise at this time is accessible – weather permitting – via the Icefields Parkway, one of North America's most famous drives, that takes in more than 200 kilometres of stunning alpine vistas.
DON'T MISS Bundle up in blankets and prepare for a truly memorable APT Signature Experience: riding in a horse-drawn sleigh along a trail that runs beside Lake Louise. This is the perfect way to appreciate the beauty and the serenity of the area.
Christmas market in Vienna. Photo: Getty Images
This is a city that seems as if it were custom designed to make the most of winter's charms, with Baroque buildings and other classical structures that take on extra beauty when they're dusted with snow or basking in the glow of festive lights. Vienna is well known for its Christmas markets – a tradition that stretches back to the Middle Ages and is still wildly popular today – as well as light displays in famous spots throughout the city such as Schönbrunn Palace and the Prater Garten.
DON'T MISS Austria's capital has a rich musical heritage, something that's celebrated throughout the year, though particularly in winter. APT guests will gain a special insight into this cherished culture during an exclusive visit to the family of Liechtenstein's City Palace, where they will attend an exclusive cocktail reception and enjoy a private festive concert.
There are few European cities with the history and the charm that Munich boasts, and this beautiful Bavarian capital thrives during the winter months. Munich in winter is all about getting out and enjoying the season, sampling the city's impressive gastronomic culture, learning about its long and fascinating history, strolling its streets or enjoying its cafes and bars and watching as the festivities hit full swing.
DON'T MISS Munich, as with Vienna and Salzburg, is famous for hosting one of Europe's best Christmas markets, a place to wander and enjoy in the cooler months. The markets in all three of these cities are ideal spots to sip mulled wine and sample local delicacies, to sift through the myriad hand-made treasures on sale in the stalls, to marvel at the lights, and to enjoy a centuries-old European tradition that's barely changed.
One of Salzburg's winter highlights is, of course, its Christmas market, the perfect place to sample "lebkuchen", the traditional Christmas cookies and pastries, and drink gluhwein, the local mulled wine. This beautiful city does, however, have plenty more going for it in the colder months, including the chance to explore alleys and laneways that house shops decorated for the festive season, to stroll parks that are sometimes dusted with snow, and to hear musical performances in this city of Mozart.
DON'T MISS In Salzburg, on APT's Magical Christmas Markets tour, guests will have the chance to visit a local wood carver who produces traditional masks of the folklore character Krampus. This Christmas character is a little diff erent to Santa Claus: Krampus is a hornbearing demon who, rather than reward wellbehaved children, punishes those who haven't been so nice. It's an enthralling tradition, and the skill required to produce the intricate carvings of Krampus is similarly eye-catching.
Daniela Obermaier – APT Cruise Director
As a resident of the Austrian capital of Vienna, Daniela Obermaier has a natural love of her home town in the winter months. Since beginning work as a Cruise Director in 2012, Daniela says she's enjoyed showing guests her city at its best.
"It's magical," she says. "You see people with a happy glow on their faces, bundled up and drinking mulled wine, you smell the cinnamon, you taste the cookies, the sweet and savoury pretzels and other local goodies. But it´s not just about eating and drinking, it´s more about that cosy feeling you have when you are together with your loved ones. There is nothing like it." Daniela has, of course, spent plenty of time enjoying Europe in winter, and has numerous insider tips.
This article has been produced in association with APT.
This is an adventure, but not as you know it. Already beautiful places in North America and Europe are blanketed in snow and soaked in festive cheer - this is an experience that's almost impossible to replicate.
Everything is taken care of in an unforgettable luxury journey with APT. For more information visit www.aptouring.com.au/traveller, call 1300 290 669 or contact your local travel agent.