Festive season travel picks for the perfect white Christmas

Are you dreaming of a snowy white Christmas with chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Here are our top international travel picks for the festive season.

In Australia we often spend Christmas hearing songs about snow and sleigh bells while we are sweltering through the December heat and manoeuvring the shopping trolley past plastic trees daubed with fake snow.

Santa sweating his red felt suit, and turkeys are pre-cooking in 40°C kitchens are such familiar scenes that the irony of maintaining European winter traditions in the southern summer is frequently overlooked.

Imagine capturing the snowy Christmas we hear about in fairy tales and children’s books, where coloured lights are reflected across an icy landscape and reindeers have a choice of snow-covered roofs to land on. It is how some parts of the world always celebrate Christmas.

In St Petersburg, I absorbed a winter scene that was every Christmas fantasy I'd ever had as a child. Icicles hung from ornately carved balconies, people passed in thick fur coats, their breath steaming in the frozen air. The jingle of bells on horse-drawn sleighs completed the picture.

Explore these other locations where traditions match the stunning settings:

Canada

If you seek a Christmas memory to cherish forever, head to Banff and Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, both centres of Yuletide festivities.

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The stunning Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel at night

At Christmas, the massive Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is festooned with some lights. Snowy mountains loom above and there's snow under foot. Dog sledding and snowmobile excursions are some of the activities while three ski fields overlook the town.

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The spectacular winter sunrise over scenic Lake Louse in Banff National Park, Alberta Canada

About half an hour down the road is Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, looking out over a frozen lake to the glacier and mountains beyond. Lake Louise is in one of the world’s most picture-perfect locations so beautiful it seems unreal. Besides skiing, activities include sleigh rides, shoe shoeing and skating parties. A special treat is the ice bar or hot maple syrup traditionally poured onto the snow then rolled on a stick.

Vancouver is western Canada’s gateway and, while snow in the city is unlikely at Christmas, the mountains at the city’s edge are certainly snow covered. You only have to catch the gondola up Grouse Mountain to have dinner above the snow line while looking down on the festive lights of the city below.

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Christmas night scene of downtown Vancouver

In December up to 50 decorated carol boats cruise the harbour, serenading the crowds who gather along the shoreline in the frosty evening air. It's certainly worth taking a walk around the seawall at Stanley Park to hear them. There’s also free ice skating in Robson Square.

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Tour around Vancouver neighbourhoods and see beautifully decorated houses just for Christmas

Many Canadians put massive efforts into decorating their homes at Christmas - the tourist office in Vancouver can provide address of the best displays. Trinity Street in East Vancouver puts on one of the best community efforts and the VanDusen Botanical Garden has a great display, too.

Finland

The Santa Claus Village and Workshop is a complex of shops, restaurants, and reindeer stables straddling the Arctic Circle near Rovaneimi in northern Finland. People come to Finland from all over the world to Rovaneimi to visit "Joulupukki" (that’s Santa's Finnish name).

It’s worth the effort because Santa is delightful company. He has the suit, well polished boots and impressive snowy white beard one expects. But he's fluent (and genial) in some 20 languages. He’s happy to meet adults, too.

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The Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi is just magical! (Photo: Misima/Shutterstock.com)

Rovaneimi has a Christmas attraction, Santapark, a Christmas entertainment centre built inside a mountain. Perhaps just as enthralling to visitors from temperate climes is Arcticum, a museum and more in the city dedicated to explaining life above the Arctic Circle.

In winter the sun barely struggled above the horizon but it illuminates a scene of breathtaking beauty. Indeed the air itself shimmers with light reflected from ice crystals in the atmosphere.

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The interior of Santa Park (Photo: Roman Vukolov/Shutterstock.com)

Dressing suitably for a reindeer-drawn sleigh ride is a matter of survival. If Helsinki is refrigerated, Lapland is the deep freeze. There's no difficulty deciding what to wear - just put on everything, then top up with arctic-thickness overalls, moon boots, thick mitts, a balaclava and hood.

Santa's traditional felt outfit must be Finnish summer wear. And reindeer herders wear jaunty outfits complete with blue and yellow shoes with curly toes.

As the sleigh bells tinkled, you slide down narrow lanes on wooden runners and under branches heavily laden with snow. It feels as if you’ve been suddenly transported into a Christmas window display.

Even through adult eyes, it’s a magical experience. But it isn't a dream – you can be issued with an official Reindeer Sleigh Driver's License to prove it.

New York

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Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow in Manhattan Times Square (Photo: Kmichal/Shutterstock.com)

The real “Miracle on 5th Avenue” is the way New York has transformed itself from a threatening monster to the world’s liveliest city. At Christmas the city is even more exciting and the hard edge largely disappears.

If your visit coincides with one of the city’s regular snowfalls the Big Apple is transformed into a Christmas pageant scene where people joke with each other, and the horse carriages carve tracks through the pristine snowdrifts of Central Park. There are even vendors selling hot chestnuts on the streets.

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Radio City Music Hall in Rockefeller Center is a New York City landmark (Photo: TerraceStudio/Shutterstock.com)

The range of Christmas season activities is immense. It includes the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall from November to January, festive lights on the Empire State Building, and there are several "Messiah" singalongs.

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Tourists and skaters in the famous Rockefeller Center during the Christmas holidays (Photo: Pedrosala/Shutterstock.com)

Skating in Central Park, the elaborate Fifth Avenue window displays, the decorations at Macy's and Bloomingdale's, or visiting the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Centre can fill as many days as you like. Of course, there are also the post-Christmas sales with very dramatic price reductions. And, because Christmas is a rare time when business travel to New York slows down, there may be hotel bargains to be found.

Austria

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"Frohe Weihnachten" is German for Merry Christmas

If the religious celebration of Christmas is important to you, consider travelling to Austria. About 80 per cent of Austrians are Catholic so churches dot the landscape and Advent is celebrated with enthusiasm. It begins on December 5 with St Nikolaus parades throughout the country.

In particular, besides the Steyr River is a church where an invalid was cured in the 16th Century and the tradition of Christkindl (Holy Child) began – it attracts pilgrims from around the world every Christmas.

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Yum! Traditional sweets on the Christmas market in Vienna

Vienna has a wealth of Christmas events. For the whole of December until Christmas Eve there are carols in the ballroom of the City Hall with choirs from all over the world. Admission is free and you can come and go as you like.

On a more secular note, until Christmas Eve there's a market in the plaza at Vienna's city hall - a celebration that dates back to 1298. Schonbrunn Palace is a venue for concerts throughout the season and there's a Christmas market outside the grounds.

Not far from Salzburg is the small town of Oberndorf where "Silent Night" (Stille Nacht) was written in 1818. It’s sung by thousands outside the Memorial Chapel on Christmas Eve.

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The famous Graben street in Vienna (Photo: Omihay/Shutterstock.com)

Chances are, most Australians in Austria around Christmas are here to ski the Tirol. Until December 23, Innsbruck has a Christmas Market where the smell of gingerbread, doughnuts and hot, mulled, gluhwein fill the air.

While Christmas is largely for family, Austrians (like Australians) see New Year as cause for a party. In the ski resorts there are torchlit ski runs and innumerable lodge parties. To find out more, contact the Austrian National Tourist Office

What's your favourite thing about Christmas? Let us know in the comments below!