Winter becomes Scandinavian capitals and both Vienna and St Petersburg look even better in the snow. Despite the significant chill, it is the best time to visit these winter cities. There’s a stillness in the air, the windows of the shops glow invitingly, the galleries are quieter (even The Hermitage) and it is easier to snap up a table at the city’s best restaurants.
The trick is not to plan to stay outside for long (20 – 30 minutes maximum), have plenty of stops for coffee, hot krog and vodka, always say yes to cinnamon buns, bolle and other delectable cakes plus a thick blanket across the knees. Dress for chill: lined tight ply woollen hat, waterproof gloves, fleecy thermals, shoes with good treads for those slippery side streets.
Oslo, on its own fjord surrounded by forested hills and with colourful timbered houses on the islands, has air so clear it feels like being in a National Park. Oslo is likely to be even more on the radar in 2020 when the new Munch gallery opens, so visit while it is less discovered. It is also home to the Framm museum dedicated to the world’s most famous polar exhibition ship as well as the Viking Museum. There’s a lively new waterside district Aker Brygge with quirky colourful street food, cafes and saunas, some incorporating bars and floating on the fjord. Be sure to visit the Christmas market and the ice rink by Karl Johns Gate. A walk to the top of the breathtaking Opera House built to look like a glacier emerging from the fjord is a rite of passage for anyone who visits.
Foodies should explore Grunerlokka, the “Shoreditch” of the city and graze at Vulkanfish within the Mathallen food hall on local fish specialities. Stop too at Tim Wendelbee, many coffee-obsessed Norwegians consider this the best coffee roaster.
Probably the most thrilling and forward looking restaurant in Oslo right now is A L’Aise run by chef Ulrik Jepson who started his training at the venerable British three Michelin star The Waterside Inn. Here incredible Norwegian produce of sparkling freshness, including voluptuous scallops from Frya served with opal plum, onions and ginger and vegetables grown with their partner farm Skaergarden according to inscrutable sustainable practices, is served with thrilling creative energy and meticulous technical attention. It is food to sweep you off your feet. A L’Aise has Norway’s only canard a la presse, serving this redoubtable dish which uses every part of the duck (including the liver and some blood) to make a memorably rich and warming winter celebratory dish.
Every shop window in Stockholm has inviting glowing candles and the temptations of glogg, gingerbread and cinnamon buns. Stockholm is at its’prettiest with the Christmas decorations on and distinctively tasteful Christmas market in Gamla Stan close to The Royal Palace. There’s an exhibition of unusual gingerbread houses at ArkDec too.
Chocolate lovers must try Island House chocolate in hip Soderholm, full of interesting food shops, wine bars and striking clothes and interior studios. Johan and Nystrom have the best coffee.
Foodies should head to the restaurant of Niklas Ekstedt, the chef who did so much for putting open fire cooking back on the culinary scene. Sit at the counter for a properly immersive experience and feast on oysters wrapped in seaweed, dried reindeer with vendance roe, charcoal sauce and tiny aebelskiver Swedish pancakes. His wine bar Tyge & Sessil is good for late night imbibing. A pilgrimage to Petrus, cafe, the best baker in Stockholm as endorsed by both Frantzen, is also a must. Be prepared to queue, especially at weekends, for incredible bread.
The ultimate treat is dinner at Restaurant Frantzen, Sweden’s first 3 Michelin star restaurant. Chef Frantzen wanted to create an experience where it felt as welcoming as entering his home, Sweden’s famed convivial logom. The restaurant is in the penthouse of the 19c townhouse and an exceptional mix of mid-Century and contemporary furnishings. Guests start their seduction in the living room before arriving in the dramatic dining area where a massive hulk of kitchen counter and several open fires dominate. Chefs move back and forth between them serving and explaining dazzling dishes from king crab cooked over birch embers to guinea flowl with vin jaune sauce, Kyoto miso, brown walnut sauce, morels and lemon thyme and his famed, ultra decadent silver onion, red cow parmesan and truffle French toast. An unequivocal delight.
A magical, musical city in the winter when there is no excuse not to coffee house hop. Experimenting with the boozy concoctions on offer and working through a repertoire of apfelstrudel, bundt and Felzl is highly recommended. It is the time to spend hours in cosy, underground weinstube deciding what kind of Riesling to favour and sampling natural wines. For some culture, pop into the Belvedere Palace for some Gustav KlImt and Wilhelmlindberg Palace where a young Mozart first performed to the Empress. The Christmas market close to The Royal Opera House is one of the more upmarket and even tux clad opera goers flock to Bitzinger for a cheesy hot dog. For a civilised Sunday outing, walk through the park to Meieri, a modernist take on a Milk Bar for a recherche brunch of porcini mushrooms and poached egg or a bowl of goulash.
The culinary and party highlight of a winter visit to Vienna has to be the annual Grand Kobel, spectacular gastronomic pop-up from the brilliantly stylish Eselbock-Weissgerber owners of Relais & Chateau art hotel Taubenkobel on Lake Neusiedler in Burgenland. This year, the pop-up (opening Nov 15 – Dec 21st) takes over the former ballroom of once grand hotel Donauhof. Expect a dramatic transformation, currently still under wraps.
Who hasn’t hankered after seeing St Petersburg under a veil of snow? Watching the golden dome of St Isaac’s Cathedral simmer against a white sky is magical. Snow transforms the huge Palace Square outside the Hermitage to a wondrous Anna Karenina screen set.
Whilst there are always queues for the fantastic gilded riches of the State Rooms, not so many visitors realise that the absolute gems of their fin de siecle Modern Art collection: whole rooms of Matisse including his vast Dance,, Cezanne and Picasso are in the separate, and separately ticketed, General Staff Building. It is far too cold to stay outside for long so, like the locals, sashay from cafe to restaurant to the Mariinsky Theatre, where Nijinksky and Nureyev both performed and The Nutcracker is currently being exquisitely danced.
St Petersburg has good affordable Georgian restaurants and some thrillingly modern restaurants looking to traditional, nostalgic ingredients and giving them a modern gastronomic interpretation including the glamorous Kococo owned by Matilda Shnurova with chef Igor Grishechkin close to tower. Here feast on green buckwheat and porcini kasha (like a porridge), salted herring with served with a squid ink butter giving it a deep umami nuance,salted herring maki sushi style with sprouts and red caviar and a tartlet with bone marrow, pickled vegetables and honey cake is wittily served to resemble honeycomb.