Savvy travelers love Europe in winter and not just because they can avoid the sticker shock and tourist crowds of peak season. It’s easier in winter to feel connected to local life, as it’s easier to meet the local people and see how they really live. More time may be spent indoors, but museums feel like your own private galleries, and it’s easier to get into the most in-demand restaurants for fabulous meals. Insider experiences, charming scenery, and great food are all accessible and available, as the travelers below discovered, if you just know the right trip designers who can help you make the most of this cozy time of year. Here’s what it means to get a WOW trip.
NORWAY & COPENHAGEN: “We got to see the Christmas lights in Tivoli Gardens and took a ride on a wild roller coaster, wandered with some hot drinks…”
“My husband, Ryan Ogg and I (Kate Ogg), and our three children, Will (17), Charlotte (15), and Wyatt (12), went to Copenhagen, Denmark, and Oslo and Alta, Norway, from December 28 through January 6. Will is graduating from high school this spring, and so we let him choose the destination for a family vacation this year. He wanted to go someplace cold, snowy and dark, where we could do some fun outdoor adventures, and hopefully see the Northern Lights (which we had tried and failed to do in Iceland a couple of years ago).
It was a fantastic trip. Copenhagen was still pretty magical the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and we found some good restaurants despite a few of the ones we had hoped for being closed. We got to see the Christmas lights in Tivoli Gardens and took a ride on a wild roller coaster, wandered with some hot drinks, shopped and just enjoyed the festive vibe. The next day we started the day with a boat ride through the harbor and some of the bigger canals, which gave us a sense of the city’s geography as well as a lot of the architecture.
Oslo was all closed while we were there because it was both Sunday and New Year’s Eve, but a walk through the sculpture garden, to the Fram museum to see a polar expedition ship, and a chance to see the Nobel buildings and then along the harbor was a nice way to spend the day before a fancy dinner at our hotel (The Thief) and a midnight toast on the roof. On New Year’s morning in a snowstorm, we made it to Oslo airport and up to dark Alta. The Sorrisniva Hotel was fully booked by the time we planned our trip (August), so we stayed in a little fishing lodge in the woods, down the driveway from Tristin and Trine Restaurant and past some sled dogs.
It was absolutely charming, and best of all, the very first night as we walked out of our lodge to dinner, the sky lit up with northern lights that continued to brighten and dance until we gave up and went to bed. I credit our very dark spot in the woods for the fantastic viewing. Our adventures in snowmobiling, reindeer sledding, snowshoeing, and king crab fishing all showed us different parts of the landscape and culture in northern Norway, and it was just…magical. We truly loved it.” —Kate Ogg
SICILY: “A highlight of the trip was having a wine-tasting luncheon at the winery owner’s home by Mount Etna. They were such gracious hosts…”
“Matteo did a wonderful job of planning our Sicily family trip! He had many great tour suggestions, as he lives there, so he knows the area very well. We were there on a Holiday week in January, so some restaurants and stores were closed. Matteo found great restaurants that were open and made some restaurant reservations for us. A highlight of the trip was having a wine-tasting luncheon at the winery owner’s home by Mount Etna. They were such gracious hosts.
Matteo was always available with responses right away from many emails of planning the trip AND during the trip. He even surprised us and met up with us at a cafe in one of the towns. Our vacation was absolutely, perfectly enjoyable and worry-free because of his expertise and patience in planning!” —Vicki Porpiglia
NORWAY: “The highlight was relaxing in the lodge sauna after a day spent snowmobiling and getting called by the lodge staff to come outside to watch the northern lights!”
“Truly a trip of a lifetime. My family of 4 (me, my husband and two adult boys) went to Alta in early January where we went dogsledding, snowmobiling, and saw the northern lights. In Oslo we went on a very interesting architecture tour. The highlight was relaxing in the lodge sauna after a day spent snowmobiling and getting called by the lodge staff to come outside to watch the northern lights!
The staff at all of the places Torunn and Mari sent us to were exceptional and would go out of their way to provide assistance. We can’t wait to go back sometime in the summer now and see the same location again.” —Neha Vyas
PORTUGAL: “They planned a private evening visit after the castle was closed, and we had the entire place to ourselves…”
“Goncalo and Patricia planned the perfect four-day stopover in and around Lisbon for our multi-generational family of eight. Spending a day in Sintra was a must on our list, and after being told that we would likely have to wait hours to get into Pena Palace even with advance tickets, they planned a private evening visit after the castle was closed, and we had the entire place to ourselves! This was a true VIP experience and a very memorable one for all of us!
We love trying all different local cuisines when we travel, so we did a food tour/food shopping in the morning that evolved into a cooking class in the afternoon, which everyone enjoyed. All of the restaurants Goncalo recommended were perfect, from the casual places while we were still fighting jet lag to the amazing dinner and Fado music show experience.
And, visiting Lisbon around the holidays, we had the added bonus of all of the beautiful lights and decorations around the city!” —Lauren Schor
PARIS: “…a market tour and curated cooking class in the beautiful home of a French chef near the Eiffel Tower…”
“Jennifer planned a delightful trip for us to Paris over New Year’s, with a good mix of culture and relaxation. Highlights included a day trip to Reims, complete with an intimate lunch with champagne pairings at a family-owned champagne house; a market tour and curated cooking class in the beautiful home of a French chef near the Eiffel Tower; and a private wine-and-cheese tasting at a historic wine shop with a young sommelier highlighting new and emerging winemakers from lesser-known regions in France.
Jennifer checked in with us regularly during our trip, seamlessly managing a few last-minute, unforeseen itinerary changes. Cannot recommend her highly enough—and am looking forward to all the fun she has in store for my return trip to the Champagne region with my friends later this year! —Katie Hausfeld
ROME: “Our favorite experiences were exclusive visits to the Galleria Borghese and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj…”
“Nancy and I were lucky to have spent the first week of 2022 in Rome on a trip planned by Jennifer and her team. Jennifer arranged for us to stay at the Hotel Eden while we were in Rome. The staff at the hotel were so nice to us and looked out for us during our stay.
Jennifer also arranged some great experiences during our time in Rome. By far, our favorite experiences were exclusive visits to the Galleria Borghese and the Galleria Doria Pamphilj with Alessia, our favorite guide during this trip. Alessia was able to navigate both galleries so that we saw the most we could during our limited time. and her knowledge of the art in each location was outstanding. Two other experiences which were highlights during our trip were a day trip to Naples/Pompeii with our guide Liberata and driver Salvatore, as well as a lovely food tour in the Trastevere neighborhood with Luca, where we got to sample some Roman delicacies.
We always felt looked after by Jennifer and her team. They would check in daily to see if we needed anything and they would lay out the itinerary for the next day. We feel so fortunate that we have found Jennifer and know that everything will be spectacular on a tour which she has arranged.” —Kevin Haney
FRANCE & ITALY: “We wanted to do a road trip so we could see as much as we could…”
“We wanted to do a road trip around France so we could see as much as we could, while still having a few days in each place to relax. Philip and Evane created a perfect itinerary for us. We have driven in a handful of other countries, but we didn’t know what to expect driving in France. Philip and Evane advised us on what parts of the trip would be best to drive ourselves vs. which would have lots of traffic or headaches so it would be best to have a driver.
We had a few days in Paris to adjust to the time change before going to Champagne, where they arranged a private visit to Veuve Clicquot. In Lyon, our private guide took us to his family-owned winery in the Beaujolais. Philip and Evane even added the Piedmont region in Italy (since I told them how much my dad loved Italy and us being so close by), filling our time there with lots of Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Then we drove to Nice but stayed in smaller St. Paul de Vence with day trips around to see Eze, Monaco, Antibes, and all the spots along the Riviera.
Philip and Evane mapped out some smaller and cool towns that we could stop at while on our drives and provided great lunch restaurant suggestions at each stop. My dad’s favorite was in Dolceacqua, overlooking one of the bridges that Monet painted, while on our way from Fossano to St Paul de Vence. We are beyond thankful to Wendy for putting us in contact with Philip. It was a trip of a lifetime where it never felt like too much time in each destination, but it will always never be enough!” —Devan Ullman
HUNGARY & POLAND: “On the Danube, a private boat to see the lights of nighttime Budapest…”
“The absolute best thing we asked Gwen to add for us was VIP arrival and departure service at the airports. When we landed in Warsaw, we were whisked off to a private lounge, and the staff took our passports and handled all the details for us as we relaxed in the lounge. No lines, no frustrations with procedures, no stress. It was worth every penny. In fact, we loved it so much, we asked Gwen to add the VIP departure service to our flight leaving Budapest at the end of the trip. Once again, we hung out in a private lounge as everybody took care of our paperwork. We were escorted through private security and then to a private transfer right to the door of the plane where we were the first to board. Fantastic!
Other highlights of our trip to Poland and Hungary included:
I appreciated Gwen being willing to make changes for us as we moved through the itinerary. It was such a relief to know the logistics were handled and we had someone on call should anything change or become difficult.” —Sarah Wade
ITALY: “We went to a Barolo village and had the chance to visit a Barolo wine cellar for a private tasting and tour…”
“We were so very fortunate to be able to experience an impromptu trip to Milan and the Piedmont region in early January 2022—and we could never have done it without Jennifer. The trip was glorious. We went to a Barolo village and had the chance to visit a Barolo wine cellar for a private tasting and tour. Our guides in Torino and Milan were excellent, and we relished the opportunity to take in The Last Supper and other masterpieces with no crowds. Like NONE. In Piedmont, the weather was mild and we were able to spend a lot of time outdoors. We made some wonderful memories and cannot say enough about how this trip abroad gave us a much needed change to start 2022.” —Gina Melton
ISTANBUL: “All of our activities were private—from a cooking class to a river cruise on the Bosphorus…”
“In January Karen and her team planned a perfect multigenerational trip to Istanbul for our family! We were met off the plane and moved swiftly through the airport with VIP service, then transferred to our vehicle. All of our activities were private—from a cooking class to a river cruise on the Bosphorus (which I definitely recommend, to get an overview of the city when you arrive). We had the same driver each day in an immaculate vehicle equipped with wifi and always bottles of water.
Our guide, Cenk, was fabulous, so knowledgeable and he knew all the hidden gems to take us to—even diverting from our planned itinerary once he got to know us and had a better idea of things we would enjoy. In our short trip we were able to hit most of the highlights of the city without feeling rushed, thanks to Cenk. A couple of months before the trip we weren’t sure if we felt safe traveling to Istanbul, so I reached out to Wendy. Wendy suggested I speak with Karen, and I’m so glad I did!” —Lauren Schor
FRANCE: “We didn’t just tour this small museum; Philip arranged for the museum director to spend three hours guiding us through it…”
“Our two-week trip to France in December focused on Provence and the Riviera. Philip created a wonderful itinerary focused on memorable experiences and lesser-known sights. The hotels he chose were excellent; we especially liked Mas de Pierre in the hills northwest of Nice. Our rooms in all hotels were both comfortable and spacious—a combination less often found in France. Philip suggested a glassblowing class in Antibes, and my husband and I made three glass pieces each (two vases, one bowl, two perfume bottles with fancy stoppers, and my favorite, my jellyfish in a glass globe).
The Riviera has lots of museums, but Philip sent us to one of his favorites, the remarkable Museum of Classical Art in the hilltop village of Mougins. We didn’t just tour this small museum that intersperses antiquities with Old Masters and modern art; Philip arranged for the museum director to spend three hours guiding us through it. What an enlightening experience.
Philip also arranged black truffle hunting outside Salon de Provence, which was interesting and surprisingly educational. (They use dogs now, not pigs, because dogs can be trained with food to back away from a truffle it finds. Pigs don’t, which is why many truffle hunters are missing fingertips.) We had a delightful seven-hour private cooking class in Aix-en-Provence with a former chef who emailed us all the recipes for the dishes we’d made.
We went horseback riding in La Camargue, the wetlands area south of Arles between the two branches of the Rhône River. La Camargue is famed for its white horses, bulls raised for French bullfighting (the bullfighters have to snatch a ribbon from between the bull’s horns, not kill it), and pink flamingos. We had fun riding horses through this region on the ranch of a former bullfighter and seeing the bulls and horses he and his elegant wife raise.
A don’t-miss experience was Hotel Mirande’s Table d’Haute dinner in Avignon. We dined in the hotel’s tiny cellar kitchen on a nearly all-French evening (except the chef and sommelier, who spoke English), which tested my vocabulary but engaged us with locals and Belgian tourists.” —Jan Heininger
TURKEY: “Late December/early January turned out to be a great time to travel to Turkey”
“Karen and her team did an excellent job planning our trip to Turkey. Every transfer and tour pick-up was prompt. The drivers and guides were excellent. We loved the hotels—The Four Seasons on the Bosporus was elegant and comfortable and the view spectacular.
Late December/early January turned out to be a great time to travel to Turkey. It was chilly (although luckily for us, it was a few degrees above normal, at least in Istanbul) but the sun was shining. In addition, there weren’t large crowds even at the most frequently visited sites.
We enjoyed the restaurants that Karen recommended, and appreciate that she switched restaurants between two evenings to avoid a traffic jam due to a soccer game being played along the route from our hotel to one restaurant. The tour plan was perfect and we maximized our time sightseeing. ” —Susan Sullivan
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