Finland in the Bronze Age must have been a grim, cold, pitiless and mostly an incredibly boring place.
Hunt, farm, fish then hunt again. Skin some animals, eat what’s left, wait for a few hundred years so the Swedes and Danes can invade and bring something to do with them. That’s pretty much it. Not even any runes to read before turning off the night campfire. So it’s easy to imagine a fur-draped, fluffy Finnish individual in this time, finally done curing a reindeer or something. Looking up, he sees just how far he has to trek back to his hut over a frozen lake, with his fragrant new carpet dripping down his back, and hurrumphs in a manly fashion. As he starts trudging across the ice – which hopefully won’t break like it did underneath poor Aantero two moons ago – he slips on a bone, travels a metre and lands flat on his behind. And lo, ice skating was born. Strapping bones to each precursor Ugg Boot, our hero invented ice skating and noblemen, farmers, royalty and first daters have been slipping and slaloming over patches of frozen water (also animal fat in some warmer places before refrigeration) to greater and lesser success ever since.
In honour of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next month; here are ten of our favourite outdoor rinks and lakes to strap on some stainless steel (or bone, if the story made you feel a little medieval), laugh and lazily trace circles in the ice with your family. Or if you like to live a bit faster, carve a furrow like you’re being chased by Danes. On horses. Take your pick.
Red Square Ice Rink, Moscow
Brilliant for tourists, skating in the Red Square allows you to combine visiting one of Moscow’s most famous and picturesque landmarks with acting like a complete child, gaily slipping and sliding all over Russia’s biggest skate rink. And if you’re in town while the Winter Olympics are on, even though Sochi is over a thousand kilometres away, winter sports will be especially popular and exciting.
FlevOnIce , Netherlands
The longest ice skating rink in the Netherlands at 5km, if you like marathons then FlevOnIce is where to go. It’s a one hour drive from Amsterdam (you can also get a train) in the town of Biddinghuizen, so you should make a day of it.
Central Park, New York
New Yorkers and visitors alike agree, there’s nothing quite like serenely meandering over the ice of Wollman Rink in Central Park, with the famous Manhattan skyline right behind you. Frozen for your skating pleasure on the south side of the park. Trees and panoramic cityscapes included.
Beaver Lake, Montreal
Lac des Castors if you’re French speaking, which Montrealers of course are. This is the locals’ favourite place to skate, and it isn’t hard to see why. Beaver Lake is on top of the mountain from which the town gets its name, Mount Royal, and the fact that the city stretches out below you is brilliant. Best enjoyed with the family, skating at Beaver Lake is an amazing day out with the kids.
Plaza del Ayuntamiento, Valencia
This year the shopkeepers around Valencia’s most famous square clubbed together to build an ice rink in the heart of town. While the rink closed a few days ago for the year, make sure to keep your ears to the ground (don’t get frostbite though) to see if it will make a return in 2015, because it’s a unique and beautiful place to skate.
Hotel de Ville, Paris
The most popular rink in town, and for good reason. The ice skating outside the Hotel de Ville in Paris is free, has a smaller children’s area and opulent 19th century architecture as a backdrop. We advise coming in the evening, when the buildings light up in all their glory. As a night-time skate here is possibly the most romantic thing to do in Paris, and Paris is the most romantic city on earth, this is a top contender for the single most romantic thing you can possibly do. Valentine’s Day idea-seekers take note.
Honourable mention must also go to the Eiffel Tower Ice Rink. It isn’t in action every year however, the last one was 2012, but who knows? You may be able to ice skate atop Paris’s most famous landmark next year.
Munich Ice Magic, Munich
credit: Mark Simons
Grab your earmuffs, pull on your big clumsy gloves and head to Bavaria’s favourite frozen puddle for figure-eights. Muenchner Eizsauberi in Munich’s frankly beautiful to behold shopping district is a huge hit with locals and visitors. Delicious and warming cups of glühwein from the stalls that encircle the rink probably help too.
Tower of London, London
There are a few contenders for best ice rink in London (our other favourites are at Hampton Court Palace, the Natural History Museum and Somerset House), but the Tower of London comes out trumps because of being a singular and unique location. With the ancient and forbidding walls of the ancient Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress looming over you, you can almost feel the thousands of years of history seeping into your feet through your skates.
For as long as humans have been rearing children, we’ve known that getting kids to do something fun and physical will send them to bed quickly and happily. If you find yourself in Copenhagen then make sure to take them to Genforeningspladsen for a day of twirling, chasing with snowballs and collapsing into an exhausted pile of childhood memories. It’s a really big area so they’ll have plenty of space to flail wildly, or whiz passed you.
So we’ve come full circle and ended where we begun, with a Fin and some skates. Helsinki’s Ice Park is the hottest meeting point in town, and a great way to experience Finnish culture and meet its people. And as the people of Finland drink more coffee per capita than anyone else in the world, it shouldn’t be too hard to find a coffee shop afterwards to warm up.
So there it is, ten of our favourite places outdoors to skate. Make sure to check opening times, especially for non-Scandinavian places as they are open for shorter periods every year.
Turns out I can’t not wade in with some predictions for 2014. I’m a bit of a list lover and New Year’s the perfect opportunity to add mine to the myriad floating around (everything from ‘Best Put Down’ to ‘Worst Selfie’). Stick to what you know I say, so here’s where I predict you should be travelling to in 2014.
If you live in the great city of Glasgow, you’ll probably have completely forgotten that from July 23rd to August 3rd 2014 it’s playing host to The Commonwealth Games. The preparations seem to have gone on forever. But, as a visitor, I predict the results will be something quite spectacular. Apart from the games themselves, the architecture that’s been born off the back of them is stunning. Plus you get to stay in one of the most hospitable cities in the UK, and since the games finish on the 3rd of August there’s hardly any good reason I can see, why you wouldn’t just head off to Edinburgh for The Edinburgh International Festival (first two weeks in August).
Sticking with sport and Scotland, The Ryder Cup is being held at Gleneagles in Perth from September 25th to 28th 2014. This is the first time Scotland has hosted this internationally renowned golfing challenge since 1973, so it’s a bit of a thing. ‘Bit of a thing’ barely begins to describe Perthshire, so even if you’re a Golf Widow (or widower) there’s lots to keep you interested. Perthshire’s home to Glamis Castle and the lovely city of Perth itself. It’s also for children who don’t want to hang around working out the difference between a Birdie and an Eagle. And for foodies, it’s arguably the best place in Scotland to be.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A slightly more exotic sporting location than Scotland (not if you’re Brazilian, obviously), Rio de Janeiro is just one of Brazil’s cities hosting FIFA World Cup 2014 matches between June 12th and July 14th 2014. But I’m giving it a shout out, because not only is it lovely and huge and sometimes very strange, it’s also where I like to think I’ll spend New Year 2015. With upwards of 2 million people on Copacabana Beach. Watching an outstanding firework display. Setting sail my small, white paper boat filled with offerings to the Goddess of Water. And then partying until I can party no more – don’t worry you’ll have got over your recent New Year fatigue by then.
There’s only one constant about Iceland’s landscape: it will be inconsistent with anything you ever expected. It’s made ‘mythical land’ appearances in movies like Thor and Prometheus and features heavily in Game of Thrones (visit and you’ll see why), but Ben Stiller’s 2013 ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, Iceland is itself – as well as Afghanistan, The Himalayas and Greenland. This gives you an idea of the diversity of a country where even the capital Reykjavik is more charming, imagined, Nordic fishing port than major city. ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ might not have been wholly loved by the critics but no one failed to say how gorgeous it looked.
Sometimes rugged, often challenging and unfailingly charming, Yorkshire is the Grand Depart for 2014’s Tour de France. Leeds is where it all starts and this lively, beautiful restored Northern England city couldn’t be a more perfect introduction to another lovely part of the UK.
The Seychelles, South West Indian Ocean
One of the most special and breath taking places to visit, The Seychelles are known for beautiful beaches and the type of sea people can’t resist calling ‘azure’. They’re also a truly unspoiled environment. And since 2014 is The Year of Small Island Developing States, I’m hinting it might be the time to go see before everyone else does.
In 2014, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is up for a slew of design awards and it’s a worthy contender. But, stunning as the museum is, it’s not all that’s happening designwise in Amsterdam this year. The Centraal Station construction is on-going and avant-garde cafes and bars are all over and Noord-District is home to really exciting and brave development. But, if you hanker after a touch of the traditional with your design, I think this is the year you should visit before the city’s Red Light District is completely consumed by the new.
2014 is the centenary of the start of WW1, the war they said would end all wars, but sadly didn’t. With its chaos and vast loss of life WW1 is seen as an end to innocence. The experience of visiting the battlefield sites at Ypres, Passchendaele and Tyne-Cot are often mistaken as exclusively adult, but in France and Belgium a visit is regularly included in the school year. This year, Belgium commemorates the centenary everywhere and events range from small and personal to international. If you haven’t visited the WW1 battlefield sites, you’ll be moved and fascinated.
credit: Martin Kauffman
If you’ve ever heard or seen René Redzepi, founder of Noma, interviewed you won’t have failed to be charmed by his humour, passion and generosity. So this year I predict Copenhagen is worth a visit to eat at ‘Amass’, former Noma’ Head Chef, Matthew Orlando’s new restaurant. It’s already a design hot ticket and the food holds true to a style that’s distinctly contemporary Danish.
It might seem as if Louvre Galleries are springing up everywhere at the moment, but the one I think is hottest is almost on home territory in Lens, Pas-de Calais (you could almost twin with my Belgium prediction). The Louvre, Lens is an incredible exhibition space extending the Louvre, Paris’ programme of allowing works to be seen (often for the first time) by wider audiences. The building’s superb glass and metal structure is very fluid and light and includes a unique underground area where the public can see work in storage and watch restoration projects.
I could go on and on, but 10’s traditional for New Year lists. Hopefully it’s more inspirational than some you’ve seen so far.
In countries that worship at the altar of jingling bells, holly wreaths, and mobs of aging, scarlet gentlemen with cornucopian facial hair; there are, unsurprisingly, many who do not feel the urge to partake in the lamentably common commercialism and faux.
Yes, absolutely, me too. I think deep down under our novelty Christmas jumpers we can all sympathise with those who feel the need to escape Christmas, especially now we are stuck in the middle of the long festive run up surrounded by too many adverts, too many mince pies and too much Slade.
So, what are your options should you choose to escape Christmas this year? Where can you go and say “Bah! Humbug!” without being labelled a Scrooge? Well, here are my suggestions.
The red city is traditionally Muslim so Christmas is not the everything-grinds-to-a-halt occasion that it is in other parts of the world. But perhaps this isn’t the best reason to visit Marrakech at this time of year; it’s the weather. With temperatures often staying in the low 20s (Celsius) and more sunny days than not, you can say “Humbug!” in your cool cotton T-shirt while getting lost in a maze-like Medina or haggling your way through the famous Jemaa El-Fna market. Alternatively, to escape Christmas, the city and almost everything else, I recommend a trip to the nearby Atlas Mountains for stunning, floral landscapes and star-filled skies that will make you feel far from everything.
While many parts of Bangkok and Thailand will be adorned with Christmas decorations and fairy lights – it’s peak tourist season after all, and they know us “Farangs” love a bit of festal bobbledness – the Buddhist majority of Thai residents of course don’t approach the festive holidays with the same gusto they do their own spiritual festivals and celebrations. Moreover, I can absolutely guarantee a 0% chance of snow. Therefore, it’s easy to avoid Christmas in the Thai capital while also topping up your tan and satisfying your Tom Yum cravings. Immerse yourself in culture by visiting one of the city’s elaborate temples or rummage for vintage bargains at Rod Fai market. Alternatively do little more than relax by the pool of your luxurious high-rise apartment before heading out at night for arguably the best street food in the world.
St. Petersburg, Russia
If you’re keen to avoid Christmas but not the pretty winter scenes that a snowy landscape brings, then head to Saint Petersburg. With the Russian Orthodox Church celebrating Christmas on 7th January you can time your visit to escape the chaos at home, while also soaking up a little seasonal spirit if you’re not 100% Scrooge. Often hailed as the Russian Federation’s most “European” city, St Petersburg’s picturesque canals, architecture and growing “foodie” scene are reason enough to visit. Unsurprisingly the beautifully intricate WinterPalace is at its most impressive when surrounded by pure white snow and you can seek warmth and culture in the city’s many museums including the world-famous Hermitage art gallery.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
You may think this an unusual choice because it’s in the thick of Christmas-celebrating Western Europe, but hear me out. By the time Christmas Eve arrives in Amsterdam, children have already had their presents and they’re a little bit over Christmas. This is because the more commercial celebration of Sinterklaas comes much earlier on the evening of the 5th December and Christmas Day itself is a celebration mostly reserved for religious Christian families, though everyone enjoys a day or two off work. With the Dutch state and church being long separated, this means that Christmas in Amsterdam is festive, but it’s far from an overwhelming seasonal assault on your good will, so head to Amsterdam to admire a beautiful city lit up at night (Amsterdam Light Festival runs from 6th December until 19th January) and enjoy all the usual heart-warming Dutch treats like stroopwaffel, poffertjes and piping hot bitterballen washed down with a local beer in one of the city’s many “gezellig” brown bars.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
While Kuala Lumpur won’t be outdone when it comes to Christmas shopping and January sales opportunities – head to the upmarket area of Bukit Bintang for this – the traditional and older areas of Malaysia’s capital will offer you little clue that Christmas is upon us. That’s not to say the city is without sparkle, but it’s a sparkle that you can find there every day of the year. In the heart of Chinatown, along Petaling Street, lanterns and lights glow above the famous market stalls and in Brickfields, also known as Little India, lights left over from Diwali lead you to delicious street stalls where you can eat curry off a banana leaf for less than $4.00. And if you’d like to leave the city behind for a day or two head up to the tropical rainforest of FRIM – close to the famous BatuCaves or to the CameronHighlands, famous for its rolling hills of tea leaf fields.
So are you planning on escaping Christmas this year? If so, I’d love to know about any other tinsel-free towns you think are worth visiting for your ‘anti-Christmas’.
Featured image by Stu-bear
We’ve made a food guide to some of Europe’s most delicious cities.
When it comes to Christmas we’re going to hold our hands up to a shameless pursuit of all things traditional. Not for us the lure of ‘winter sunshine’ (although we’re happy to indulge that idea any time after midnight on the 25th). We cheerfully scorn minimalism. Don’t even get us started on deconstructed decoration. And if we aren’t seeing miles of fairy lights, vats of mulled wine, rosy cheeked carol singers and more roasted chestnuts than you can shake a vintage candy cane at, we want to know why!
credit: Marcus Povey
No surprise then that the fair, tolerant, friendly with frosty weather, brilliantly lit, many marketed and totally behind Christmas in all its forms city of Amsterdam is one of our favourite festive destinations.
Amsterdam is exuberant about Christmas. But since this year has been a bit of an all-round celebration (400th anniversary of the Canal Ring, abdication, new monarch) we’re looking forward to the city surpassing even our extraordinarily high expectations for Christmas 2013.
Quite how much we like lights is probably becoming clear by now. But don’t be running away with the idea that we’re indiscriminate, quite the opposite. Certain cities have opted for Christmas taste and restraint in the past and we’ve been forced to shun them until they came to their senses and splurged on bright, colourful, extravagant and completely excessive. Because if that’s not where the lights are at, it just isn’t Christmas as far as we’re concerned.
credit: Joop Reuvecamp
And The Amsterdam Light Festival is exactly what we’re talking about. From December 6th to January 19th, all over the city, if you can do it with lights, Amsterdam is doing it for Christmas 2013 – think flick-a-switch-and-call-it-show-time!
Walk the Illuminade through the city’s legendary and lovely Plantage quarter every night between 5 and 10pm, the interaction of light, art installations and architecture is mesmerising and ethereal.
This year’s festival is themed ‘Building with Light’ and since almost nothing in Amsterdam’s built landscape is as iconic as the city’s Canal Ring, a cruise is compulsory for Christmas 2013. Catch the Water Colours Canal Cruise any evening from 5 to 11pm and give in to the spectacle.
And on the evening of Saturday 14th December until 10pm you can shop the city by night: lots of lovely stuff to buy, all beautifully lit – of course. Nice to think too, that Amsterdam’s environmental policy means a lot of its electricity is green so the city lights up Christmas with a clearer conscience than most.
But eco-conscious as it may be in some ways, when it comes to seasonal shopping excess, Amsterdam is no holds barred. You’ll find all the smart, unusual, exclusive, designer, bohemian, odd and eccentric city shops as shiny and sure of themselves as ever but just more tempting than usual – and that’s going some. And if you want to lose your heart completely, spend too much and totally overindulge, you really need Amsterdam’s many, many Christmas markets.
The famously bright and boisterous Albert Cuypmarkt really comes into its own at Christmas. Its seasonal Sunday market is especially good for delicious traditional treats, last minute pressies and quintessentially Amsterdam atmosphere.
credit: K. Mc Cormick
Local community markets (over 26 of them) are individual, artisan, exotic and personal all over the city. They’re also perfectly child-sized, good for fresh local ingredients, the place to find one-off gifts and a reminder (if you need one) of why the Dutch are such very nice, friendly, civilised people to be about.
Christmas isn’t Christmas without street food, mittens, beanies and ice. So you want Leidseplein or Koningsplein in the city centre for skating, snacking, sweet little stalls and an excuse to drink mulled wine and hot chocolate.
And if you’re staying in Amsterdam for the big day itself, you’ve got to get a tree. In fact even if you’re renting an apartment in Amsterdam somewhere round and about the 25th of December in Amsterdam, you’ve got to get a tree. Because need of a Christmas tree is only the best reason to visit the city’s floating (yes, we said ‘floating’) Bloemenmarkt. World famous all year round for its flowers, Bloemenmarkt goes Christmas Tree mad come December. The lushest, greenest, most symmetrical, sweetest smelling, piniest, loveliest examples of every tree imaginable vie for attention here and if you’re able to resist, we suggest you have another lap of the ice rink, pick up some sugary snacks, a couple of mulled wines and try again.
Parades, classical concerts and circuses are all big Christmas traditions in Amsterdam, so much so that many events are sold out well in advance and ones that don’t need tickets will definitely involve some polite Amsterdam crowds.
A firm and regular favourite is the thrilling World Christmas Circus at the Royal Theatre Carré from December 19th to January 5th. A contemporary international circus this one’s low on clown-cars (we’re ok with that) and high on excitement and a fair bit of nail-biting.
credit: Rex Roof
As far as we’re concerned if an event’s worth celebrating it’s worth having a parade. Happily Amsterdam agrees and brings it home big style from mid-December with Winter Gay Pride Pink Christmas. Theatre, club-nights, fashion shows, food, shopping, skating and general all-round merry-making all over the city seems to be the only rule for Pink Christmas and we’re happy to go along with that.
A more classical approach to Christmas is taken by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw’s traditional Christmas Day Matinee with works by Wagner and Strauss. Concertgebouw is also the venue for a 23rd December performance of Handel’s Messiah, considered to be the choral highlight of 2013. And if you’re in the city between the 26th and 30th December you might want to bring your dancing shoes and a bit of sultry Argentinian attitude for Tangomania 2013.
We haven’t ticked all the Christmas boxes but it is the season of surprises after all and if ever there was a city to just wander around, join in and feel thoroughly festive, it’s Amsterdam. Amsterdam owns Christmas 2013, it’s official.
Featured image by Geir Halvorsen