It’s inevitable. Winter is coming. But the long dark nights can create exquisite, natural beauty. Travelling in the winter months means you can see the Northern Lights, as well as mountains and lakes with a dramatic coating of snow and ice. So wrap up warm and have a read of our favourite places around the world to embrace the colder weather.
When it comes to winter destinations, fairy tale Finland wins the award as it’s the home of Father Christmas. Lapland is also where you’ll find nearly 200,000 reindeer. So expect to take a sled ride when you visit – or alternatively let the huskies pull you along the snow. You can get a great view of the Northern Lights from here. This natural phenomenon can appear on up to 200 nights in the far north of the country. The Lahti Children’s Winter Carnival is also a family favourite in Finland. It’s three weeks of music, culture, theatre, dance, circus and crafts. Finnish food to try includes Karjalanpiirakka (like a cornish pasty) and Korvapuusti – a cinnamon bun, best washed down with a cup of coffee.
In the city of Kyoto, winter means seeing all the shrines, temples and ornamental gardens covered with a blanket of snow. And even in the cold you can take a dip in their famous hot springs. The Ashikaga Flower Park in Kanto, eastern Japan, is also covered with more than 3 million lightbulbs, used to light up the gardens. But if you’re going to choose one event – make it the Sapporo Snow Festival. It’s been running since 1950, and the big draw is the International Snow Sculpture Contest. There’s nearly 400 sculptures – some of which are massive, and more than 15 countries compete for the title.
Lake Bled in Slovenia. Source: www.slovenia.info; Photographer: Franci Ferjan
You can get every type of winter weather here as Slovenia touches both the Alps (freezing) and the Mediterranean Sea (slightly nippy). You’ve got the Bohinj Glacier deciding to move during the Ice Age to thank for the creation of picture-perfect Bled Lake. It’s a balmy 25 degrees in the summer and often totally covered in ice in the winter. The 15th century church in the middle of the lake is straight out of a fairly tale, and is well worth a trip over the water. Also make sure you visit Bled Castle’s museum or their wine cellar, and fill up your own wine bottle from their casks. Over Christmas and New Year, festivals include the sinking of a Christmas tree and a torchlight parade around the lake – very romantic.
It’s a difficult one to call. Which is more impressive in winter – the Fjords or the Northern Lights? A better idea is to try and do both on a trip to northern Norway. The Norwegian Fyords are one of the natural wonders of the world. The Geirangerfjord and the Nærøyfjord are probably the most visually stunning. Visit Norway describe the Northern Lights as a “cool fashion show from the 80s”. Tromsø is a good place to go on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The city is relatively easy to get to, and when you’re not stargazing, there’s reindeer racing and husky sledding to keep you busy. Visit in February for the Northern Lights concert series in the atmospheric Arctic Cathedral.
Canada comes alive in winter. In the mountain town of Banff you can take the Icefields Parkway and drive through the Canadian Rockies. You’ll tick off winter favourites like glaciers, snow-capped mountains and elk. You might even spot a bear or wolf. Quebec can get a hundred inches of snow in winter, which is handy for the annual Quebec Winter Carnival which has been going since 1894. It features snow sculptures, dog sled races and canoe competitions. Winterludein the capital, Ottawa, goes on for three weekends in February. Hire some skates and take to the world’s largest naturally frozen rink – it’s the size of 90 Olympic ice rinks. Don’t forget the Montreal En Luminere – visit the Quartier des spectacles and its Place des Festivals for free outdoor family-fun and parties. The national sport is ice hockey so try and catch a game while you’re there.
6. New Zealand
Queenstown is at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, and set on the edge of the vast Lake Wakatipu. Their winter is our summer, and our summer is their winter – but what’s clear is it’s brilliant to visit at any time of year. The Queenstown Winter Festival is in June. It’s one of the best times (and places) to try skiing, snowboarding or heli-sking or boarding – they’ll fly you up to the glacier so you can ride through deep snow. Take a cruise through the fyord-like Milford Sound, in the Fiordland National Park. To be fair, the blue waters surrounded by snow-capped mountains are equally breathtaking in spring, summer or autumn. In their summer, the weather is warm and perfect for canyon swinging and white water rafting. Queenstown’s not known as the Adventure Capital for nothing. It’s also a party town – backpacker buses arrive every day – so the bars are always raucous. We like The World Bar – who doesn’t want to drink cocktails out of teapots on holiday?
7. Czech Republic
The capital Prague has one of the biggest Christmas markets in the world. Celebrations for Vánoce (Christmas) begin in the middle of November. It’s held in the Old Town and Wenceslas Square, which is also helpfully one of the prettiest parts and a World Heritage Site. They go for it during New Year too – with classical concerts and a major fireworks display on New Year’s Day illuminating the bridges. The Three Kings Procession on 3rd January over the Charles Bridge is a great spectacle. Prague’s also pretty decent as an autumn destination if you want it a little bit warmer – here’s our suggestions for spending the weekend.
8. The Netherlands
A huge swathe of Amsterdam is a UNESCO Heritage Site. You’re going to get some snowy snaps of the beautiful canals if you visit in the winter, especially if you visit during December and January, when the Festival of Lights is on and they’re lit up. And don’t miss Sinterklaas – the biggest Saint Nicholas parade in the world in mid November. You can also get your skates on and glide along the iconic canals in style if it stays at minus four centigrade for four nights in a row. When that happens, the council stops the boats and keeps the ice intact so you can skate, so check the forecast before you go. A good thing to eat at this time of year is Bitterballen – a deep-fried winter treat for Amsterdammers. We found 30 cool things to do in Amsterdam in winter to get you started.
It’s hard to actually pick the best place to visit in the USA come the winter. You’ve got the far extremes of icy Alaska with its glaciers and moose, down to Lake Tahoe in (usually sunny) California. If you’re heading up to Alaska, time it right for the annual Fur Rendezvous (Rondy) in Anchorage during February and March. It’s been going since 1935 and is a crazy celebration of all the winter traditions – think torchlight processions and husky sledge races. Elsewhere, probably the most famous open air ice rink in the world can be found in New York’s Central Park. This, coupled with the famous department stores of Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s and Barney’s for shopping make the Big Apple one of the most popular Christmas destinations in the world. Here’s all you need to know for visiting New York for the first time.
Last, but by no means least, is the place that’s been described as the prettiest village in the world. Photos of Hallstatt in the eastern Alps of Austria might look good to be true, but it’s even better in real life. This beautiful place surprisingly has a salt mining heritage. It’s surrounded by a natural landscape of real magnificence – and only enhanced by the dusting of snow. Plus, one of the most famous carols in the world was written in Oberndorf, near Salzburg and there’s even a museum dedicated to the song.
What’s your favourite Winter destination?
We’d love to hear where you like to head come November, December, January and February. Let us know your favourite cold spots by leaving a comment below. And have a look at the latest cheap flights to see if you can save some money to spend when you get there.