Winter travel often means escaping the cold to go to a warm place, but some fabulous travel destinations are best served cold. We asked two travel experts to choose places—five in North America and five in Europe—that are wonderful for embracing winter weather even if skiing is not your thing…
In North America
Five great places to enjoy the winter cold without flying overseas…
• Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming is the world’s oldest National Park and one of the most famous. Its geysers, hot springs, wildlife and waterfalls add up to an unmatchable rugged beauty. But the park attracts four million visitors a year, and those crowds can make a trip feel more like visiting a theme park than exploring nature. The solution—visit in winter, when there are few guests. A layer of snow makes Yellowstone only more beautiful. The Gardiner, Montana, entrance remains open to vehicles in the winter, as does Old Faithful Snow Lodge and Cabins in the park (cabins from about $117,* USParkLodging.com). Guided tours are offered on snowmobiles or vanlike “snow coaches.”
• Stowe, Vermont, may be renowned for its skiing, but with its white-steepled church and old-fashioned grocery store, it is a choice winter destination for anyone in search of snow-covered New England charm. This is the sort of town that travelers dream of visiting after watching the classic Bing Crosby holiday film Holiday Inn (known for the song “White Christmas”). And beyond Stowe’s postcard-quality quaintness, there’s great food, craft beer and a celebrated winter festival featuring ice carving, dancing, moonlight snowshoe tours, and “snow golf” and “snow volleyball” tournaments. This year the festival runs from January 13 to January 27 (StoweWinterCarnival.com). Hotel options include Stowe Mountain Lodge—each room in this hotel has a fireplace and a private balcony, plus floor-to-ceiling windows that maximize the mountain views (rooms start at around $220 a night, DestinationHotels.com).
• New York City is an incredible place to visit any time of year, but it’s especially magical to stroll through Central Park when snow is falling, the aroma of roasted chestnuts is in the air and the lights of the city are starting to sparkle all around you. When it’s too cold for strolling, winter is the perfect time to visit the city’s many world-class museums or catch a Broadway show—the crowds tend to thin, and tickets to many shows become easier to obtain in January and February. Shopping is a popular activity, and post-holiday sales make this the perfect time for it. With so many varied options for lodging, your best bet for choosing a hotel is to use a website or travel agent to see which hotels are offering the best off-season deals for your travel dates.
• Quebec City, Canada, is within easy driving distance of the northeastern US, but with its centuries-old stone architecture and French-speaking population, it can seem as though you’ve traveled to Europe. The downtown is stunning in fresh-fallen snow, and the city’s annual Carnaval de Québec is among the world’s greatest cold-weather festivals—it’s Canada’s answer to Mardi Gras. Carnaval features concerts, parades, an “ice palace” painstakingly constructed each winter…and outdoor drinking—try a “caribou,” the traditional drink of Carnaval, which contains vodka, brandy, sherry and port and often is served in glasses made of ice. This year the Carnaval runs from January 26 to February 11 (Carnaval.qc.ca). Hotel options include the historic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which sits atop the steep Cap Diamant (rooms start at $185, Fairmont.com).
• Ottawa, Canada, is not the first Canadian city on most travelers’ bucket lists—it lacks the size of Toronto and the French charm of Montreal and Quebec City—but Canada’s capital has managed to make its cold winter weather a true asset. The Rideau Canal through the city’s downtown is converted into a five-mile-long ice-skating rink each winter, complete with skate-up stands selling snacks and hot drinks. Some Ottawans even skate to work. Ottawa’s annual “Winterlude” festival features performances, exhibitions, dogsledding, and top-flight ice-carving and snow-sculpture competitions. This year it runs from February 2 to 19. Hotel options include the Fairmont Château Laurier, a castlelike building that offers Old World service and grandeur (rooms from $185, Fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa).
The crowds thin out in many major European travel destinations in winter, and airfares and hotel room rates tend to fall. Five unforgettable European winter destinations that are not about skiing…
• Edinburgh, Scotland, has a Christmas Market that is one of the grandest in Europe, and its “Hogmanay” New Year’s Eve bash transforms the entire city center into a giant party. It’s too late to spend the holidays in Edinburgh this year, but this is a great city to visit in January or February. The downtown is beautifully lit in the winter—especially Edinburgh Castle, which looms high above the city. Scots golf year-round, and winter can offer the best odds of securing a tee time at one of the country’s historic courses (though even in the dead of winter, it pays to reserve a tee time as far in advance as possible). And when you want to warm up, you can sit by a fire in one of the city’s grand hotels with a glass of local Scotch in your hand—one of life’s true pleasures. Hotel options include the extravagant Balmoral (off-season prices start in the $300 range, RoccoForteHotels.com).
• Helsinki, Finland, is an under-rated destination at any time of year, with its great restaurants and many galleries and museums. But it’s during the winter when visitors can enjoy that most Finnish of activities—taking a hot sauna on a cold day. The winter days are short in this city, which is less than 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle—with only about six hours between sunrise and sunset!—but the northerly location means that you could see the northern lights if you visit during winter (though you will have to venture away from the city lights to do this). Highly rated hotel options include the stylish GLO Hotels (GLOHotels.fi) and the stately Hotel Kämp Helsinki (HotelKamp.com), with winter rates often between $200 and $300.
• Paris generally is considered a spring or summer travel destination—but if there’s anything more magical than strolling down the Champs-Elysees, it’s strolling down the Champs-Elysees while a light snow is falling and there are very few tourists around. Eating, shopping and museum-going are three key components of most Parisian vacations. If anything, they can be better than ever because of the smaller crowds and the post-holiday discounts offered by many stores. When it’s too cold for window-shopping on the street, duck into one of the city’s famed covered shopping arcades…or take a trip down the Seine in a glass-enclosed, heated boat. Use a travel agent or website to find highly rated hotels that are offering great off-season rates when you want to visit.
• Winter cruises on the Rhine are not traditional lay-on-the-deck cruises —they are river journeys that give you a chance to see incredible landscapes and historic castles and visit a mix of ancient and modern European cities, among them Basel, Switzerland…Strasbourg, France…Mainz, Koblenz, Rüdesheim and Cologne, Germany…and Amsterdam, all without worrying about rental cars or itineraries. One catch: You might want to wait until next winter. Rhine River cruises are offered year-round, but they’re best in the first few weeks of December, when many cities along the Rhine stage unforgettable outdoor Christmas markets. At these markets, you can try local foods, enjoy warm drinks such as mulled wine and buy local crafts—all in festive, beautifully lit downtowns. Cruise lines operating on the Rhine include CroisiEurope Cruises, Scenic River Cruises and Viking River Cruises.
• St. Petersburg, Russia, is perhaps the most beautiful city in Russia, and it’s at its most magnificent in winter, when the ground is blanketed in snow and the people are clad in fur. It feels as though you’ve stepped into a Dostoyevsky novel…or a snow globe. The city’s main tourist draws are indoors, where cold winter temps can’t touch you—the Winter Palace, which is massive and opulent even by palace standards…and the Hermitage, one of the world’s largest and best museums. In fact, the winter cold can work in your favor by dramatically thinning the crowds. St. Petersburg’s ballet, opera and symphony are excellent (and perform indoors!). In the winter, you often can get a room at a five-star hotel for less than $200 a night.
*Hotel rates in this article are based on weekday stays for two people in one room for January 2018 and are subject to change.