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Photo by Karen Grigoryan / Shutterstock
Wake before dawn to seek out a solitary spot to watch the sun rise over the Grand Canyon’s dramatic winter scenery.
Crack open your history books and then dig out your mittens: The past comes alive as temperatures fall at these primed-for-winter UNESCO sites.
Winter isn’t always the most obvious time to set off in search of remote ruins and legendary ancient sites—especially when it entails hopping on a plane to somewhere that’s possibly even colder than back home. But those who brave these harsher months can reap some rich rewards. Not only does traveling outside of high season give you a chance to appreciate many UNESCO-protected world wonders without the crowds, but many historical places also are made even more spectacular at this time of year, while dusted in snow or illuminated by crisp winter light. Here are a few UNESCO World Heritage sites that have suprising upsides to visiting during winter.
Light snowfalls start to dust the rocky rim of the Grand Canyon as early as November l, gradually settling further down its strata as winter’s full force arrives. Sure, travel requires a little more planning at this time of year—the National Park Service advises visitors to slow down and bundle up—but it’s worth braving the cold to feel like you have one of the country’s greatest natural wonders all to yourself.
The North Rim shuts down for the season in mid-October and remains closed until mid-May, but the South Rim is open throughout the year—apart from periods of severe weather when average temperatures oscillate between 20 and 40 degrees. Many of the best short hiking trails and viewpoints remain accessible, and there are plenty of wildlife-spotting opportunities, too, from bald eagles to mule deer. For less effort, simply get up predawn, find a spot to watch the sunrise, then retire to the rim-side El Tovar Hotel for a warming cup of hot cocoa.
The 17th-century fortified city of Old Québec is special at any time of year, but this UNESCO treasure really turns up its charm come wintertime. Despite daily highs and lows ranging from 20 degrees Fahrenheit to the negative single digits in December and January—and an average annual snowfall of more than nine feet—there’s plenty to do outside in the historic district, including ice-skating in Place D’Youville (mid-November to mid-March) and thrilling slides down a century-old toboggan run (from mid-December to mid-March).
Special seasonal events abound, including the annual German Christmas Market (November 22 to December 23, 2019), lit by fairy lights and packed with stalls selling bratwurst, gingerbread, mulled wine, and handmade ornaments. It’s complemented by a foodie market in the Old Port (which runs through January 2, 2020), and magnificent decorations across the city, with some of the best displays found on the Rue du Petit-Champlain, Place-Royale, or Place de l’Hôtel-De-Ville. The city also hosts the world’s largest winter carnival, the Carnaval de Québec (February 7–16, 2020), featuring parades, ice sculptures, and even canoe races atop the frozen St. Lawrence River.
China’s Great Wall is veiled in myth and legend. As the world’s largest military structure—and the country’s defining UNESCO World Heritage site—the ancient fortification system snakes across northern China, beginning in a sweeping arc north of Beijing. First constructed by Emperor Qin Shi Huang during his reign of the Qin dynasty, the Great Wall of China’s history spans the 3rd century B.C.E. to the 17th century, during which time it was expanded and enhanced by different dynasties.
While balmy summer temperatures here are enticing, those with a sense of adventure can book a guided winter trip to the world-famous landmark. Tour operators like Wild Great Wall can help you hike through virgin snow on remote sections of the Great Wall, including at Jinshanling, which is a two-hour drive from Beijing. Free from crowds and selfie sticks, you’ll get a real sense of what the patrol guards once stationed at the Great Wall experienced on winter days, when temperatures in northern China can drop to the teens.
If your idea of UNESCO appreciation isn’t quite aligned with simulating a scene out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, seek European refinement instead in the Hungarian capital along the banks of the Danube. The riverfront sites were first settled during the Roman empire as the city of Aquincum, which later became part of the Ottoman empire; this legacy is evidenced by the city’s architecture and its glorious thermal baths, which are fed by natural hot springs.
Settling into a steaming pool at Budapest’s Gellért Baths—one of the finest examples of art nouveau in Europe—is about as dreamy as a winter experience can get, when temperatures outdoors frequently linger around freezing point. Stroll from the elaborate neo-Gothic spires of the Hungarian Parliament on the Pest side of the city, across the Chain Bridge to its Buda section, and up Castle Hill to Matthias Church, where spectacular views of the city await at the summit.
The striking beauty of Norway is perhaps most apparent in the starkness of winter. Days are short near the Arctic Circle during this time of year, with the sun barely rising before 10 a.m., and sundown following soon, around 3:30 p.m. Cold winds will whip color into your cheeks with temperatures just above freezing, but if you want to be transported to a true winter wonderland, this is as close as it gets.
Visit the UNESCO-listed Nærøyfjord, the most famous of the country’s thousand or so fjords—and an inspiration for Arendelle in Disney’s Frozen. Situated in southwestern Norway north of the country’s second city, Bergen, here you’ll see plunging fjords transformed from lush oases into icy winter marvels. The wildest and most beautiful branch of the larger Sognefjord is best viewed from the water; two-hour fjord cruises run between Flåm and Gudvangen every day of the year. Between October and April, you can also set out on an overnight Norway in a Nutshell excursion to the fjord from Bergen, which features a scenic ride on the Flåm Railway, as well as transfers and accommodations.
Portugal’s popularity among U.S. travelers has skyrocketed in recent years, thanks to multiple new flight routes to the country from the United States. On the northwestern coast, the city of Porto has a historic center that’s so remarkable, it’s featured on the UNESCO World Heritage list. So why should you visit outside of the traditional summer season? For one, you’ll beat the crowds (especially if you also plan to visit other cities in Portugal like the hugely popular capital, Lisbon). You’ll also skip oppressive temperatures, which have previously topped a sweltering 104 degrees during summer—uncomfortable, to say the least. Winter averages are just half that, with January temperatures hovering around 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Perched on the north bank of the Douro River, Porto is a delightful tangle of alleyways that lace up a steep hillside, dotted by palaces, churches, and pretty azulejo-tiled buildings. Be sure to take in the views from the Romanesque cathedral and admire the romantic blue-and-white tiling of the São Bento train station. Across the river, in Porto’s sister city, Vila Nova de Gaia, port lodges offer tours and tastings that grant insight into the art of fortified wine production, which began here in the 17th century. Family-run Augusto’s is the best spot for an intimate tasting; other big names include Taylor’s, Cockburn’s, and Graham’s.
The most mesmerizing of Andalucia’s architectural marvels, this hilltop monolith looks even more beautiful in winter light, its honeyed stone set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevadas’ peaks. First a fortress, and then a palace, the UNESCO site of Alhambra dates back to the 9th century, with much of its expansions occurring during its time as a royal residence for the Nasrid dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Today, there are three key areas to visit within the Moorish-style complex: the Alcazaba, the Generalife gardens, and the Nasrid Palaces. All are open throughout the year, but guided tours can sell out weeks, if not months, in advance. However, those who come in winter (and are willing to face chilly temperatures around 40 degrees) can often get lucky with a last-minute tour of the site. Once you’ve explored to your heart’s content, descend the hill into the city of Granada, where Andalusian cuisine is perfectly suited to winter evenings: Expect rich dishes like olla de San Antón (a bean and pork stew) and churros con chocolate for dessert.
This article originally appeared online in November 2018; it was updated on December 4, 2019, to include current information.
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