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 sites also are made even more spectacular at this time of year, while dusted in snow or illuminated by crisp winter light.
If you want to stick to close-to-home destinations, head to the U.S. Southwest to make snowmen on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or go north to celebrate the best of the season at Québec City’s epic winter carnival. Longer-haul adventures put China’s snow-covered Great Wall, Portugal’s fascinating second city at Porto, and an almost-crowd-free Alhambra in Spain within reach. Here are seven UNESCO World Heritage sites that you need to visit this winter.
Grand Canyon, USA
As early as November, light snowfalls start to dust the Grand Canyon’s rocky rim, 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, but the South Rim is open throughout the year, apart from periods of extremely severe weather; average temperatures oscillate between 20 and 40 degrees. Many of the best short 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 Lounge for a warming cup of hot cocoa.
Old Québec, Canada
The only fortified city north of Mexico, Old Québec is special at any time of year, but this UNESCO treasure really turns up the charm come wintertime. Despite daily highs and lows ranging from 20 degrees 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, including ice-skating in Place D’Youville (mid-October to mid-March) and thrilling slides down a century-old toboggan run (from mid-December to mid-March).
Special seasonal events abound, including December’s German Christmas market (November 22–December 23, 2018), 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 until New Year’s Eve), 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 8–17, 2019), featuring parades, ice sculptures, and even canoe races atop the frozen St. Lawrence River.
The Great Wall, China
Veiled in myth and legend, China’s Great Wall is iconic. The world’s largest military structure—and the country’s defining UNESCO World Heritage site—it snakes across northern China, beginning in a sweeping arc north of Beijing. First constructed by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, its history spans the 3rd century BCE to the 17th century, during which time it was expanded and improved during many different dynasties.
Balmy summer temps here are enticing, but those with a sense of adventure can book a guided winter trip with a company like Wild Great Wall that can help you hike through virgin snow on remote sections of the Great Wall, including at Jinshanling, a two-hour drive from Beijing. Free from touts and selfie sticks, you’ll get a real sense of what the sentries once stationed here experienced on winter days, when temperatures can drop to the teens.
Banks of the Danube in Budapest, Hungary
If your idea of UNESCO appreciation isn’t quite Raiders of the Lost Ark, seek out European refinement instead via the Danube River–fronting sights of the Hungarian capital. These banks were first settled as the Roman city of Aquincum, which later became part of the Ottoman Empire; it’s a legacy that’s 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, where winter temps 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 spectacularly scenic city views await at the summit.
Norway’s harsh but striking beauty is perhaps most apparent in the starkness of winter. Days are short here this time of year, with the sun barely rising before 10 a.m., and sundown following quickly, around 3:30 p.m. Cold winds will whip color into your cheeks, with winter temps hovering just above freezing. But if you want to be transported to another world, this is as close as it gets, as the country’s plunging fjords are transformed from lush oases into icy wonderlands.
UNESCO-listed Nærøyfjord, the most famous of the country’s thousand or so fjords—and an inspiration for Arendelle in Disney’s Frozen—can be visited in winter. The wildest and most beautiful branch of the larger Sognefjord, it’s best seen from the water; two-hour cruises run between Flåm and Gudvangen every day of the year. Or set out on an overnight Norway in a Nutshell excursion to the fjord from the country’s second city, Bergen, between October and April, featuring a ride on the scenic Flåm Railway, as well as transfers and accommodations.
It seems like everyone’s going to Portugal right now. Accordingly, Porto is one of the most talked about cities of the year, thanks to new flight routes and skyrocketing arrivals from the United States. And unlike Lisbon, it 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. But you’ll also skip oppressive temperatures, which topped a sweltering 104 degrees this summer—uncomfortable, to say the least, in a city unfamiliar with air-conditioning. Winter averages are just half that, with January temps hovering around 50 degrees.
Any winter trip should start with a stroll. Porto, perched on the north bank of the Douro River, 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 Alhambra, Spain
The most mesmerizing of Andalucia’s architectural marvels, the hilltop monolith Alhambra looks even more beautiful in winter light, its honeyed stone set against a backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s snowcapped peaks. First a fortress, and then a palace, the UNESCO site 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 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; those who come in winter (and are willing to face temperatures hovering around 40 degrees), however, can often get lucky with a last-minute trip. 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.