8 Exceptional Festivals to Escape to This Winter

Come out of hibernation this winter for travel-worthy festivals that celebrate ice, snow, chills, and thrills in cities around the globe.

8 Exceptional Festivals to Escape to This Winter

Japan’s Sapporo Snow Festival features huge snow and ice sculptures, snow tubing, and the crowning of an Ice Queen.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

The frigid days of winter may have you snuggling up by the fireplace, embracing all things hygge this season. But don’t get too settled: If you’re willing to bundle up, you can go out in search of some special winter festivals. The Christmas markets have shut down, but many magical midwinter festivals are just getting started, complete with ice palaces, snow sculptures, and plenty of hot cocoa—here are eight of the very best of them.


Ice and snow sculptures abound at St. Paul Winter Carnival, a beloved winter festival in St. Paul, Minnesota, since 1886.

Courtesy of St. Paul Winter Carnival

St. Paul Winter Carnival
St. Paul, Minnesota (January 24–February 3, 2019)

Minnesota winter might sound intense, but St. Paul’s annual Winter Carnival has been heating up the scene since 1886. Outdoor festivities include parades, ice bars, an ice sculpture garden, and even a dramatic ice palace that serves as the carnival’s centerpiece. A “snow park” made up of 3,000 tons of snow wows with a snow maze, snow slide, and new for 2019, a snow castle with 16-foot-tall spires, along with nine holes of snow golf (like regular miniature golf, but played on a snowscape course with tennis balls in lieu of golf balls). Tip: Don’t miss the barstool ski races on February 9, when costumed competitors hold on tight to their ski-tipped barstools and hope for the best as they race downhill: It may be the greatest winter sport you’ve never heard of (until now).


Who needs the beach? Get in a game of snow volleyball at the Stowe Winter Carnival in Vermont.

Photo by Gordon Miller

Stowe Winter Carnival
Stowe, Vermont (January 25–27, 2019)

In winter, Vermont looks like a dreamy, snow-covered wonderland, especially during the annual Stowe Winter Carnival. Professional ice carvers work tirelessly to create magical frozen sculptures for display around town that play into the year’s theme, which for 2019 is “outer space” (a nod to this year’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing). Plus, bring the kids—and their fishing poles—for a youth ice-fishing derby, while snow volleyball and snow golf tournaments for adults help to bring the winter fun outside for all ages.


Ottawa attracts huge crowds for its Winterlude, which offers every winter activity you can think of (and then some).

Courtesy of the Department of Canadian Heritage

Ottawa, Canada (February 1–18, 2019)

Hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Winterlude in Ottawa each year for gigantic snow sculptures, ski and snowboard lessons, and ice-skating on the frozen Rideau Canal, a signature attraction. Cheer on participants in the winter triathlon (as in skate, ski, run), the ice dragon boat race wherein racers use spiked paddles to thrust boats forward, and even a quirky hospital bed race in which teams of five push decorated beds across York Street. New this year, too, are festivities to celebrate Canada’s diversity, with a focus on indigenous culture during the festival’s first weekend, featuring a traditional First Nations Pow Wow, and then a spotlight on Canada’s LGBTQ+ community during the second weekend via WinterPride, including an ice cabaret and a photo exhibit on Ottawa’s queer history.


A fat bike race is one of several winter events that make up the annual Madison Winter Festival in Madison, Wisconsin.

Photo by Renee Callaway

Madison Winter Festival
Madison, Wisconsin (February 2–3, 2019)

The annual Madison Winter Festival in Madison, Wisconsin’s Elver Park is a celebration of winter recreation and healthy living, even in the grips of the gray and dreary winter months. Sign up for a BYOD (bring your own dog) skijoring clinic to learn how your furry pal can tow you, cross-country skiing style. There’s also a Snowshoe Scurry (a 5K snowshoe run), a fat bike race, sledding, and ice-skating. Kids can scramble over a snow fort, get in a round of mini ice golf, and warm up with cocoa in front of a bonfire.

Sapporo Snow Festival
Sapporo, Japan (February 4–11, 2019)

Now in its 70th year, the Sapporo Snow Festival is one the largest winter events in Japan, attracting two million visitors. Look for snow tubing, the crowning of the Ice Queen, and oversized snow and ice sculptures, which will take on a Star Wars theme this year (including a re-creation of the Millennium Falcon, sculpted out of snow). The festival is also home to the International Snow Sculpture Contest, which attracts creative snow-sculpting teams from around the world, including from Germany, Canada, and Australia.

Winter Lights Festival
Reykjavík, Iceland (February 7–10, 2019)

The Icelandic winter can be very long, but the annual Winter Lights Festival illuminates the darkness in Reykjavík (which only sees about four hours of daylight during the darkest days of winter). It offers more than 150 events, including a thermal pool night (featuring both indoor and outdoor settings), a Northern Lights fun run, photogenic light art installations, and a free citywide museum night. More than 20 buildings get lit up in greens and purples, the colors of the festival. Plus, organizers switch off the central city lights for an hour on one evening of the fest, so that participants can be awed by celestial lights above.


Only the hardiest competitors participate in ice canoe races across the St. Lawrence River, part of the Quebec Winter Carnival.

Photo by Fred Photo Video/Carnaval de Québec

Quebec Winter Carnival
Quebec City, Canada (February 8–17, 2019)

Canadians embrace winter, so it’s no surprise that Quebec’s Winter Carnival is a massive affair, complete with its own friendly snowman mascot, Bonhomme. A newly expanded program for 2019 boasts more than 60 events, including ice canoe races across the brutally cold waters of the St. Lawrence River (complete with pre-race tailgating); an enchanted forest on the grounds of the Quebec Aquarium, lit up with 500,000 luminous LED lights; ice-sculpting workshops; and a family fishing tournament. For breathtaking bird’s-eye views of Old Quebec, grab a toboggan for an exhilarating half-mile ride down a century-old track at speeds topping 45 miles per hour; this iconic local attraction serves up thrills all winter long.

Fur Rondy
Anchorage, Alaska (February 22–March 3, 2019)

Once you’ve made it through some of the shortest days of the year—with not quite 5.5 hours of daylight in Anchorage at the winter solstice—it’s time to party it up. Fur Rondy, the self-proclaimed “largest winter festival in North America,” marks the beginning of the end of winter in Alaska. Over 10 days, celebrate with snow sculptures, an indoor cornhole tournament, carnival rides, and even a family-friendly root beer chugging contest. Stay for the crowd-pleasing Running of the Reindeer, in which racers choose to run with one of four “herds” of people in an attempt to outrun reindeer dashing down the city streets. Outhouse Races, which involve porta-potties strapped to skis, is another must-watch competition. Then wish the mushers luck at the starting line of the Iditarod, the famed 1,000-mile dog sled race across Alaska that kicks off on March 2 in 2019.

>> Next: The 10 Best Places to Travel This Winter

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