Have Parka, Will Travel: 6 Places That Shine During the Winter

Snowbirds, allow me a minute to change your mind?

Ski expertise isn't needed to appreciate Japan in the snow.

Ski expertise isn’t needed to appreciate Japan in the snow.

Photo by Syahirussalam/Shutterstock

Winter holidays are seen as a chance to go somewhere warm, particularly by sunseekers in the Northern Hemisphere who get a flight-down-south response when the temperature drops. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with spending Christmas on Australia’s Gold Coast or New Year’s partying it up in Rio de Janeiro. It’s great that snowbirds have said opportunities. But plenty of spring and summer destinations show another side in the off-season, when the hordes of tourists disperse and the heat turns into a crisp chill.

Whether you’re looking to experience a music festival in the snow or the serenity of a national park, try cozying up with the residents and embrace the season. Maybe you’ll warm up to learning a thing or two about coping with—ahem, I mean celebrating—the cold and board your next holiday flight with a parka in hand.

1. Japan

Skiers are well aware of Japan’s beauty in the winter, as the Hokkaido region becomes a beacon for people eager to hit the slopes in Niseko or Furano. Although it may be tempting to join in on the fun, consider taking advantage of the off-season to see Osaka, Kyoto, and other well-loved cities, as the rest of the country is relieved of the tourism rush until the spring. Popular shrines get quieter during this season—besides the huge uptick in visitors come Japanese New Year, which is from January 1 to 3. But there are plenty of other cold traditions that come crowdless, including several involving food, such as eating KFC on Christmas and warming up with a freshly prepared yaki imo. Japan’s onsens get that much more relaxing too, until the crowds come back around April.

Speaking of cherry blossom season: Now that international visitors are planning to return in droves for the annual event, why not come a bit earlier, when plums blossom from mid-February to March? While the trees don’t bear fruit until the summer, experiencing their soft and sweet fragrance is one of many advantages to visiting Japan in the winter.

Expect music, lights, and lots of fun in Montreal.

Expect music, lights, and lots of fun in Montreal.

Photo by Richard Cavalleri/Shutterstock

2. Montreal, Canada

Canadian winters are no joke. Temperatures in Montreal average below freezing from December to February, but this city knows a thing or two about partying the dark nights away. Bust out your warmest—or wackiest—clothes and come to Montreal’s Jacques-Cartier Pier for Igloofest, an electronic music festival where attendees warm up with the power of dance. Next year’s festivities are from January 19 to February 11, 2023, and feature artists Eli & Fur, Yotto, and more.

The creative expression doesn’t stop there. Throughout the season, Quebec province’s largest competition for temporary public art installations, Luminothérapie, takes over Quartier des Spectacles with installations and video projections. Its last iteration featured light-up seesaws and iceberg-shaped walkways that change colors, so no worries about the city succumbing to darkness once winter hits. Highlighting the city’s winter activities is a Nuit blanche (French for all-nighter) on February 25, which encourages Montrealers to embrace urban adventure by opening entertainment complexes and art galleries (like the Musée d’Art Contemporain) from dusk until dawn.

Need a place to stay in Montreal? Read more: The 10 Best Hotels in Montreal

Tivoli Gardens is a popular winter attraction in Copenhagen.

Tivoli Gardens is a popular winter attraction in Copenhagen.

Photo by Mikhail Markovskiy/Shutterstock

3. Denmark

In the fight against winter gloom, Danes have long used a weapon that has inspired a number of mindful living books within the past decade. The Scandinavian concept of hygge—roughly translating to coziness—is how people in Denmark (and neighboring Nordic countries) create their own sense of warmth no matter how cold it gets. A visit in the winter offers shining examples of hygge, from the obsession with candles to get-togethers between friends and family.

The country also seems to have mastered this spirit of merry and cheer, with Denmark being one of the happiest in the world. During December, this attitude fills the Christmas markets in cities like Copenhagen and Aarhus. Amusement park Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen becomes a notable wonderland, showing off 1,000 Christmas trees and 60 festive stalls.

Don't follow the herd mentality when planning your Yellowstone trip.

Don’t follow the herd mentality when planning your Yellowstone trip.

Photo by BlazingBighornStudios/Shutterstock

4. Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park draws nearly five million visitors a year, so beating the crowds requires some creativity. But instead of just forgoing the popular trails when visiting the 150-year-old park, how about journeying during a lesser-visited season? Come winter, and the blanket of untouched snow covering the area adds an element of remoteness. While Mammoth campground is the only front country campground in Yellowstone that’s open year round, warming up in stays like 320 Ranch (near Cinnamon Mountain) or Montage Big Sky (near Lone Mountain) come with those wonderful off-season prices.

Since navigating the park is more limited come winter, consider taking a guided tour. It’s the perfect opportunity to try your hand at snowshoeing or cross-country skiing without crowds. Wildlife watching in the winter differs too—while squirrels and grizzlies are hibernating, other animals like bald eagles, wolves, and bison can still be scouted. Against the white background, spotting them becomes much easier.

Snow makes Gullfoss Falls more beautiful.

Snow makes Gullfoss Falls more beautiful.

Photo by Sara Winter/Shutterstock

5. Iceland

Iceland doesn’t exactly sound like a place with a forgiving winter—but temps here may be more mild than you think. Most averages on the island stay within the 14–32°F range, which isn’t that different from winter temperatures in the U.S. Midwest. Make sure to bring your thick coat, but you can still count on accessing sights along well-cleared routes like the Golden Circle without trouble. If anything, the 190-mile loop becomes even more dramatic in the winter. In particular, a partially frozen Gullfoss waterfall can give an opaque glassy contrast to the rushing waters below.

Unpredictable snowy conditions can close less traversed roads, like Iceland’s Highway 1, at a moment’s notice. Take this lesson of travel flexibility in stride: It’ll help you catch the Northern Lights, which are never a guarantee despite being easier to view in the winter.

Need a place to stay in Iceland? Read more: Choose Your Own Adventure at One of These 7 Iceland Hotels

Light snowfall occasionally hits Istanbul during its mild winter.

Light snowfall occasionally hits Istanbul during its mild winter.

Photo by Stoktur/Shutterstock

6. Istanbul, Türkiye

Istanbul’s 15 million residents give the city a vibrant energy even in the off-season, which is well-appreciated when the skies can change at a moment’s notice. Winter in the Bosphorus-adjacent city brings random periods of rain rather than significant snow. Preparation becomes key—grab a light coat and umbrella, and you can still enjoy a picturesque walk along the Bosphorus and Galata Tower area.

There are plenty of other places to spend the day—whether it be the Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque, or Kılıç Ali Paşa hammam—that make staying indoors just as culturally enriching. But when the sudden gush of cold air does happen to catch you by surprise, it won’t take long to find a café to duck into for some Turkish tea. It’s the perfect opportunity to practice keyif, the Turkish art of idle pleasure.

Chloe Arrojado is the associate editor of destinations at AFAR. She’s a big fan of cafés, dancing, and asking people on the street for restaurant recommendations.
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