As the year draws to a close, we dream of going on a memorable vacation to some of the most beautiful winter destinations.
Christmas and New Year are the times to look forward to during the winter break. And why not? After all, winters often bring out the best in some places. The chilling winter breeze and soft snow turn such places into magical wonderlands. Then there is the glimmer of Christmas lights and the festive spirit filling the air.
While some choose to spend the holiday season with their loved ones at home, there are others who love to travel to some of the most beautiful winter destinations. And this year, several countries have opened their doors, which remained shut last year because of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, to travellers who are eager to tick off the many places from their travel bucket list curated over the last two years.
For such travellers, the sub-zero temperatures are a perfect time to explore these sites across the world. While the idea of a thrilling downhill ski ride on snowy mountain slopes excites many, others yearn for the warmth of a campfire accompanied by delicious dishes and music.
From winter sports and nature walks to musical evenings and illuminated ice castles, these beautiful winter destinations will leave you awestruck.
Here are some of the most beautiful winter destinations you can visit this year.
Finnish Lapland, Finland
For those who especially look forward to the Christmas holiday season with childlike enthusiasm, this should be your pick. The Finnish Lapland is believed to be the home of Santa Claus. This is because the beautiful Santa Claus Village is just outside the city of Rovaniemi in this enchanting abode covered with snow!
But Santa, his reindeer and the Arctic circle are not the only ones who visitors get to see. The mostly untouched winter wonderland covered with pines and spruces is waiting to be explored.
The Finnish Lapland is an Arctic region in the northernmost part of the Nordic country and is, therefore, relatively cold throughout the year; the geographic Arctic Circle passes through this village.
The winter months are marked by long, dark nights, and it is during this period that the pollution-free wilderness of Lapland becomes one of the best places to view the Northern Lights, also known as aurora borealis. This cherished meeting with nature becomes even more romantic when one gets to stay in one of the tree hotels tucked deep in the woods.
Explorers can trek the Arctic Circle Hiking Area, where hikers cross rapids, walk through forests and the aapa mires.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Visit any time of the year and Lake Bled in the Julian Alps will look like it has popped out of a fairy tale. However, winters are special — the bluish-green lake turns frosty blue, and everything around is draped in soft snow.
Lake Bled sits in a paradisiacal landscape marked by towering snow-capped mountains, blue skies, underground caves, waterfalls and vegetation. Take the trail to the Ojstrica hill or walk up to the Bled Castle for a panoramic view of the lake. Not far is the Vintgar Gorge, which has a stone arch bridge built in 1905 and is still used by trains.
A ride on the lake in a pletna boat is what tourists usually do, but paddling is another way to explore. Sometimes, when the lake freezes, daring visitors walk or do ice skating on it, at their own risk. At all other times, the nearby Straža Hill serves as the skating hub.
Besides the lake, the tiny island at its centre is a must-visit destination. On the island is the 17th century Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary. The Baroque-Gothic church serves as one of the world’s most beautiful wedding destinations where ringing the bell is believed to grant wishes.
Food lovers can try the kremna rezina — a cream cake of custard and puff pastry — at Park Hotel. The Slovenian government granted the cake a protected designation for origin, and it can, therefore, be tasted only at Lake Bled.
Nagano and Jigokudani Monkey Park, Japan
Nagano is one of Japan’s most beautiful winter destinations. Almost the entire prefecture is mountainous. The ranges of the Japanese Alps and within them some of the volcanic peaks are over 3,000 metres in height.
The historic city of Nagano hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, which makes it a prime winter sports destination. Its surroundings are renowned for skiing, with several ski resorts in the prefecture. The primary ones include Shigakogen Mountain Resort, Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort and Tsugaike Kogen.
Besides the thrill of snowy adventures, visitors can relax in the reinvigorating natural hot springs at traditional bathhouses known as onsens.
A highlight at Nagano is the world-famous Jigokudani Monkey Park near the town of Yamanouchi. Japanese macaques can be seen leisurely relaxing in the warm waters of a man-made pool. Almost covered in snow amid the steaming pool, the ‘snow monkeys’ look like mystical beings.
Banff National Park, Canada
Measuring 6,640 square kilometres in area, Banff is Canada’s first national park and best known for its pristine lakes and rugged, snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains.
The landscape of the Banff National Park has been carved by glaciers and is covered with lush green forests in which animals, such as grizzly bears, reside. No wonder the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Banff appears ever ready for Instagram feeds.
Banff is renowned as the “hiking capital of Canada.” It has 1,600 kilometres of well-maintained walking trails, which can be taken during winters to discover the remote wonderland covered in a blanket of snow.
Among the most beautiful places in the national park is Lake Louise, which is close to the city of Banff. The bucolic village has the alpine lake of the same name and is fit for skating during winters.
Lake Moraine, near Lake Louise, is known for its pure turquoise waters which change tones as glaciers melt. Its location within the rugged Valley of the Ten Peaks makes the entire setting otherworldly.
During January, when it is freezing cold, Banff and Lake Louise transform into galleries of ice sculptures as part of the annual Snowdays celebration. Christmas is also a major event in these parts; Banff claims to have Canada’s largest, year-round Christmas store.
After a tiring ski session on the slopes of the Rocky Mountains, the best way to retire at Banff is to rest in the comforts of the Fairmont Banff Springs. The 19th-century luxury hotel is itself a prime historic attraction and holds the distinction of serving some of the most eminent personalities in the world.
New York City, US
The holiday season in New York City is truly a magical experience of music, food, fun and laughter. Everything in and around the city is bathed in colourful lights.
Be it the 2.4-km-long show at New York Botanical Garden Glow or the famous NYC Winter Lantern Festival, the city is decorated with lights everywhere. Moreover, the dazzlingly illuminated Rockefeller Christmas Tree marks the city’s holiday season.
Following Christmas, NYC becomes the magnet for tourists from all over the world for the iconic New Year’s Eve celebration at Times Square.
Even for those who are not too eager to rejoice during the holiday season, NYC has lots to offer. It is impossible to resist photographing the snow-covered buildings, bridges and Central Park, especially between January and March, with thinning crowds. The city offers a distinct charm of walking through the city when it snows.
Winter markets open for everyone’s seasonal shopping, while stunning window displays lure luxury fashion lovers to retailers, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Macy’s. Speaking of fashion, one of the two annual New York Fashion Week events is held during the snowy winter of February.
And how about spending time with a loved one on the 1,580-square-metre ice skating rink of the Winter Village at Bryant Park? ‘Tis something no one would want to skip, whether or not they know how to skate.
Prague, Czech Republic
At any time of the year, Prague looks like a city created by classical-era painters and during winters, this European tourist destination turns indescribably enchanting when layered with snow.
Thankfully, the city has fewer crowds during winters and accommodations are easily available.
Wenceslas and Old Town Squares become the hub of activities during Christmas, with markets selling traditional Czech goods and festive lights covering every square metre. The joy of a night stroll through the city during this period is a fascinating experience.
Wait till the Masopust, or Prague’s Carnival period, which is held between January and February. Witness masked dancers and papier-mâché puppets in elaborate processions accompanied by music and dance.
For gastronomy enthusiasts, Prague’s famous cafés, such as Café Savoy, Café Louvre, and Kavárna Pražírna, are revelations. On cold winter nights, warm Česnečka (garlic soup with croutons), gulás (thick stew with meat and onions), or Zelňačka (cabbage soup) could be the perfect food for the soul. And there is no competition to a glass of hot mulled wine, or svařák (svařené víno), which can be enjoyed at the city’s Christmas markets and restaurants.
Other highlights of the city are architectural marvels such as Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral and Prague Castle. Part of the Historic Centre of Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these monuments draw tourists from all over Europe and other countries as well.
Anyone who wants to experience one of the best winter vacations of their life in Switzerland should head to Interlaken. The resort town sits strategically between two lakes in an Alpine valley in the middle of the Swiss Alps. Its location makes Interlaken the perfect place for faster excursions of lakes, mountainous peaks, picturesque villages and dense forests of the Bernese Oberland.
The adventure begins at the lakes. Both Thun and Brienz have turquoise blue icy glacial water and can be navigated on kayaks, canoes or stand-up paddleboards (SUP). The surroundings are mesmerising and atmospheric even from the banks, the views of the majestic Alps from the centre of the calm lakes are sights to behold.
Thrill-seekers can easily head to some of Switzerland’s world-famous ski destinations for cross-country skiing or snowboarding, including Grindelwald, Jungfrau and Beatenberg-Niederhorn. For a fun-filled ride on the snowy slopes, try sledging at night. For an even more daring and once-in-a-lifetime thrilling experience, paragliding over the valley is the thing to do.
James Bond fans also have something to look forward to near Interlaken. The revolving Piz Gloria restaurant on top of Schilthorn was one of the filming locations for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). From here, the challenging peaks of Eiger and Mönch look spectacular.
After having a fill of fresh air, return to any of the fine hotels for a delicious helping of fondue. After all, this cheese delicacy served in a communal pot is the country’s national dish.
Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada, US
Lake Tahoe is the second-deepest lake in the United States and attracts millions of tourists every year to its cobalt blue waters, surrounded by snow-covered granite peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
A winter visit to the place means exciting adventures such as skiing, snowboarding, sledging, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and snow tubing in the Sierra Nevada. There are well-developed ski resorts of all sizes, catering to varying difficulties, such as Heavenly Ski Resort, Boreal, Diamond Peak and the 1960 Winter Olympics venue of Squaw Valley (now known as Palisades Tahoe).
However, snow-based activities alone do not make this one of the most beautiful winter destinations.
Water sports such as sailing, scuba diving and fishing are equally popular. And one of the best ways to explore the majestic beauty of the Sierra Nevada landscape is on a motorcycle on the highways that encircle the lake.
For those who prefer a relaxing vacation over an adventurous one, relax at the many beaches around the lake or watch the outstanding winter sunset from a high point, while sipping hot chocolate.
Day trips aside, the nightlife is as exciting. There are casinos on the Nevada side of the lake where visitors try their luck or groove to the music.
What better way to spend a magical winter evening in the impossibly charming city of love? Everyone would agree that Paris is a winter vacation destination like no other.
Soft musical notes wafting in the air as Parisians and tourists sip hot chocolate or coffee in iconic French cafés, some of which seem to be trapped in the time described by Ernest Hemingway in his 1964 memoir A Moveable Feast.
The weather in Paris during winter, which ranges from December to February, can be very cold and rainy. But the French capital transforms during Christmas when the lights come up on trees, boulevards, stores, squares and historic buildings.
Of course, there are Christmas markets and simple French delicacies such as crêpes or croissants for the intrepid traveller to eat while exploring. Excited ones can head to Grand Palais, which houses the world’s largest indoor ice rink.
And when snow falls, the iconic architectural masterpieces of Paris, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the streets become even more attractive, covered and surrounded by white. And from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower, the view of the snow-covered city looks like a masterpiece painted by any of France’s greatest artists.
There is a reason this spectacular capital city of northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province is nicknamed “Ice City”. It is home to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival — the largest festival of its kind in the world.
The festival brings millions of tourists to Harbin, making it one of the world’s most beautiful winter destinations.
The festival usually begins in the first week of January and lasts for about a month. It is held at three locations in the city — Sun Island Park, Zhaolin Park and Harbin Ice and Snow World.
Artistically detailed castles and sculptures of enormous sizes illuminated by attractive lighting systems make the venues look like frozen Disneyland. Visitors can enter the ice structures or even climb them.
Apart from the festival, Harbin’s attractions include historic buildings, which shed light on the influence of Chinese and Russian cultures on the city. The frozen River Songhua, which is where the ice for the festival comes from, is also known for popular activities such as ice skating, horse-drawn carriage rides and ice fishing.
Imagine walking on cobbled streets that have been hailed as one of the United Kingdom’s most beautiful, with centuries-old pubs and churches on either side. That’s what visitors get to experience in Cotswolds, a geographic region spanning an area of just over 2,000 square kilometres across five counties in England.
Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Cotswold boasts quaint towns, village markets, castles, country houses, arboreta, nature reserves and trails.
The winter turns the entrancingly beautiful rolling hills and the quintessential British villages, with houses of honey-coloured stones, into some kind of wonderland.
Visit Bibury, which 19th-century British poet William Morris described as “the most beautiful village in England.” The reason? It has the Arlington Row — a series of postcard-perfect cobbled houses next to a stream with the woods forming the backdrop.
Among other excellent places in Cotswold are Burford, which has attracted the likes of Kate Moss and Liz Hurley; Bourton-on-the-Water, which is particularly attractive for its Christmas tree; Stow-on-the-Wold, which has one of England’s oldest inns; and Broadway, which is lined with art galleries.
There is no dearth of food and drink anywhere in the largely rural Cotswold. Try single Gloucester cheese, Tewkesbury mustard or Bibury trout and down it with Cotswolds single malt whisky or Cotswolds dry gin.
Yet, the best thing to do on a warm winter afternoon would be to sip the traditional Cotswold tea and admire the view.
Nami Island, South Korea
Fans of K-drama would instantly recognise this place as the filming location of Winter Sonata (2002) — the acclaimed series that is credited with triggering the Korean wave worldwide. Namiseom, as it is locally called, is one of the most beautiful winter destinations in South Korea and is an ideal setting for romantic getaways, largely because of the success of the drama.
When it snows, the pine, redwood, birch and other trees on this crescent-shaped island appear like white conical pillars. Between them run breathtakingly beautiful paths covered in snow, such as the Gingko Tree Lane, White Birch Lane, Cheongdam Lantern Lane and Metasequoia Lane.
Reaching the crescent-shaped island, which is on the River Bukhangang, is also a thrilling experience. Visitors can either take a ferry ride to cross the river or take the 940-meter-long Namiseom Zip Wire, a zipline that is one of Asia’s largest.
The Winter Wonder Nami Island festival takes place between late December and early February on the island. Sledging and musical programmes are some activities to enjoy during this period. Those who stay overnight can get to see the starry night sky as well as the sunrise over the river.
(Main and Featured images: Rodrigo Curi/@rodrigocuri/Unsplash)