Each year, when a cold wind suddenly kicks out the summer’s heat, our thoughts turn inevitably to winter, to the snow and ice waiting around the corner.
Some countries have turned winter into art, and these 19 winter festivals around the world should be on your list if you love this special season.
These fun winter celebrations are a mixture of lights, sports, culture, and… mulled wine. Enjoy – but maybe put on a jacket before you read?
Amazing winter festivals around the world
The best winter destinations in the Northern Hemisphere will involve ice and snow, of course. Winter just wouldn’t be winter without a coat of white and the ability to see your breath.
Having spent many winters in the tropics, there’s something jarring about Christmas trees and indoor air-conditioned ice rinks, where shoppers seek refuge from the heat outside. Apart from being environmentally unfriendly, these activities are still, like it or not, ‘make believe’. I prefer the real thing.
I started writing about the world’s best winter festivals but since I haven’t been to them all, I recruited a bunch of seasoned travelers and asked for their contribution. Let’s see how winter unfurls in their corner of the world!
The Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin in northeastern China is the largest snow and ice sculpture festival in the world, attracting about one million visitors a year. It has been held since 1963 and starts officially on 5 January in icy temperatures of up to minus 35 degrees Celsius (–31℉).
Artists from all over the world compete to design the most beautiful sculpture. The festival has a different slogan every year and ends mid or late February, once the sculptures start to melt.
The festival has five sites: Harbin Ice and Snow World, which enchants with gigantic ice and snow sculptures, some as high as houses, stunningly illuminated at night; Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, with giant snow sculptures which are also lit at night; and other sites at the Harbin Ice Lantern Fair, the Wanda Ice Lantern World and the Songhua River Ice and Snow Happy Valley.
You should book your accommodation well in advance since hotel prices rise fast. The entrance tickets are also not cheap but this is really worth a visit at least once in your life. (By The Travelling Colognian)
The annual Sapporo Snow Festival, locally known as Sapporo Yuki Matsuri, is a seven-day winter celebration in Sapporo (the largest city in Japan’s northern Hokkaido island), site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. It has been held since 1950. With over two million visitors and 12 international teams vying for first place in its famous ice and snow sculpting contest, Sapporo Snow Festival is the highlight of winter celebrations in Japan.
The main festival site is in Odori Park, near the city’s iconic landmark, Sapporo TV Tower. Large ice and snow sculptures, some measuring more than 25 meters wide and 15 meters high, are exhibited and lit up daily from sunset until 10 pm throughout the festival period.
Apart from the amazing sculptures spread over the festival sites, the festival also showcases Japanese street food and drinks in food stalls from across the country. From Hokkaido beef, king crabs to scallops, delicious Japanese food will warm you up during those cold winter evenings. (By Urbanite Diary)
Another venue for ice sculptures – this time on the other side of the world – is St Paul Winter Carnival, which dates back to 1886, making it the oldest winter festival in the United States.
Started as a retaliatory gesture by local business owners who were upset with eastern newspaper reports of Minnesota’s inhospitable winter climate, the carnival’s first ice castle celebrated the legend of King Boreas and Queen of the Snows. Out of Germanic lore came Krewes of mischievous Vulcans bent on destroying winter by dethroning the King, and who run rampant through skyways and businesses in St. Paul during the event.
The modern carnival is over a week long, beginning in late January, and features fun activities like ice sculpture contests, live entertainment, and pedestrian, Grand Day, and Torchlight parades. (By Passing Thru)
During the last three weeks of January, the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival takes place on a frozen river in South Korea. This festival was also classified as one of the seven wonders of winter by CNN.
A 40 cm (15 in) thick layer of ice covers the river and has 11,000 drilled holes through which visitors can fish a local mount trout. There is a dedicated fishing area for foreigners, which is far less crowded than the area for Koreans. Each visitor can catch up to three fish, which can be exchanged for one grilled fish afterwards. A rod and plastic bags for caught fish are provided.
There are other events going on apart from ice fishing like the ice sculpture hall, ice soccer, sledding or ice skating, or why not join the barehand fishing competition?
During the festival, there are daily shuttle buses to the festival area which take around 1.5 hours each way. The price of the bus is included in your entrance ticket, when purchased online. This festival is a must-visit place when in Korea during January! (By Be Marie Korea)
While this isn’t about ice sculptures, it is fun in a different way.
For one week in March, there’s an event in France and Switzerland in the Portes du Soleil ski area called Rock the Pistes. It’s a high-altitude winter music festival and every day, on a different piste or ski run, there’s a different band, musician, or singer to enjoy amid the stunning mountain scenery and snowy slopes.
Five days are packed with music and fun, with a main open-air headline gig every afternoon and over 30 après ski concerts in the resort villages in the evening. All you need is a valid lift pass to join in the fun on the slopes, while the village events are accessible without a lift pass.
It’s fabulous to see everyone rocking along to the music in their brightly colored ski gear and snow boots. The slopes are buzzing and there’s an open-air bar and food stalls to make sure nobody goes hungry. (By The Travelbunny)
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When cities become winter travel destinations
Winter destinations don’t have to be out in the wild, nor do they have to be purpose-built festival venues. On the contrary, some world-class cities act as backdrops to winter fun.
Each year, the French city of Lyon hosts the country’s largest and oldest light festival, the Fête des Lumières, which takes place on or around 8 December for four days. It’s cold, it’s crowded, but it’s amazing!
Throughout the city, some 30 or so venues are decorated by different artists, who let their creativity run wild (with sometimes surprising results). From dancing historical figures to interactive light tunnels, everything is designed to enchant the eye (with what organizers claims is a very energy-savvy celebration).
Lyon is a delightful city and the fact that this takes place during the evening hours means you have all day to discover some of the many things the city has to offer. Remember, Lyon is considered the gastronomic capital of France, itself the gastronomic heartland of the universe (or so the French would have you believe!) so eating here will be nothing short of an adventure.
This is one of those festivals you should see once in your lifetime. (Contributed by Offbeat France)
Paris Light Festival
The Paris Light Festival is one of the coolest festivals in Paris during the winter. It takes place at the Jardin des Plantes, in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, from mid-November to mid-January.
This winter light festival is an enchanting experience for all ages. For two months, when it gets dark, the Jardin des Plantes is invaded by monumental light structures set in the alleys and pitches of the garden.
The themes change each year. A recent exhibition was about endangered species and the environment so visitors could see giant mammoths, dinosaurs, white bears, and many other animals. Another show focused on the ocean: diving into the unknown to go along with the Océans exhibition at the Galerie de l’Évolution. (By World In Paris)
Is this on your list of winter activities? I know, Venice probably isn’t the first place you think of when planning your winter holidays. But time your visit for the city’s yearly Carnevale in February, and you’ll be delighted you did. Venezia truly becomes a “City of Masks,” with mysterious figures in glamorous disguises and ornate masks wandering its cobbled streets from dawn till dusk.
The grandiose masquerade balls may require invitations and cost an arm and a leg, but meandering through the narrow alleyways looking for Carnevale costumes is absolutely free. There are also candle-lit boat parades, street performances, and concerts open to the public at no charge. Don’t be shy about taking pictures. It’s the thing to do, and those in costume are more than happy to pose dramatically in character.
Booking a hotel could be problematic though… here are the various neighborhoods of Venice – check them out before you decide.
Hotels sold out or too expensive during the Venice Carnival? Consider staying in nearby Padova and ride a Regionale or Regionale Veloce train to Venezia Santa Lucia. Hop on a vaporetto and head towards Rialto Bridge for the Venice views you’ve always dreamed about. (By Travel Stained)
Amsterdam is a stunning city and in winter, its streets and canals become an open-air museum for incredible art installations. The Amsterdam Light Festival consists of more than 20 light artworks venues around the city that are switched on daily from 5 pm to 11 pm. The festival starts at the end of November and continues until early January, with a different theme and exhibition route each year.
It’s a great way to explore less-touristed streets. A good way to see it all is to first walk through the exhibition, which might take an evening or two. Then take a boat tour to see the lights from a different perspective. The reflections on the canals are mesmerizing and you can enjoy them from a warm boat sipping wine or beer. (By Love and Road)
London is also a perfect venue for winter and its Winter Wonderland is one of the city’s most iconic winter attractions.
It’s free of charge and takes place in Hyde Park from late November to early January. It really does feel like winter, with tons of winter fun from mini-pancakes and hot street food to a Christmas market, ice skating, games, and even shows on ice.
It is full of life every night, especially right after work around 6:30 pm. Make sure you add extra time for the security checks, though, and to minimize waits, earlier might be better. And wrap up warmly because everything is outdoors. (By Arabian Wanderess)
Europe travel in winter can mean too much choice so if you happen to be in Switzerland, head straight to the town of Montreux along Lake Geneva for an exciting annual festival filled with music, shops, and delicious vin chaud to keep you warm. In the evenings, Santa Claus himself flies over Lake Geneva in his sleigh. It sounds tacky but actually it’s very well done.
In addition to the Christmas Market, you can celebrate at Medieval Christmas at UNESCO-listed Chillon Castle, see a light show in the evening, learn how to make things – like chocolate – and visit the big man himself in his house up Rochers-de-Naye. The ride up Rochers-de-Naye alone is worth it, with great views and a high probability you will find snow at the top. Plenty of fun, and plenty of Christmas spirit. (By Simpler and Smarter)
Christmas Market in Düsseldorf
If you’re in Germany for the holidays, one of the most fun winter activities is visiting one of the many German Christmas markets, of which Düsseldorf – made up of seven themed markets – is one of the oldest and most authentic. As you stroll along the richly decorated stalls and shop windows in the Altstadt (Old Town) you can smell the fragrant cinnamon and gingerbread, the mulled wine, and hot chestnuts. A visit to the Christmas market is a treat for all senses and there’s no better way to get into the spirit of the season.
After dark, the multicolored twinkling lights will brighten up the streets so make sure you stay well past sunset. The Christmas market in Düsseldorf usually starts towards the end of November and runs through December. (By Wapiti Travel)
Canalside in Buffalo, NY’s second-largest city
New York state is mostly known for its largest city (you may have heard of it) but the second largest city, Buffalo, is undergoing a huge rebirth.
Located in western New York on the banks of Lake Erie, Buffalo is famous for its lake effect snow and embraces it with tons of outdoor activities. The new waterfront park, Ice at Canalside, is at the heart of Buffalo’s massive revitalization and is the epicenter for lots of winter fun. It was built on the former site of the Western terminus of the Erie Canal, which connected the Atlantic seaboard to Buffalo and then onto the Great Lakes.
Today, you can come down here all winter long to ice skate on the 35,000-square-foot rink. You can also try your hand at curling, ice hockey, and even ice bikes, nifty bicycles retrofitted with stainless steel frames on the bottom that allows for easy pedaling and steering on ice!
If spectating is more your thing, grab some hot chocolate and take in the nightly light show (from dusk until 11 pm) projected onto one of Buffalo’s massive, old grain elevators. These are part of the largest collection of these silos in the world, remnants of the city’s industrial heyday now reimagined into cultural icons. (By LLWorldTour)
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Winter festivals that are out of the ordinary
And then there are the offbeat, unusual winter adventures that defy description, like these winter experiences:
Ride Through the Snow on the Bernina Express
You can ski down the European Alps – but you can see these incredible peaks and valleys with a lighter version of winter adventure travel on the Bernina Express.
With the mountain range taking up a decent chunk of the surrounding countries, there are a number of rail lines dotted through and around the mountains that can get you across. Whilst most of these are on normal passenger services, the Bernina Express takes it a step further, with carriages adorned with wide, panoramic windows (specially cleaned for each trip), perfect for taking in the vistas beyond.
The route runs from Tirano, in northernmost Italy, into the mountains, through St Moritz, the glitzy Swiss ski resort and (some months) through to the city of Chur, where you can connect to Zurich or other Swiss cities. The train runs multiple times throughout the day in winter, crossing 196 bridges and through 55 tunnels to reach peaks of over 2,200 meters above sea level. There is sometimes a small trolley food service on board, but you can of course bring your own picnic with you, to enjoy with a glass of wine during your trip – a glorious way to see the Alps in winter! (By The Travelling Stomach)
If you’re looking for a unique winter festival, look no further than the iconic fire festivals of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. Up Helly Aa is a series of festivals held in coastal communities across the islands. Most include torch processions, the burning of purpose-built galleys and of course, parties until the early morning hours.
The largest and arguably most impressive festival is the Up Hally Aa in Lerwick, Shetland’s capital. Over 900 local men (yes, men only) participate in the procession, some 50 of them dressed in intricate handmade Viking costumes, the rest in themed fancy dress. After the burning of the galley, the real party starts as the squads tour around the local village halls to perform dance numbers and skits for the rest of the festival participants all night long.
While the procession in Lerwick allows only men to participate, women can participate in parades in other towns. The men-only rule is a bit of an antiquated tradition, one that raises eyebrows and although it’s been discussed, the traditionalists still have the upper hand.
Up Helly Aa in Lerwick takes place on the last Tuesday in January – the parties are so wild that the next day is a bank holiday across the Shetland Islands. The festival is very popular, so it’s best to book your transport and accommodation way in advance. Not all halls have public tickets available, so ask your host for help in securing a ticket to the performances. (By Watch Me See)
Yellowknife’s Ice Caves
If watching Viking processions isn’t your thing, exploring some natural beauty in Canada just might be.
In the northern part of the Northwest Territories’ capital city lies a lesser-known trail along the shores of Great Slave Lake. It could be called a frozen little secret but it really isn’t as you’ll be dying to tell everyone about this trail in Yellowknife.
While Great Slave Lake is one of the largest in North America (and the deepest in Canada), it freezes over in winter, allowing you to access a beautifully untouched part known as Back Bay.
Grab your warmest winter boots and be sure to layer up for this icy adventure. Follow the lake’s shoreline until you come upon signs for Back Bay Cemetery. Wander through Yellowknife’s original cemetery (respectfully of course) and you’ll come upon the city’s famous ice caves. Enjoy exploring these brilliant ice formations as you listen to the sounds of ravens and other critters nearby. Want to learn more about the area as you traverse the trail? Opt for a guided tour and learn about their frosty history. (By I’ve Been Bit)
Now here is an utterly unexpected activity. If you happen to visit India in winter, the state of Himachal Pradesh to be precise, you can spend the night in an igloo!
From Chandigarh Airport it’s an 11-hour drive to Manali, India where, when the snow is deep enough, igloos have been built near the popular Hamta Pass.
The experience involves awakening to dazzling light filtering into the igloos, with guides waking visitors with small glasses of steaming tea in bed, followed by delicious parathas in the makeshift kitchen later on.
A stay here involves learning to build igloos, which are strong enough to hold several clambering visitors. If the total winter experience is what you’re seeking, you can cap your igloo experience with ski lessons and sledding. (By The Winged Fork)
‘Day as a Finn’ in Ruka, Kuusamo
There are so many experiences to be had in Finnish Lapland, but an unusual one is spending a ‘Day as a Finn’ in Ruka-Kuusamo. There are few indoor activities in winter and this one is partly so – you can learn to bake delicious local types of bread and enjoy tea and baked goods, surrounded by a roaring fire in a small cabin, chatting about everyday life.
After learning about local culture and people, you can enjoy a sauna experience and then head outside into subzero temperatures and cap it all with a sleigh ride over a frozen lake or some snowshoeing through the forest and powder. A perfect winter experience!
With Ruka and Kuusamo known for their top skiing and snowboarding resorts, this experience provides something refreshingly different. (By Megan Starr)
Don your coziest parka and toastiest winter boots for this annual culinary celebration of Ontario ice wine.
Taking place over three weekends in January at 30 wineries throughout Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, the Niagara Icewine Festival kicks off with the Niagara Icewine Gala, a posh evening of wine and food pairings, tastings of rare vintages, opportunities to chat with winemakers and live music with dancing. From there, the fun moves outdoors with each participating winery showcasing a selection of their premium ice wines – such as Vidal, Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, and Gewürztraminer paired with a gourmet culinary creation ⎯ each weekend.
The setting of each participating winery is unique, each offering a winter wonderland of fun featuring sparkling ice sculptures, fire pits for warming up, live entertainment, and the opportunity to see vineyards draped with snow and glistening with frozen grapes waiting to be harvested.
If you’ve never tried roasting an ice wine marshmallow over an open fire, this is your opportunity to do so! The festival is set against the picturesque backdrop of Niagara Falls, frozen into a majestic icicle, as well as within quaint villages tucked beneath the beautiful snow-topped Niagara Escarpment. (By A Taste for Travel)
And always, the iconic winter sights to crown them all…
Way above the Arctic Circle is Tromso, Norway. Hemmed in by mountains and the cold Norwegian Sea, Tromso is way, way north. The northernmost everything in the world can be found in Tromso: the world’s northernmost brewery, the northernmost cathedral, and the northernmost university. But Tromso has another claim to fame: it is considered one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights.
Each winter, the dancing green and purple lights can be viewed in the sky almost every single night. The Northern Lights viewing is so good here that people travel from around the world for a chance to experience the aurora. Each night, brave souls trek into freezing temperatures to stand in fields of snow and turn their eyes to the sky for a glimpse of this mysterious natural occurrence. It doesn’t get much more wintry. (By Travel Addicts)
— Originally published on 27 October 2018