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15 Offbeat Winter Activities (and not a ski in sight)

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5 November 2018 – 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. Winter was once the season to hide indoors or head for ski resort.

Nothing wrong with either but these days, winter travel is becoming all the rage as governments hustle to entice travelers in an effort to turn their white cold into tourist gold. Here are 15 fun activities for winter that don't involve sports (at least not directly) but that are clearly, radically about winter - cold, ice or snow - or all three.

Winter festival time: these 4 winter festivals are all about ice and snow

Of course there will be ice and snow, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. 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 endearing yet jarring about Christmas trees and ice rinks ensconced indoors, under air conditioned protection, while people outside melt. Apart from being environmentally unfriendly, these activities are still, like it or not, 'make believe'.

If you like the real thing, these festivals should feed your winter expectations.

Sapporo Snow Festival, ice and artistry

Let's start with the annual Sapporo Snow Festival, locally known as Sapporo Yuki Matsuri. It is a seven-day winter celebration in Sapporo (the largest city in Japan’s north Hokkaido island) that has been held since 1950. With over 2 million visitors and 12 international teams vying for first place in its famous ice sculpture 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. Featuring 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 10pm throughout the festival period.

Apart from the amazing ice and snow 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 foods will warm you up during those cold winter evenings. (By Urbanite Diary)

St Paul Winter Carnival, the oldest in the US

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, 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)

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival in South Korea

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 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 after wards. Each fisher gets a rod and plastic bags to put the caught fish in. 

There are other events going on apart from ice fishing like the ice sculpture hall, ice soccer, go sledging or ice skating, join the bare hand fishing competition and more.

During the festival, there are daily shuttle buses to the festival area which takes around 1,5h one way. The price of the bus is included in your entrance ticket, when purchased online. This festival is a must go to place when in Korea during January! (By Be Marie Korea)

Ski-in and Ski-out of the Rock the Pistes in the Alps

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 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 every 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 coloured 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 Travel Bunny)

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. You'll see what I mean.

The Venice Carnevale

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.

Venice is sold out or too expensive during Carnevale? 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 dreamt about. (By Travel Stained)

Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park

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 6:30pm. 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)

Montreux Noel

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

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 and even ice bikes, nifty bicycles retrofitted with stainless steel frames on the bottom that allow 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 23:00) 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)

Winter festivals out of the ordinary - maybe even a bit of winter adventure travel

And then there is the offbeat, the unusual winter adventures that defy description, like the following:

Up Helly Aa: Viking & Fire Festival in Shetland, Scotland

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 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.

But beware: when it comes to the procession in Lerwick, only men are allowed! Women are permitted to 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)

Seasonal Igloo stays in northern India

Now here is an utterly unexpected activity. If you happen to visit India in winter, the state oHimachal 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 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)

The Niagara Icewine Festival

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 sight to crown them all...

The Northern Lights

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)

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