One way to describe winter is “long and bleak.” But we prefer to see it differently. Because, these chilly months offer a chance for new experiences, ones unique to the locations that endure endless snow and icy temperatures. To celebrate the lighter, less dreadful side of winter (not to mention the low-season pricing and smaller crowds), we’ve decided to showcase eight countries who make the most out of this frosty time. Here, winter can actually be fun. Don’t believe us? Keep reading!
Mongolia is a massive, landlocked nation that shares borders with China, Russia, and Kazakhstan. Known for polarizing temperatures, it’s a country that can be as hot as 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) in July and as cold as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 40 degrees Celsius) in January. But Mongolia is also known as the “Land of Blue Skies,” a moniker that points to the nation’s relentless sunlight. Even when it’s freezing outside, the sun still shines over the mountains, deserts, and famous Mongolian-Manchurian grassland.
The highlight of winter in this East Asian nation is the Ice Festival, celebrated in the Khuvsgul Lake area during the first week of March. The event hosts a number of unique competitions for which low temperatures are a requirement, such as ice carving and horse sledding. Mongolia’s other top winter celebration is its Camel Festival, set in the surprisingly frigid Gobi Desert and organized by a local not-for-profit organization in hopes of preserving and protecting the endangered Bactrian camel. During the two-day event, locals congregate with traditional song and dance, paying homage to the animal that has helped them sustain their nomadic lifestyle.
Looking for other ways to embrace winter in Mongolia? Visit Terelj National Park, which is especially cool under a fresh coat of snow. Remote dog-sledding tours are also available this time of year, and if obscure wildlife interests you, be sure to spend some time at the Gobi Altai High Mountain area, where the majestic, yet mysterious snow leopard can be spotted hunting for its prey. And one thing that these expeditions all have in common is their unbelievable photo opportunities, so don’t forget your camera!
For Finns, winter is unavoidable. But instead of pouting about the piling snow or dwelling on the plummeting temperatures, they welcome this frosty season, which brings with it a whole new slew of adventures. Even in the country’s southern capital, Helsinki, folks are able to “winter” in a number of ways. The city is home to tons of ice-skating rinks, 125 miles (200 kilometers) of cross-country skiing trails, and hills that seem specifically crafted for sledding (also known as pulkka in Finnish).
Outside the city, the topography opens up to stunning snow-covered forests, ski hills, and national parks. And the farther north you move, the longer the cold tends to stick around. As you near the Arctic Circle, you’ll come to Lapland, the place that, if you had to bet, probably inspired the term “winter wonderland.” Not only are the country’s biggest ski mountains found here, but the region also boasts a perfect landscape for snowmobiling, reindeer sleigh rides, and the famous Santa Claus Village. Plus, Northern Lights sightings happen on the regular here. Finally, your winter adventure wouldn’t be complete without a polar dip, though we suggest that if you do decide to partake, you choose a spot in close proximity to a warm sauna — another Finnish winter tradition!
When temperatures drop between December and March, the Japanese welcome a break from the summer humidity and crowds. Snow falls, and the landscapes grow cozy and glisten, making for perfect photo-ops. Take Shirakawa-go, for instance, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose charming gasshō-zukuri-style homes look like they should be contained within a snowglobe. But there are plenty more wintry scenes worth considering when finalizing your itinerary, such as Otaru, the host of the annual Sapporo Festival and a city that yields some of the highest snowfall in the country. Another winter staple in Japan are the illuminations — or light shows — that decorate entire blocks and parks in a colorful glow around the holidays.
Japan is roughly 70 percent mountains, so if you decide to venture outside of urban areas, you’ll find that means alpine sports are huge, and ski hills and resorts are seemingly everywhere. Even if you aren’t into speeding down a snowy trail, onsens (natural hot springs) offer the perfect way to relax among the mountains. The Japanese also have a few cold-weather delicacies (like nabemono and oden) that are sure to keep you warm during your winter travels. All in all, a visit during the off-season will show you a whole new side of Japan!
There may not be any Alps in Slovakia, but the small, central European nation still has plenty of peaks worthy of a winter getaway. Here, you’ll find the Tatras Mountains, which boast a number of world-class ski resorts for a fraction of the price of the French and Swiss retreats. Rent a cabin and spend a few days in the mountains, where you’ll enjoy pristine conditions for all kinds of activities, such as skiing, dog-sledding, and snowshoeing.
The nation’s capital, Bratislava, is also fairly cheap compared to neighboring municipalities such as Budapest, Prague, and Vienna. The city’s charming Old Town hosts an annual Christmas Market, as does Košice, the country’s second-largest city. While dining, be on the lookout for winter fixtures such as bryndzové halušky (a national dumpling dish) and kapustnica (a cabbage soup). Then wash it all down with traditional Tatratea, a warm, boozy drink that’s sure to liven up any après-ski gathering.
If you’re still looking for winter entertainment, consider attending an ice hockey game — one of the country’s favorite past times. Such an endeavor might take you over to the next town or city, but you should welcome the experience, as there are few prettier things than a train ride through the snow-covered Slovakian countryside. And the best part? Because the country appears less frequently on lists of must-see locales, even its biggest attractions aren’t overcrowded — especially between November and March!
If you haven’t heard of hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”), then this winter is the perfect time to learn about it. In short, hygge means to be cozy, but said coziness runs much deeper with the Danish, as they like to think of it as a warm and welcoming atmosphere, something to be shared with good company. The term encapsulates Denmark quite well, actually, as the coastal country endures a chilly and sometimes rainy winter. And when times get tough, they have their mulled wine, warm nooks, and close ones to fall back on — they have their hygge.
With this in mind, Denmark in the winter can be a rather remarkable destination for travelers too. Though sometimes wet and gray, the smallest nation in Scandinavia sees its fair share of snow and embraces the holiday season like few others. For Christmas (known locally as Jul), festivities stretch on for an entire month, with the main celebrations taking place on December 24. Leading up to the big day, markets, fairs, and feasts seem to pop up everywhere you look, offering a chance to try out Danish specialties that are saved for the country’s coldest nights, including aebleskivers, gingerbread hearts, and candied meats. Other seasonal activities you’ll also want to consider include skating on the Frederiksberg Runddel, admiring the festive decorations at Tivoli Gardens, and floating down Copenhagen’s canals in a hot tub. (Yes, you read that correctly.) So though it may not boast any monstrous mountains or natural hot springs, Denmark makes the most of winter in a very Danish way.
When the last of the leaves give way to the cold, a new side of Canada is revealed. Pond hockey, sugar shacks, school cancellations — they’re all signs that winter has arrived. The season can take up almost half the year for some Canadian cities, and it’s during this time, when temperatures drop and snow piles up, that people flock to either hockey rinks or ski slopes. Because of this, Canada is a country that’s had no other choice but to embrace whatever winter throws at it.
This means there’s a whole list of picturesque winter wonderlands across the country, everything from national parks like Banff to quiet lake country in rural Ontario, winter wonderlands in Montreal, and the snowy charm that covers Quebec City’s Old Town each year — and these are just a few of the headliners. But no matter where you find yourself in Canada come winter, you’ll experience a collective spirit that not only tolerates winter but enjoys it, whether that’s by strolling through a Christmas Market, strapping on a pair of snowshoes, or heading out for an epic adventure to see the Northern Lights. There’s always a winter adventure to be had in Canada.
A good way to see how Norwegians fare in winter is to look at their Winter Olympics medal count. Norway came away with 39 total medals in 2018, blowing away the competition and finishing at or near the top in almost every alpine event. Come winter, Norwegians thrive.
In addition to athletics, winter tourism in Norway has taken off like a wildfire in recent years. The country has become one of the most attractive travel destinations in the world, highlighted by its remote and adventurous destinations up north. Much like Finland, these areas are best explored by snowmobile and reindeer rides, though more active transportation methods such as cross country skis and snowshoes are popular, too.
One especially snowy destination is Tromsø, a small city located on the east side Tromsøy Island, 220 miles (350 kilometers) above the Arctic Circle. While northern Norway isn’t as cold as one might think (the record low is minus 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 18.4 Celsius, from back in 1966), there is little daylight. So, not only will you not have to worry about a sunburn, but you’ll also enjoy plenty of opportunities to get out under the stars and experience the other-worldly display of colors that is the Aurora Borealis. And Tromsø is just one of the many places in Norway that will make you rethink your dread of winter; other popular spots include the Lofoten Islands and Bergen, both of which encapsulate winter in Norway picture-perfectly.
The Chinese will undoubtedly try to mimic the Norwegian’s Olympic success as they ready to host the games in 2022. Because of this, infrastructure for downhill events is expanding and improving drastically, which bodes well for fans of alpine sports. But beyond that, China is a massive country that stretches much farther north and west than you might think, complete with a wintry side that few are familiar with.
Winter offers a break from the crowds of spring and summer, and as far as accommodation goes, prices drop considerably. Though there are endless places to enjoy the season in such a geographically diverse country, a few destinations stand out from the rest. One such place is Harbin, also known as the “Ice City,” set apart by its temperatures that average a cool 10 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 12 degrees Celsius) in January. The city also hosts an annual Ice Festival, which features some of the biggest and best ice and snow sculptures in the world.
China’s Yellow Mountains are another hot commodity for photographers come winter. As the unique rock formations are covered in snow, come sunrise or an especially foggy day, the conditions are perfectly somber — so be sure to have your camera at-the-ready. While on the topic of mountains, Mt. Emei also emerges as a fairytale-esque setting during the coldest months of the year. With hot springs, stunning views, and a nearby ski resort, it’s a location that brings out the best of winter — though everywhere in China does a pretty good job at that, which means you’ll have tons of adventures to choose from!
Have a favorite winter destination that wasn’t listed? Let us know in the comments below!