A fresh coating of snow tends to beautify just about any city, but some become truly magical during the chillier months of the year, bringing a quieting sense of calm, with the hushed sound of flakes falling along with that glistening sparkle of white. If that’s your idea of spectacular beauty, be sure to experience these impressive destinations in the winter.
Iceland’s northernmost town, located just 24 nautical miles from the Arctic Circle, is a historic fishing village, considered to be among the country’s most beautiful, set along a narrow fjord on the one side and soaring mountains on the other. It was totally inaccessible land until the 1940s, when a long tunnel was constructed through the rock. In addition to its magical winter wonderland looks, it’s increasing becoming one of the world’s hottest ski destinations, with its long runs, some that stretch right down to volcanic black sand beaches, attracting everyone from mountain guides to Wall Street bankers. The town also has a number of museums and galleries, including the award-winning Herring Era Museum for taking an in-depth look at its fascinating past.
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
This medieval town with a population of less than 15,000 isn’t a well-known tourist destination, but that makes it all the better. A true hidden treasure, it looks as if it stepped out of the pages of a fairy-tale, especially when its landscape is covered with a fresh coat of snow. Its grand architectural heritage was untouched by war and has managed to stay intact, allowing visitors to enjoy its narrow cobblestone roads, picturesque bridges and 13th-century castle. Walk through the fresh powder to explore a number of well-preserved religious sites, like the Minorite Monastery and the exquisite Church of St. Vitus, as well as multiple art galleries and museums. If you’re staying in Prague, a number of companies offer winter sightseeing tours to the city so you won’t have to worry about getting behind the wheel.
This historic city is legendary for its beauty, which is taken a notch up in the winter, with dazzling Christmas markets and ice skating rinks surrounded by magnificent architecture. This is the ideal time of year for a horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets, cozying up in a warm blanket as the snowflakes gently fall and the scent of spiced mull wine wafts through the crisp, fresh hair. With the picturesque parks, charming cafes and avenues dusted in white, there is something truly special about Vienna in the winter – go for a spin on the Riesenrad Ferris wheel, and you can take in panoramic views of the scene from above. When you’ve had enough of the cold, pop into a cafe for a hot chocolate, or head to the Imperial Butterfly House, which will make you feel as if you were instantly transported to summer. It houses gorgeous butterflies in tropical temperatures with a jungle-like atmosphere.
This small, traditional Japanese village is famous for its exceptionally steep roofs that were made to withstand some of the heaviest snowfall in the world. The gassho-zukuri, or traditionally thatched houses, some of which are 250 years old, have an impressive, unique style that’s admired by visitors from around the world. Nestled in a sleepy hollow, it remained little known to visitors, until the high mountains that surround it were tunneled through, though today it’s considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular attraction for tourists. Many come on a day trip from Takayama, or make a quick stop on the bus route between Takayama and Kanazawa, but the best way to experience it is to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses, many of which now serve as minshuku.
Rothenburg, located in northwest Bavaria, is straight out of a Grimms’ fairy tale, located along Germany’s legendary Romantic Road. In fact, it was the very town that inspired Walt Disney to create Pinocchio and served as the location for the Vulgarian village scenes in 1968’s “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” In the winter, the medieval walled city oozes even more romance and appeal, especially in the latter months of the year when its famous Christmas market transforms it into the ultimate wonderland. The narrow, winding alleyways and squares are often dusted with snow, and filled with stalls that sell everything from hand-crafted treasures to mouth-watering traditional German pastries and Gluhwein.
The cobbled streets of the French-influenced Old Montreal Quarter are stunning in winter – creating an idyllic scene for taking a horse-drawn carriage ride and gazing up at the grand buildings. Livelier in January than many warmer cities are in the middle of July, the chill adds to the atmosphere as frost blurs the bistro windows and snowflakes glitter against the skyscrapers. This is one of the few spots in the world where one can ice skate, cross-country ski, ice skate, ride a snowmobile and go ice fishing all within the city limits. You’ll see Quebecois ski through Mont Royal, skate through Parc La Fontaine, and then warm up those frozen toes by a fireplace in the one of the many hip cafes. Montreal’s beautiful botanical garden may not have any colorful blooms bursting outdoors this time of year, but its 10 exhibition greenhouses feature year-round permanent and thematic exhibitions, offering an ideal place to warm up while taking a fascinating plant tour.
Queenstown, New Zealand
Tucked alongside the beautiful waters of Lake Wakatipu and surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks, Queenstown is another ideal winter wonderland destination. During the months of June through August, it’s transformed into one of the premier snow sports destinations in the Southern Hemisphere, but this season isn’t just about skiing or boarding. If that’s what you’re into, you’ll have easy access to four ski areas with terrain for all levels, but those who prefer other activities will appreciate the extensive selection of non-snow opportunities to choose from. Visitors can take to the skies with a Milford Sound flyover for a bird’s-eye view of the awe-inspiring Southern Alps and the Fiordland coastline, or embark on a whitewater rafting trip – the river is crystal clear and it often features beautiful ice formations int he winter. While it may sound way too cold, you’ll get a full wet suit so that you stay nice and warm out on the water, and when you’re done, the trip concludes with a visit to a sauna and a hot shower.
When Bled was founded way back in 1004, the Holy Roman Emperor considered it to be so beautiful that it was gifted to the Bishop of Brixen. In the winter, with the majority of tourists crowds long gone, it becomes even more captivating. Towered over by imposing, snow-capped mountains, Bled Castle sits in the center of enchanting Lake Bled which borders the town, creating a picture-postcard setting like none other. One of the best ways to experience it is to take a stroll, breathing the fresh air as the mist rises over the mountains, and then warming up with a hearty meal of the local stew, goulash.
This tiny fishing village in Norway sits on the Arctic island of Moskenesoya in the Lofoten archipelago. It may not be one that many travelers make it to, or have even heard of, but those who have often consider it to be the most breathtakingly beautiful place on the entire planet.. While few would argue against that, in the winter, it becomes even more extraordinary. During this season, you’ll not only be able to take in magnificent vistas of the sea, but those views are often complemented with the colorful northern lights as the backdrop. Visitors can stay in red rorbuers, or traditional fishermen’s cabins, which provide the perfect vantage point.
The Alps most famous peak is nestled near the picturesque car-free village of Zermatt, towering over the border between Switzerland and Italy at nearly 15,000 feet high. One of Switzerland’s most iconic features, it’s said to be the most photographed mountain in the world. In the winter, this quintessential Alpine village is even more enchanting, encircled by the snow-covered towering peaks, all aglow against the icy backdrop of the mountains. It’s internationally renowned for premier Alpine skiing, and visitors can also enjoy world-class health spas, charming cobble-stone streets and horse-drawn sleighs.
Dating back to the Middle Ages, Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia and its largest city. In the winter, you’ll see twinkling fairy lights that bring festive cheer to the streets and riverside, with all of the trees and storefronts lit aglow. At the heart of this magical setting, a Christmas market runs alongside the Ljubljanica River, where each stall is laden with local handicrafts and seasonal foods, while the scent of spiced mulled wine and roast chestnuts permeate the air. Even though it’s below freezing, the streets are always filled with revelers and shoppers enjoying the festive atmosphere at night.