Places That Are True Winter Wonderlands
As we celebrate the holidays and head full-speed into colder months across the Northern Hemisphere, it may be tempting to bundle up and hunker down indoors — but don’t let the weather forecasts deter you from exploring winter’s natural beauty. We rounded up some of the globe’s most beautiful spots to visit this season, where winter isn’t just endured — it’s embraced. From a Santa village under the northern lights to the Alsatian “Capital of Christmas,” here are 11 of the world’s most spectacular winter wonderlands to visit.
Situated in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland’s famed Jungfrau region, this storybook village is known for its pristine mountain resorts and world-class skiing. Grindelwald also comes alive around the holidays, when the town hosts Christmas in the Forest, a chance to congregate over hot drinks and carols, as well as the Mulled Wine Festival and — because we’re in Switzerland — a Fondue Gondola. The festivities continue into January, when the World Snow Festival features an array of awe-inspiring ice sculptures — all the more reason to stay put as long as you can. That mission is made easier with the debut of the Bergwelt Grindelwald, a luxurious new hotel featuring stellar Alpine views.
Known as the world’s “Fjord Capital,” Bergen not only has epic views of Norway’s fjords but ample charm and character to boot — traits that are only dialed up during the year’s chillier season. In November, residents join forces to build their very own miniature gingerbread town called Pepperkakebyen, considered to be the largest in the world and featuring edible creations in every form, from houses and churches to castles and rockets. The Bergen Christmas Market in Torgallmenningen is a favorite for locals and visitors alike, and the city appears even more magical under the illumination of electric candles atop Mount Fløyen, which symbolize the weeks leading up to Christmas. This year, Bergen glows further brighter with its inaugural Lumagica, a display of more than 40 striking light installations at Bergen Fortress.
Northern lights devotees will appreciate a visit to Lapland, the northernmost region in Finland, with sprawling subarctic terrain and wide, open skies that are ideal for witnessing the dazzling displays of aurora borealis. Boost your holiday spirit with a visit to Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, where you can meet the man himself. One reason you’ll feel like you’re in the North Pole here: The reindeer population outnumbers the human inhabitants in Lapland. They are an important part of life for the area’s Indigenous Sámi people, who have historically relied on reindeer for their main mode of transportation.
Affectionately dubbed the “Capital of Christmas,” this French city welcomes more than 2 million visitors every year with its captivating holiday market, spread across 10 sites within the Grande Île district. A nearly-100-foot tree serves as a focal point at Place Kléber Square, while Place Broglie hosts Christkindelsmärik, a smaller market full of décor and festive flavors. Throughout it all, experience caroling; enticing, Alsatian-inspired fare; and a stately cathedral at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
St. Moritz, Switzerland
This ski resort town has twice hosted the Winter Olympics — and has gained international fame for its access to an array of wintry sports, from ski and snowboard areas to snow polo on a frozen lake. But what really elevates St. Moritz into a winter wonderland are the parties this time of year. The highlight is Tales of a Tree (December 5 to January 9), a spectacle of lights and music that shares a Christmas story about the region’s enchanting forest animals, all while spotlighting a mounted Christmas tree in the town’s city center. As for accommodations, look no further than Badrutt’s Palace, a historic five-star hotel that has counted luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, and Charlie Chaplin among its guests over the years.
The historic mountain villages of Shirakawa and nearby Gokayama were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 for their famed farmhouses, some of which are centuries-old. Their steep thatched roofs are an example of gassho-zukuri style architecture, an approach explained by its literal translation: “like hands in prayer.” The image becomes more evocative in the colder months, when these roofs are able to sustain epic amounts of snow — a particularly memorable sight come evening, when all of the homes glow through wintry veils of frost and icicles. The village hosts special light shows each winter that put the unique farmhouses on full display.
Aachen is Germany’s westernmost city, situated near the Netherlands and Belgium, and is known for its hot springs and its cathedral, founded around 800 CE. It’s around this landmark that the town’s Christmas market takes place in late November, winding its way through the streets and squares with twinkling lights and festive booths that boast everything from mulled wine to Aachener Printen, the area’s beloved gingerbread that has been baked there since the early 19th century.
Quebec City, Canada
The only walled city remaining in North America north of Mexico City, this French-speaking city packs plenty of historic charm (reflected by the fact that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985). Come winter, however, Quebec City is rife with holiday wonder, too. Start at Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville to experience the Notre-Dame Cathedral, City Hall, and the German Christmas Market. Next, visit the stunning Le Chateau Frontenac overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The world’s most photographed hotel, it also offers visitors a taste of winter adventure via its adjacent toboggan run. For more outdoor wintry fun, consider a few laps around the ice rink at Place D’Youville, a public square near some of the city’s most popular sites.
Austria is full of cities and villages whose mountainous backdrops draw visitors year-round, but Hallstatt's lakefront location in Austria's Salzkammergut Mountains is straight out of a fairy-tale — think cobblestone streets, quaint cafés, ornate churches, and abundant inns. Winter snow pushes the town's charm to a whole new level. Hallstatt gets its name from the lake on which it lies, but it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to the world's first known salt mine, which dates back 7,000 years. If you're in Hallstatt during the holiday season, you'll see this charming town decorated with Christmas lights and hear Christmas music playing in the streets. After exploring the holiday market, take the railway up to the World Heritage Skywalk for panoramic views of the town and the lake.
The cold temperatures in Harbin, the capital of China’s northeast Heilongjiang province, don't stop millions from visiting to attend the annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, the largest of its kind in the world. The festival starts in early January and typically lasts for about a month, during which the city is transformed into a magical winter dreamscape. The most spectacular part of the festival is the Harbin Ice and Snow World, created entirely from blocks of ice and snow hauled out of the nearby Songhua River. The venue spans over 6,500 square feet and includes more than 100 landmarks sculpted from ice and snow, as well as incredible ice castles lit up in all colors of the rainbow. Visitors can also explore the extensive number of ice sculptures created by artists from around the world who come to compete in the festival's annual ice carving competition.
Apostle Islands, Wisconsin
The Apostle Islands are a group of 22 islands located in Lake Superior, near Wisconsin's northwestern mainland. They offer close proximity to several exciting events and celebrations, such as the annual Sled Dog Races in Bayfield, Wisconsin; Ashland's Christmas Parade; and Ashland's Annual Sleigh and Cutter Rally, where you can see antique sleighs and period costumes. However, a visit to the Apostle Islands would be incomplete without exploring the ice caves found along the shores of Lake Superior. Be sure to plan ahead for the two-mile round-trip hike on the frozen ice of Lake Superior. The ice must be declared safe before the National Park Service allows visitors; however, when it is, the natural ice formations awaiting you are well worth the hike and extra planning.