Photo: Picturesque Hallstatt, Austria in winter. Photo via Flickr/victoria white in 2010
The hardest part of deciding on a sunny vacation destination is picking one out from the endless list of palm-tree paradises. The hardest part of deciding on a destination for a winter getaway is finding one that isn’t dreary or depressing or a crowded ski resort.
Such destinations aren’t a myth. There are many beautiful places out there that transform into winter wonderlands, destinations that are even more spectacular, all frosted and snow-capped, in the wintertime.
Don’t let the dark winter days of Finnish Lapland get you down. Finland’s very own winter wonderland comes alive during the winter months with reindeer coming out to play, glistening snow on the ground, and the Aurora Borealis painting the sky in glorious colors. Snow doesn’t melt in these parts until early May, and March is one of the best months to see the Northern Lights, so it’s the perfect destination for a late winter getaway.
Jukkasjarvi Ice Hotel, Sweden
Whether you’re keeping it urban in Stockholm or visiting the idyllic snow-covered village, a winter in Sweden is picture-perfect and unforgettable. For a Frozen-level winter getaway, however, head to the village of Jukkasjarvi and stay at the Jukkasjarvi Ice Hotel. The hotel boasts handcrafted, individually themed ice suites for a sleeping-on-ice experience. Snowsuits, boots, mittens and balaclavas are even included in your stay so you can immerse in winter activities like ice sculpting and cross-country skiing.
Germany’s southeastern state of Bavaria is already the stuff of fairy tales, what with its medieval towns, rustic villages, and fantastical castles and palaces. It’s even more incredible in the winter when the half-timbered houses, palaces and mountains are dusted in snow. Neuschwanstein Castle, the castle that inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, looks even more magical. Feel that satisfying crunch of snow under your feet by meandering around in the villages or tobogganing on the slopes.
Forget Madrid or Barcelona. Winter in Spain demands a visit in the lovely city of Segovia where winters are not only picturesque—as old world charm blanketed in snow often is—but also fun and festive. It’s also littered with postcard-perfect winter scenes like the Alcazar Castle, which rumor has it is the inspiration for Disney’s Cinderella Castle; and the 2nd century Roman Aqueduct. During your visit, a sampling of their traditional winter meal is essential.
The Austrian village of Hallstatt is the quintessential definition of the rural idyll, and it’s named by many as one of the prettiest villages in the world. Nestled between Hallstatt Lake and the Salzkammergut mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a stunning sight year round. However, when its narrow streets, lakeside Alpine houses and surrounding slopes are covered in snow, it looks and feels like a scene straight out of a fairytale.
Banff National Park, Canada
There’s no denying the appeal of Banff. This national park in the Canadian Rockies draws adventurers from all over the world for its crystal clear lakes, towering peaks and majestic wildlife. In the winter, however, it transforms into a formidable destination. It boasts frozen waterfalls, ice walls to scale, and even a frozen lake on which you can skate safely. Topping those off is the white-and-blue vision of the Wenkchemna Peaks rising over Moraine Lake, a must-see and must-photographed sight.
China is a hard destination to love. Its major cities are congested, and some of its historical attractions are only recreations of the originals. If you know where to go, however, it might just hit that wanderlust spot. In the winter months, for example, the place to go is Harbin, the coldest city in the country. It’s known for its ice and snow sculpture festival during which the participants not only build sculptures, but actual buildings and landmarks lit with colorful lights.
Estonia’s capital city is a place yearning to be photographed with its Baroque and Gothic architecture, cobbled streets, and splashes of colors. This is even truer in the wintertime when all that is blanketed in snow. When people talk about winters in Tallinn, it’s often in breathless tones. Feast on mulled wine, warm bread, and hot chestnuts; and you tread your way in the old city, which cannot help but transport you back in time.
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Japanese mountain village of Shirakawa is known for its traditional gassho-zukuri houses. It’s a charming site when surrounded by greens and wildflowers. However, it’s even more enchanting during winter months, when everything, save the river, is bedecked with several inches of snow. Remember to take in the scenery at twilight when the snow-capped houses are softly lit and sparkling against the dusky sky.
Travelers have been coming to the town of Bled in Slovenia during the warmer months for its range of outdoor activities that include horseback riding, hiking and swimming. It is, however, also worth a visit in the cold winter months. It’s endearingly festive during the holidays. And scenes of snow-covered Bled Island, the Bled Castle, and Vintgar Gorge dappled in pastel morning light are unforgettable. Best of all, during the coldest winters, Lake Bled can freeze over to welcome ice skaters.