8 Winter Experiences For Your
Travel Bucket List
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, winter has settled in. This time of year ushers in a litany of holidays and traditions that many look forward to all year long. And all around the world, people are preparing for some of their favorite events and activities of the season. Whether you enjoy the cold weather or prefer year-round warmth, here are eight exciting winter experiences around the globe that you may want to add to your travel bucket list. Many of them are now on mine!
1 Snow Festivals in Asia
Snow and ice festivals are everywhere during the winter months but East Asia boasts some of the biggest and most exciting festivals in the world.
In fact, the largest snow festival in the world is held every year in one of China’s coldest cities. Known as the Ice City, Harbin, China, is home to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival. Bundle up and enjoy a few days in January or February exploring this winter wonderland. The festival itself lasts longer than a month, beginning in early January and running through mid-February (and sometimes even until March, weather permitting), and between 10 and 15 million people visit each year. Heed all warnings and be sure you don’t pack light—temperatures are well below zero. Each year, the festival consists of multiple theme parks, diverse events, and thousands of competitors from all over the world who create some of the largest ice sculptures ever to be built. And while the sun sets early, the city continues to burn bright; lights of all colors illuminate the sculptures and create quite the show. Be sure to check out the Ice Lanterns. Ice Lanterns are a tradition that dates back to the Qing Dynasty, when ice was used as a windproof lantern to help fishermen and peasants light the way.
Not only do you get to experience a city of built of ice, you’re also in a unique location, rich in culture and history. Through the Trans-Manchurian Railway, the city links Beijing with the Trans-Siberian Railway. The construction of these railway lines in the early 20th Century brought an influx of Russian immigrants and workers. And that influence is clear in the architecture, food, and shops around the city.
China is not the only Asian country with a spectacular snow and ice festival, the Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo, Japan, is the largest and most popular winter experience in Japan. Also known as Yuki Matsuri, this event is held for one week in February and features more than 100 snow sculptures, some up to 50 feet high. And like Harbin, they are lit up at night for a truly magical view. In addition to sculptures, enjoy the jovial atmosphere, live music, and other snow-related activities (such as ice mazes and snow slides).
And while you’re in Japan, take a day trip to the village of Shirakawa-go. This UNESCO World Heritage Site will give you a taste of traditional life. The unique houses of this village, known for their steep, triangular roofs covered in hay, are designed to withstand the heavy snowfall. And on certain Sundays and Mondays in January and February, the village puts on an illumination event, lighting up the iconic houses. It’ll almost make you feel like you’re standing in the middle of a Christmas village.
2 Lunar New Year
Technically meant to mark the beginning of spring, the Lunar New Year falls during winter, usually between mid-January and mid-February depending on the lunisolar calendar. The holiday is celebrated throughout the world but it is well known in Asian cultures, where many countries have their own unique traditions.
Perhaps the most widely celebrated and popular tradition is the Chinese New Year. Dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1766 BC – 1122 BC), the legends say that a mythical beast called the “Year”—which looked like an ox with a lion’s head—would come out of the sea on New Year’s Eve to harm those on land. It is said that the “Year” fears the color red, fire, and loud sounds. As such, some of the most recognizable traditions stem from these fears to ward off the mythical beast. Chinese New Year’s celebrations almost always include firework displays, decorations featuring the colors red and yellow, and hanging lanterns. Other customs include serving lucky foods (such as dumplings and rice cakes), dragon and lion dances, and giving red envelopes with money to younger generations. Like most Lunar New Year celebrations, this is a time for family. You’ll be able to enjoy the celebrations, decorations, and customs, but many shops, museums, and tourist attractions may be closed during the long celebration.
Vietnam has its own Lunar New Year celebration, known as Tết. This is the most important festival in Vietnamese culture. Though this is a family-focused holiday with traditions largely observed within the home, there are still exciting festivities that take place in many cities and make Vietnam a worthy destination. In the days leading up to Tết, streets will be lined with an abundance of colorful flowers and plants (tangerine trees and flowering bushes are traditional household decorations), fresh fruits (for the fruit trays families offer in respect for the dead), and colorful decorations (featuring the traditional lucky colors, red and yellow). And major cities may organize some festivities, including fireworks and parades, in celebration.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that because this is a family-oriented holiday, many businesses, museums, and other venues will be closed for the four days of Tết. You’ll be on your own more than usual these days but don’t let that deter you: go a few days early—see the sights, celebrations, and decorations—and then take a journey to the beach (where you’ll find relaxing solitude) or choose to walk around the now tranquil and quiet cities to gain a new perspective. You may find some open shops, with merchants looking to start off the New Year right financially. But take note: This is not the time to haggle over prices. It is believed to bring back luck for the New Year. It may be tricky to visit Vietnam during this time but as long as you plan in advance, your experience is sure to be incredible.
3 Lhasa, Tibet
With its high altitude of 3,700 meters and in the middle of the coldest season, Tibet may not be anywhere near the top of your winter destinations list; however, that may just be the best time to experience the modern and traditional capital city of Lhasa. Because of the altitude and dry weather, the sun is ever present and can make the days seem warmer than you’d expect. Additionally, it is the off-season for tourists, so you’ll have an opportunity to truly experience the city and the Tibetan way of life.
Each year, in either February or March (depending on the Tibetan calendar), brings the Monlam Prayer Festival. This almost two-week festival is meant to commemorate Buddha’s enlightenment and, in addition to prayer, includes ritual dance performances, hanging prayer flags, giant tapestry-like paintings, and other activities. The events culminate in the Butter Lamp Festival. Monks and artisans craft colorful butter sculptures, also called tormas, in many forms—gods, animals, plants, birds, etc.—and are later lit to light up the night as participants sing and dance in celebration.
Scotland in winter brings two major festivals perfect for any bucket list.
For the last Tuesday in January, make your way to Lerwick, the main port of the Shetland Islands in Scotland. It’s there that you can experience the largest and most spectacular fire festival in the world, Up Helly Aa, with the Vikings. Up Helly Aa is held throughout the Shetland Islands in celebration of the local history and culture but Lerwick sponsors the main festival you don’t want to miss. The festival takes an entire year to organize which means as soon as the celebration is over, the community is already hard at work to make the next year a success.
Marking the passing of the darkest days in midwinter, almost a thousand men dress up in costumes and disguises before forming squads that line the streets. The main squad, known as the Jarl Squad, is the only group to wear Viking dress. And the leader of the whole event, the Jarl, prepares his costume in secrecy. He will represent a character from the Norse Sagas for the night of the festival. The procession begins at night, with torches and bands leading the crowd and dragging the Jarl on a traditionally hand-built and hand-carved dragon ship to their destination. Once there, the Jarl disembarks at the pyre and torches are tossed into the ship in a tradition that harkens back to Norse rituals. It doesn’t end there; feasting and dancing along with other celebrations round out the festival in a night of merriment you won’t ever forget.
Another festival, mentioned in my recent article New Year Celebrations around the World, deserves a place here as well. Hogmanay is Scotland’s New Year’s Eve celebration. And while many include New York’s Times Square celebration on their bucket lists, they are missing out on one of the most famous and biggest fireworks displays in the world. This three-day festival is held annually in Edinburgh, Scotland, and fireworks aren’t the only thing to see. Some festivities date back hundreds of years to the 8th and 9th centuries and blend Viking and pagan traditions. One of the major traditions is the Torchlight Procession which kicks off the festival; thousands, some dressed as Vikings, carry torches and lead the way through the streets of Edinburgh. Concerts, parties, and other events, such as Britain’s largest Ceilidh—a social event that includes traditional Scottish folk music, singing, dancing, and storytelling—will help you fully immerse yourself into the culture of this beautiful country.
5 Christmas Markets
The Weihnachtsmӓrkt (also known as Christkindlmarkt—and its many variations) is a street market that ushers in the Christmas season. Originating in Germany, the tradition dates back to the Middle Ages—recorded as far back as 1310 in Munich. Christmas Markets are held outdoors in the month leading up to Christmas Day and feature dozens of stalls with traditional crafts, food, and drink as well as Christmas music, decorations, costumes, and activities. While some Christmas Markets have fallen victim to commercialization and may include carnival rides, mass-produced products, and non-traditional fare, many cities are fighting back to ensure the tradition remains true to its roots. While there are popular Christkindle Markets throughout the world, you’ll want to visit Germany for the most authentic experience. There are hundreds of Christmas Markets within Germany—most with traditions unique to its province.
On almost every list you can find about the best German/European/World Christmas Markets, you will most likely see Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt. Many also note that this is one of the largest, oldest, and most traditional Christmas Markets in the world. To even be considered for participation, the organizers of the market have developed a rigorous test to ensure the market remains true to its roots, which dates back to around 1530 (though some sources more firmly place this date a century later at 1628). Mass-produced and modern wares are not allowed; the market prides itself on offering authentic, hand-crafted products. Many of the stalls even date back to 1890.
A must for any visit to a Christmas Market is trying the traditional Glühwein, likely sold by many stalls with their own recipes. This hot, winter drink is a mulled wine, typically spiced with cinnamon, cloves, star anise, citrus, sugar, and possibly spiked with some rum or schnapps. (It will pair well with the traditional Nuremberg Bratwurst or the Nuremberg gingerbread, too). Most markets will sell a souvenir mug that you can take from stall to stall. It is definitely a drink you want to try, even if you don’t like red wine. I had Glühwien for the first time while in Switzerland and it was not only delicious, it warmed me right up. If you’re wandering through a Christmas Market in December, you’re probably going to need it.
While visiting a Christmas Market in a German-speaking country is the bucket-list trip you’ll want to take, the tradition has found itself all over the world. And until you’re able to visit Germany, check out christmasmarkets.com or do a Google search to see if there’s a Christmas Market near you to get a glimpse of this exciting tradition.
6 Ice Caving
“What’s ice caving?” you may ask. Honestly, I had never heard of it before I started my research, but now it is definitely on my bucket list. Ice caving is relatively new but has quickly gained popularity to become a must-do. And, of course, this only-in-winter activity is best experienced in Iceland.
Ice caves are naturally-formed wonders hidden beneath Iceland’s glaciers (sometimes referred to as glacier caves). They are only accessible in winter when the ice of the glaciers have frozen solid. In summer, it’s too warm for them to be maintained and they melt. This means that every winter, these ice caves have reformed into something different from the year before. So your winter experience will be a completely unique one. It’s even possible, in many cases, for caves to change from day-to-day. But what stands out about these glacier ice caves is their gorgeous blue color.
Ice caving is not a solo activity and should not be attempted on your own. It is essential that you go with a trained guide and tour group. Most ice caves are found inside the Vatnajökull glacier, and you’ll want to find a tour that takes you here. Because the ice caves change from year-to-year and even show up in different places, they aren’t usually given names. But there are a few that have formed consistently, including the Crystal Cave, the Blue Diamond, and the Waterfall Cave, which actually has a river flowing into it.
There are many reasons to visit Iceland in the winter—that’s when the Northern Lights are the most vibrant—so if you take a winter trip to this destination, be sure to do your research about the best ice caving tours and book your spot early. With their limited availability, tours fill up quickly.
7 Go for a Run… in Antarctica?
It may technically be summer but Antarctica feels like extreme winter all-year round. It’s not really the type of place you’d want to be outside for long periods of time. Instead, you may want to find a cozy hut or research station to protect yourself from the below-freezing and, in many parts, below-zero temperatures. But yet, there is one activity that’s become a popular tradition on the continent: running.
Started in 2006 as a way to offer serious runners the opportunity to compete in marathons on all seven continents, the Antarctic Ice Marathon is the southernmost marathon on earth and held every year in mid-December. Global Running Adventures, which specializes in developing marathons in challenging locations, organizes the event and flies participants from Chile to the race location in the Western Hemisphere of Antarctica. And if you’re a really committed runner and cold enthusiast, there is the 100k ultra race for you, that’s (you guessed it) 100 kilometers long (more than 62 miles). Or you can start small with the Frozen Continent Half-Marathon, run on the same day. This event will set you back a pretty penny, but it’s also sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
On the other side of the continent, Scott’s Hut Race and the McMurdo Marathon are both held in January. These non-competitive races take runners on a scenic route through and around McMurdo Station. You’ll probably see some penguins and other natives along the way! Scott’s Hut Race is a much more manageable 5.2-mile race that takes you around Discovery Hut, a building erected more than 100 years ago by Robert Falcon Scott during the Discovery Expedition of 1901 to 1904. The McMurdo Marathon is a fun affair with music, warming stations, couches, and food along the way. You can even ski the course if that’s more your style!
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If you don’t want to commit to a marathon but still want to run around the coldest continent on earth, the Race Around the World may be just the right fit. Given its name because participants run through every line of longitude, this tradition happens every Christmas Day at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. This race course takes runners around the station—the course changing slightly from year to year—and is generally about 2 miles long. You can cheat a bit on this race if you want. Participants are allowed to walk, ski, or even use a snowmobile. Don’t forget your costumes! Many dress up for this more casual event.
You may have missed out on this year’s races but that means you have a whole year to train, save, and prepare for next year’s runs. In addition to building your endurance, you might want to also spend time in a freezer. Even though it’s technically summer, the average December high at McMurdo Station is a chilly 21°F and the closer you get to the South Pole that plummets to a blustery -15°F (that’s right, negative!). You’re definitely going to need to run to stay warm!
8 See the Penguins in Chile
So, this one isn’t exactly a winter experience because when it’s winter for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Chile finds itself in the midst of summer. But when the cold and snow get to be too much or you just want to take a trip to a unique location, Chile’s Chiloé Island between January and March may be just the place for you. It is not only one of the few locations where you can see the vulnerable Humboldt penguins but it is also the only known location in the world where the Humboldt and Magellanic penguins nest together. Many local companies provide boat tours that will take you around the island to see the penguin colonies, where hundreds of penguins from both species nest with their mates every year from November to March. The area is rich in wildlife, so it won’t be uncommon to see cormorants, kelp gulls, and other marine life.
And once you visit these exciting creatures, you’ll find yourself in the middle of what some have called a cultural oasis, and with so much to explore, it’s easy to see why. Chiloé Island is the second largest island in Chile and was one of the last parts of the country to remain under Spanish control. Before the Spanish invaded, the island was settled among three indigenous groups—the Chono, the Cunco, and the Huilliche peoples. Sadly, only the Huilliche have survived but the native mythology and customs of all three groups were shared and blended, surviving today and providing the Chiloé Island with its distinct, unique culture. But because of the later Spanish influence, European culture can be seen throughout the architecture, cuisine, and customs. The Churches of Chiloé have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As the UNESCO website describes them, these 14 churches “represent the only example in Latin America of a rare form of ecclesiastical wooden architecture.” They were built in the 17th and 18th centuries and represent the “fusion of indigenous and European culture and technical expertise.”
One thing to note: while it is summer in Chile, Chiloé Island remains mild with average lows of 48°F and highs of 68°F. And if you visit outside of these months, you may find yourself stuck in some gloomy and windy rain. In fact, January is the driest month. Try to make it out then, if you can.
Now, we want to hear from you!
What’s on your winter bucket list? Have you checked off any of these experiences? What are some of your favorite destinations or events in winter? Let us know below.