I’m not the kind of traveler who heads to a beach at the first sign of frost. I love traveling to cold-weather destinations that let me pack sweaters and boots and scarves. I don’t just mean ski spots, either. Winter is a great time to travel to top tourist destinations. You’ll find less crowds, great winter events and lots of holiday magic. Here are some of my favorites.
I’ve already confessed my London love affair in a recent blog post, so I may be biased – but Christmas in London is especially magical.
London’s department stores create holiday windows with fantastical themes. In fact, “Fantastica” was the name of the window display at Harrods in 2018. The displays featured a gigantic Dolce & Gabbana refrigerator full of holiday food, among other unexpected visuals.
Harrods is a classic London stop any time of year, of course. I adore the food halls, especially. Plan to have a meal there if you can, or take some treats back to your hotel room or rental.
If you don’t mind wall-to-wall crowds, you can check out the annual sale, which starts every year on Boxing Day (December 26). You might find a chic accessory for 75% off, and you’ll be participating in a British tradition.
Prefer something a bit quieter? Have a traditional afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason’s, The Dorchester, The Victoria & Albert Museum or any number of hotels and department stores around the city.
Christmas decor goes up mid-November in London and stays up until around the fifth of January. Stop in at any number of London restaurants and keep the spirit going.
Enjoy a bowl of mussels and a glass of prosecco, dine on world-class Indian curries, or discover Lebenese, Ethiopian, Polish or traditional English fare. Londoners may be strictly stay or leave when it comes to Brexit, but they’re quite global when it comes to food.
No winter visit to London would be complete without a trip down Regent Street, famous for spectacular displays of lights that glitter overhead, strung from building to building.
Crisp winter air and Mr. H by my side – now that’s a perfect Christmas holiday.
Hampton Court Palace, once the residence of Henry VIII, features an ice skating rink in the courtyard every winter. Tourists often flock to Kensington Palace or the Tower of London to get their winter skating fix, so Hampton Court is a great alternative. Beware though – Hampton Court is said to be haunted by the ghosts of Henry VIII’s wives.
Venice inspires me immensely and I think I love it most in winter. A slight chill in the air, an almost empty piazza, a layer of fog – plus a plate of fritto misto enjoyed by a cafe window – now that’s a perfect Venetian afternoon.
The Piazza San Marco may never be empty, but I love heading out for an adventure into some of the lesser-known squares and alleys, without the bustling summer crowds.
No offense, Venice, but you smell better in winter, too (I love you, so I can say this). The smells from the lagoon and the trash barges that pass under the bridges can get a bit “ripe” in the heat of summer.
Winter weather in Venice is quite mild – more damp and windy than anything else. Pack some stylish flats (or buy some there) and a light coat and you’ll be good to go. Of course, you may also get an unexpected flood. If you haven’t brought rain boots, all the shops start carrying tall plastic shoe covers as soon as the heavy rains start. Don’t let the puddles get you down!
By 6 p.m., it’s dark during the winter months, but if you wander through the city you’ll find all sorts of activity, from people-watching to dining to performances.
If you’re there at the right time, catch the tail end of the Venice Biennale, a celebration of the best art in Europe that happens every two years.
Participating countries curate huge exhibits and installations, with lots of mind-opening conceptual work. The Biennale runs from May to November, so go during the last few weeks and while you’ll miss the chic opening galas and flashy crowds, you’ll get to enjoy days of amazing contemporary art in relative peace.
New York at Christmas is a popular tourist destination, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming – and there are plenty of winter activities to enjoy on each side of the holiday.
One of my favorite things about New York is how it holds onto tradition even as it grows and changes and hustles and bustles. It’s easy to get caught up in commercialism and frantic gift-buying during the holidays. Instead, consider embracing New York’s retro classics and basking in winter traditions.
Take in a performance at Lincoln Center (an audience sing along of Christmas tunes perhaps?), a show on Broadway or the ever-popular Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. The Rockettes’ signature dance numbers were created in the 1930s and remain the same each year, with fresh numbers added every season.
See what’s on at the Guggenheim or the Whitney. Winter days are great for museum-going and recovering with a latte in the café. The Neue Galerie features the Klimt painting on which “Woman in Gold” is based, among other treasures, as well as an Austrian restaurant styled after the famous Cabaret Fledermaus in Vienna.
One of the most magical Christmas activities in New York is also one of the simplest: take a carriage ride through Central Park, snuggled up in a cozy blanket. You’ll be reliving the city’s golden age and using the park for its original intent.
You can ask your carriage driver to drop you off at the iconic Tavern on the Green. This NYC landmark was originally built to house sheep but became a restaurant in 1934.
Tavern on the Green has famously been seen in movies such as Wall Street, Ghostbusters, Arthur, and many others. More importantly, the food is great and the newly renovated interiors are just what you’d expect.
The Japanese love festivals and there’s a different one every week, or so it seems, each with its own rituals, decorations and menu. Winter is no exception. The Winter Festival of Lights, or Illuminations, occur in Tokyo and across the entire country. The best shows include Tokyo Midtown and the Sagamiko Resort Pleasure Forest in Kanagawa.
The absolute biggest and most dramatic is about three hours by train from Tokyo, so if you have time for a getaway within a getaway, head to the Nabano no Sato Illumination that features about 7 million LED lights.
Another great winter activity in Tokyo (and throughout Japan) is spending time at an onsen, a traditional hot mineral spring bath.
The water is sourced from volcanic springs, and is full of healing minerals. There are strict do’s and don’ts when visiting an onsen, so make sure you’re well informed before you go. It’s important to shower before entering and bathing suits are not allowed. The baths are public, and depending on the location, can have either co-ed or single gender pools. Tattoos may not be allowed either, although covering a small bit of ink with a band-aid may work in some locations.
In some places you can rent a private pool, but you’ll miss out on the more traditional experience if you do it that way. Some places have both. And some are connected to traditional Japanese hotels called Hakone, where you’ll be served meals in your room.
Food is one of my favorite things about Japan. I especially love the culinary focus on seasonal foods.
Winter specialities include oden, a gelatinous yam soup that is better than it sounds, yuzu (a citrus fruit), strawberries, persimmons and nikuman (small meat-filled dumplings).
Tokyo has a number of Michelin-rated restaurants and not all of them are expensive. Try Nakiryu for its ramen, or Anda Gyoza for yummy dumplings.
I hope I’ve inspired you to embrace winter by plunging headlong into a cold weather adventure. I think you’ll find it’s an invigorating, soul-expanding way to explore the world.