These city getaways are ideal for the chilly season, whether you’d rather snowshoe around Oslo or groove to calypso on Trinidadian streets.
Published December 1, 2022
8 min read
Think “winter vacation,” and some travelers picture warm shorelines and sun-splashed ancient ruins. Others dream of slipping on snowshoes to explore a national park or bedding down in an ice hotel. Whatever your idea of a winter getaway, National Geographic’s new book 100 Cities, 5000 Ideas offers inspiration and tips, from museum- and beach-hopping in Los Angeles, California, to skiing down the slopes near Vienna, Austria.
Here are 10 urban destinations where you can either escape or embrace the season.
Cities that thrill to the chill
Average January high: 32ºF
At the mouth of a gorgeous fjord, the Norwegian capital strikes a fascinating balance between centuries-old and contemporary, with dazzling modern architecture (a new museum dedicated to local artist Edvard Munch), Viking ships on display, and a buzzing performing arts scene.
Cold comfort: Oslo is a center for winter sports, with the Holmenkollen Olympic Park and Oslo Vinterpark offering skiing, snowshoeing, and more amid the lush Nordmarka Forest.
Québec City, Canada
Average January high: 20ºF
The only remaining walled city north of the Rio Grande meshes old France and modern Canada with sidewalk cafés, one-off boutiques, and outdoor activities on the bluffs above the St. Lawrence River. Its Haute-Ville (upper town) and Basse-Ville (lower town) feature 17th-19th century architecture and cobblestone streets. In winter, you can go from haute to basse on toboggans that travel down an icy chute as fast as 43 m.p.h. or cross-country ski in parks beside the frozen river.
Chilly celebrations: Québec City’s cold-weather festivals include holiday markets in November and December and the boisterous Carnaval de Québec in February.
Average January high: 42ºF
Nearly 350 years since it was founded, the “City of Brotherly Love” remains one of North America’s oldest and most intriguing metropolises, a medley of American independence, international neighborhoods, and pop culture along the Delaware River. Explore early U.S. history at downtown sites including the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall or get a taste of Italian-American culture at South Philly’s Italian Market.
Chilly celebration: Each New Year’s Day, the Mummers Parade brings costumed bands and performers to the streets for a Mardi Gras-like celebration.
(Dig into the food, art, and culture making Philly hot again.)
Average January high: 37ºF
Iceland’s seaside capital merges Scandinavian sophistication with an end-of-the-world vibe that endures from the days when outcast Vikings settled the North Atlantic island. This mellow northern city pays tribute to those early explorers with a statue of Leif Eriksson and an interactive Settlement Exhibition preserving the remains of a 10th-century Norse village.
Cold comfort: Still active volcanoes power hot spring pools including Laugardalur and the famed Blue Lagoon, about a 45-minute drive northeast of Reykjavík.
Average January high: 50ºF
A confluence of the endearingly old and shockingly new, the globe’s most populous city can change on a dime, from neon-splashed canyons and skyscraper forests to tranquil temples, parks, and village-like neighborhoods. Futuristic Tokyo attractions include the Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation with its robotic androids and the Blade Runner-esque towers of Shinjuku. But Tokyo also holds traditional enclaves such as Asakusa, with its sprawling temple complex and geisha district.
Chilly celebration: Each December, the Shibuya Blue Cave draws up to two million visitors with dozens of illuminated trees.
Spots to seek the sun
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Average January high: 84ºF
Tango dancers, soccer players, and folk musicians make their homes—and show off their talents in Argentina’s larger-than-life capital. Once the richest city in the world, B.A. holds grand 18th- and 19th-century architecture in tony neighborhoods like Recoleta, where there’s also an atmospheric cemetery filled with the well-decorated graves of notables like Eva Perón. In the Boca barrio, brightly painted houses surround La Bonbonera, the vintage home stadium for working-class futbol team the Boca Juniors.
Weekend market: Sundays, the Feria de San Telmo has tangoing couples and antique-selling vendors amid the cobblestoned streets and fin de siècle architecture of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
Average January high: 81ºF
The Pacific Ocean metropolis reveals itself as a far more complex place than picture postcards suggest, loaded with interesting neighborhoods and a history replete with royals, robber barons, and imperial ambitions. Bask on palm-fringed Waikiki Beach, hike up Diamond Head, or visit ‘Iolani Palace, home to the last Hawaiian monarch. The Bishop Museum displays regal heirlooms, natural history specimens, and cultural artifacts from across Polynesia.
Warm up: Outrigger canoe trips or surfing lessons get you into the waves.
(Discover the surprising history of Hawaiian hula.)
Average January high: 66ºF
Founded almost a thousand years ago as a modest oasis town on the edge of the Sahara, Marrakech grew into a superstar of art, architecture, and intellect. Its iconic Djemaa el Fna main square buzzes with snake charmers, Gnawa music troupes, and food stands. It’s the helter-skelter heart of the Medina, where gardens, mosques, and markets are enclosed by ochre sandstone walls. Explore Islamic life at the Saadian Tombs, with intricately carved sepulchers of 16th-century sultans, and Bahia Palace with its glazed tiles and painted woodwork.
Side trip: In the swanky Gueliz neighborhood, the Yves Saint Laurent Museum and the cacti-filled Majorelle Garden emphasize how Western creatives took inspiration from the legendary “Red City.”
(Hear all about Marrakech’s vibrant music scene.)
Average January high: 79ºF
Australia’s second-biggest city has transformed from an Anglocentric outpost of the British Empire into a multicultural 21st-century melting pot. A strong immigrant population powers many of the 600 stalls at Queen Victoria Market; there’s also a venerable Chinatown and the Greek Precinct, with its Hellenic Museum.
A hot cultural scene: Launched in 2002, central Melbourne’s Federation Square offers restaurants, performing arts venues, and museums such as the Ian Potter Centre: NGV with the world’s largest collection of Aboriginal art.
Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago
Average January high: 88ºF
The balmy capital of Trinidad is one of the top spots in the Caribbean to experience a pre-Lent carnival, with calypso musicians and soca dancers in feathered costumes kicking off the party in the central Queen’s Park Savannah. This 260-acre park also holds the Emperor Valley Zoo and the Royal Botanic Gardens, with indigenous and international trees planted on the grounds of a former sugar plantation.
Side trip: A 25-minute drive southeast of town, the Caroni Bird Sanctuary is a mangrove-lined waterway where boat tours glide past the scarlet ibis, Trinidad’s national bird.
Joe Yogerst is a San Diego-based writer and photographer. This story was adapted from his National Geographic book 100 Cities, 5000 Ideas.