When winter’s cold and dark days draw near, our instinct is to head for bright sunshine and wave-swept beaches. But think again: The best winter destinations might just be the world’s great cities, where the season is bright and lively even if the weather isn’t.
Winter is the best time for an authentic city experience. It’s the season of culture, both high and low, and of festivals, parties and dinners designed to ward off the boredom of those long, cold and gloomy nights. The crowds are often (but not always) lighter, the prices are better, and the hospitality is warmer. So, bundle up and head to the bright lights for your best winter adventure.
In many places, the fun starts in the leadup to the holidays, with Christmas markets beginning in late November in cities like Berlin, Vienna and Prague, and often continuing right into the New Year. These markets aren’t just charming places to shop for crafts and one-of-a-kind gifts; they are social gathering occasions with live entertainment and tempting food and drinks, perfect for the whole family.
Markets aside, some cities simply know how to celebrate the holidays in style. New York, for instance, has the legendary 5th Avenue window displays, the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the winter village at Bryant Park, and the giant tree at Rockefeller Center. Quebec City’s historic buildings become a romantic winter fairy tale setting amid the twinkling lights and gently falling snow. And visitors can happily spend days checking out the dramatic light mosaics and life-sized nativity scenes along Mexico City’s famous festive routes.
Before and after the holidays, there is, of course, the shopping. In Paris, sales — known as “les soldes” — are state-regulated and held only twice each year (in July and January), which means both the bargains and the crowds can be overwhelming. In London, New York, and other cities, the English tradition of Boxing Day — the day after Christmas, when servants and tradesmen received a box of money or presents — has expanded into a week or more of spectacular deals. Sales aside, January is a terrific time to shop for linens, toys, sports gear, and the latest resort fashions.
But, all that bargain hunting certainly works up an appetite. It’s a good thing, then, that winter is one of the best times of the year to go out for a meal. This is the season of food and drink festivals such as DineOut Vancouver, Toronto’s Winterlicious, Paris Cocktail Week, NYC Restaurant Week, and Dine LA. Many of these festivals offer discounted restaurant meals, making them the perfect opportunities to experience the haute establishments that might otherwise be beyond your budget.
One memorable foodie festival is the Galettes de Rois, which is celebrated on January 6th in the French-speaking world. In Paris and Montreal, friends and family gather to indulge in a rich, almond-flavored tart that contains a hidden charm; whoever gets the charm becomes king (or queen) for the day. In New Orleans, the pastry is known as King Cake, a colorful, sugar-sprinkled brioche dough formed into a hollow ring, and it is part of the city’s exuberant Mardi Gras celebrations.
In the Christian tradition, Mardi Gras, also known as Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday, is the last day to indulge in “sinful” delights before the 40 penitential days of Lent begin. It’s also one of the best reasons to throw a party — or carnival — in late winter, and many cities, from Belgium to Bolivia, do just that. The Venice Carnival is one of the most famous and features more than two weeks of masked balls, while Rio de Janeiro’s party is the largest in the world, with two million people hitting the streets each day to watch the parades of extravagantly costumed dancers.
Even if festivals and parades aren’t your thing, this is the season of high culture in many of the world’s great cites. The theatre season is in full swing in London, New York and Toronto. Galleries unveil impressive art exhibitions, and designers display their best creations at events like the annual London Art Fair or the Winter Show in New York. Ballet companies, fresh off the pirouettes and Cossack jumps of the Nutcracker, introduce their more experimental works, and symphonies are in full swing. High or low, there is entertainment for everyone.
This winter, head to the city. You’ll be far too busy to miss the beach.