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Winter is a magical season. It provides travelers with a unique experience that is heralded by the falling snow. While the people and the culture stay the same with the change of seasons, winter becomes a country’s time to celebrate. Whether it’s honoring an ancient heritage or taking snow sculpting to the extreme, here are five of the most wondrous winter festivals in the world.
Shetland Viking Festival – Lerwick, Scotland
Taking place on the last Tuesday in January, the winter revelers of Lerwick keep the winter chill at bay with their fire festival of Up Helly Aa. Otherwise known as the Shetland Viking Festival, this festival features Scandinavian-descended Scots who have turned an old Yule tradition into a more modern excuse to light things on fire. In its essence, the festival is a parade where the locals lead a fiery procession through town in order throw torches into a massive longship. Of course, that spectacle is both preceded and followed by raucous parties all over town to make the area’s Viking ancestors proud.
If you’re looking for a fine place to stumble back to after a night of Viking revelry, the historic Busta House Hotel is an excellent option. First built in 1588 by a wealthy landowner, this beautiful building has become a beloved perch for visitors to look out over the rolling Shetland moors.
Reykjavik Winter Lights Festival – Reykjavik, Iceland
There are a handful of adventurous winter locales that you can visit for a chance of seeing the Northern Lights, but viewings are so guaranteed in Iceland that they build a whole festival around it. Iceland is known for its particularly fierce winters, but just when the days are at their darkest in February, the nights light up with the majestic Aurora Borealis that makes this night festival (called ‘Vetrarhátíð’ in Icelandic) possible. Guided by the natural lights, Reykjavik comes alive with art, music, sports, and culture. Tour museums, soak in thermal pools, enjoy concerts, and do it all while illuminated by the eerie green glow of the Northern Lights.
The best place to enjoy it all? Reykjavik is home to a number of fantastic hotels, but the city is a hotspot for great AirBnB stays like this warm family home. Not only can you get out and experience the city’s night-time festival, but you can do it with local knowledge.
Sapporo Snow Festival – Sapporo, Japan
The Snow Festival in Sapporo, Japan is a sculpture festival, but it certainly isn’t your average hometown sculpture competition. This February event is the celebration of all things winter in Japan’s most mountainous metropolis. While the main event is the city’s sculpture contest where entries litter the town and can be as tall as the buildings themselves, as you are strolling the streets you will be treated to other events like giant ice slides, extensive snow mazes, and all of Japan’s comfort foods served right from street stalls to keep things nice and toasty.
If you are planning an escape to Sapporo for the snow festival, do it in advance. The festival attracts millions each year so the hotels near Odori Park where the sculpting contest take place or Susukino, the city’s entertainment hub, fill up fast. Located just a few blocks away from Odori Park and right near the city’s Toho line is the Cross Hotel. Chic and modern, what makes the Cross so desirable in the winter is the unbeatable view over the city and the mountains beyond from its upper levels. The snow-capped peaks in the distance can really give the views in Aspen or Whistler a run for their money.
The Venice Carnival – Venice, Italy
Who says winter festivals have to be bitter cold? It does add to the allure, but as you travel closer to the equator you still get some chill but definitely don’t risk frostbite. In Venice, you get to stay nice and toasty as well as get to participate in a festival that dates back to the 12th century. As the Venetian version of Mardi Gras, the city comes alive with music and those hauntingly beautiful Venetian masks before Lent during Carnevale.
If this year is your first Carnevale, when looking for a hotel in Venice there is nothing more valuable than a quality concierge to find out what events are going on. The Bauer Hotel in San Marco not only has a helpful staff, but also absolutely incredible views out over the water.
Frozen Dead Guy Days – Nederland, Colorado
Winter festivals are fun, but not the same kind of ironic “fun” that happens in Nederland, Colorado at the end of each winter. This town just west of Boulder took the idea of winter festivals that are so popular in Colorado and made it even sillier. This festival features three days of events including van smashes, snowshoe racing, polar plunges, and coffin races. So where are the frozen dead guys in all this? Well, as told by the history of the festival, Grandpa Bredo Morstoel, a Norwegian immigrant, is stored in his grandson’s home in the city soaking in liquid nitrogen until we sort out how to revive the dead. You can’t make that sort of origin story up.
Most visitors for the festival stay or visit from Boulder because, well, Nederland doesn’t have a lot of accommodations. However, there is a hidden gem nearby in Eldora. The Goldminer Hotel is a small B&B that most stumble upon by accident and never forget. With over 115 years of history, the Goldminer has seen a lot, it is no wonder that it might have a few ghosts hiding in its walls.
Winter Festival of Lights -Niagra Falls, Ontario
Marvel at the spectacle of over two million lights along an 8 km-long illumination route in Niagara Falls, Ontario! This winter, the Winter Festival of Lights celebrates its 35th Season, new displays have been added, events have been expanded included light art exhibits plus there are new light shows. In addition to the illumination route, festival goers can also enjoy events like the Deck the Falls walking tour, weekly fireworks, laser light shows, a New Years Eve concert, and IceWine Festival.
Accommodations in Niagra Falls cover everything from the Marriott right by the falls to a quiet bed and breakfast if you want to avoid the crowds. Whichever style suits you better, there are plenty of options to help you get out of the cold after you’ve done the rounds at the festival.