Best winter holiday destinations: where to travel for snow, sun or skiing

Whether you want to hit the slopes, top up your tan or go walking in a winter wonderland, there’s a destination to suit

Chris Wilson
Friday 04 August 2023 14:38 BST
<p>European cities exude cosy charm in winter </p>

European cities exude cosy charm in winter

Summer may be the more traditional period for holidaying, but anyone choosing to swap peak-season for the colder months of the year gets to experience a whole new type of travel.

Visiting other countries during deepest, darkest winter can mean swapping grey days for a much-needed vitamin D injection in warmer climes, leaning into festive cheer to stamp around snowy, cobblestoned streets under twinkling fairy lights, or donning skis or snowboard and hitting the slopes.

Many destinations come into their own in the colder months. Cities such as Prague and New York are buzzing with cosy charm in the lead up to Christmas, while Lapland enters its Northern Lights season at roughly the same time.

Head further south, meanwhile, and you can soak in some sun on a trip to somewhere farflung (Australia, anyone?) or within Europe (hello, Canary Islands).

Whatever you’re after from a winter break, here’s our pick of destinations for snow, ski or sun.

Ski holidays

Whistler, Canada

Whistler is one of North America’s most popular ski resorts

Canada’s premier skiing destination remains a legendary resort, having hosted the Winter Olympics in 2010. Officially known as Whistler Blackcomb – the two respective mountains make up the resort – it is home to over 8,000 acres of skiable terrain and over 200 marked trails. Although mainly tailored towards intermediate and advanced level skiers, the ski area is also home to 35 green runs and 16 bowls.

After a day on the mountain, the town comes alive with après sessions and late-night venues, with dozens of places for eating, drinking and partying. Town favourites include Garibaldi Lift Company and Merlin’s Bar, while the Mallard Lounge and Black’s Pub offer an altogether more relaxed afternoon and evening atmosphere.

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Val Thorens, France

Val Thorens is the highest resort in Europe

Officially the highest ski resort in Europe, Val Thorens is part of the Trois Vallées ski area (Europe’s biggest), alongside Méribel and Courchevel, among others, offering over 600km of pistes. The town sits at 2,300m, and snowsure pistes are found at up to 3,200m (at Cime de Caron and Pointe du Bouchet).

Val Thorens is one French resort that is particularly well-known for the variety and liveliness of its après offerings, mainly centred around La Folie Douce. Located at 2,600m, it provides a memorable spot for a post-skiing drink and dance surrounded by mountain views, as does the – slightly lower down – Bar 360. In town, the nightlife continues around Rue de Gebroulaz.

St Anton, Austria

St Anton is known for its on-slope après

Another European resort famed for its party scene, St Anton is home to two of the most renowned après destinations in the form of MooseWirt and Krazy Kangaroo, where the party often starts as early as 11am (though there are plenty of more laid-back options away from the mountainside).

Part of the Arlberg, the largest interconnected ski area in Austria that covers eight villages (including St. Christoph, Stuben, Lech and Zurs), it has over 200km of off-piste runs and 300km of marked runs to keep snowports busy. Though be aware: its terrain is best suited those who are intermediate and advanced.

Where to go for snow

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague fully embraces the festive period

One of Europe’s most picturesque cities is also one that fully embraces the Christmas spirit, with decorations and lights adorning the streets from late November until January. Though a visit to the Czech capital is a good idea in any month, December is a particularly enchanting time to visit. A series of ice rinks and Christmas markets line the winding streets of the Stare Mesto (Old Town), leading to the atmospheric Old Town Square, the focal point of the city.

Fuelled by a strong dose of festive cheer, visitors can explore the city’s various (non-Christmassy) landmarks and sites, including the Castle (the largest ancient castle in the world), the Kasarla Karlin arts complex and the defining symbol of the city, the Charles Bridge. As an added plus, snow is common in the city in winter, with around 11 days of it in on average in December.

Abisko, Sweden

Abisko is one of the best places to go if you want to see the Northern Lights

You’d be forgiven for overlooking this remote village in Swedish Lapland, but it is among the best places to see the Northern Lights. In fact, its Aurora Sky Station makes the bold claim of being “the best place on earth to see the Aurora Borealis”; you have a roughly 80 per cent chance of seeing the aurora if you stay for three nights or more.

Package holidays are a popular way to visit Abisko, with several novel activities on offer included. Many take advantage of the nearby Abisko National Park, where hiking, snowmobiling, husky-sledding and ice fishing are all on offer. Skiing – especially the cross-country variety – is also possible here.

New York, USA

There’s a special atmosphere in the Big Apple at Christmastime

Though you aren’t guaranteed snow if you visit New York in winter, the pre-Christmas period is one of the best times to visit, when it’s awash with the typically “extra” holiday cheer that America is famous for. The most prominent examples are the Rockefeller Centre’s Christmas Tree, standing up to 30 metres tall, and its vast outdoor ice rink.

Central Park and the Manhattan streets are adorned with lights and often over-the-top decoration (as well as the odd Christmas market), while the longer nights provide great opportunities to take in the amazing views from the Empire State Building or Rockefeller. Other areas have their own festive attractions too, from the Dyker Heights Light Display in Brooklyn to holiday shows at the Bronx Zoo.

Winter sun

Patagonia, Argentina and Chile

Towns like Puerto Varas are resplendent in the summer sunshine during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter

A region that covers a vast part of southern Argentina and a smaller stretch of Chile, Patagonia is home to some of the most diverse landscapes of any region in the world.

Argentina’s arid Patagonian desert and the rainforest that spans the southeast of the country (and south of Chile) are in stark contrast to the glaciers in the far south and both countries’ lake districts (located in the northern section). Along the Chilean section, the Andes wind down the coast, providing even more striking views.

At the point that the Northern Hemisphere is drenched in rain and overcast, this part of the world is welcoming summer and basking in temperatures of anywhere up to 27C. In summer, it’s a good choice to focus on seeing the lakes; for an unforgettable trip, start in the charming town of Pucon (easily accessible from Temuco, a fairly major airport). From there, you can drive towards the border and over into San Martin de los Andes, a larger town that is the gateway to the verdant forests and glacial lakes of the Lanin National Park.

Villa la Angostura – with its alpine-style buildings and incredible views of Lake Nahuel Huapi – is another worthwhile destination, as is Bariloche, a city on the other side of the lake. Those blessed with time will want to cross back over the border to Puerto Varas if they can; this German-influenced town has extraordinary views over the Osorno Volcano from the shores of Lake Llanquihue.

Canary Islands, Spain

The Canary Islands are the warmest place in Europe during the winter months

For some winter sun that’s closer to home, the Canary Islands are the best option. These islands’ location, off the coast of Morocco, gives them subtropical weather that brings stable temperatures year-round.

Four of the islands are popular tourist destinations. Tenerife, the largest, is also the most popular; it caters to many tastes, whether you want to hike the highest peak in Spain (Mount Teide), take in the architecture of Santa Cruz or simply lie on the sand at Teresitas. Gran Canaria is the home of the islands’ capital, Las Palmas, while natural highlights include the Roque Nublo and the vast sand dunes of Maspalomas.

Fuerteventura is a nature lovers’ paradise, with untouched beaches such as Cofete and Costa Calma complemented by sites like the Aguas Verdes natural pools and the Corralejo National Park. Lanzarote is a largely volcanic island – with a landscape of lava fields, red and black earth, black sand beaches and many extinct volcanoes – that is home to a handful of lively tourist resorts.

Phuket, Thailand

Phuket avoids much of the rainy season in the winter months

Thailand’s largest island sits in the Andaman Sea, across the water from Krabi on the southwestern coast. The provincial capital of the same name contains a remarkable Old Town brimming with heritage buildings and distinctive Sino-Portuguese architecture, though much of the focus on Phuket is on either coastal resort towns or stellar natural beauty.

Patong is a bustling town and the place to go for a livelier resort stay with plenty of nightlife options, while Karon is a more laid-back alternative. Chalong is home to cultural sites including the 45-metre tall Buddha statue and Wat Chalong (an ornate Buddhist temple), though it doesn’t have the party or beach options of places like Patong or Kata Beach.

The island contains a series of natural attractions such as Black Rock Viewpoint and the Kathu waterfalls, plus magnificent coastal scenery. Aside from the bone-white sands and remarkably turquoise waters, the beaches are exquisite; you’ll swim and sunbathe surrounded by anything from pine trees and dense forest to rolling hills and rock formations like that of the nearby Phang Nga Bay.

Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town’s summer begins in December

With summer starting in December in Cape Town, the UK’s winter months are the ideal time to visit. One of South Africa’s three capital cities (along with Pretoria and Bloemfontein), it offers a range of summer activities, from hikes up the 1,085-metre Table Mountain overlooking the city to days spent by the sea at Bikini Beach or Camps Bay.

The city’s popular districts include the V&A Waterfront (great for first-time visitors who want to be in amongst everything), Bo-Kaap (for discovering local culture) and Woodstock (where you can see the creative side of the city). In terms of attractions, Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela was once imprisoned – and the Kirstenbosch botanical gardens are some of the best.

Read our reviews of the best hotels in Europe

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