If you're not set on jetting off to a Caribbean beach this winter, a city getaway can be a great alternative. Many cities in the U.S., Canada, and Europe are a better value for travelers during their low season, offering both discounted hotel prices and fun winter events. Here are my top picks for winter city escapes.
In some places, people use winter as an excuse to hibernate. Not so in Reykjavik. The Icelandic capital city embraces cold weather with a host of festivals and fun activities. The Yuletide holidays are a big to-do, culminating in Þrettándinn (or Twelfth Night) on January 6, which features Elfin-inspired dances, bonfires, and more.
Late February brings the Winter Lights Festival, an annual celebration of the season's coming end. The entire city gets in on the action, with art galleries, cultural institutions, restaurants, and even sports teams scheduling events.
And foodies may want to plan their visit during the Food and Fun Festival, also in late February, where city chefs plan creative menus wholly prepared with Icelandic ingredients. There's even a chef competition at the close of the festival featuring a Supermarket-Sweep-style speed-timed grocery store excursion for local ingredients and a contest to determine which chef creates the best three-course meal (fish, meat, and dessert) from their purchases.
If a festival isn't your speed, you'll still find plenty to do around town. Purchase a Reykjavik Tourist Card and get admission to a variety of museums, the thermal pools, and free city bus rides. You'll also get free Internet access at the Tourist Information Centre in the old city. The card ranges between €13 and €25, depending on number of valid days (or approximately $19 to $37, check the latest conversion rates at XE.com.
Another advantage of visiting Iceland is its close proximity to the U.S.—compared to other European capitals, it's a short hop (roughly six hours) across the pond. Round-trip airfare from New York was quoted at $463 per person for late January travel. Start your lodging search at the Reykjavik tourism website, which includes listings from hotels, apartments, B&Bs, and hostels.
As the capital city of Canada, Ottawa has a lot to offer in any season. But by visiting in winter, you can take advantage of a host of free activities, both indoors and out.
Skaters should head to the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world's largest skating rink, where you can glide over more than four miles of ice. Skating on the canal is typically possible from late December to early March, depending on the weather. There's no charge to skate, although you will have to pay for skate rentals if you're not bringing your own.
Tobaggoners, rejoice! Ottawa has plenty of public parks with hills perfect for sledding. In fact, the National Capital Commission has even reserved three areas in town just for this purpose: Bruce Pit, Conroy Pit, and Green's Creek, all found within the Greenbelt recreational space. You can also find a few good sledding hills in the Old Ottawa South neighborhood, including Vincent Massey Park and the Experimental Farm hillside.
This winter, Ottawa's biggest draw may be its 30th annual Winterlude Festival, scheduled to run on the weekends between February 1 and 17, 2008. Most of Winterlude events and attractions are free. Among the highlights are a snow-sculpting competition, elaborate ice sculptures, and a giant winter playground known as Snowflake Kingdom.
And if you'd rather not be out in the cold, several area museums offer free or reduced-price admission during select periods each week. The National Gallery of Canada is free on Thursdays between 5 and 8 p.m., the Canadian Museum of Nature has an open-door policy on Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 12 noon, and the Canada Science and Technology Museum is free between 4 and 5 p.m. daily. Check with the museum you wish to visit to see if they offer any admission specials.