Many travelers see a winter vacation as a trip to a warm and sunny land, yet a city covered in snow and ice can be paradise for those looking for discounts, fewer tourists and rugged adventures.
To discover the best winter vacation destinations, we analyzed our 500 Livability.com cities and identified the hottest winter scenes based on advice from experts including travel writers and tourism marketing professionals. With their help, we developed the following criteria: Ideal winter vacation cities must have a cold climate and the right conditions for skiing, sledding and ice skating, as well as great entertainment options such as restaurants, pubs, performance venues and recreation facilities. A city's overall appearance and accessibility were other factors the experts suggested we analyze.
Rather than focusing on high-profile ski towns, we looked for lesser known cities with their own defined identities beyond being "resort towns," in line with our expert advice that staying in a city instead of on top of a mountain not only gives visitors a more personal, authentic experience but can save them money, too.
"I love visiting cities in the winter, when there is snow on the ground and there are fewer tourists and more locals in evidence, and when prices are often reduced," says Meryl Pearlstein, a travel writer who founded the blog Travel and Food Notes.
"Mountains are usually all about the great outdoors, and cities in winter are about the great indoors," says Martha Chapman of Tourism Marketing International. "A winter city visit is a great time for you to feel like a local, take in attractions, shopping, and concerts along with the residents and not tons of tourists."
To narrow down the cities for our best winter vacation destinations list, we first identified places with average temperatures below freezing and annual snowfall more than 25 inches. Next, we looked for cities located near lakes that freeze over, trails for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing or hiking in snowshoes, as well as proximity to winter resort facilities. Then we surveyed each city's attractions, restaurants, downtown areas, hotel options and other types of entertainment, as well as its overall aesthetics.
Our selections have some of the best areas for outdoor winter fun, such as snow skiing, ice fishing and dog sledding, plus lots of great places to settle in, warm up and sample local flavor.