10 best cities for a winter holiday

Story highlights

  • Ottawa's Winterlude festival is one of the world's largest winter festivals, famous for ice sculptures and toboggan courses
  • In Nagano, Japan, the Togakushi Minzoku-kan folklore museum has a display about real-life ninjas who trained there
  • Halusky is one of Salzburg's local delicacies -- it's made of pieces of dumpling mixed with fried bacon

(CNN)Incessant rain and gray skies make winter a trial.

But hot drinks, snowy slopes, frozen lakes and a bright yellow sun?
    That's the kind of winter we can all wrap our mittens around.
    The cities below aren't necessarily the greatest in the world, but come winter they could just convince you that they are.
    Prague, Czech Republic
    With its snow-capped spires and cobbled, winding streets, Prague is a fairytale city that remains relatively tourist-free in the winter months.
    The stunning architecture looks even prettier under a sheet of snow, with one of the most beautiful areas being the old town, with its turrets and Romanesque vaults.
    Gas street lamps were recently reinstalled throughout the city center, adding a romantic hue to evenings.
    Cafes here are ideal for escaping the bitter cold.
    "Choco Cafe is a great place to take a breather from intense winter sightseeing in the Old Town," says travel blogger Girl in Czechland. "It's full of comfy chairs and sofas and they have more than a dozen kinds of hot chocolate, which is so thick you can practically stand a spoon up it in it."
    Where to eat: Lokál Dlouhá. This recently opened restaurant is known for its svíčková na smetaně (beef tenderloin and cream sauce).
    Lokál Dlouhá, Dlouhá 33, Prague 1; +420 222 316 265
    Where to sleep: The Alchymist Grand Hotel & Spa is a five-star, fairytale-like hotel in the middle of the city's old town.
    The Alchymist Grand Hotel & Spa, Tržiště 19, Prague 1; +420 257 286 011
    What to do: After the Christmas markets, there's the fascinating Estates Theatre, where Mozart conducted the world premiere of "Don Giovanni" in 1787.
    Estates Theatre, Ovocný trh/Železná Street, Prague 1, +420 224 901 448
    Salzburg, Austria
    With its backdrop of Christmas carols and traditional markets, this is a perfect city for a winter break.
    "Silent Night" was performed for the first time in the Oberndorf on the outskirts of Salzburg on Christmas Eve in 1818.
    The city's main market is held in the shadow of Salzburg's Hohensalzburg fortress, but the one held in Mirabell Square is especially popular with foodies who come to sample local delicacies such as halusky -- pieces of dumpling mixed with fried bacon.
    Where to eat: Goldener Hirsch on Getreidegasse. This beautiful restaurant is located within the old stables of an historic townhouse. The food is traditional Austrian with a modern twist.
    Goldener Hirsch, Getreidegasse 37, Salzburg; +43 662 80840; everyday noon-2 p.m. and 6:30-9:30 p.m.
    Where to sleep: The Statkrug. A beautiful four-star Austrian hotel with one of the city's best roof terraces.
    The Statkrug, Linzergasse 20, Salzburg; +43 662 8735 45-0
    What to do: For a different perspective on Christmas, there's the Christmas manger exhibition at the Panorama Museum on Residenzplatz between November 29 and January 12.
    Panorama Museum, Residenzplatz 9, Salzburg; +43 662 620808-730; everyday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
    Tromso, Norway
    Tromso: One of the world's best spots for northern lights.
    There are several reasons Tromso, known as the capital of the Arctic, is great in winter.
    It's widely regarded as Norway's most beautiful city and is a base for spotting the northern lights.
    There are also several fascinating museums, including the Polar Museum, which offers an insight into the history of Arctic expeditions, and the Tromso Museum, which is famous for its Sami exhibitions.
    Where to eat: Arcantandria is famous for its shellfish.
    Arcantandria, Strandtorget 1, Tromsø; +47 77 60 07 20
    Where to sleep: The four-star Clarion Post Bryggen has rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows offering stunning views.
    Clarion Post Bryggen, Sjøgata 19-21, Tromsø; +47 77 78 11 00
    What to do: The Perspektivet Museum on Storgata offers fascinating insight into Norwegian art.
    Perspektivet Museum, Storgata 95, Tromsø; +47 77 60 19 10; Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
    In winter, Amsterdam's museums are empty, making it the time to visit attractions such as Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House.
    Built originally to house a circus, the Royal Carré Theatre celebrated its 125th anniversary last year.
    Children will love the spectacular performances, which feature athletes from Russia, North Korea and China.
    Where to eat: The cozy Restaurant Greetje has traditional Dutch food (and lots of Delft).
    Restaurant Greetje, Peperstraat 23-25, Amsterdam; +31 20 7797 450; Sunday-Friday 6-10 p.m., Saturday 6-11 p.m.
    Where to sleep: The beautiful five-star 717 boutique hotel on Prinsegracht is housed inside a former sugar trader's residence.
    717 boutique hotel, Prinsengracht 717, Amsterdam; +31 20 4270 717
    What to do: For Christmas shopping, smaller shopping areas like Haarlemmerstraat in the Jordaan, the Spiegelkwartier and the Negen Straatjes are better than the big department stores.
    Nagano, Japan
    As a former Winter Olympics host city, Nagano is a great base for exploring nearby ski resorts.
    The natural hot springs on the outskirts are perfect after a day on the slopes.
    Beautiful, snow-covered Buddhist temples are worth checking out, as is the Togakushi Minzoku-kan folklore museum, which has a fascinating display about the ninjas who once trained there.
    A top tip?
    "The Neapolitan pizza oven place Qui E La that's tucked away in a private home in the woods is an even more welcome refuge in winter," says travel blogger Una, founder of lets-get-lost.com.
    Where to eat: Fujiki-an on Daimonkikyocho is famous for its soba noodles, which they've been making since 1827. A picture menu makes ordering easy.
    Fujiki-an, 67 Daimonkikyocho, Nagano, +81 26 232 2531
    Where to sleep: Hotel JAL city on Toigoshomach is a short walk from both the train station and one of Japan's largest wooden temples -- in winter the views over snowy Nagano are breathtaking.
    Hotel JAL city, 1221 Toigosyo-machi, Nagano-shi, +81 26 225 1131
    What to do: The Zenkō-ji temple, built in the 7th century, ranks as the third largest wooden temple in Japan.
    Zenkō-ji (Japanese only), 491-i Nagano-Motoyoshicho, Nagano-shi; +81 26 234 3591
    Reykjavík, Iceland
    Hiding within -- great geothermal pools.
    Although Iceland's capital city is one of Europe's coldest spots, it has plenty of natural hot springs to warm up in (some of the best can be found in the Nauthólsvík area of the city).
    The annual Winter Lights Festival, which takes place in February, is a spectacular celebration of winter.
    Visitors can try their hand at a wide range of winter sports or skate on the city's Tjörnin pond.
    Many cozy coffee houses sell rúgbrauð -- locally made, dark, sweet bread.
    "An unmissable experience during winter is a dip in one of the city's many outdoor geothermal swimming pools," says Eliza Reid, who co-founded icelandwritersretreat.com with Erica Green.
    "There is no experience quite like soaking in these naturally warm waters with snowflakes tickling your nose. Each swimming pool has its own character and everyone has their favorite."
    Where to eat: Dill restaurant in the Nordic House cultural center. Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason is passionate about local produce and the food here is some of the freshest in Iceland.
    Dill restaurant, Sturlugötu 5, Reykjavík; +354 552 1522
    Where to sleep: Owned by Icelandair, Hotel Marina is a quirky, colorful hotel located in one of the city's trendiest districts.
    Hotel Marina, Myrargata 2, Reykjavik; +354 560 8000
    What to do: Harpa, the city's concert hall, was designed by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson to reflect Iceland's geology. It's constructed from more than a thousand glass blocks.
    Harpa, Austurbakki 2, Reykjavík, +354 428 5000; daily, 8 a.m.-midnight
    Christmas markets are the ideal destination for pre-Christmas retail therapy -- Berlin has more than 60 of them.
    With a miniature train and puppeteers, the market at Mitte at the Rote Rathaus is ideal for children.
    Gendarmenmarkt is famous for handcrafted goods.
    The two-story Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store on Kurfürstendamm is worth a look -- it's open all year and sells everything from tree decorations to candles. With 6,500 restaurants, 546 ice cream parlors and cafes and 2,800 snack stalls, there's no shortage of food.
    Where to eat: Die Berliner Republik on Schiffbauerdamm is famous for both its food (currywurst is a specialty) and its beer, thanks to a stock exchange-style system that allows drinkers to purchase their favorite beer at rock bottom prices -- if they order at the right time.
    Die Berliner Republik, Schiffbauerdamm 8, Berlin; +49 30 308 722 93.
    Where to sleep: Hotel Otto on Knesebeckstraße is located in one of Berlin's quieter neighborhoods. Extras include a "surprise" button in the lift.
    Hotel Otto, Knesebeckstrasse 10, Berlin; +49 30 54 71 00 80
    What to do: Dr Pong on Eberswalder Strasse much surely rank as one of Berlin's quirkier bars. It's a ping pong bar, and perfectly sums up Berlin's underground nightlife scene.
    Dr Pong, Eberswalder Strasse 21, Berlin; Monday-Saturday 8 p.m.-late, Sunday 7 p.m.-late (May-September), 6 p.m.-late (October-April)
    Ottawa, Canada
    Ottawa's Winterlude festival is one of the world's largest winter festivals.
    It takes place from January 31 to February 17 and is famous for its ice sculptures, outdoor concerts and toboggan courses.
    The Christmas Lights Across Canada scheme, which runs from December 5 to January 7, sees some of the city's largest monuments and buildings bedecked with Christmas lights.
    From January, the city has the world's coolest commute -- the 7.8-kilometer (4.8-mile) Rideau Canal Skateway, which is used by commuters, schoolchildren and students to get through the heart of downtown.
    Where to eat: Restaurant 18 on York Street serves traditional Canadian cuisine with a modern twist.
    Restaurant 18, 18 York St., Ottawa; +1 613 244 1188
    Where to sleep: The Arc Hotel is a warm winter retreat, with a fire in the lobby and complimentary champagne for guests.
    Arc Hotel, 140 Slater St., Ottawa; +1 613 238 2888
    What to do: From January to February visitors can take a spin on the world's largest natural ice rink -- the Rideau Canal.
    Rideau Canal Skateway; +1 613 239 5234; January-February
    Washington D.C.
    Lightning up a white Christmas every year.
    If you're arriving in Washington DC by rail, you shouldn't miss the enormous, 30-foot Christmas tree that was given to Union Station by the Embassy of Norway.
    In November and December, the ZooLights show at the National Zoo opens late and stages spectacular light shows.
    The White House and Lincoln Memorial look especially beautiful in the snow.
    During winter months, the Washington Ballet stages performances the Nutcracker.
    Where to eat: Equinox Restaurant specializes in what its head chef refers to as "Mid-Atlantic cuisine." He basically means fish, and lots of it.
    Equinox Restaurant, 818 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.; +1 202 331 8118, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday-Thursday 5:30-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5:30-10:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30-9:30 p.m.
    Where to sleep: The Palomar is a small, vibrant hotel just a short walk from the Whitehouse, the National Mall and the Smithsonian.
    Hotel Palomar, 2121 P St., Washington, D.C.; +1 202 448 1800
    What to do: Zoolights at Washington Zoo kicks off on November 29 and lasts until January 1. Half a million individual LEDS turn the popular attraction into a veritable winter wonderland.
    Zoolights at the Zoo, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.; +1 202 633 4888; November 29-January 1, daily, 5-9 p.m.
    Edinburgh, Scotland
    Cobbled streets, a beautiful castle and lovely public gardens make Edinburgh a beautiful city any time of year, but in winter it's breathtaking.
    Since the launch of Virgin Atlantic's Little Red service, it's even easier to get to, with regular flights between other UK cities including Manchester and London.
    Princes Street Gardens are transformed into a wonderland, complete with ice skating rink, enormous Christmas tree and a Ferris wheel, all in the shadow of the castle.
    On the edge of the city, Arthur's Seat is the perfect location for a winter walk and the views from the top are second to none.
    Where to eat: Edinburgh isn't about haggis and tatties. For fine dining, One Square restaurant and bar at the Sheraton Grand on Festival Square is the place to go. The drinks menu is impressive -- there are 52 types of gin to choose from.
    One Square, 1 Festival Square, Edinburgh, +44 131 221 6422; daily, 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
    Where to sleep: Jurys Inn is a short walk from the main attractions and offers a warm Scottish welcome.
    Jurys Inn, 43 Jeffrey St., Edinburgh; +44 131 200 3300
    What to do: A tour around Edinburgh's underground vaults is a great way to learn about the city's fascinating history.
    Princes Street Gardens, Princes Street; +44 131 529 7921