10 best cities to visit in winter

CNN  — 

Cold rains, icy sidewalks and gray skies can make winter travel a trial. But hot drinks, snowy slopes, frozen lakes and crisp, blue skies full of fresh air? That’s the kind of winter we can all wrap our mittens around.

And winter actually seems to bring out the best in some cities. In no particular order, here are 10 around the world that make for a great cold-weather destination:

1. Prague, Czech Republic

With its snow-capped spires and cobbled, winding streets, Prague is a fairytale city that remains relatively tourist-free in winter.

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 have been 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 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

From $331 per night
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Where to eat: Lokál Dlouhá. This restaurant is known for its svíčková na smetaně (beef tenderloin and cream sauce).

Lokál Dlouhá, Dlouhá 33, Prague 1; +420 222 316 265

What to do: After the Christmas markets (which run from early December to early January), the fascinating Estates Theatre (or Stavovské Divadlo) is where Mozart conducted the world premiere of “Don Giovanni” in 1787.

Estates Theatre, Ovocný trh/Železná Street, Prague 1, +420 224 901 448

2. Salzburg, Austria

Christmas carol "Silent Night" was first  performed outside a small chapel juts outside Salzburg.

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 sleep: The Stadtkrug. A beautiful four-star Austrian hotel with one of the city’s best roof terraces.

The Stadtkrug, Linzergasse 20, Salzburg; +43 662 873 545 0

From $263 per night
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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

What to do: Around two dozen Salzburg locations are featured in the enduring Hollywood musical “The Sound of Music.” The Sound of Music Panorama Tour (+43 662 883 211-0) will recreate the movie magic.

And you can never go wrong with a visit to the impressive Salzburg Cathedral, consecrated in 1628. Remains of the two predecessor structures are in the crypt.

Panorama Museum, Residenzplatz 9, Salzburg; +43 662 620808-730

Salzburg Cathedral, Domplatz 1a, 5020 Salzburg, Austria; +43 662 80477950

3. Tromsø, Norway

Tromso: One of the world's best spots for northern lights.

There are several reasons Tromsø, 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 Tromsø Museum, which is famous for its Sami exhibitions.

Where to sleep: Scandic Ishavshotel. Set right on the water, this hotel with a stylish, modern look offers memorable views.

Scandic Ishavshotel, Fredrik Langes gate 2, 9008 Tromsø, Norway; +47 77 66 64 00

From $199 per night
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Where to eat: Arcantandria is popular for its shellfish.

Arcantandria, Strandtorget 1, Tromsø; +47 77 60 07 20

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.

4. Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Dutch capital is far less crowded in the winter season.

In winter, Amsterdam’s museums are much less crowded, 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 is more than 130 years old. Children will love the spectacular performances.

Where to sleep: The beautiful five-star Seven one Seven boutique hotel on Prinsengracht is housed inside a former sugar trader’s residence.

Hotel Seven one Seven, Prinsengracht 717, Amsterdam; +31 20 4270 717

Where to eat: The cozy Restaurant Greetje has traditional Dutch food.

Restaurant Greetje, Peperstraat 23-25, Amsterdam; +31 20 7797 450

What to do: For shopping, smaller areas such as Haarlemmerstraat in the Jordaan, the Spiegelkwartier and the Negen Straatjes are better than the big department stores.

5. 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.

Where to sleep: Hotel JAL City on Toigosyo-mashi 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

From $158 per night
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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

What to do: The Zenkō-ji temple, built in the 7th century, ranks as the third-largest wooden temple in Japan.

Zenkō-ji temple, 491-i Nagano-Motoyoshicho, Nagano-shi; +81 26 234 3591

6. 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.

Visitors can try their hand at a 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 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

From $138 per night
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Where to eat: Dill Restaurant in the Nordic House cultural center. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason is passionate about local produce and the food here is some of the freshest in Iceland.

Dill Restaurant, Sturlugötu 5, Reykjavík; +354 552 1522

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

7. Berlin, Germany

From its pop-up ice skating rinks and sledding hills, to the outdoor concerts and markets, Berlin is buzzing with activity in the winter season.

Botanischer Garten is known for its magical Christmas garden, which lights up from late November until January.

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.

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

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.

What to do: Instead of hiding from Berlin’s cold winter, meet the weather head-on at the Tiergarten, a large public park close to major attractions. You can go curling and then warm up with some hot chocolate or hot mulled wine. This photogenic landscape, especially in winter, could prove to be a big Instagram hit.

Tiergarten is just below the Spree River in the Mitte borough of central Berlin.

8. Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa’s Winterlude festival is one of the world’s largest winter festivals and is famous for its ice sculptures, outdoor concerts and toboggan courses.

The Christmas Lights Across Canada scheme sees some of the city’s largest monuments and buildings bedecked with festive lights.

In winter, the city has one of the world’s coolest commutes – the 7.8-kilometer (4.8-mile) Rideau Canal Skateway, which is used by workers and students to get through the heart of downtown on ice skates.

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

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

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

9. Washington D.C., United States

Lighting up a white Christmas every year in Washington D.C.

If you’re arriving in Washington by rail over the festive season, you shouldn’t miss the annual Norwegian Christmas tree and giant wreaths at Union Station. In November and December, the ZooLights show at the National Zoo stays open late and stages spectacular light displays.

The White House and Lincoln Memorial look especially beautiful in the snow. During winter, the Washington Ballet stages performances of “The Nutcracker.”

Where to sleep: The Palomar is a small, vibrant hotel just a short walk from the White House, the National Mall and the Smithsonian.

Hotel Palomar, 2121 P St., Washington, D.C.; +1 202 448 1800

From $245 per night
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Where to eat: Equinox Restaurant specializes in what its head chef refers to as “organic, Mid-Atlantic cuisine.” He basically means fish, and lots of it.

Equinox Restaurant, 818 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.; +1 202 331 8118

What to do: ZooLights at the National 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, 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.; +1 202 633 4888

10. 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.

Princes Street Gardens is 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 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

From $326 per night
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Where to eat: Edinburgh isn’t just 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 more than 100 types of gin from which to choose.

One Square, 1 Festival Square, Edinburgh, +44 131 221 6422

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