Winter Festivals Around the World

Where to go to experience the best winter light festivals, snow festivities, winter solstice traditions and more.

Participating in a winter festival is a great way to liven up the season and chase away the cold-weather blues. Whether it’s a celebration of holidays, a winter solstice tradition, an entrancing light show or a carnival where people take to the streets in costume, these popular winter festivals will light up your blustery days—so start planning your trip now.

Winter festivals in the United States

When we think of winter carnivals, we often think of Europe. But you don’t have to leave the United States to experience some of the best winter festivals in the world. For example:

The Winter Lantern Festival is a vividly colorful, immersive show that you can catch in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cedarburg, Wisconsin’s Winterfest takes place in February and is a popular event for the region.

SoWa Winter Festival in Boston, set inside a historical power station, happens over the course of four weekends in November and December. Enjoy warm food, hot drinks and festive lights illuminating the winter darkness.

The Portland Winter Light Festival in Oregon, which happens in February, features interactive art installations, performances, art and community celebrations.

Winter solstice traditions

Winter celebrations such as winter solstice—or Yule, as it is called in some parts of Europe—have been around for centuries. The celebration takes place on Dec. 21 (or Dec. 22), which is the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

Early Europeans were uplifted by the winter solstice because it symbolically marked their survival of the worst of winter. From solstice on, they could take comfort in the fact that they were headed toward the salvation of spring.

Ancient Romans called their winter solstice bash Saturnalia, in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. Further north, ancient Norse people celebrated Yule from Dec. 21 through the rest of the month (as is still the case in Scandinavia).

Heading east, Dongzhi is China’s celebration of winter solstice, which may have begun as a harvest festival. 

Winter solstice festivals around the world

Stonehenge at sunset with a light dusting of snow on the ground iStock

Winter solstice celebration at Stonehenge

No one knows exactly why ancient people arranged the giant stones of Stonehenge exactly the way they did in the county of Wiltshire in England. But because of the particular way the sun is framed by the stones at sunset on the winter solstice, many believe it has something to do with that event. 

If you’re drawn in by this kind of lore, come celebrate the winter solstice by gathering out on the chilly Salisbury Plain.

Vancouver, Canada’s celebration of winter solstice with light

Every year on Dec. 21, the Secret Lantern Society of Vancouver puts on the Labyrinth of Light. Six hundred lanterns with beeswax candles are arranged in a labyrinth for an interactive experience that includes meditation and prayer. 

A winter solstice tradition in Brighton, England

Every winter solstice, the town of Brighton hosts the Burning the Clocks festival. In this unique community event, locals create paper lanterns—sometimes of frightening faces—that are paraded through the streets and then eventually thrown into a festively large bonfire. Others dress in costumes with clock faces. 

All this pageantry symbolizes that another year has gone by, and now there is renewed hope for the next one.

Winter lights festivals around the world

A magnificent festival of lights at Tivoli Gardens

If you’re searching for the spirit of Christmas, you may find it at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. From mid-November through New Year’s, Tivoli pulls out all the decoration stops to celebrate Christmas. Thousands upon thousands of colorful bulbs adorn Christmas trees and the rest of the gardens. There are also amusements to keep kids entertained—including appearances from Santa Claus. And throughout the garden, food stalls offer traditional yuletide treats. It’s a true winter wonderland.

Fête des Lumières in Lyon, France iStock

A Winter lights festival in Lyon, France

The Fête des Lumières in Lyon is a celebration of hope held every year in early December.

The festival has a long history. It is said that in 1643, the town leaders vowed to honor the Virgin Mary if she would spare them from the plague. Originally that homage was paid every year on Sept. 8 in the form of a procession to the chapel dedicated to her on Fourvière Hill, where a mass was also held and offerings made in her honor.

On Sept. 8, 1852, a new statue venerating the Virgin Mary was to be dedicated at the chapel, but because of bad weather and flooding, the dedication was postponed to Dec. 8, also the date of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. When that day arrived, weather was again an obstacle, but it improved as night approached. The people of Lyon were so pleased, they put candles in their windows.

That tradition has grown into a stunning winter lights festival as neighborhoods and roads throughout the city are adorned with lights.

Illuminating Christmas in Medellín, Colombia

The Alumbrados Navideños Festival in Medellín, in which the whole city is illuminated with millions of dazzling, colorful lights, attracts visitors from all over. The joyful festival takes place from early December to early January. The annual light display began in 1955 and is now a famous winter festival.  

Best ice and snow festivals around the world

The Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan

The Sapporo Snow Festival in the city of Sapporo on the Japanese island of Hokkaido is a popular and spectacular snow sculpture festival. People flock to the city to marvel at the magnificent ice sculptures and carvings. 

During daylight, you can make out the delicate handiwork of some of the ice sculptors competing from around the world. At night, the sculptures are illuminated by colorful lights. 

Taking place over the course of a week in February, more than 2 million people come to experience the Sapporo Snow Festival each year. 

An ice festival with music in Norway

Norwegian musician Terje Isungset is known for making music from natural materials, but ice? Yes, ice. 

If you want to experience something unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before, the Ice Music Festival offers just what you’re looking for. Now in its 19th year, the Ice Music Festival has earned international acclaim. Isungset collaborates with many other artists to play live music on instruments made of ice to create a truly special festival every February.

Maple leaf sculpture from the International Ice Carving Competition in Canada Lincoln Ho

An international ice-carving competition in Canada

Each year in January, the city of Edmonton, Alberta, holds its International Ice Carving Competition, now named Chiseled. There are plenty of opportunities to watch both visiting and local expert carvers demonstrate their craft, plus a chance to take lessons for those who would like to try it themselves. And, of course, you enjoy some of the most incredible ice carvings in the world.

The best winter celebrations of Carnival

Carnival (also known as carnevale or Mardi Gras) is celebrated a bit differently depending on whether you’re in Europe, South America, the Caribbean or the United States. 

In most cases, Carnival is a celebration to mark the beginning of Lent—the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter when many Christians traditionally fast and eschew festivities. The idea is this: Soon we will be depriving and denying ourselves, but for now we will eat, drink, be merry and parade in the streets. 

Various hanging Carnivale masks iStock

Depending on how you look at it, Carnival is part winter carnival, part welcoming of the spring and part all-out street party.

Boat parades, masks and more in Venice, Italy

Venice’s Carnival generally takes place over the two weeks leading up to the start of Lent. But the tradition is sometimes said to date to 1162, when the Venetian Republic was victorious over the town of Aquileia in a military battle. 

The tradition of people gathering and dancing in St. Mark’s Square grew during the Renaissance. Today, Carnival is celebrated at private balls around the city as well as in the streets, where locals dressed in costumes and wearing elaborate masks wander through the city while visitors are invited to share in this unique celebration.

 Celebration of Carnival in Cologne, Germany 

Looking for something a little more high-spirited? Head to Cologne for six “crazy days” of Carnival, when people let loose and enjoy each other’s company before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Don a silly costume; grab a beer; and revel in the live music, parades and good times.

Cologne’s Carnival is one of the biggest and best-known in Europe. It’s believed to have begun as a winter solstice celebration among pre-Christian Germanic tribes and then to have morphed into the pre-Lenten Christian festival.

Choose the winter festival that’s right for you.

With so many winter celebrations taking place around the world—from colorful festivals to glorious light displays—how will you choose the one that’s right for you and your family or friends? 

Talk with your trusted AAA Travel Agent, who can help you build an entire customized itinerary based on your preferences: When exactly would you like to go? What’s your budget? Which countries are you hoping to visit? Would you like to go with a group on a guided vacation or travel solo? 

Your AAA Travel Agent can help create a winter vacation that’s perfectly tailored to your wanderlust.

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