Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

What to Do in America’s 8 Coldest Cities This Winter

United States Travel Insider Guides
by Matthew Meltzer Nov 13, 2018

There’s an old expression people who live in freezing cold cities like to use. “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” they say. “Only bad clothes.”

Perhaps this is just something they tell themselves to stay warm while waiting for a bus in an Arctic wind. But if it holds true and cold places can still be fun with the right amount of layering, then lower hotel prices and smaller crowds make winter the perfect time to visit. Provided you invest in a good jacket first. From train rides through one of America’s most popular national parks to bumper cars on ice, here’s what to do in eight of our coldest cities this winter.

1. Chicago, Illinois

Chicago in winter

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Whenever someone who hasn’t endured winter on the Great Lakes takes a job in Chicago, their friends always snicker, “Wait ‘til they experience January.” While the icy months aren’t exactly teeming with street festivals and baseball games, they can still be a fantastic time to visit.

Other than New York City, no place in America dresses up for the holidays like Chicago. Whether you’re bundling up to stroll the holiday displays along Michigan Avenue or walking under the two million lights at the Lincoln Park Zoo, you’ll always be in the holiday spirit. The Brookfield Zoo has an equally impressive Holiday Magic celebration, with ice sculptures illuminated by more than a million LED lights.

If you want ice skating to be on your agenda, you’ve got two great options: the outdoor rink at Millennium Park (this is where layers come in) and the highest ice rink in the world at the Hancock Center.

Don’t sleep on indoor excitement here, either. The theater district is still up and running if you want to catch a holiday showing of Wicked. Or you can educate yourself at the Field Museum, Art Institute, Shedd Aquarium, and the Museum of Science and Industry with its Christmas Around the World seasonal exhibit.

2. Minneapolis, Minnesota

Mineapolis in winter

Photo: July Flower/Shutterstock

Want to test the limits of that whole “there’s only bad clothes” philosophy? Spend some time in the Twin Cities this winter, where despite the bone-chilling -5 degrees Fahrenheit average high in January, the best things to do are still outdoors. There’s ice climbing, which is a little like rock climbing for those who like the challenge of numb hands, and the Sandstone Ice Festival is one of the largest gatherings for it in the world. That happens January 4-6. Minneapolis also has some of the best snowmobiling sites outside of Maine, and cruising across the area’s frozen lakes at high speeds is an exhilarating dose of cold weather adrenaline.

On the other end of the thrills spectrum is ice fishing. While it’s not everyone’s definition of “exciting,” it’s absolutely a cultural experience and an entertaining way to spend a frigid afternoon. The Fishing for Ducks tournament on February 17 even carries a $20,000 prize.

Even if you’re not into challenging your body’s cold tolerance, there’s still plenty to do. Lest we forget the area is home to the Mall of America, the biggest mall in the United States that comes complete with an aquarium and Nickelodeon Universe. There’s both pro hockey and pro basketball with the Timberwolves and Wild playing all winter. You’re not too far from the SPAM Museum in Austin if you’re trying to be a little ironic. Or you can warm up in the Niagara Cave where it’s always a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

3. Boston, Massachusettes

Boston in winter

Photo: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

Aside from distinctive accents and Cheers, Boston is really known for three things: sports, beer, and history. Fortunately, all of those are still fully accessible during winter. Though it might be too prohibitively cold to walk the Freedom Trail, you can still visit spots like Faneuil Hall, The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, and the Old State House — even when the wind is whipping in off the bay. If you want to sample the local food scene, head to Boston the first two weeks of March when Dine Out Boston happens. You’ll be able to hit normally inaccessibly expensive restaurants with prix fixe menus for as little as $28 those two weeks.

If you like beer, you won’t find a better city for it on the East Coast. There are fully indoor tours at spots like Harpoon Brewery, Turtle Swamp Brewing, Lamplighter Brewing Co., and Cambridge Brewing Co. Plus, of course, the requisite stop at Sam Adams. Though you won’t get to enjoy the sunshine in a spacious beer garden anywhere, you can still spend a pretty solid afternoon sampling legendary Boston beers.

The Celtics and Bruins are both playing all winter, as are the Patriots if you can tolerate their fans. If you want to engage in sports yourself, the Blue Hill Ski Area offers $25 night skiing passes, and it’s a pretty respectable resort for a spot so close to a major city center. Or you can ice skate at City Hall Plaza, then across the frozen frog pond in Boston Common.

4. Providence, Rhode Island

Perhaps the most notable, photographed, and purely Providence event of the year is Waterfire, which is a fire-based art installation on the banks of the Providence River. Though it’s colder to walk the river path in the winter, the Christmas edition adds holiday lights for a true seasonal experience.

Aside from fire on the river, Providence is also one of only three cities in America to offer Ice Bumper Cars. Though it sounds like a bad day on I-95, this annual event at Alex and Ani City Center puts you in big, round cars that look a little like motorized inner tubes. Once inside, you get to bump, crash and generally aggravate everyone else in the rink. Basically, it’s your chance to be a real New England driver without any of the insurance premium repercussions.

The Alex and Ani Center also features an ice skating rink when it’s not being used for legal ice collisions, plus a winter festival complete with a Christmas tree lighting and winter lights market.

Providence is home to five different colleges. While the Rhode Island School of Design isn’t known for its sports programs, you can catch first-rate college basketball and hockey. Providence College, Brown University, and the University of Rhode Island all have NCAA teams.

5. Cleveland, Ohio

Anyone who’s watched a late-season Browns game might think of Cleveland in winter as the closest thing to American Siberia. And for Browns fans, that may be the case. But for visitors, Cleveland is actually one of the more surprisingly lively American winter destinations. At the Mill Stream Run Reservation, you can rent a toboggan and hit the ice chutes at up to 50 MPH, basically the high-speed winter alternative for when the roller coasters at Cedar Point are closed.

For more traditional outdoor thrills, hit the Boston Mills/Brandywine ski resort. It’s not exactly Tahoe East, but it does offer pretty decent downhill skiing in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. If you’d like to see the park from the comfort of a heated train car, the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad can take you on a journey through the 11th most visited national park in America in new California Zephyr cars. Try to catch it on one of the special beer tasting rides.

In the city, you can play pinball to your heart’s desire at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s pinball exhibit, which runs through the spring. Or hit the completely free Cleveland Museum of Art, which has a special exhibit on Georgia O’Keefe all winter. You can also hit the Jack Casino downtown if you think you can fund your trip with a few lucky pulls of the slots. Or check out the Lebron-less Cavaliers. Tickets are a little easier to come by these days.

6. Anchorage, Alaska

sled dogs run through snow-covered Anchorage streets for the Iditarod

Photo: Sean D. Pearson/Shutterstock

Going to see the northern lights is often an exercise in both one’s tolerance of cold and tolerance of boredom. While the lights are beautiful, they’re also often best seen from remote locations where there’s not much to do other than… watch the northern lights. Not the case in Alaska’s largest city, where the aurora borealis is visible through much of the season. Arctic Light and Great Land Adventures can take you on quick overnight excursions out of the city.

Once you’ve knocked the Aurora off your bucket list, you’ll have plenty to fill the rest of your trip. Anchorage is surprisingly temperate in the winter with daily highs near 20 degrees Fahrenheit, making for tolerable fat tire biking through the trails around the city. The nearby Alyeska Resort offers spectacular downhill skiing, plus a New Year’s downhill torchlight parade that’s one of the coolest NYE spectacles in the country.

Later in the winter, the Iditarod sled dog race runs the last week of February into the beginning of March, and even if you’re not planning to mush you can still enjoy the Rondy Festival that engulfs the city. Winter is also still high time for flightseeing and helicopter tours, and if you’d like to land on a glacier without any other tourists to mess up your pictures, winter in Anchorage is the time to do it.

7. Buffalo, New York

Niagara falls in the winter

Photo: Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

Nothing quite warms your soul like a giant plate of spicy wings on a frigid winter night, and nowhere will you find warm, comforting food like you will in Nickel City. Though no one here will talk up its winter months, Buffalo makes the most of its snow-packed season by offering stuff like the Ice at Canalside, a 32,000-square-foot skating rink right on the shores of Lake Erie. You can rent ice bikes and seamlessly pedal along the canal, assuming the winds aren’t blowing too hard.

Ever wanted to try curling? Even know what curling is? It doesn’t matter! The sport is best described as team shuffleboard on ice, and it’s a winter favorite that you can try at Ice on Canalside. Or you can just rent a pair of ice skates like a normal person and enjoy the frigid western New York weather.

The Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens present a nightly light show in late January and early February, in which the three glass domes light up in bright colors under the silver winter sky. Winter is also the perfect time to take a side day trip to Niagara Falls. While you won’t be able to take a boat out on the river, the mist freezes on the trees surrounding the falls, making for an eerie winter wonderland.

8. Detroit, Michigan

Ice skating rink during Christmas

Photo: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

The holiday season in Detroit is festive, starting with America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade traipsing through downtown. The Fox Theatre hosts a Radio City Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, and you can peep one of the best holiday lights displays in America at the Wayne County Lightfest.

Even once the holidays are over, Detroit winters can be a great time. The city’s suburbs throw big winter festivals through most of January, most notably the Rochester Fire and Ice Festival, which has nightly fireworks displays, ice carving contests, and a tube sled run. Not to be outdone, the Plymouth Ice Festival has a dueling chainsaws competition and interactive ice carvings.

Detroit is also chock-full of parks with frozen lakes, creating an entire city of free public ice rinks. Campus Martius Park also has a winter rink, if you want to skate in an urban atmosphere. The Pistons and Red Wings are playing, the zoo is open all winter, and if you head out to the Great Lakes Crossing Outlets you can hit the Sea Life Michigan Aquarium and Legoland Discovery Center Michigan in between shopping for socks and underwear.

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