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What to Do in the World’s Coldest Cities

Ski and Snow Insider Guides
by Matthew Meltzer Jan 21, 2020

The world is a cold, cold place.

This isn’t just something you learn the first time your parents refuse to send you money to cover that month’s rent. It’s also something you learn when you venture to the far-north reaches of the planet any time during the winter. But just because a place registers daily temps in the negative 40s doesn’t necessarily mean it’s boring. Sure, cars might not work and you’ll literally freeze to death if you’re outside in the wrong clothes for more than a few minutes. But there is still fun to be had.

We took a look at Crystal Ski Holidays’ analysis of the coldest cities in the world, and decided to find out what, exactly, there was to do in those cities besides freeze. So bundle up, bring some brandy, and take a look at what to do in the world’s coldest cities.

9. Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

Average winter temperature: -14.2

Nur Astana Mosque

Photo: akimov konstantin/Shutterstock

A little like a freezing cold Dubai, one of the newest capital cities in the world was built up mostly over the past two decades, and has the futuristic skyline to prove it. Walk from the Presidential Palace to the Khan-Shatyr Entertainment Center and you’ll stroll through glass towers and golden skyscrapers that feel miles away from a former Soviet republic. The most-photographed is Bayterek Tower, a 300-foot building topped with a metallic sphere you can take an elevator up to.

In addition to futuristic architecture, this city of 800,000 is also home to the world’s largest tent, which houses the city’s largest shopping mall complete with an indoor beach club. Take THAT Dubai ski hill! For a more historic look at the city, hit the National Museum of Kazakhstan, where you can see a full-scale display of the city’s skyline as miniatures, stand inside a yurt, and tour through its hall of gold.

8. Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

Average winter temperature: -21

Frozen river skiing

Photo: Thamyris Salgueiro/Shutterstock

The only freezing city where you can watch a major professional sporting event, Winnipeg is easily the most visited city on the list. Not only because it has literally dozens of daily flights to the US, but also because it far and away has the most to do. It’s home to the Winnipeg Jets, and as the only game in town their games are sold-out affairs with passionate fans. It’s also home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, an architecturally stunning showcase of some of the most atrocious practices in human history.

Though polar bears are a big attraction further north in Manitoba, you can see some playing around daily at the Assiniboine Zoo. Or go to the place they make loonies and toonies at the Royal Canadian Mint. If you dressed warmly enough, you can wander the Exchange District, an old industrial area with turn-of-the-twentieth-century buildings that now house boutiques, coffee shops, and restaurants. Or check out the city’s wide variety of street art, a surprising find in one of the coldest cities in North America.

7. Norilsk, Russia

Average winter temperature: -23.8

Panorama of October Square in the Norilsk city

Photo: Andrei Stepanov/Shutterstock

Imagine, if you will, a depleted, rust-belt industrial town at the height of the last recession, covered in a perpetual cloud of nickel and copper particles. That would be a summer day in Norilsk, billed as Russia’s most polluted city and also among its most unwelcoming. Like, literally: The city is off limits for run-of-the-mill international tourists, and is only accessible via specialized tours through Russia’s north.

But, if you do have a brutally cold former Russian prison colony on your bucket list, you’ll find a handful of things worth doing here. One of the old gulags still sits in the city’s old section, and offers a harrowing look into Stalin-era punishments. You can go back even further in time at the ethnographic museum, learning the story of the indigenous peoples who lived here before the ground was exploited for minerals. The central boulevard was modeled after Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, and offers a nice respite from the tenements. Though typically your tour guides will be escorting you everywhere, so what you do is going to be up to them.

6. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

Average winter temperature: -24.6

Golden eagle huntress

Photo: Pises Tungittipokai/Shutterstock

The largest freezing city in the world, Ulaanbaatar has all the amenities, restaurants, bars, and cultural attractions you’d expect in a capital city of 1.5 million. And as of this year, it should have a brand-spanking new version of the Chinggis Khaan International Airport to get you there easily. This modern city is one of the most unheralded destinations in Asia, where you can spend an afternoon strolling around Sukhbaatar Square and learn about the country’s history through its massive statues, Parliament Building, and Cultural Palace. Granted, if it’s below 25 that might not be a realistic option, so perhaps opt to peruse the 57,000 items at the National Museum of Mongolia.

Though nobody’s confusing Ulaanbaatar with Rodeo Drive, shopping here can still be a unique experience if you hit the State Department Store. The communist relic is now full of brightly colored capitalism, an exemplary display of the old ways fused with the new. You can also get a drink atop the Blue Sky Tower, complete with panoramic views of the expanding skyline. Or hit one of the city’s many hot pot restaurants, where you’ll cook meat and noodles in a boiling broth at your table.

5. / 4. Barrow, Alaska

Average winter temperature: -25

Arctic fox

Photo: Agami Photo Agency/Shutterstock

America’s northernmost city — and its coldest — sits just south of the Arctic Circle on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Also known as Utqiagvik, the town of 4,400 is accessible with daily flights from Fairbanks and in better weather via seaplane from other parts of the state. Barrow’s most notable landmark is the whale bone arch, a sort of Stonehenge of whale remnants erected as a tribute to the city’s whaling culture.

During winter you can take advantage of the 24 hours of darkness to hopefully get a show from the aurora borealis. Polar bears are also abundant near Barrow, and though they don’t come into the city you can take a tundra tour out to Point Barrow on the Arctic Ocean and spot some. You’ll also visit an old whaling camp and Arctic exploration base while you’re there. If you’d rather stay inside, you can visit the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium, and learn all about the environmental research going on in the area. Or spend some time at the Iñupiat Heritage Center, and learn about the native Alaskan people who make up most of the city’s population.

5. / 4. Harbin, China

Average winter temperature: -25

Ice and Snow World, Harbin

Photo: Haobo Wang/Shutterstock

Harbin might be the odd city on this list that’s actually better to visit when it’s cold, as February brings the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. Here you’ll find the largest celebration and display of snow and ice sculptures in the world, including entire cityscapes carved from ice and some sculptures reaching 150 feet tall. It draws 10 to 15 million visitors over its month-long run, making it one of the most-attended festivals in the world.

Aside from the festival, you can go skiing at Yabuli Ski Resort, one of the best ski hills in China. In town, you’ll find a city with heavy Russian and European influences, so much so that a stroll down Central Street feels a little more like Barcelona than northeast China. Except for the cold. If you’re all-in on ice, the Songbei Shangri-La Hotel offers the opportunity to eat in a restaurant made of ice, on chairs made from ice blocks. Or you can visit the snow-covered wonderland of the Dream Garden, where log cabins and stone huts make the whole place look like a fairy-tale.

3. Yellowknife, Northwest Territory, Canada

Average winter temperature: -27

northern lights at Aurora Village in Yellowknife

Photo: Ken Phung/Shutterstock

The largest city in Canada’s massive Northwest Territory is home to only 20,000 people, but its small-town charm is part of what makes it such a fun place to visit. The center of the action in Yellowknife is its Old Town, which only dates back to around the 1930s but is full of old log cabins and heated art galleries. You can grab a drink at the Woodyard Brewhouse to chat with locals, or stop for a selfie in front of the Bush Pilots Monument.

Yellowknife is, as you might imagine, also a top destination for viewing the aurora borealis, so much so that it has its own Aurora Viewing Village, complete with heated seats and cozy teepees. If the electrical storms aren’t cooperating, you can also create your own episode of Ice Road Truckers by taking a trip down the Dettah ice road, a frozen-over lake that connects Yellowknife to Dettah. You can also opt for indoor education at the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre, a small museum that teaches all about the history of the territory and why people decided to live there.

2. Yakutsk, Russia

Average winter temperature: -39


Photo: Valera Nevsky/Shutterstock

Those five degrees of warmth make a huge difference in livability, apparently, as the second-coldest city in the world boasts a population of nearly 300,000. That means you’ll not only find hotels here, but also a full-fledged international airport! Yakutsk offers a number of attractions too, from visiting the outdoor frozen fish market — and posing with frozen broad whitefish — to taking dog sled rides around the Chochur-Muran ethnographic complex.

Yakutsk is also a fantastic place to learn about the natural history of the far north, most notably at the Mammoth Museum, which features 12,000-year old mummified mammoths. You can find more mammoth stuff at the Museum of Local History of the North, specifically a full Tirekhtyakh mammoth skeleton, one of few in the world. A little bit out of town, visit the Lena Pillars, a UNESCO World Heritage site of jagged stone pillars set in the middle of a plain. The national park runs tours from the city, or you can attempt the two-to-five-hour drive yourself, part of which runs over a frozen-over Lena River.

1. Oymyakon, Russia

Average winter temperature: -44

Oymyakon, Yakutia, Russia

Photo: Tatiana Gasich/Shutterstock

The coldest inhabited place on Earth actually has a surprisingly robust tourism industry, made up mostly of people who want to go to the coldest inhabited place on Earth. It’s not exactly easy to make the trip to this village of 500 people set deep in Siberia, as most visitors come on guided tours of the Russian wilderness. There are no hotels, so you’ll have to arrange a homestay if you want to spend the night. And you’ll need to invest in some fur coats before you go.

For a tiny village, you’ll find a surprising number of things to do in Oymyakon, from jumping in the local “hot” springs to throwing boiling water in the air and watching it crystallize. You can also warm up in the local Russian bath, then run outside and jump in the snow to feel a hundred-degree temperature difference in a matter of seconds. But the most famous attraction is the Permafrost Kingdom, an underground crystal cave that’s actually warmer in the winter than the air above ground. It’s lit up in all sorts of trippy colors too, and has ice sculptures throughout.

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