America's Best Cities for Winter Travel
This winter’s forecast: plenty of snow, and even more travelers fleeing it. That’s the message, at least, from Travel + Leisure readers.
Salt Lake City has long been a gold medalist in the winter category, but recently, the snowy Utah city — along with Denver — skidded down the mountain of readers’ affections, while warmer cities took their places, literally, in the sun. Compounding the situation, The Farmers’ Almanac is predicting another big-snow winter for parts of the U.S., especially the Northeast.
Snowbird-style bookings, such as Caribbean destinations with their all-inclusive resorts, are always popular during the winter.
Classic destinations such as Miami, Honolulu, and Phoenix, are as popular as ever. Winter-frigid Anchorage, Alaska; Minneapolis; and Chicago slipped to the bottom.
Not all T+L readers are dreaming of beachy paradises this winter. Instead, cities that boast mild winter weather, seasonal events, and often have the best prices of the year get a lot of love. Take Houston, for example. Its cooler temps, along with the world’s biggest rodeo championship, make the city come alive.
Sometimes, winter just means having the city to yourself. You’ll find shorter lines at theme parks in Orlando and San Diego, and you’ll have an easier time getting tables at hot restaurants in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“I’m not looking for 90-degree beach weather,” says publicist Sue Jean Chun, who regularly goes to New Orleans during winter—though not for Mardi Gras. “I just want a city where food and music are the focus.”
The Connecticut resident also enjoys another simple winter pleasure in the Crescent City: “being able to walk out the door in jeans and a light sweater,” she says, “rather than a puffy jacket and beat-up boots.”
No. 1 San Juan, P.R.
Readers don't underestimate the value of sunshine and stellar deals. The capital of Puerto Rico gets high marks for being affordable, but it’s more than just beach chairs and cocktails. New, celeb chef-helmed restaurants and design-driven hotels, such as El Blok, have made it a true luxury destination.
No. 2 Honolulu
The Hawaiian capital holds steady in its silver-medal spot, and still offers solid winter credentials: great weather, fabulous outdoor activities, and appeal for both couples as well as families. In fact, there's no season that readers don't like it here.
No. 3 Phoenix/Scottsdale
For travelers, this Arizona metropolis is all about timing. Between the holiday season and spring break, Phoenix ranks high, but its blistering summer heatwaves keep visitors at bay. A trip here usually means days spent shopping, golfing, or lounging around the spa, and then turning in early. Phoenix isn't exactly known for its nightlife.
No. 4 New Orleans
A little party called Mardi Gras is an obvious draw for travelers during winter. Before that, you can find festive holiday activities—the city has killer Christmas and New Year’s celebrations—as well as lower hotel rates and more elbow room in the world-class cafés. Come during the first week in January, and you’ll see local sports fans out in force: the city is again hosting the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
No. 5 Houston
This Sunbelt city is at its best during winter, with highs in the 50s or 60s—just the right temp for ice skating outdoors, open-air concerts, or, come early March, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (the world’s biggest). This is also the ideal time of year to enjoy the city’s well-regarded museums and classical music, as well as its decadent burgers.
No. 6 San Diego
Even though temperatures can easily reach 70, it’s still a fairly quiet time of year here—great for exploring the zoo, golfing at Torrey Pines, or jogging on the beaches (you just might want a wetsuit to swim or surf). San Diego is also hailed as one of the safest and cleanest cities in the country.
No. 7 Miami
It’s the forefather of American snowbird vacations, and dazzles visitors with its mojitos and good-looking locals. While the Florida city has seen a major hotel and restaurant boom, thanks in part to the wizardry of Alan Faena, it’s still a little daunting to some travelers. In the first week of December, the city is completely and brilliantly consumed by Art Basel.
No. 8 Salt Lake City
This Utah city may no longer hold the crown for the best wintertime city, but it's still a prime hub for skiing, in part because you can stay downtown and drive a half hour to the slopes. During winter, you’ll also save a lot of money by staying in the city—one way that Salt Lake won the silver in affordability.
No. 9 Orlando, FL
According to readers, winter is the best time of year to come here—whether you get the kids out of school, or if you just want to chat up Mickey on your own. Indeed, in this favorite city for family vacations, winter means shorter lines at the theme parks—with the exception of the weeks right around Christmas and New Year’s. Orlando also receives high marks for its variety of hotel options.
No. 10 Savannah, GA
Valentine’s Day is a big draw in this charming city—no surprise, since Savannah has always been a favorite for romantic getaways. Otherwise, winter is low season in this history-rich city, with thinner crowds and lower prices. Another draw? Savannah's famous cocktail hour. Head here for New Year’s Eve, when the loose open-container laws are on full display in the quaint town squares.
No. 11 Santa Fe, NM
The offbeat New Mexico destination offers the best of both kinds of winter vacations: fairly mild temps in the piñon-scented city, and access to the slopes at Ski Santa Fe, Taos, or Angel Fire outside town. Cold or not, it’s the perfect place to chill out, readers said: the city is ideal for cultural getaways and peace and quiet.
No. 12 San Antonio, TX
During the highly ranked holiday season, thousands of luminarias and 1.8 million LED lights will line the Riverwalk, and the festivals keep on going throughout the winter—even including the annual draining and maintenance of the river in January, celebrated as the Mud Festival. Winter’s the prime time for sports fans to see the city’s beloved Spurs, but T+L readers also like the city for being a solid value, with great flea markets.
No. 13 Las Vegas
In this wild-weekend city, where visitors often can’t tell whether it’s day or night outside, the season may not be a huge issue. While cool desert temps are nice, people are most interested in two winter holidays: extra-crazy New Year’s Eve celebrations, and whirlwind Valentine’s visits to the local wedding chapels.
No. 14 Los Angeles
Despite all the beaches and reliable sunshine, L.A. has only recently gained traction as a popular winter destination for frosty East Coasters. Other than it being Hollywood awards season, winter’s usually a good opportunity to find a hotel deal in this otherwise pricey city. While you may be tempted to spend away those savings while shopping, L.A. also has its more affordable luxuries: the burgers and street food.
No. 15 Denver
The Mile High City will always be a magnet for winter sports lovers, as well as travelers who like to use it as a base for day trips. For fewer ski crowds, check out Wolf Creek, near Salida, or head to Estes Park for great sledding, snowshoeing, and skating. Après-ski here means enjoying the local microbrews.
No. 16 Austin, TX
Austinites joke that their city has two seasons: summer and January. Cold snaps never last long, though, making winter a good time to hear live music and have the jogging paths around Ladybird Lake more to yourself (though never completely to yourself—these fit locals like to exercise). Winter ends with March’s almost-too-popular South by Southwest conference, which can highlight the city’s less-than-plentiful hotel options.
No. 17 Charleston, SC
It’s chilly enough for your favorite scarf and sweater, but still mild enough to soak up the quaint antebellum atmosphere. Readers like strolling here, whether it’s along the Battery or store-lined King Street, which probably helped the city score fans for its shopping and antiques. You might find the most winter crowds around Valentine’s Day, since voters ranked the city No. 1 for romance.
No. 18 San Francisco
Aside from the occasional conventioneers, San Francisco stays quiet during winter, with temps rarely below 50 during the day and more personal space in the galleries and theaters. During January, you can sample the city’s renowned fine dining during SF Restaurant Week—11 days of prix fixe deals at mroe than 125 local restaurants—which is a nice enticement in this generally expensive city.
No. 19 Nashville
Thanks to the music scene, Nashville has its fair share of edge. But the traditional holiday season also offers lots of country-Christmas charm, starting with tours of Belmont Mansion and Belle Meade Plantation, and wrapping up with football at the Music City Bowl. Of course, having some of the country’s friendliest locals never hurts.
No. 20 Memphis, TN
During winter, this Tennessee city is enjoying low season, so you get great hotel rates and lighter crowds for the highly ranked live music and barbecue. While some winter travelers come for the University of Memphis basketball season, others flock here for a big Memphis-specific holiday in January: the annual birthday celebration for Elvis Presley, who would have been 77 in 2012.
No. 21 Philadelphia
It may not be balmy, but winter’s a good time to avoid crowds at the Liberty Bell, and have more space at the other top-ranked historic sites and museums. Philly is also a great town for stick-to your-ribs cuisine, be it fine dining or burgers. Come for New Year’s, and you can wake up to the fabulously flamboyant Mummers Parade on January 1.
No. 22 Providence, RI
While some snowbirds flee during winter, this cultural hub has figured out ways to entice other people to stay—and visit. Its well-liked galleries host plenty of events, and restaurant week comes in January. If you don’t mind a chill, you can skate outdoors at the Bank of America Center.
No. 23 New York City
Despite those bracing wind tunnels, or the chilly reception visitors may get from the supposedly unfriendly locals, New York City still scores high for its winter scene. Christmas here is unabashadly festive, and January brings sales to this pricey city and fewer crowds in those ultra luxury stores.
No. 24 Dallas/Fort Worth
These Texas cities get icy spells during winter, but that’s still wildly preferable to coming here during summer, according to readers. Locals love watching sports, and winter offers plenty of chances to see the NHL’s Stars and the defending NBA champion Mavericks.
No. 25 Atlanta
Winter is actually travelers' favorite time of year here—perhaps because the season tends to be relatively tame—and the city is a business-travel magnet year-round. Otherwise, readers’ favorite things here were two great tastes that don’t necessarily go together: barbecue and luxury shopping.
No. 26 Portland, ME
Even though Portland is much-loved in the summer, the New England city has plenty of accessible winter fun—sledding, cross-country skiing, and ice skating on actual lakes. Some of the city’s best qualities are both year-round and indoors: checking out the highly ranked antique stores, or touring the famed Shipyard Brewery to taste why the city is famed for its microbrews.
No. 27 Kansas City, MO
Passionate sports fans don’t care if it’s blustery outside: they’re inside the local sports bars watching college hoops. You can also find exceptional values in the city known for both affordability as well as barbecue. And here’s some reassurance if the roads get slick: locals have a reputation for some impressive driving skills.
No. 28 Washington, D.C.
If you want to explore the Smithsonian without hordes of tourists and school groups, this is a fine time to visit our nation’s capital. Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting your rental car to start in the cold: the city has extremely accessible mass transit.
No. 29 Seattle
Drizzly? Yes. Dark? Sure. But the Northwestern city has actually become increasingly popular for travelers. Besides, winter is a fine time to sample the nation’s best coffee. There’s also something to be said for all that quality time inside: Seattle residents are known for being smart and tech-savvy.
No. 30 Baltimore
Even though those famous crabs are out of season, the city’s waterfront gets lit up throughout the holidays, and travlers love the city's best indoor diversion: the local classical music.
No. 31 Portland, OR
What's not to love about this outdoorsy city? Walkable streets, fabulous street food, and a pet-friendly attitude—but its soggy winters put a damper on all of that. Pack enough Gore-Tex, however, and you can still find your way to the acclaimed coffeehouses and micropubs.
No. 32 Boston
The original Boston Tea Party happened on a December night in 1773—proof that you can whoop it up here during the winter. But today’s preferred activities are inside and near a heating vent: cheering at a Bruins or Celtics game, or taking in a concert.
No. 33 Anchorage
Granted, most people would rather come to this Alaska city during summer, to soak up the midnight sun and majestic landscape. But the cold, snowy winter is high season for seeing the eerily beautiful northern lights—especially if you get a little outside the city. Hotel rates plummet this time of year, too, a nice perk in a city that's otherwise extremely expensive.
No. 34 Minneapolis/St.Paul
Visitors love the Twin Cities for being clean and safe, but such niceties can go only so far when the mercury dwindles this much. If you know how to dress for the cold, though, you can join the locals tobogganing in Theodore Wirth Park, or snap great pics in front of the frozen Minnehaha Falls. Then get inside: both the local theater as well as the live music scenes are hot.
No. 35 Chicago
People tend to take the whole “Windy City” notion pretty literally. While it may not sound that enticing to stroll outside and admire the top-ranked architecture during winter, it’s hard to argue with that soul-warming pizza, a night of theater, or a cozy evening in a bar. To embrace the weather, go to one of the Polar Adventure Days on the city’s Northerly Island, featuring craft-making, folk music, snowshoeing, and meet-and-greets with Siberian huskies.