Where to travel in January: five of the best destinations
As the new year begins, travel is firmly on the radar and the options are countless. It’s a great month either to explore warmer climes or take note of the beauty to be found on your doorstep.
With much of the northern hemisphere hunkering down, January is one of the best months to strike out for greener pastures. Prices deliciously drop after the pocket-draining holiday season and crowds thin. While the cultural calendar remains packed with festivals and events: New Year’s Day brings celebrations in cities across the globe; Sundance Film Festival snakes across a mountainous city in Utah; the Dutch capital basks in technicolour for the Amsterdam Light Festival; and towering palaces of ice are erected for the frosty Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival.
This month, the cooler climes aren’t just dark and dreary. The Northern Lights paint Nordic skies and skiers slide across cotton-white slopes in spots like The Alps, Canada and the USA. The big freeze also makes for a dreamy European city escape with destinations such as Prague, Vienna and Budapest ideal for snow-dusted cathedrals, lamplit wanderings on cobblestoned streets, hearty grub like smoked dumplings and sinking into steamy mugs of hot chocolate.
But if you want to beat the winter blues with more vitamin D, Patagonia is a hiker’s playground, while the Caribbean and Central America are warm and mostly dry with watery activities like scuba diving and dolphin-spotting. Countries such as South Africa, New Zealand and Australia can become sweltering in high summer, but much of southeast Asia (particularly Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia) sunbathes comfortably beneath a dome of blue sky.
The stifling centigrade eases enough in winter to explore earth’s most extraterrestrial corner. Northern Ethiopia’s desolate Danakil Depression is one of the driest, hottest and lowest places on the planet, made up of salt lakes, neon yellow acidic springs, lava lakes and an outsize proportion of Africa’s active volcanoes. As the rains abate this month, previously mud-caked roads south to the remote Omo Valley become accessible again. Book a responsible tour with a local guide to visit these vast wetlands, home to many ethnic tribes.
Two of Ethiopia’s most important religious festivals are on this month’s calendar: Ethiopian Christmas and Timkat, an Orthodox Christian celebration that takes place from January 19-20 each year. Celebrating Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan, locals across the land submerge themselves in sacred pools. There are also feasts, street parties and processions of pilgrims. Holy events can be witnessed in Gondar, home to a grand 17th-century palace, and spiritual Lalibela, where nearly a dozen mediaeval churches are carved out of volcanic rock.
Sustainable tip: Around a third of Ethiopian households live below the poverty line, so a great way to support locals is by booking community-based tours. Small group SimienEcoTours’ options include trekking into the Lasta Mountains and staying in community lodges on the way, while Yared Tour & Travel have coffee-themed trips to the southwest, which include coffee ceremonies with locals.
2. Utah, USA
Catch a feature flick at America’s largest independent film festival. Sundance was founded in 1978 to showcase indie filmmakers and has since ballooned into an 11-day celebration of cinematic storytelling. Each January, the festival sprawls across snow-capped Park City, high in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Many iconic filmmakers have early roots in Sundance, including Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. The festival has also screened cult classics and big hitters like Napoleon Dynamite, The Blair Witch Project, 500 Days of Summer and Get Out.
When you’ve caught up on the year’s most anticipated movies, stretch your legs on the slopes. Utah is a winter sport wonderland with frequent fresh dustings across its craggy mountain ranges. Snowboard straight down to Main Street from Park City Mountain Resort or head to skiers-only Deer Valley Resort. Pow Mow (Powder Mountain), meanwhile, is the spot for night riding and remote snowcat skiing across 1,200 acres of off-piste powder.
Sustainable tip: Park City has set ambitious climate goals, planning to be net-zero carbon and run on 100% renewable electricity for City operations by 2022, and for the whole community by 2030. In the meantime, go green by hopping on one of the city’s complimentary zero-emission electric buses and supporting shops that stock locally made products. Browse cosmetics and glass art at Made in Park City or bourbon barrel-aged chocolate at small-batch maker Ritual. More locally owned pit stops can be found on Visit Park City’s website.
3. Somerset, England
Migrate alongside millions of starlings to Somerset this winter. Against crisp January skies, the swooping murmuration of birds is best witnessed in the Somerset Levels, an expanse of ancient lowlands that unfurl between the Quantock and Mendip Hills. Watch the aerial dance at the atmospheric Avalon Marshes or Ham Wall’s wetlands to witness the starlings simultaneously erupt from their roosting reedbeds at dawn and coalesce in clouds at dusk as birds of prey twist around them. Ring RSPB’s starling hotline for hot tips on where to spot the spectacle.
Once suitably frost-bitten, hang your woolly hat in Somerset’s largest city. Bath has drawn people to its healing hot springs since Roman times. Take to the mineral-rich waters at Thermae Bath Spa’s year-round rooftop pool, where views stretch across the golden city’s grand facades and rising hills as sultry fingers of steam rise from the water’s surface. If you prefer a more frigid dip, Britain’s oldest lido reopened in late 2022 and offers cold-water swimming sessions throughout winter.
Sustainable tip: Exmoor National Park was Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. Light pollution affects animals’ circadian rhythms, migration patterns and predator-prey relationships. By protecting biodiversity and conserving natural habitats, this vast expanse of open moorland, woods and coastline in Somerset and Devon remains an important ecosystem. A list of Dark Sky-friendly accommodation and tour operators can be found on Exmoor National Park’s website.
4. Northeast China
An ethereal world of ice emerges on the banks of the Songhua River each winter. Before it melts, chill out at the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival, the largest of its kind, open annually in northeast China from late-December to February. This crystalline city is replete with soaring snow sculptures, ice lanterns and illuminated full-size buildings crafted from thick blocks of ice.
Further frozen features can be found just south of Harbin in Jilin City, where trees are encased with a delicate film of rime each winter. Considered one of the four natural wonders of China, these trees lining the misty Songhua River become wrapped in filigrees of frost, transforming their branches into creamy clouds of ice. The city celebrates the phenomenon with the annual Rime Ice and Snow Festival each January with fireworks, ice skating and illuminated lanterns that float dreamily down the river by nightfall.
Sustainable tip: China’s rapidly expanding railway network added a new high-speed electric train from Beijing to Harbin in 2021. The 217mph bullet train is designed to operate at temperatures as low as -40C in China’s frozen north. The revolutionary train has a lightweight aluminium alloy body and a streamlined low-resistance design to help decrease energy consumption.
5. San Sebastián, Spain
This Basque coastal city may be a summertime hotspot for surf and sand, but San Sebastián in the off-season is just as alluring: the weather is mild, hotels are at their most affordable, its mega-concentration of Michelin star restaurants often have availability and one of the city’s biggest cultural events is on the calendar.
Take to the streets on January 20 for the eponymous San Sebastián Day, the city’s most anticipated festival. The citywide celebration includes traditional Basque meals, a jubilant gathering in Plaza de la Constitución to raise the flag and tamborradas. These drum parades involve thousands of drummers booming energetically through cobbled streets.
Keep the party going with a glass of strong stuff. January is the start of the area’s cider season. Head to a cider house, where tradition dictates filling up a glass at a freshly tapped barrel with the cloudy, dry tipple. Pair it with local dishes like salt cod omelette and Basque steak.
Sustainable tip: San Sebastián is laced with bidegorri (bike lanes), making it ideal for exploring on two wheels. It’s also extremely walkable, with many of the city’s main attractions reached via a 15-30 minute flat stroll underfoot. Book a free daily small group walking tour or an e-bike excursion with Go Local, who run sustainable tours that support the local economy.
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