Not had the chance to plan a proper winter vacation? No need to fret, there are several US cities worth visiting on the spur of the moment. You’d think destinations such as NYC or San Francisco would require hours of planning, but you’ll discover there’s much to do on an impromptu winter break. Read on and discover the places that make for a splendid last-minute winter escape in the US.
Once you’ve picked your perfect American winter destination Culture Trip’s Black Friday Sale offers incredible savings on the best places to stay, experiences and our own curated trips.
Winter, and especially Christmas, has to be the best time to visit NYC. Picture glamorous window displays and millions of twinkling lights. While you might need to pre-book for some of the festivities taking place around the city – such as the annual Radio City Christmas Spectacular by the Rockettes or the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop in Times Square – there’s also many things to do here that don’t require much planning. Think ice skating at the Rockefeller Center next to a giant Christmas tree, splurging on designer goods on Fifth Avenue or on sweet treats in Christmas markets, and building your own snowman in Central Park.
And when the holiday cheer wears off, New York provides plenty more reasons to stay. These include the Winter Jazzfest, leisurely carriage rides through a snowy Central Park, much-loved museums such as the Met or the Guggenheim, and dazzling Manhattan views from the top of the Empire State Building. If you’re visiting between late January and mid-February, you can also catch the Chinatown shows and parades celebrating Chinese New Year. And if you’re feeling brave, this is your time to ride the subway with little else on your bottom half but underwear. The No Pants Subway Ride has been a thing since 2005, taking place every year in the first half of January.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Hotel Hugo
This sophisticated boutique lies just west of the heart of SoHo, giving you the chance to explore all that Lower Manhattan has to offer. There are many more reasons to love Hotel Hugo, though; the modern yet cozy rooms, the stylish lobby with walnut panels and the Azul Rooftop Bar are some of our favorite. Don’t miss the American breakfast at Café Hugo.
As if Las Vegas wasn’t flamboyant enough, the city becomes even sparklier during the holiday season. There’s a variety of Christmas events to choose from, including the tree-lighting ceremony and holiday-themed live shows at the Fremont Street Experience, the fountains of Bellagio dancing to classic holiday tunes, the extravagant winter wonderland at Mystic Falls Park, and the Santa run – picture thousands of people dressed as Father Christmas, running through Downtown Las Vegas and along the Strip. Ice skating is possible, too, at the 4,200sqft (390sqm) Boulevard Pool of the Cosmopolitan hotel, which transforms into a proper rink for the season.
Adventure seekers and nature lovers will also be satisfied here. Get behind the wheel of a super-fast kart as part of the Gene Woods Racing Experience at the Las Vegas Sports Center, try skiing and snowboarding at Lee Canyon – yes, Las Vegas has a ski resort! – or take a day trip to the Grand Canyon and to the Valley of Fire State Park. It’s best to explore the latter’s stunning sandstone formations, ancient rock art and winding trails in the winter when temperatures are much cooler than in the summer. The bright-colored Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens is also a must-see. Each season, the conservatory team behind this 14,000sqft (1,300sqm) garden replants and repurposes the displays to celebrate Mother Nature’s seasonal changes.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Las Vegas Hilton
A huge poster of Elvis signed by the King himself welcomes you into the extravaganza that is Las Vegas Hilton – it makes sense since Presley performed for 58 consecutive sold-out shows here back in the day. All conceivable amenities are on offer, from seven outdoor swimming pools to a full-service spa, a gym and a soaking tub in the 3,300sqft (300sqm) penthouse suite on the top floor. That’s how you do Vegas.
Snowy Chicago is marvelous this time of year, whether you’re visiting in the middle of Christmas or in the slightly gloomier months that follow. The festive season is marked by traditional big-city events, including ice skating in Millennium Park, shopping amid sparkling lights in the Magnificent Mile district, washing down a pretzel with glühwein at the Christkindlmarket, and catching Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Civic Opera House.
And when Christmas is over, you can spend your days whizzing down the Soldier Field sledding hill or visiting the Gwen hotel to twirl on a synthetic-ice rink on the rooftop before cozying up by the fire pit, a signature cocktail in hand. Lincoln Park Zoo is open all year round, and winter is the time to make friends with the cute polar bears and penguins that live here. Gaze at the frozen Lake Michigan, warm up with a colorful cup of hot cocoa at the many bakeries and cafes around town, and take a stroll in an indoor botanic garden or conservatory – the free-to-enter Lincoln Park Conservatory is a must. Don’t leave without taking a selfie with the Cloud Gate sculpture, also known as the Bean, beautifully covered in snow.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Virgin Hotels Chicago
The hip Virgin Hotels in downtown Chicago mixes all-white interiors with pops of bright-red and playful design touches, such as Smeg minibars in every room and sliding doors within open-plan spaces to give privacy whenever needed. Enjoy the delicious brunch both indoors and al fresco at Miss Ricky’s and pass by the Cerise Rooftop Bar for luscious cocktails and live music.
Christmas markets, gallons of hot chocolate – best enjoyed at the LA Burdick Chocolates artisanal chocolatier – and many museums await here, placing Boston high on the list of cities you need to visit if you’re taking an impromptu trip in the heart of winter. The best way to experience all the amazing Boston sights is by following the illuminated Freedom Trail, a long winding path that passes 16 historic sites, including the Massachusetts State House, the Old State House and the site of the Boston Massacre. Alternatively, take the Old Town Trolley tour that offers a glimpse into the city’s fascinating past and present.
Once you’re done sightseeing, pass by Boston Common, the oldest public park in the country, where you can skate on the icy Frog Pond, or visit the 50-acre (20ha) Gore Place estate for snowshoeing. Catch a musical or a Christmas show in the theater district, marvel at the skyline from up high at the Prudential Skywalk Observatory and sip a strong cocktail in your heated igloo at the rooftop terrace of the Envoy Hotel. Sailing in the freezing waters of Boston Harbor feels more exhilarating than in smooth, balmy seas, so consider giving this a go, too, at the Boston Sailing Center in Lewis Wharf.
Hotels we love at prices you love: The Verb Hotel
It doesn’t get more rock and roll than the Verb, in the center of Boston. A feast for the eyes, this mid-century-style boutique includes rainbow-colored rooms filled with band posters and guitars. Expect to find all kinds of fun, music-related memorabilia, from pink turntables and classic vinyl records to signs reading: “If the music is too loud, you’re too old”.
Home to 28 dedicated ski areas and resorts, Colorado is a skier’s paradise, making the state an excellent choice for a last-minute winter break. While Aspen Snowmass is probably the most famous resort in Colorado, it’s worth visiting some of the lesser-known ones, such as Telluride, to avoid the crowds. Many more fun winter activities are on offer here, from ice skating and snowmobiling to ice fishing and snow kayaking. And if you’re more into hiking, 42 state parks and 12 national parks – as well as rivers, lakes and reservoirs – provide the ideal setting for a sunny trek. The state actually sees 300 days of sunshine, so this is your chance to get your vitamin D levels up. Good beer and wine also run freely in Colorado, which makes for many enjoyable winter outings.
As for Christmas, don’t miss the tree-lighting ceremony and Christmas market in Georgetown or the 12 Days of Aspen festival, which involves a series of concerts, theater shows and all kinds of street-entertainment events taking place around Aspen. Children – and, why not, adults – will love a ride on the Polar Express in Durango; an on-board reading of Chris Van Allsburg’s classic Christmas tale is included, paired with hot chocolate and candy.
Hotels we love at prices you love: The Hotel Telluride
If you’re looking for alpine luxury with easy access to the slopes, the Hotel Telluride will not disappoint. Snuggle up in the comfy sofas of the rustic lounge, sip hot chocolate or fine wine while gazing at the Rockies, and soak in the outdoor hot tubs for hours on end. The 850sqft (79sqm) Summit Suite also comes with a jacuzzi tub, a dining area and two private balconies.
San Francisco is a delight any time of year, but especially during Christmas when some of the city landmarks and sights are lit up – including Union Square, Pier 39 and Ghirardelli Square. Step into a refurbished cable car from the 1800s at night and prepare to be blown away by the infinite shimmering lights. The Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square, right next to Macy’s 83ft (25m) tree is also worth a visit. Theaters and opera houses abound here, so a Christmas musical is in order – make sure to catch a performance of the Nutcracker by San Francisco Ballet. On New Year’s Eve, fireworks light up the sky and dozens of parties welcome the New Year in style.
Still, there’s so much more to do here in winter. From comedy shows or Golden State Warriors basketball games, to walking tours and shopping at Pier 39, the fun never stops. Whale watching is also popular during the winter. Alongside gray, sperm and killer whales, you might spot dolphins, leatherback turtles and sea lions cruising the bay. Don’t forget to sample local wines from Napa Valley and Sonoma County at the various wine bars in town, or go hiking in Muir Woods amid 200ft (60m) tall, old-growth redwoods.
Hotels we love at prices you love: Hotel Zeppelin San Francisco
Vintage record players and pop-culture artworks set the tone in this grunge-chic boutique. Zeppelin celebrates San Francisco’s counterculture tradition through bold decor and dim lighting (especially at The Mantel Bar) which creates a mystical ambience fit for an underground concert. Every now and then, splashes of color echo the edgy spirit of the city. Don’t miss your chance to browse through the record library at the front desk.