National Geographic recently launched its Best Winter Trips 2017, with a range of options around the world, listed below. To help prospective travelers get a feel for the places on the list.
Check out the top 10 places to visit this season, and listen to the music that inspires locals and travelers alike in each destination.
10. Tonga: For the Adventure
Looking for a way-out-there adventure? Tonga—a remote archipelago—is perfect for backpackers, campers, and hikers who want to explore.
Why: Long before Tonga’s shirtless flag bearer (Pita Taufatofua) broke the Internet during the 2016 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies, this island kingdom earned buzz from no-frills travelers. Remote and relatively untouched, Tonga is pricey to reach (at least a thousand dollars round-trip from the United States) but fairly cheap to explore. Camping on a beach or in the forest is “always an option,” says Annika Wachter, who along with partner Roberto Gallegos spent 13 days biking and backpacking in Tonga. The pair, who co-founded the Tasting Travels project to promote bicycle travel as a model for cultivating empathy, spent little yet lived big on their Tongan getaway. Their adventures included jumping off a shipwreck, swimming in an underground lake, attending traditional church services and dance performances, and bunking in local homestays. Adds Wachter, Backpackers Townhouse has been our favorite accommodation in Nuku’alofa. Owner Yvette is a lovely woman who treats her guests like friends. We didn’t ask for camping, but she is that kind of person who tries to always make things possible.”
Where: The kingdom of Tonga is a 170-island archipelago in the southern Pacific Ocean between Fiji (about a two-hour flight northeast) and New Zealand (a three-hour flight south). There are 40 inhabited islands, and four major island groups: Tongatapu Group and ‘Eua in the south, Ha‘apai Group in the center, Vava‘u Group in the north, and the Niua Group in the far north. The main airport is located on Tongatapu, Tonga’s largest and most populous island.
When to Go: Visit in December and January for the off-season rates and relatively dry weather. November to February is the rainy summer season; however, December and January average only about 10 or 11 rainy days each.
What to Pack: Tongans dress conservatively. Most even swim fully clothed. Despite the fashion statement by the Olympic flag bearer, it’s illegal for men and women to go shirtless in public. Bathing suits and typical beachwear are permitted at private resorts. Wear T-shirts, and long shorts and skirts at public beaches. Cover shoulders and knees if attending a local church service.
Cheapest Route: Ride ferries between islands and rent a bike to get around on land. “Even the biggest of all islands, Tongatapu, is still small,” says Wachter. “If you start the day in Nuku’alofa, [by bike] you can easily make it in a day to the west or the east of the island. That means no bus schedules, more countryside roads to discover, no expensive tours.”
Activities Offered: Swim in the underground freshwater pool at Anahulu Cave. Island-hop by kayak, or rent a kayak by the hour or day. Go mountain biking, hiking, scuba diving, or snorkeling. Shop at local markets and learn more about local culture and traditions by attending a Sunday church service.
Currency to Bring: The official currency is the Tongan pa’anga. One United States dollar is worth about two pa’anga. Cash is more widely accepted than credit cards. Convert dollars (request small-denomination bills) at the currency exchanges located in the international terminal at the airport. Use ATMs to withdraw additional cash.
Cultural Tip: Time isn’t of the essence in Tonga. Operating on “Tongan time” means letting the day unfold without a set schedule. Being late is no big deal, so don’t expect people (or buses) to arrive on time.
Inside Tip: Sundays are reserved for church and family. Typically, shops are closed, and there’s no bus service. You may be able to find somewhere to buy food on a Sunday, but why chance it? Shop for provisions on Saturday to avoid going hungry.
09. Aarhus, Denmark: For Lovers of Art and Culture
This small city will have you soaking in the centuries with its historic medieval buildings to its modern-day university-town vibe.
Why: Denmark’s compact second city packs a mighty cultural punch. Less than a quarter the size of Copenhagen, Aarhus (pronounced AR-hoose) boasts an impressive collection of museums and cutting-edge architecture. (Check out the futuristic Isbjerget, or Iceberg, apartment complex in the city’s revitalized maritime district.) Named a 2017 European Capital of Culture along with Paphos, Cyprus, Aarhus is rich in history (the Vikings founded a trading post here in about A.D. 900) but easier on the budget, thanks to “a ton of free stuff to see and do,” says Kash Bhattacharya, founder of the travel website Budget Traveller. “Go for a stroll in the city’s green oasis, the beautiful Botanical Garden, which has an amazing collection of tropical plants and butterflies [inside its greenhouses],” recommends Bhattacharya, who became an Aarhus fan after exploring the city with his wife and kids in 2016. “Visit the Latin Quarter, which is easily the most Instagrammable neighborhood in the whole city, with its cobblestone streets and medieval timbered buildings.”
Where: Aarhus is in central Denmark on the East Jutland coast. The city is located 98 miles west of Copenhagen and 181 miles north of Hamburg, Germany. The closest international airport is Billund, about 60 miles southwest of the city. Another option is flying into Copenhagen and taking the train (about a three-hour ride) to Aarhus.
When to Go: February to mid-March offers the warmest (relatively) winter conditions, with temperatures in the 30s to low 40s. Go February 3-26 for Vinterjazz 2017, a live jazz festival featuring more than 500 concerts in a hundred venues—such as Aarhus—across Denmark.
What to Pack: Aarhus is a university town, so jeans, sweaters, and fleece will suffice. Prepare for cold (but rarely below freezing) and windy conditions, and some precipitation. Wear a warm, waterproof jacket (preferably with a hood) and waterproof shoes or boots. Bring a knit or fleece cap and gloves.
Cheapest Route: Walk and use public buses to get around. Buy an AarhusCard for 24 or 48 hours of free or reduced admission at most museums, plus reduced or free bus rides on select routes.
Soak in the Culture and Savor the Art: Kids under 18 get in to the big three for free: ARoS, the city’s flagship art museum with its rooftop rainbow panorama walkway by Danish-Icelandic conceptual artist Olafur Eliasson; the 2014 Moesgaard Museum (MOMU), known for its archaeology and ethnography exhibits and walkable, turf-covered roof (open to the public for walking, picnicking, and sledding when covered with snow); and Den Gamle By, an open-air, living history museum re-creating Danish neighborhoods in the pre-1900s, 1920s, and 1970s. One of the newest must-sees is the waterfront Dokk1, opened in 2015 and housing Scandinavia’s largest public library.
Currency to Bring: The official currency is the Danish krone. Currently, one United States dollar is worth about six kroner 75 øre. There are currency exchange offices at Billund and Copenhagen airports, and in Aarhus. Credit cards are widely accepted, and you can withdraw cash from bank ATMs in Denmark using Visa, Cirrus, or MasterCard.
Cultural Tip: There’s no such thing as a simple cup of joe in Aarhus. Coffee is an art form here, and some of the city’s most skillful baristas practice the craft at La Cabra, Great Coffee, and Emmerys.
Inside Tip: Fill up for less at the Aarhus Street Food indoor food-truck court. Vendors hawk a variety of international options—including Nordic tapas, English fish-and-chips, duck burgers, and Caribbean jerk chicken—and there’s ample picnic-table seating.
08. Saigon, Vietnam: For Rich History
Saigon—also known as Ho Chi Minh City—is a historically rich destination with Khmer roots and French colonial influences.
Why: Get a Vietnamese perspective on the “American War” (1965-1975) on a walking tour of South Vietnam’s former capital city. Saigon is a young city, and most residents have no direct experience with the war; however, the War Remnants Museum and other period sites are big draws for history buffs, says Anh Nguyen, organizing committee president of Saigon Free Walking Tours, which offers English-language tours led by university students.
“Since [the] United States removed the embargo against Vietnam in 1994, the number of Americans visiting Vietnam has been rising,” adds Nguyen. “Veterans come to Vietnam every year to find back memories of war. They want to meet soldiers on both sides of the war, people who played a part in their lives when they served in Vietnam.” Beyond the military history, admire the French colonial architecture of historic buildings like the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Central Post Office, and the rococo Hôtel de Ville.
Where: Saigon (official name: Ho Chi Minh City) is located in southeastern Vietnam, about a thousand miles south of the capital, Hanoi. The closest international airport (Vietnam’s largest) is four miles northwest of the city center.
When to Go: Visit from January 1 to February 2 for New Year’s Day and Tet, or January 27 to February 2 for Lunar New Year preparations, celebrations, and traditional holiday foods like bánh tét, sticky rice cakes filled with a mung bean-and-pork mixture and wrapped in an arrowroot or banana leaf. Prices are higher during Tet, so a post-holiday trip would be cheaper, albeit not as festive.
What to Pack: Travel light. Bring the essentials such as sunscreen, toiletries, and a couple changes of clothes, and shop for the rest. Buy jeans, athletic shoes, and T-shirts at bargain-basement prices on Nguyễn Trãi Street (nicknamed “Fashion Street”) and at the shops and stalls inside Saigon Square mall.
Cheapest Route: Stay in or near the city center. From here, you can walk or use metered taxis (safest bets are the white-and-green Mai Linh and the tricolored—white, green, and red—Vinasun cabs) to visit several Vietnam War-era historical attractions. For short trips—and the sheer thrill factor—the ubiquitous xe om (motorbike taxi) is the fastest way to go.
Get Your History Fix: At the War Remnants Museum, don’t miss the “Requiem” exhibit, a heart-wrenching collection of images taken by photojournalists killed during the Vietnam War. Built in the 1960s, Independence Palace, also known as Reunification Palace, has changed little since North Vietnamese Communist troops took control on April 30, 1975. Named a National Cultural and Historical Relic in 1976, the former South Vietnamese presidential residence is open for self-guided and guided tours. Watch the 25-minute introductory film, “The Independence Palace—The Historical Witness,” before viewing the exhibits. Get the long view—from the Bronze Age Dong Son civilization forward—of art and culture in Vietnam at the History Museum.
Currency to Bring: Cash is king in Saigon, and the official currency is the Vietnamese dong. One United States dollar is worth about 22,200 dong. Convert dollars at downtown banks, currency exchange offices, and jewelry stores, where exchange rates are typically better than at the airport. ATMs are easy to find in tourist areas.
Cultural Tip: “Don’t be too defensive if Vietnamese people ask about your age, marriage status, and income,” says Nguyen. “These are normal social questions, even for the first-time meeting.”
Inside Tip: The War Remnants Museum, Independence Palace, and many other historical sites close for an hour or more at midday (typically 11 a.m. or noon until 1 or 1:30 p.m.).
07. Marrakech, Morocco: For the Partiers
Enjoy a sultry and swanky night out in this culturally infused North African city.
Why: From pulsating dance clubs and swanky rooftop bars to clubby hotel lounges and elaborate Vegas-like venues, there’s no shortage of places to rock the casbah in Marrakech.
Bonus benefit: The ancient city’s blend of Arab, Berber, European, and African cultures adds a shot of the exotic to any night out. Get the party started at the nightly celebration—drum circles, live music, buskers, and sizzling kebab stalls—in buzzing Djemaa el Fna square. “Marrakech intrigues you, coaxes you in, and encapsulates every sense—the smells, colors, people, culture, the heat,” says London-based travel, food, and lifestyle blogger Emma Bates. “Whether you’re wandering through the food market in (Djemaa el Fna) square, uncovering trinkets in the souks, or being engulfed by the breadth of history within the city walls, there’s never a dull moment.”
Where: Marrakech is located in central Morocco, 150 miles south of Casablanca. The closest international airport is about two and a half miles southwest of the city center.
When to Go: Visit from mid-February to March for dry weather and comfortable temperatures.
What to Pack: The club crowd is a mix of international jet-setters, British and American expats, and young, fashion-forward locals. Dress up to go out. Cover up (no skimpy shorts, tops, or dresses) during the day to respect local Islamic mores. Pack a jacket or sweater since nightly temps can dip into the 40s.
Cheapest Route: Take a public ALSA bus from the airport to your hotel. From there, walk and use a calèche (horse-drawn carriage) to get around the medina (old city). Use taxis to get to Ville Nouvelle (new city), which boasts many of the trendy nightclubs and hotel rooftop bars.
Dance the Night Away: Pacha Marrakech, billed as the largest nightclub in Africa, packs in up to 3,000 partiers on weekend nights. Part of the international Pacha chain, the multilevel complex does have some local flair, such as a tented dance floor and a Moroccan salon with low-slung banquettes. At splurge-worthy Comptoir Darna, dance in the club or chill on the candlelit outdoor patio until 3 a.m. Arrive by midnight to catch the nightly floor show extravaganza. Show themes change, but expect belly dancers.
Currency to Bring: The Moroccan currency is the dirham. One United States dollar is worth about nine or 10 dirhams. There are currency exchange offices at the airport and in the city center. Ask for coins (one, two, five, and 10 dirhams) and small-denomination bills (20 dirhams).
Cultural Tip: Cover charges run about 200 dirham or $20—which includes one drink at top clubs like So Lounge. To pad your adult-beverage budget, save on food by filling up on lamb and beef kebabs, fresh-squeezed orange juice, and other cheap street eats in Djemaa el Fna square—but expect to pay a premium for nightclub beverages.
Inside Tip: Hear live Houariyat, Gnawa, and Amazigh music at the Café Clock Sunday Sunset Concert, held weekly starting at about 6 p.m. The café doesn’t serve alcohol, but decadent milk shakes using homemade ice cream are on offer (try the almond or date).
06. Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama: For Some R & R
Chill vibes, beautiful beaches, and afforable prices make this group of islands a perfect getaway.
Why: With nine main islands, 52 cays, thousands of islets, and a laid-back vibe, Panama’s Caribbean archipelago is tailor-made for chilling out. “Bocas del Toro is the perfect place to relax if you’re a beach bum,” says Randi Delano, co-creator of the budget travel website Just a Pack. “If you want to feel like the luckiest castaway in the world, take a 40-minute boat ride to stunning Cayo Zapatilla,” suggests Delano, who spent four weeks in 2016 living cheaply (on about $40 a day) in Bocas del Toro with her partner, Michael Miszczak. “This tiny and uninhabited island is home to the most gorgeous beaches I have ever seen. The sand is powdery white, the water crystal clear and calm. It’s the perfect place to spend the day doing nothing.”
Where: The archipelago of Bocas del Toro is located off the northwestern coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. The closest international airport is on Isla Colón in Bocas Town, the provincial capital and commercial hub.
When to Go: Visit in late February to March for drier weather, calmer seas, and pre-Lenten carnival parties, and December to February for surfing, night life, and live music in Bocas Town.
What to Pack: Must-haves beyond standard beach gear include insect repellent and sunscreen, a light rain jacket or compact umbrella (December to March is the wettest time of year), and a sweatshirt. If you have room, bring a mask and snorkel to avoid the cost and hassle of daily rentals.
Cheapest Route: Walking and water taxis are the main modes of transportation. On Isla Colón (the most developed island), walk, rent a bike, and use shuttle buses and taxis to get around.
Places to Chill: On the northwestern coast of Isla Colón, float in the shallow waters of Starfish Beach, named for the echinoderm sea stars lining the ocean floor below. In Bocas Town, take a drop-in yoga class (Monday to Friday, six dollars a class) at Bocas Yoga.
Currency to Bring: The official currency is the Panamanian balboa; however, the United States dollar is legal tender and more commonly used. Dollars and balboas have the same value, so there’s no need to exchange currency. Bring small-denomination bills, and withdraw additional cash (U.S.) from ATMs.
Cultural Tip: Learning a little Spanish ahead of time will make you feel more at home, says Delano. “While most local folk know at least a little English,” she adds, “they will appreciate the effort if you know a few basics of the local language.”
Inside Tip: On Isla Bastimentos, the 15-minute hike from the town of Old Bank to the Up in the Hill Organic Farm and Coffee Shop leads to all sorts of sweet rewards. The panoramic views of the sea and the surrounding islands are tops. A close second are the organic chocolate brownies, empanadas with chaya (tree spinach), fresh coconut milk, and other homemade or locally sourced treats served in the shop.
05. Quebec City, Quebec: For the Holiday Cheer
Winter charm and holiday spirit make this Canadian city the place to visit in winter
Why: Thanks to dazzling outdoor light displays and the Quebec Winter Carnival—the largest of its kind in the world—Quebec’s provincial capital basks in a holiday glow long after Christmas Day. Ride the illuminated Ferris wheel, belly up to the outdoor bars (and warm up on the heated terraces), and enjoy a free New Year’s Eve concert and pyrotechnic show at the Le Jour de l’An (New Year’s) festival, December 27-31. For a sure-fire infusion of holiday cheer any winter day, stroll the Historic District of Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage site, says Solmaz Khosrowshahian (aka the Curious Creature), a full-time food and travel blogger based in Toronto. “Cobblestone streets blanketed with powdery snow, frosted windows casting a warm glow, and the smell of freshly baked goods permeating through the air—these are some memories that come to mind when I think of Quebec City in the winter. It’s something out of a fairy tale, really: a small city bursting with old-world, European charm.”
Where: Quebec City is located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River in southern Quebec, 155 miles northeast of Montreal. (The Orléans Express bus and VIA Rail Canada run between Montreal and Quebec City.) The closest international airport is 10 miles west of downtown.
When to Go: Visit December 26 to January 8, January 13 to February 25, and March 3-11 for the annual Festi Lumière (Light Festival) at the Aquarium du Québec; December 27-31 for Le Jour de l’An; and January 27 to February 12 for the Quebec Winter Carnival.
What to Pack: If it won’t help keep you warm and dry, leave it at home. Must-haves include moisture-wicking base layers (leggings and long-sleeved shirts), fleece and wool sweaters, an insulated jacket or lined coat (preferably with a hood), wool mittens or lined gloves, and waterproof, warm, and comfortable boots—and a close-fitting knitted cap that Canadians call a tuque.
Cheapest Route: Buy a five-day Métrobus pass for unlimited public bus rides around Quebec City. Walk around the historic Upper Town and Lower Town districts. Ride the public Quebec City-Lévis ferry ($3.55 Canadian dollars one-way) to see iconic attractions like Old Quebec and the Château Frontenac from the water.
Best Places to Eat and Drink: Quebec City’s go-to winter brew—and the official drink of the Quebec Winter Carnival—is a potent concoction called Caribou. The official version, sold by the bottle in the SAQ (government alcohol commission) liquor stores, is a wine-liquor punch. Caribou cocktails and shooters served (warm or cold) at local bars typically contain some combination of vodka, brandy, sherry, and port, plus spices, and sometimes maple syrup. If you’re visiting during the carnival, buy a Caribou shooter (served in a molded-ice shot glass) at one of the ubiquitous ice-block bars erected for the festival.
Currency to Bring: The Canadian dollar is the official currency. One United States dollar is worth about $1.30 Canadian. There are currency exchange bureaus in Old Quebec and at the airport. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Cultural Tip: Brush up on some basic French phrases, such as “Pardon, parlez-vous anglais?” (“Excuse me, do you speak English?”) Quebec City may be less than a hundred miles from the U.S. border, but French is the official language.
Inside Tip: One of the cheapest winter thrills in Quebec City is night sledding at the Dufferin Terrace toboggan slide. Zip down the ice run at speeds of up to 43 miles an hour for only three Canadian dollars a run. The seasonal slide (open mid-December to mid-March or later, weather permitting) operates during the day too, but going after dark amps up the fun and fear levels.
04. St. Petersburg, Russia: For the Wintery Ambiance
The beauty and culture of this Russian city are never more pronounced than when it is covered in a blanket of snow.
Why: Winter in Russia’s enchanting imperial capital is a bit like stepping inside a snow globe. A dusting of white ramps up the fairy-tale factor of architectural gems like the immense Winter Palace and ornate Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ. Add ice on the Neva River (and on dozens of smaller frozen rivers and canals), and the winter scene is downright magical. Embrace the season by strolling the snow-covered Neva embankments and sledding, cross-country skiing, and skating in city parks. If you’re more into seeing snow than being out in it, that’s OK too, says St. Petersburg native Anastasia Druzhevskaya, co-founder, with Davide Castellucci, of the St. Petersburg Essential Guide. “Davide and I like warmth. So, like many people living in St. Petersburg, we enjoy staying home and in restaurants and cafés, and watching falling snow in the windows.” One of Druzhevskaya’s favorite vantage points for soaking in winter views is Piterland Aquapark. She adds, “Through glass walls you can see [the] snowy Gulf of Finland [while] staying in warm water.”
Where: St. Petersburg is located in northwestern Russia about 240 miles east of Helsinki, Finland, and roughly 430 miles northwest of Moscow. The closest international airport is 11 miles south of the city.
When to Go: Visit December 18 to January 10 for the 10th annual Christmas Fair, and December to mid-February to see the hometown Kontinental Hockey League pro team, SKA Saint Petersburg, in action at the Ice Palace.
What to Pack: Prepare for subzero temps, but don’t skimp on style. In fashion-forward St. Petersburg, winter attire is more urban chic (think heeled boots, fur hats and coats, and well-coiffed hair) than ski bum.
Cheapest Route: The metro is an affordable (roughly 50 cents a token) and warm way to get around. From the airport, take a city bus or shared minivan taxi to the nearest metro station.
Best Places to Enjoy the Winter Weather: Sled and ice-skate at Kirov Central Culture and Leisure Park. Cross-country ski in Sosnovka Park and along beaches of the Gulf of Finland. Walk the Neva River embankments. Visit a public banya (bathhouse) such as the old-school Yamskiye, or Coachmen’s, bani (former regulars include Dostoyevsky and Lenin) and the tourist-friendly Degtyarnye bani.
Currency to Bring: Russia’s currency is the ruble. Large banks typically offer the best exchange rates (one United States dollar is worth about 62 rubles). MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted, and there are ATMs in most hotels and metro stations.
Cultural Tip: Although Russians typically don’t “smile [at everybody] like Americans do” and can seem “cold and reserved,” says Druzhevskaya, tourists should feel welcome. “When you become friends with Russians they start smiling,” she adds. “In general, people here in St. Petersburg are polite, so they will be happy to help foreigners.” Her bonus tip for fitting in more like a local: “Order vodka shots [at restaurants] to heat up.”
Inside Tip: St. Petersburg’s Soul Kitchen hostel regularly ranks among the top hostels in Russia and Europe. Winter rates are about $50 a night for two people in a private room, and under $20 a person in a shared dorm room.
03. Tucson, Arizona: For the Food
Enjoy delicious food on a budget in a city that draws its culinary inspirations from Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American influences.
Why: Two words: Sonoran dog. Sure Tucson’s high-end fare fires up foodies. But it’s the affordable eats—like the aforementioned bacon-wrapped hot dog stuffed in a roll and smothered with pinto beans, salsa, onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, and mustard—that tempt the taste buds of epicureans on a budget. “For dining on the cheap, I typically hit up a taqueria, such as Tacos Apson, Maico, or Taqueria Pico de Gallo for tacos that can be less than two dollars,” says Adam Lehrman, head foodie and founder of the Tucson Foodie online food magazine. “Burritos hover around six dollars. And of course, Sonoran dogs are typically around two dollars, as well. And although it can be quite the gut bomb, the Indian fry bread taco at Café Santa Rosa is killer.”
Where: Tucson is located on Interstate 10 in southern Arizona, about 70 miles north of the United States-Mexico border. The closest international airport is about eight miles south of downtown.
When to Go: Winter is peak tourist season, meaning hotels fill up quickly at high-season rates. A more affordable option (space permitting) is camping at Catalina State Park. Avoid going from January 28 to February 12, when thousands of rock hounds are in town for the annual Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, the biggest show of its kind in the United States.
Cheapest Route: Since Tucson is spread across a 227-mile area, driving is the most convenient option. If arriving by plane, train, or bus, you can get around the university area, Fourth Avenue, and downtown on foot and by streetcar, bus, and bike. Consider renting a car for at least a day to expand your dining options.
What to Pack: Bring a bike or rent one. Tucson regularly ranks as a top place to pedal. The metro area boasts roughly 500 miles of dedicated bike lanes plus the Loop, more than a hundred miles of shared-use recreational paths.
Best Places to Eat and Drink: For an authentic Sonoran dog, Lehrman recommends BK Tacos, El Güero Canelo, and the El Perro Loco food truck. For a two-in-one taste sensation, try a BOCA Tacos y Tequila taco dog—a Sonoran dog wrapped in a homemade flour or corn tortilla or cabbage wrap. Add the chips-and-salsa appetizer to sample chef Maria Mazon’s daily lineup of fresh and wildly inventive salsas (think ingredients that can include blueberries, garbanzo beans, horseradish, and poblano peppers) served with fried-to-order chips.
Cultural Tip: Sample a variety of fare from local independent chefs at a Tucson Food Truck Roundup. Roundup days, locations, and featured mobile kitchens vary. Typically, the pop-up food court includes an eclectic mix of menu options such as empanadas, grilled cheese sandwiches, cupcakes, shrimp tacos, and platanos maduros (fried sweet plantains).
Inside Tip: South Tucson, downtown, and lower midtown are part of the city-designated Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food. The 23-mile area north of Valencia and south of Grant (look for the purple-and-white signs) is where you’ll find some of the most authentic Mexican eateries and bakeries.
02. Galle, Sri Lanka: For the Warm Weather
When the cold winter days seem endless, take comfort in this beachy getaway in a culturally rich destination.
Why: Beach season is in full swing on Sri Lanka’s sun-splashed south coast. With palm-fringed Indian Ocean beach towns to the north and south, the historic port city of Galle makes an ideal base for surf-and-sand day trips. Or stay put and wander around the narrow lanes and along the stone walls of Galle’s Dutch Old Town UNESCO World Heritage site. Galle is the favorite Sri Lankan destination of Kate McCulley, publisher of the Adventurous Kate blog promoting solo and independent travel for women. “I love Galle for a beach getaway because you have the culture of a Dutch-flavored colonial city surrounded by tropical beaches in every direction,” says McCulley. “The south coast is packed with activities, from whale-watching and surfing to shopping and nightlife, and I think it’s the part of Sri Lanka that has the most to do in a small region.”
When to Go: Visit January to March for beach weather (dry, sunny days and moderate temperatures), and January 11-15 for the Fairway Galle Literary Festival
What to Pack: Bring sunscreen, water shoes, and, if you have room, a mask and snorkel. Bathing suits and shorts are OK at the beach and pool, but bring more modest attire (covering your knees and shoulders) to wear in town and at religious sites.
Cheapest Route: From Colombo, take the Rajadhani Express train (Colombo-Matara line) to Galle. Walk and use tuk-tuks (three-wheeled, motorized rickshaws) to get around Galle. Ride buses and trains to visit south coast beach towns.
Best Places to Soak in the Sun: South of Galle, skip the tourist throngs at Unawatuna and hit the beach instead at Dalawella, Talpe, Weligama, and Mirissa. North of Galle, check out the beaches at Beruwala, Aluthgama, Bentota, and Induruwa, and catch a wave (or watch the big-wave surfers) at Hikkaduwa.
Currency to Bring: The official currency is the Sri Lankan rupee. One United States dollar is worth about 146 rupees. Withdraw cash from ATMs. Carry small-denomination bills (50, 100, and 500) to buy street food and drinks. If you use a credit card, generally accepted at bigger hotels, restaurants, and stores, check to make sure they didn’t add any (illegal) surcharges.
Cultural Tip: Cultural insensitivity could cost you (possible penalties include fines, jail time, and deportation), particularly when it comes to Buddhist images and artifacts. Don’t pose for photographs in front of Buddha statues or murals. Keep any Buddha tattoos covered at all times. Leave any T-shirts or accessories emblazoned with an image of Buddha at home.
Inside Tip: Save money by staying inland, away from the beach and outside the walls of the Dutch Old Town. From the Maggie Garden Hostel-Galle, ride a city bus or tuk-tuk about two miles south to the Old Fort.
01. Bansko, Bulgaria: For Sport Aficionados
This Bulgarian town is the perfect location for cheap winter fun on the slopes.
Why: Get more skiing and snowboarding for your buck in Bansko. Considered one of Europe’s best snow-sport bargains, the Pirin Mountain gateway town is particularly popular with first-time skiers and families. Don’t expect black diamond runs or the glitz of Zermatt. Even with a recent building boom resulting in new lifts, more hotels, and improved access to the slopes, Bansko remains true to its no-frills, low-cost roots.
“Bansko is a brilliant budget option and well served with snowmaking machines, which makes it a low-risk option if you should arrive when there’s no natural snow,” says Sean Cronin, a journalist for the National in Dubai who took his family of five (plus two grandparents) on a Bansko ski holiday last season. “(Bansko) manages to be both homely and edgy in a weird sort of way—like the picture-postcard frosted Alpine village but with a neon-lit sex shop plonked randomly on the main drag.”
Where: Bansko is in southwestern Bulgaria close to the borders with Macedonia and Greece. It is the gateway town to Pirin National Park. The closest international airport is about a hundred miles north in the capital, Sofia.
When to Go: Thanks to its snowmaking capabilities, Bansko’s ski season can run from mid-December until as late as May. Avoid school holiday weeks such as Christmas break, the first week in February, and Easter vacation, when hotels and slopes are packed with families.
What to Pack: There’s no pressure to dress to impress on the slopes. Bring a warm and weather-resistant ski jacket, waterproof ski pants (or warm pants made from quick-dry fabric), a thermal base layer (T-shirt and leggings), warm and waterproof gloves, at least two pairs of ski socks, sunscreen, and ski goggles or sunglasses. If you’re a first-time or infrequent skier, borrow skiwear from someone at home, or rent ski jackets and waterproof pants in Bansko.
Cheapest Route: The public bus from Sofia to Bansko costs only about seven dollars U.S. If you’re bringing skis or a snowboard, however, you may not be able to carry it on the bus. The Bansko Express shared shuttle is more expensive (about $29 one-way, reservations required), but you may want to splurge for the convenience. There’s no extra charge to carry winter-sports equipment, and the shuttle drops you directly at your Bansko hotel. In Bansko, walk and use taxis to get around.
Activities Offered: Skiing, ski lessons, and snowboarding are the main draws. Riding the gondola does double duty as an activity (scenic ride) and the way to get from Bansko to the two main ski areas, Chalin Valog and Shiligarnika. Most runs are beginner or intermediate. Shiligarnika has a dedicated snowboarding park with ramps, rails, and other man-made and natural terrain features.
Currency to Bring: The official currency is the Bulgarian lev. One United States dollar is worth about one lev 78 stotinki. Convert dollars at the currency exchange in the Sofia airport and at banks in Bansko. Use ATMs to withdraw additional cash. Large hotels and retail stores usually accept credit cards.
Cultural Tip: Unless you’re staying near the base of the gondola, it can be a hassle to lug your skis or board back and forth from your hotel each day. It’s worth the added expense to rent an equipment storage locker near the gondola.
Inside Tip: Save money by booking equipment rentals and lift tickets online before you go. A three-day ski package including lift pass and ski, pole, and boot rental costs only about $140 (U.S.) when purchased in advance.