The Bucket List: 7 Winter Festivals That Are Cool, Really

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Frigid temperatures, heavy snowfall and icy conditions are not characteristics typically associated with, nor desired when planning to attend an outdoor festival. Thus, some of the best festivals around the world take place during summer or in places where the weather remains pleasant year round. The seven festivals listed here, however, defy common convention and not only thrive in winter conditions, they rely on them.

1. Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival

Harbin, China

Photo by Syromaniac, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This month-long festival is arguably the most famous among its winter counterparts, and it’s also the biggest. Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is held annually in January when Siberian winds give the region an average high temperature barely above zero. Competitors and spectators gather from around the world to participate in the festival. Large-than-life sculptures and full-size buildings are created using snow and giant blocks of ice from the Songhua River, which are bathed in colorful lights after dark.

2. Ice Music Festival

Geilo, Norway

ice music fesitval1.jpg
Photo via Ice Music Festival

Set in the mountains of southern Norway, this festival celebrates the genre of ice music—and yes, apparently that’s a thing. Ice Music Festival takes place the end of January during the first full moon of the year and features performances by musicians who play glasial instruments. The festival’s facilities are also a testament to the versatility of frozen water, as they’re made exclusively from ice and snow.

3. BP World Ice Art Championships

Fairbanks, Alaska

BP World Ice Art Championships.jpg
Photo by frostnip907, CC BY-NC 2.0

For well over two decades, the BP World Ice Art Championships has invited artists from around the world to gather to create ice sculptures and exhibits in the spirit of friendly competition. Participating countries span from Gabon to Germany and include more than 100 creations.

4. International Snow Sculpture Championships

Breckenridge, Colorado

Snow Sculpture Championships.jpg Photo by David Shankbone, CC BY 2.0

Since 1990, teams of talented snow sculptors have gathered in Breckenridge to compete in the International Snow Sculpture Championships. Competitors have five days at the end of January to carve their works of art out of 20-ton blocks of snow using only hand tools. Once completed, the snow sculptures remain on display between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7.

5. Ice on Whyte Festival

Edmonton, Canada

Ice on Whyte Festival.jpg
Photo by Mack Male, CC BY-SA 2.0

Trading beads and booze for ice and snow and unlike all the other festivals on this list, Ice on Whyte is a Mardi Gras celebration. Among the activities at this outdoor festival are a giant ice slide, live music, as well as food and drink vendors. The main event is the ATCO Gas International Ice Carving Competition that takes place between Jan. 22 and Jan. 24.

6. Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo, Japan

Sapporo Snow Festival.jpg
Photo by David McKelvey, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With some two million visitors and lasting seven days, Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival is one of the best. This year’s festival will take place in early February, during which teams from around the world will compete in a snow sculpture contest, a tradition since the 70s. Snow is shipped in from surrounding areas, otherwise artists use what’s fallen locally, to create more than hundreds of sculptures.

7. Snowking Winter Festival

Yellowknife, Canada

Photo by GoToVan, CC BY 2.0

With a name like Snowking you know this festival must reign supreme. Taking place annually in Canada’s Northwest Territories on Yellowknife Bay, the frigid outpost makes for the perfect winter festival. The highlight of the festival is a massive snow castle. It takes crews months to plan and build and once complete, “becomes a month long bastion of community spirit, collaboration, innovation in the arts, entertainment for young and old.” The festival’s happenings occur within and around the castle, which includes a cafe, auditorium and plenty of impressive architectural features like turrets. It takes months to plan and build, and has been a winter tradition since 1996.

Top photo: Ice Music Festival

Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.