With city skylines glittering with illuminations and enough festive delicacies to make everyone loosen their belt buckles a few notches, the Christmas season is upon us once again. The only question is: Where should you spend the big day?
Whether you want to soak up the atmosphere of Europe’s vibrant Christmas markets, visit Santa’s hometown, attend Christmas mass with the Pope or enjoy a picture-perfect white Christmas, here are 25 of the best places to spend Christmas around the world.
With elaborately woven Advent wreaths, nativity displays and sparkling tree ornaments, Austria’s handcrafted Christmas decorations are just one of the reasons to visit its celebrated Christmas markets. Salzburg, birthplace of Mozart, delivers a traditional Christmas, with classical music concerts, carol singers and an atmospheric market piled with traditional baked goods, candied fruits and roasted chestnuts. Vienna’s main Christmas Market is one of the oldest in Europe, dating back to the late 13th century.
Home to Europe’s original “Christkindlmarkt” Christmas market, Germany is one of the continent’s most festive destinations come December. Visit the oldest Christmas market in Dresden, dating back to 1435; Munich’s huge Marienplatz market and Tollwood Winter Festival; or Berlin’s hugely popular Christmas market, held on the grounds of the stunning Charlottenburg Palace. Make sure you tuck into some Lebkuchen – delicious spiced gingerbread – washed down with a cup of Glühwein – hot mulled wine.
3. London, England
The inspiration behind Charles Dickens’ famous novel “A Christmas Carol,” London has no shortage of festive traditions to keep visitors entertained over the holidays. Expect a spectacular array of Christmas lights brightening up the city streets, vibrant Christmas markets stretching along the Thames River and Hyde Park, magical Santa’s grottos, and ice rinks popping up below the city’s landmark buildings. Don’t forget to try a healthy portion of Christmas pudding, too – the festive dessert dates back to medieval England and the English still swear by their secret recipe, served doused in flaming brandy.
Spend Christmas in the world’s most romantic city, Paris, where the city lives up to its nickname, the City of Light, with a glittering display of Christmas lights – don’t miss the animated window displays at department store Galeries Lafayette. Go ice skating or shop for gifts beneath the iconic Eiffel Tower. Visit one of the many Christmas-themed markets, or take a ride on the giant Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde. If you’re in France over the holidays, pay a visit to the “capital of Christmas,” too – Strasbourg hosts the country’s most renowned Christmas markets, dating back to 1570, and draws visitors from all over Europe.
5. Rome, Italy
Even if you’re not a regular churchgoer, Christmas Eve is one night of the year when people all over the world descend on their local church for the special Midnight Mass service. And where better to celebrate the birth of Christ than at the Vatican in Rome, with Pope Francis himself? Papal audiences with the Pope featuring readings, a blessing and prayers are held year-round in St. Peter’s Basilica, the colonnaded square in Vatican City, but few services are as memorable as Christmas mass. Held at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, then again at 12 p.m. on Christmas day, make sure you book your tickets in advance if you don’t want to miss out.
6. New York, USA
One of the world’s biggest holiday destinations, New York’s most famous tourist spots get a yuletide makeover in the run-up to Christmas. Check out the dazzling Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, with its 30,000 twinkling fairy lights; stroll along Fifth Avenue, where the shops are aglow with festive window displays; go ice skating in Central Park; or marvel at Macy’s fantastical Santaland. If you really want to get in the mood, get tickets to one of the city’s famous Christmas shows – the Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Spectacular, with its living nativity, flying Santa and, of course, the Rockettes, is a huge favorite, as is St. John the Divine’s Winter Solstice.
Book a New York City Christmas Tour.
7. Boston, USA
It’s hard to believe that back in the 17th century Christmas was banned in Boston, but the city has wasted no time in making up for it. With holiday markets, candlelight carols, frozen lakes for ice skating and an abundance of festive shows, there’s plenty to do in the Massachusetts capital. Don’t miss the Faneuil Hall tree, a glittering marvel dripping with ornaments; historic Christmas trees on Boston Common; or Stone Zoo’s ZooLights, with its mind-blowing lightshow.
8. Budapest, Hungary
The ancient buildings of Budapest shimmer with Christmas lights in the winter months, making it one of the most atmospheric times to explore the historic city. Warm up frosted digits in a steaming outdoor pool at one of the city’s famous bathhouses, tuck into home-made strudel and töki pompos (oven-baked doughballs) at one of the city’s many Christmas markets, ice skate on the Városligeti-tó lake with the towering Vajdahunyad Castle as backdrop, or go sledging with the locals at Normafa park.
Book a Budapest Christmas Markets Tour.
9. Brussels, Belgium
In a country famed for having not just one, but two Santas (St. Nicholas and Pere Noel), it’s no surprise the capital of Belgium makes the most of its yuletide celebrations. Brussels’ annual Winter Wonders features two kilometers of stalls, a giant Ferris wheel and fairground, a sledding track, an ice rink and a series of music concerts and lightshows on the famous Grand Place. There’s even a food plaza where you can sample local specialties like sweet Belgium waffles, croustillons (sugared doughnuts) and, of course, plenty of delicious Belgian chocolates.
10. Madrid, Spain
Madrid is in the mood for a fiesta during the Christmas season, and there’s plenty to keep visitors entertained, from the Christmas market in Plaza Mayor to a number of pop-up ice rinks. The Christmas season officially starts on December 15, marked with a huge show in Plaza de Oriente, and culminating with the vibrant Three Kings Parade on January 5, an annual procession of colorful floats and a walking nativity.
11. Tallinn, Estonia
For a unique Christmas away from the crowds of Western Europe, there’s plenty of Christmas spirit on offer in the Estonian capital. Tallin’s medieval old town is dusted in snow, with nighttime lanterns lending an atmospheric glow to the cobblestone streets. It was here, back in 1441, that the world’s first Christmas tree was erected and holiday traditions still include the legendary tree on Town Hall Square. Classical concerts, an international Christmas market, an outdoor ice rink and the Estonian Open Air Museum’s elaborate Christmas Village are mainstays of the holiday season.
12. Prague, Czech Republic
A city of stunning Gothic architecture and quirky folkloric traditions, Prague during Christmas is unlike any other. Even the city’s renowned Christmas markets bring a touch of local traditions, with giant hams spit-roasting in the town square, choirs singing carols by candlelight, wooden huts selling hand-painted ornaments and local handicrafts, and ladies in traditional dress frying trdelník – sugary Czech pastries. There’s even a stable in the Old Town Square, with sheep, goats and donkeys set around a traditional nativity.
Read more about Christmas in Prague.
13. Montreal, Canada
Montreal’s strong French influence brings a European feel to the Quebec metropolis, and the island dazzles with Christmas cheer in the winter months. The annual Santa Claus Parade, a tradition dating back to 1925, and the French-themed Défilé de Noël festival, both see the streets lined with colorful floats; ice skating rinks and Christmas fairs pop up all over the city; and weekly fireworks light up the night sky from the Old Port. Best of all are the French-inspired foods – candied chestnuts, buttery pastries and mugs of steaming hot chocolate.
Book a Christmas tour in Montreal.
14. Chicago, USA
Midwesterners know a thing or two about celebrating Christmas, and Chicago is a hub of wintry fun in the holidays. Take in the famous Macy’s Christmas tree and animated window displays; practice your ice skating moves in Millennium Park; walk the Magnificent Mile where an incredible one million lights adorn the shop windows; and check out the Museum of Science and Industry’s incredible “Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light” exhibition, with it’s falling snow and forest of tinsel-draped Christmas trees. The biggest event of the season is the traditional German-style Christkindlemarket, where a Santa House, tree lighting ceremony, carol concert and lantern parade provide plenty of entertainment, and vendors sell food and wares from around Europe and America.
15. Alaska, USA
If you’re after a guaranteed white Christmas, Alaska is the perfect choice, with a packed schedule of winter carnivals, dogsledding races, ice-carving competitions and community snowshoeing expeditions. Head to the North Pole, where the entire town is a festive dream – wander down the magical Santa Claus Lane, where even the streetlamps look like candy canes; meet the “World’s Largest Santa Claus,” a 42-foot statue; feed carrots to Santa’s reindeer; and snap a photo in Santa’s sleigh. Of course, don’t forget to visit the Santa Claus House and pay your respects to the bearded fellow himself.
With the snow-blanketed Alps and world-class ski resorts, Switzerland is a country made for winter. Christmas markets are held in Geneva, Lausanne and Vevey, and a mountaintop Christmas village hosts a Santa’s grotto and reindeer park in Montreux. Alternatively, check out Europe’s longest street of Christmas illuminations in Basel, or hit Zurich’s five Christmas markets, where you can pick up boxes of freshly made Nidelzältli toffees to munch on beneath the famous Singing Christmas Tree on Werdmühleplatz. If it’s spectacular views you’re after, the Mt. Pilatus Christmas Market is Switzerland’s highest at a breathtaking 2,133 meters.
17. Copenhagen, Denmark
Despite the diminishing daylight hours, Denmark is anything but gloomy at Christmastime, and Copenhagen’s famous Tivoli Gardens are transformed into a winter wonderland, with a Christmas carnival, an ice palace and a vibrant light show over Tivoli Lake. Admire the twinkling Christmas lights on Europe’s longest pedestrian shopping street, Stroget. Or take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the picturesque Kronborg Castle and wander the shimmering Nyhavn canal with a glass of glogg (mulled wine with cinnamon, raisins and almonds) and bag of freshly baked ebleskiver (apple dumplings).
18. Medellin, Colombia
Colombia might not be first on your list of festive destinations, but the unassuming town of Medellin is home to one of the world’s most spectacular lightshows – a month-long carnival drawing revelers from all over the world. Over 16 million lights twinkle from the city skyline throughout December and early January, with pyrotechnic light displays over the Santa Elena River, rainbow-colored water fountains, lively street parties and a giant 79-foot Christmas tree.
Few destinations are as quintessentially Christmasy as Lapland, spread across the Arctic region of northern Norway, Finland and Sweden and the unofficial home of Santa Claus. Mr. Claus is in residence throughout the holiday season at Finland’s world famous Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi, where you can take a ride on a reindeer sleigh, get your postcards stamped at Santa’s very own post office, watch Santa’s elves at work and even learn to bake gingerbread with Mrs. Claus. It’s not the only place to catch Father Christmas in action, though – he also runs a number of similar villages dotted throughout northern Norway and Sweden.
Read more about holiday markets in Sweden.
20. San Francisco, USA
San Francisco is up for a party any time of year, but come the holiday season, the celebrations are electric. Ice skate beneath the 83-foot Christmas tree in Union Square, add a symbolic origami paper plane to the World Tree of Hope at City Hall, check out the lights in the tree-lined Huntington Park and along the historic Picardy Drive, or take the kids to visit the infamous Tom and Jerry Christmas tree on 21st Street.
Book a San Francisco holiday tour.
21. Lake Tahoe, USA
Transforming from a summer getaway into winter wonderland, Lake Tahoe provides plenty of snow-filled holiday fun. Burn off those extra Christmas calories with skiing, snowmobiling and ice skating. Or simply take a moonlight sleigh ride along the lake.
Book a Lake Tahoe Christmas tour.
22. Vancouver, Canada
Vancouver’s green spaces are taken over with celebratory events throughout the holidays, with a winter wonderland stretching across the famous Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, the Festival of Lights at VanDusen Botanical Garden, and Stanley Park’s Bright Nights’ transformation into a replica of the North Pole. Not only that, but Grouse Mountain hosts a reindeer farm, Santa house and ice-skating rink along the mountaintop; a procession of decorated ships cruise along the harbor for the Carol Ships Parade of Lights; and an enormous Santa Claus Parade is held in the city center.
Book a Vancouver Christmas tour.
23. Sydney, Australia
Sunbathing on Christmas Eve and celebrating Christmas day with a barbecue on the beach might seem odd to those from the Northern Hemisphere, but don’t be fooled into thinking a hot Christmas can’t be festive. Sydney’s iconic skyline blazes even brighter during the holiday season, with the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge, Opera House and Town Hall all part of the Christmas lightshow. Christmas markets and carol singers liven up the streets, and the annual Santa Fest at Darling Harbour sees Mr. Claus arrive by boat beneath an explosion of fireworks. Don’t wear yourself out partying Christmas Day, though – you won’t want to miss the huge sendoff for the annual Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race on Boxing Day.
Book a Sydney Christmas tour.
If the Christmas fun feels like its over all too quickly, try spending the holiday season in the Philippines. Boasting the world’s longest Christmas season, the Filipino Christmas stretches from the start of September up until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Carol singers and parols (traditional star-shaped lanterns made of bamboo or rattan) begin to brighten up the streets from September, but the main festivities kick off on December 16 with the capital’s giant lantern festival and street parties culminating on Christmas Eve with a huge family feast.
There’s no place more traditional to spend Christmastime than in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, and the center of nativity scenes worldwide. Thousands make the pilgrimage to Bethlehem each year, gathering in Manger Square on Christmas Eve and attending the Midnight Mass service at the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Jesus was born. It’s a gathering of locals and foreigners, with all coming together to watch or partake in the carol singing, candle parades and live music.
– Contributed by Zoë Smith