23 Best Places to Spend Christmas: The World’s Most Festive Cities
We’re all for snow days and cuddling up with loved ones by the fire, but the month of December is also prime time for traveling—mainly to see how the rest of the world celebrates Christmas. These cities are worth a visit any time of year, sure, but they seem to be exceptionally magical during the holiday season. Whether they’re European classics with storybook Christmas markets, Asian cities where you can see twinkling lights from a rooftop pool, or ski paradises right here in the U.S., some celebrations are worth the price of a plane ticket. And let’s face it: You haven’t really seen Christmas lights until you’ve seen 26 million lights all at once (we’re looking at you, Colombia). From Cologne to Cape Town, here are the best places to spend Christmas this year.
Cape Town, South Africa
Why we go: If you’re looking to escape winter this Christmas, you can’t do much better than Cape Town—it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, after all. You can even visit one (or several) of the South African city’s holiday markets without having to wear a coat and scarf.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: An outdoor screening of Home Alone at the beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on Christmas Day at 8:30 p.m.
Stay here: The ocean-side Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, which will be offering a special five-course Christmas dinner on December 24.
Quebec City, Canada
Why we go: Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America, and its colonial French architecture gives it an unmistakably European feel. The cobbled streets of the Old Town are packed with quaint shops and delicious bistros, all merrily decorated for the holidays.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit:: The toboggan run at Château Frontenac (open from mid-December to March), one of the city’s oldest traditions—and quite the thrill. Zoom down icy tracks overlooking the city on a wooden sled reaching speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.
Stay here: You can’t go wrong with Auberge Saint-Antoine, especially with its lobby fireplace and heated bathroom floors.
Why we go: Hugging the Arctic Circle, Finland’s Lapland region is the birthplace and home of Santa Claus. In the city of Rovaniemi, Santa Claus Village amusement park and resort creates an unforgettable Christmas experience for children with snow-covered cottages, reindeer rides, and a friendly staff dressed as elves who refuse to break character.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: An evening snowmobile trip to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights overhead (we recommend the Rovaniemi Adventure program through Off the Map Travel).
Stay here: One of the houses at Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, a truly once-in-a-lifetime accommodation with panoramic views and private saunas.
Why we go: You haven’t seen Christmas lights until you’ve seen Sydney’s Christmas lights. Plus, the holiday season lasts an entire month here (take that, 12 days of Christmas) with “Sydney Christmas,” an aptly-named festival taking place from November 24 through December 25. The citywide celebration kicked off this year with a tree lighting at Martin Place, and continues with Christmas markets and nightly concerts.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The 94,000 twinkling LEDs at the incredible Pitt Street Mall Boulevard of Light.
Stay here: The 2017-launched Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour hotel, where you can enjoy a Christmas Day buffet lunch followed by a nap by the rooftop pool (remember, it’s summertime Down Under).
Why we go: Located in southern Spain, Málaga really goes all out for the holidays. Aside from the Christmas markets, massive nativity scenes, and free concerts at Plaza de la Constitución, the city holds its annual Verdiales Music Festival on December 28. All day, visitors can watch competing couples don extravagant costumes and practice different forms of verdiales, the regional flamenco dance. Now where can you get something like that in the States?
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The lights along shopping street Calle Larios, lit in late November and kept on through December.
Stay here: Finca Cortesin, an RCA favorite complete with private villas and Mediterranean views.
Why we go: Every December, this tiny New England town bursts with holiday cheer during its annual Christmas Prelude, an 11-day bash that’s about as New England as it gets (I mean, one of the main attractions is a tree made of lobster traps). The lobster rolls at The Clam Shack—considered to be some of the best rolls in Maine—will make you forget about gingerbread and sugar plums altogether.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Santa Claus arriving to the Christmas Prelude on a lobster boat. (This year’s arrival already occurred on November 29, but the festival lasts until December 9.)
Stay here: Our readers love Cape Arundel Inn & Resort for its oceanside location and restaurant serving up fresh seafood (and, unlike a lot of Maine resorts, it’s actually open during the winter months).
Prague, Czech Republic
Why we go: The Christmas markets in Prague are some of the best in the world and run a full month, with locals and travelers passing through for a dose of mulled wine, sticky pastries, and roasted ham. The main markets take place in the Old Town and Wenceslas squares, just five minutes apart by foot—and set to the backdrop of some of the prettiest Gothic architecture you’ll ever see.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The annual performance of The Nutcracker at the National Theater.
Stay here: Aria Hotel Prague by Library Hotel Collection, located within walking distance of Old Town Square.
Why we go: The city turns the voltage up each year with its winter illuminations, with different districts competing with each other to create some truly sensational displays. This year’s illuminations include over 100,000 twinkly blue and silver lights at Tokyo Midtown and a massive Baccarat crystal chandelier at Yebisu Garden Place. And don’t worry if you can’t get there before December 25—the winter illuminations have become so popular that most remain up until February.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The Blue Cavern (“Ao no Dokutsu“) illumination in Shibuya (pictured), an electric version of the blue grottos found in the Mediterranean.
Stay here: Hoshinoya Tokyo, a Gold List winner complete with hot spring-fed soaking pool.
Why we go: Europe’s best-preserved medieval city oozes charm year-round, but is especially charming during the holidays. It’s hard to imagine a place more magical as you wander the cobblestone streets, admire the shimmering lights, and warm up with mugs of Belgian hot chocolate in cafes.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Ice skating with someone special at the picture-perfect ice rink, located near the downtown Christmas market.
Stay here: Grand Hotel Casselbergh (steps away from the Market) has inviting touches like wooden beams in rooms, in-house library, and lobby bar with fireplace.
Why we go: Reykjavík shines on the streets and in the sky in December. Strings of glinting Christmas bulbs illuminate the city during its very long nights; and on the clearest evenings, the Northern Lights can be seen from the city’s darker streets.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The 13 Yule Lads, a group of holiday trolls you’ll see about town who are—in local folklore—Iceland’s equivalent to Santa Claus (and have actually been around a lot longer than St. Nick).
Stay here: Hotel Borg, the city’s oldest and most elegant hotel, still reigns supreme.
Why we go: Nothing embodies old-world yuletide charm like the Christmas market, and nobody takes Christmas markets more seriously than the Germans, with Cologne’s drawing four million visitors each winter.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Taking in the merry sights from the observation deck of KölnTriangle, the tower directly opposite the Cathedral on the Rhine.
Stay here: The Hyatt Regency has great views of the Cologne Cathedral, plus a five-course menu at Glashaus Restaurant on Christmas Eve.
Why we go: The streets around town will be festively alight, sure, but the home to the seat of Catholicism is an excellent option for folks seeking a more sacrosanct Christmas experience.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Midnight mass at the Pantheon, where you can hear hymns echoing off the walls of the 1,900-year-old architectural marvel.
Stay here: The immaculate Hotel de Russie, with its peaceful spa, secret garden, and best aperitivos in the city.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Why we go: December in Rio is all about enjoying an icy caipirinha on a spectacular beach (who says Christmas has to be about ugly sweaters and hot cocoa?). The city also happens to host the world’s largest display of full-sized nativity scenes during its annual Festival de Presépios (“Crib Festival”), found at Jardim de Alah between Leblon and Ipanema.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Riding a bike around the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon and enjoying views of the world’s largest floating Christmas tree from every angle.
Stay here: The Emiliano has easy access to Copacabana Beach, although the expansive spa menus and travel-worthy breakfasts might tempt you to stay indoors.
New York City
Why we go: There’s no shortage of ways to make your New York City Christmasmagical, whether it’s ice skating at Rockefeller Center, carriage rides through Central Park, or lurking around 34th street hoping to witness a miracle.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Watching the Rockettes do their thing during the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (showing this year through January 1, 2019).
Stay here: The Plaza. (If it’s good enough for Kevin McCallister…)
Why we go: Hong Kong’s yuletide urban offerings rival that of NYC’s, with holiday markets, window displays, and concerts galore (they even have a Santa Con). Then there are the lights. The Symphony of Lights show—held nightly, beginning November 29—will leave you breathless thanks to an extravagantly choreographed neon show displayed across more than 40 of the city’s iconic skyscrapers along Victoria Harbor.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Experiencing the Symphony of Lights during a harbor-front dinner cruise.
Stay here: As if the Ritz-Carlton wasn’t swanky enough, the hotel will be hosting Christmas parties, dinners, and afternoon teas all season—they even have a Christmas market right there in the lobby.
Why we go: Vienna practically sparkles with holiday spirit during the Christmas season (the lights covering nearly every building certainly don’t hurt). The city is known for its markets, with the Viennese Christmas Market at City Hall stealing the show every year. From November 17 to December 26, 2018, the plaza comes alive with more than 150 vendors selling toys and candles and cookies—all in authentic Austrian style, of course.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Christmas Mass at the Hofburgkapelle (Hofburg Chapel), where you can enjoy the crystalline tones of the one and only Vienna Boys Choir.
Stay here: The Park Hyatt hotel is within walking distance of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and features some of the largest rooms in Vienna.
Why we go: Strasbourg is home to the oldest of France’s Christmas markets, dating back nearly 450 years. There are 12 in total to check out, which is sure to keep you busy throughout the end of 2018. Pro tip: Though the markets will be full of delicious goodies, many choose to indulge in the king of Alsatian delicacies, foie gras, which is also a French Christmas tradition.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The superlative market beneath the stunning Strasbourg Cathedral, the tallest surviving structure built entirely in the Middle Ages.
Stay here: We’re huge fans of the impossibly luxurious Hôtel Les Haras, installed in Louis XV’s historic stables in Strasbourg.
New Orleans, Louisiana
Why we go: We aren’t surprised that New Orleans leans into the holiday season, but we still get all tingly thinking about the Christmas in the city (it might even beat uber-crowded Mardi Gras). NOLA lights up with events like LUNA Fête, where the Central Business District around Lafayette Square fills up with installations and animated graphics from December 6-9. City Park also becomes a wonderland for the entire month, with vendors, food and drink stands, and decorations adorning the centuries-old oak trees.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The annual Christmas Eve lighting of the bonfires along the banks of the Mississippi River, a seasonal tradition that’s as authentically “New Orleans” as they come.
Stay here: The exceptional Hotel Maison de Ville, easily one of the best hotels in New Orleans.
Why we go: It may be known as the “City of Eternal Spring,” but Medellín celebrates the winter holiday season pretty damn well. The Colombian city puts Christmas into overdrive with its annual Alumbrados, a festival of lights that began back in 1967. The event is known for its massive displays and this year’s festival (November 30, 2018 until January 7, 2019) will feature 26 million LED lights, primarily in the Parque Norte amusement park (and admission is free).
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Starting each morning with a cup of coffee and an almond croissant at Pergamino Café.
Stay here: The Charlee Lifestyle Hotel for its central location and artsy-chic rooms (think fresh flowers and blue crystal chandeliers).
Why we go: According to the World Happiness Report, Denmark is one of the world’s happiest countries, making it a great place to spend the holidays. In Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, antique amusement park rides decorated with lights are surrounded by yet another adorable, alpine-village style Christmas market selling gifts and snacks through the end of December.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Booking a table at Restaurant Vita for some andesteg, a traditional Danish holiday dish of crispy, succulent roast duck served with potatoes and cabbage.
Stay here: Hotel Sanders is practically perfect, and it even has fireplaces in each of the large rooms.
Park City, Utah
Why we go: As if the world-class skiing and Sundance Film Festival weren’t reason enough to visit Park City this winter, the town also happens to be a wonderful place to spend Christmas. The former Olympic city has ample opportunities for skiing, fly fishing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding—with no shortage of resorts to warm up in between runs, too.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Snowfest (December 22, 2018-January 6, 2019), a festival at Park City Mountain that includes live music, ugly sweater parties, fireworks, and Santa skiing down the slopes.
Stay here: The 12-room Washington School House (pictured) is just a hop away from Park City’s lit-up Main Street, and we must say its Christmas decorations put a lot of other hotels’ to shame.
Why we go: Dubai does Christmas the same way Dubai does nearly everything—in true, over-the-top fashion. Don’t miss the tree lightings happening around town, including ones at FIVE Palm Jumeirah (December 4) and Bab Al Shams Desert Resort & Spa (December 7). And since no visit to Dubai is complete without several shopping sprees, set aside time to stock up on goodies at one of the city’s Christmas markets.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Cirque De Cuisine at Atlantis, The Palm (December 6), a three-hour dining experience that includes food from some of Dubai’s best restaurants—plus circus performers and dancing elves, of course.
Stay here: Jumeirah Al Naseem (opened in 2017) earns high marks from us for its posh rooms and easy beach access.
Why we go: Vilnius becomes a true winter wonderland in December, with a Christmas train that weaves through Old Town, 3D nativity stories projected onto buildings, and Christmas villages filled with local goods and treats (open until January 7).
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The headline-making Christmas trees. This year’s tree is nearly 90 feet high, made up of 6,000 branches, and resembles the city’s Cathedral Square Bell Tower clock when viewed from above.
Stay here: Unless you actually camp out under the tree, the warm and inviting Kempinski Hotel Cathedral Square is as close to all the Christmas magic as you can get.