While some people go over the river and through the woods, year after year, to spend the holidays with family, others use the season to break with tradition and apply their unused time off to squeeze in travel before the year ends. Iffy weather casts a shadow over tropical island vacations, and the popularity and traditions in big cities are often overpriced. What’s unique, easy to get to, and worth the trip?
We’ve compiled a selection of more than a dozen cities wrapped in the magic of Christmas for a travel experience that delights all the senses, while skipping all the season’s drama at home.
“Travel journalists have no ‘season’ to see and do,” says Kim Grant, creator of BinduTrips.com and a travel writer and photo journalist herself. “When we asked our authors if they could recommend some spots for Christmas, they offered recommendations that show they’ve been there, and done it – and from the submissions – probably consumed a lot of calories.”
It’s not too late to try a new experience this Christmas season!
Nothing compares to D.C.’s distinguished architecture illuminated in Christmas lights. For grand scale, free holiday fun in the nation’s capital, see the lavishly decorated National Christmas Tree in President’s Park; ogle scores of critters created from 500,000 lights at ZooLights; stroll past illuminated art work during historic Georgetown’s GLOW; and warm-up at the U.S. Botanic Garden’s indoor, festive train and plant displays. At the Smithsonian American Art Museum, see how technology inspires the art of light at “Lumia,” an exhibit of Thomas Wilfred’s work. Stay at the dog-friendly Fairmont, D.C., whose courtyard glows with lights and trees. Nearby, the Michelin-starred Blue Duck serves meals to remember.
Author: Candyce H. Stapen
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Christmas in Santa Fe is a place of rich cultural heritage and holiday traditions. The crisp night air is scented with piñon woodand anise bizcochitos. Little paper bags glowing with candles, called farolitos or luminaria, line adobe walls and walkways. Strolling Canyon Road on Christmas Eve is the absolute highlight: spontaneously singing carols at a bonfire, sipping hot cider inside a gallery warmed by a 18th century kiva fireplace, and wistfully remembering childhood thanks to a “farolito train” that weaves through a hidden courtyard. Look into the night sky for magical “flying farolitos,” whose light tendrils fall gracefully. Reserve a table well in advance at the elegant Compound Restaurant. Enjoy a nightcap and flute performance at Hotel Santa Fe.
Author: Kim Grant
Orlando – with Christmas festivals, circus shows, dessert parties, and singing Christmas trees – is the spot when you need to please everyone or amaze the kids. For an impressive holiday parade and firework show, check out Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Dessert lovers reserve a seat at the dessert party on the Tomorrowland Terrace or in the Plaza Garden during the fireworks. Amusement doesn’t stop in the theme parks, though. Walk amidst ice sculptures hand-carved by master Chinese artists at ICE! in the Gaylord Palms Resort. Better yet, stay overnight and enjoy their breakfast buffet with Charlie Brown & Friends. (These guys make better breakfast friends than some family members.) Explore Orlando at Christmas with M. Timothy O’Keefe’s Christmas Celebrations Orlando Itinerary.
Author: Deanna Falge, M. Timothy O’Keefe
The Vail holidays season delivers non-stop entertainment. Carolers sing Christmas songs at the holiday market, while Santa Clause can be spotted on the slopes by day. Join in the Christmas spirit on the Holiday Lantern Walk, or lounge in ice chairs to watch the Winterfest Ice Theater. Bundle up on New Year’s Eve to watch ski instructors and locals form a train as they ski down Golden Peak with glowing sticks. The magical scene is followed with fireworks. Hotel Talisa promises inaugural festivities during the holiday season to celebrate its opening, and a chairlift next to the Talisa brings skiers to intermediate terrain on the mountain. Alert to points junkies: It’s a Starwood property.
Author: Lois Friedland
Chicago knows how to get its holiday sparkle on. A million lights twinkle over the Magnificent Mile shops. Ice skaters glide in Millennium Park. Downtown’s Christkindlmarket bursts with the aroma of roasted nuts and hot spiced wine. Elves give out candy canes on the eye-popping Holiday Train (a converted El, short for Elevated, the city’s commuter train). The groovy new Ace Hotel rooms inspire music, equipped with a guitar or turntable. It’s in the West Loop, chockablock with hot-chef restaurants like Little Goat, a nouveau diner for foodies.
Author: Karla Zimmerman
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston breathes elegance and tradition, and Christmas is its crowning glory. Rows of illuminated trees fill the parks, while bows and greenery overflow window boxes and iron railings. Church bells sweetly toll, carriages clip-clop, and angelic carolers sing throughout the streets. Bottomless cinnamon mulled wine and everlasting fresh pine scents round out the full sensory experience. For the peak Christmas experience, stay at The John Rutledge House and cozy up to the glowing fireplaces and dazzling Christmas tree in the 19th century ballroom. Dine on oysters, foie gras, and rack of lamb at the elegant Charleston Grill.
Author: Margaret Rogers
New York City
New York City makes every holiday destination list for many good reasons. From the carolers and street performers to the Broadway shows and department store displays, everyone goes all out. The iconic Rockefeller Christmas tree is a must see. Christmas lights and tinsel decorated streets are everywhere, but book a Christmas light tour for the ultimate experience. Shop at a holiday market for local art, accessories, artisan chocolates, and specialty drinks. Grab a hot cocoa at Columbus Circle Holiday Market, stroll through a snowy Central Park, and loop back to Wollman skating rink. Tuck into a nearby room at the Ritz-Carlton for a luxurious treat.
Author: Deanna Falge
Quebec City is so hooked on Christmas that you can stroll around in late March and still see vibrant holly, ruby-red baubles, and glittery lights. The city is picture-book perfect for the main event; its maze of Old World streets are dotted with cozy warming shelters for reprieves from harsh winter temps and swirling snows. The more central your location, the better, and for the ultimate treat stay at the grand old Chateau Frontenac. Le Lapin Sauté, with rough-hewn stone and elegant lights, tempts with a specialty rabbit poutine dish. Fear not if you miss Christmas in the city itself. Quebec’s late January Winter Carnival (with ice palaces, sculptures, tobogganing, parade and canoe races) is even more atmospheric.
Author: Christian Williams
Christmas and New Year’s are ideal times to travel to the Caribbean for sunshine, good food, and bubbly nightlife. Most islands have unique holiday festivities and welcome visitors to join in. In mid-November, lights and decorations go up around the towns, in the parks, and along the major roadways. On New Year’s Eve islands host street parties, firework displays, and live music events. Sometime after midnight, the crowds disburse and everyone heads to their favorite beach to watch the sunrise on the first day of the New Year.
Author: Lynne Sullivan
Rome’s rich Christmas history and proximity to The Vatican City makes it one of the world’s most popular Christmas destinations. On Christmas morning at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, where the first ever Christmas Mass was held, pieces of the original nativity crib are honored at the procession of the Holy Crib. The oldest known nativity scene is also displayed at the church. Take an evening stroll along the Christmas lit streets, and a catch the huge Christmas tree at Saint Peter’s Square. Stay at the boutique Daphne Inn Trevi in the historic center, and dine with a city view at the historic Casina Valadier at the edge of the Borghese Gardens. Check Martha’s Christmas in Rome itinerary for more details.
Author: Martha Bakerjian
Christmas in London is magical. The giant Norwegian fir tree in Trafalgar Square sets the tone, while holiday markets, skating rinks, impressive light displays, concerts, and Christmas festivals entertain visitors and spread cheer. Stroll down Regent Street and marvel at the Christmas angels, which was last year’s largest light installation. For an impressive setting in the heart of the city, stay at The Ned – a refurbished 1920s Midland Bank building adorned with green marble columns and soaring windows. Splurge at The Frog in Covent Garden on the pretty British tapas and cheese doughnuts.
Author: Emily Baker
In the weeks before Christmas, Dresden smells different. Gingerbread and mulled wine are in the air, marking the time of the Christmas markets. From the end of November to Christmas Eve, various Christmas markets burst with local treats and handmade crafts. The absolute highlight is the Striezelmarkt, the oldest Christmas market in Germany, featuring the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and a renowned candlelit Christmas arch. Stay at the nearby Vienna House QF Hotel, which includes a gourmet breakfast. Don’miss Stollenfest on December 9th, named after the cake-like fruit bread eaten during Christmas season. Don’t miss Ulrich’s Dresden Christmas Market itinerary for even more market tips.
Author: Ulrich van Stipriaan
Colmar Christmas markets, renowned as some of Europe’s most beautiful, cover five public squares connected by decorated pedestrian streets. Each plaza is a mini village with dozens of makeshift stalls sitting beside Renaissance buildings. Holiday shoppers stroll about perusing locally made art, crafts, wines, and baked goods. One plaza features a Children’s Market with huts selling handmade toys. Prepare to be amazed by a snowstorm on the temporary ice skating rink. Nearby, a 16th-century townhouse has been turned into the modern upscale Le Colombier Suites. Hungry? Le Fleur de Sel is within walking distance and offers yummy tartes flambée (pizza) and Alsatian wines by the glass.
Author: Lynne Sullivan
France’s Alsace Wine Route
Christmas markets are a big tradition in villages along the Alsatian Wine Route (Route des Vins). Many wineries decorate their cellars and open their doors to visitors, and each medieval town goes all out to decorate their streets with colorful baubles. Dozens of vendors set up stalls among the historical landmarks to sell mulled wine, regional foods, and locally made products. Stay in the festive Riquewihr/Ribeauvillé area by booking a vacation rental through Gîtes Les Rempartsde Riquewihr. Or splurge at Le Chambard in Kaysersberg with an onsite Michelin-starred restaurant and a wine pub. Be sure to toast the holidays with a glass of sparkling Crémant d’Alsace.
Author: Lynne Sullivan
Christmas in Prague is a magnificent winter wonderland. Christmas trees and colorful wooden huts adorn market squares, and snow-dusted cobblestone streets and bridges bring a romantic quietude to the city. Prague’s impressive Christmas markets feature handcrafted ceramics, glassware, wooden toys, gloves, hats, and more. The markets are also a wonderful place to enjoy traditional Czech food and drinks, like svařák (mulled wine). Take a horse and carriage sightseeing ride through Prague or a Vltava River cruise. Stay at the Hotel Klárov with stunning views of Prague Castle. Since the city has six Bib Gourmand and three Michelin-star restaurants, you’re bound to love the traditional cuisine as much as Prague itself. Explore the magic of Prague at Christmas further with Sally’s Prague Christmas markets itinerary.
Author: Sally Pederson
For the longest time Edinburgh’s Hogmanay (New Year’s) celebrations overshadowed all else in the winter season. Over the lastdecade, though, the city has capitalized on beautiful public gardens that lie beneath its glorious castle to also celebrate Christmas in style. A German Christmas market is a big part of it – with mulled wines, sausages, and crafts. Neon blazes above fairground rides and reflects off a skating rink. All this nestles beneath the venerable Balmoral Hotel, a throwback to the era of great railway hotels. It’s as fine a place to stay and eat as any; its Michelin-starred One restaurant always has terrific, seasonal tasting menus alongside East Lothian Lobster and Borders Partridge.
Author: Christian Williams
Christmas in Amsterdam might be quieter than other European cities, but nothing beats the atmosphere of ice-skating in front of the Rijksmuseum followed by a mug of warm Chocomel topped with whipped cream. Finish your Christmas shopping at a Christmas market, or in shopping streets decked with Christmas decorations. Don’t forget to stop at one of the street stalls to sink your teeth into a hot oliebol – a deep fried donut ball generously covered in powder sugar. Top it all off with an indulgent stay in the luxurious canal buildings that make up The Toren Hotel.
Author: Heather Tucker
Munich has some of the most traditional Christmas markets in Germany. Marienplatz, at the base of the striking neo-gothic town hall, holds the largest and most popular. The Christmas Village market, in the nearby courtyard of the Munich Residenz palace, sells traditional weisswursts (Bavarian sausages) and houses a fairytale village for children. At The Middle Ages Market in Wittelsbacker Platz, vendors dress in medieval garb and serve Glühwein mulled wine in big mugs. Tollwood Winter Festival, featuring talks on environmental issues along with live music, performances, and a Christmas market with organic food, is a major highlight. After a cold winter day at the markets, book a room at the Platzl Hotel and warm-up in the sauna and aromatic steambath.
Author: Deanna Falge
Bethlehem, West Bank
Spending Christmas in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ’s birthplace, is different. Like most European and North American cities, Bethlehem is decorated with lights, a massive tree, Christmas market, and street performers. But Bethlehem Christmas is defined by its global pilgrims, Palestinians, and tourists who gather for services and processions in honor of Jesus. The heart of the festivities takes place at Manger Square, where street vendors sell lupini beans and Christmas cookies in front of the Church of the Nativity. The most popular service is Christmas Mass at St. Catherine Church on Christmas Eve. Note that tickets go fast. Book a hotel near the square, such as the Manger Square Hotel, which has an in-house restaurant.
Author: Deanna Falge