Is your holiday tradition getting a bit tired? Not looking forward to hauling out the same old plastic Christmas tree from the attic or having to open your door to the same group of off-key neighborhood carolers, year after year? Perhaps you dream of taking the family somewhere new and exciting for Christmas vacation, or maybe you just want a good excuse not to drive 8 hours to the in-laws’ this Christmas (or worse, host them at your house). Either way, traveling to a destination from our list of the top ten places to spend your Christmas this December guarantees your family will have a yuletide experience they’ll never forget. Better yet, maybe you will start a new family tradition!
Want to experience a Swiss Alps-style Christmas without leaving the States? Book your ticket to Leavenworth in Washington State. The entire town, population 1,965, is modeled after a Bavarian village. Walking down the quaint, snow-dusted main street, surrounded by tall mountains, you’ll feel like you have entered a living snow globe. The town fully embraces its Christmassy vibe, hosting one of the largest Christmas festivals in the Pacific Northwest, complete with sleigh rides, sledding, roasted chestnuts, caroling, German cuisine, live entertainment, and Christmas lights galore. Leavenworth even has a museum devoted entirely to nutcrackers. Those looking for a more active vacation experience can enjoy snowshoeing, Nordic skiing, and snowmobiling. Leavenworth has been named the “Ultimate Christmas Town” by HGTV and the “Ultimate HolidayTown USA” by A&E.
If the pretend Bavaria just doesn’t cut it and you’d rather experience the real thing, then Nuremberg, Germany is where you want to go. Located in the heart of Bavaria, Nuremburg has a rich history dating back to the 11th century. As members of the Imperial Diet (the court of the Holy Roman Empire) once met at Nuremberg Castle, Nuremberg is sometimes referred to as having been the unofficial capital of the Holy Roman Empire. The Nuremberg Christmas Market, one of the most famous Christmas Markets (or Christkindlesmarkts, a German tradition) in the world, is the city’s not-to-be-missed holiday event. Visitors can take part in the centuries-old event by strolling down cobblestone streets through 180 wooden huts, decorated with lights, red and white cloth, and garlands, snacking on fresh gingerbread cookies and bratwursts along the way.
Christmas in Italy is a unique event, with celebrations for children beginning with the Feast of Saint Lucia, on December 12th, the main day to exchange gifts, and another set of celebrations taking place from Christmas Eve through Epiphany (January 6th). Besides Germany, Christmas markets are also a big thing in Italy, and the Christmas market in the romantic city of Verona, the scene of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliette, is one of Italy’s largest. Each year through December 13, Verona’s 300-stall Christmas market is held in the Piazza Brà, against the backdrop of the ancient Roman Verona Arena. The Verona Arena was built in 30 AD and is considered the most spectacular Roman amphitheater after the Roman Colosseum. The Grand Christmas Star, the symbol of Christmas in Verona, is set up adjacent to the Arena. Taking place inside the Verona Arena at Christmastime is the International Exhibition of Nativity Sets, which features an unusual collection of nativity scenes from around the world, all exhibited in the Arena’s underground passages. The Epiphany Bonfire is another unique Veronian holiday tradition in which the “Epiphany old hag” is burnt in Piazza Brà. Festive!
While Boston actually banned the celebration of Christmas during the Puritan era in the 1600s, the city has a lot more fun with the holiday these days, with plenty of fun festivals, shows, and Christmas cheer. This historic city offers the quintessential White Christmas experience, with its snowy wintertime climate and old-fashioned New England atmosphere. Some of the city’s festive Christmastime favorites include the Frog Pond outdoor skating rink, the Harvard Square Holiday Fair, the Christmas Festival of Lights, and Christmas At The Newport Mansions. Also be sure to take in the Christmas trees at Faneuil Hall and Boston Common, to see the Nutcracker performed by the Boston Ballet, and to stroll along the cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill. For some top-notch choir music, attend Candlelight Carols at Trinity Church, a Boston Christmas tradition since 1909. And instead of turkey, why not try a local favorite, roasted lobster, for Christmas dinner?
There’s no place quite like New York at Christmastime because no one does Christmas quite like New York, where everything is larger than life. Why do you think Christmas in New York is the setting for so many movies? From the iconic ice rink and the storied Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center, to the legendary FAO Schwartz and Macy’s Santaland for the little ones, NYC transforms into a true Winter Wonderland each December. Of course, New York has plenty of Christmas fun for adults, too, with its five-star shopping, restaurants, hotels, and shows. Some great Christmas shows to catch in NYC include the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, featuring the Rockettes, and the Nutcracker, performed by the New York City Ballet. With that said, probably the most fun thing to do in NYC at Christmas is the least-expensive: walk around Midtown, window shopping the elaborate displays at the department stores on 5th Ave., and just soaking in the bustling holiday atmosphere that is Christmas in the City.
Ready to experience a fairytale Christmas in an old world European setting? Christmastime is considered one of the best times to visit Vienna, Austria’s capital city. Snowy, tree-lined avenues, Gothic palaces, Christmas markets, Baroque churches, and street vendors selling hot mulled wine and roasted chestnuts … could Christmas get any more charming and majestic than this? Enjoy Renaissance art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, take a tour of the Hapsburg imperial palaces, and browse the traditional handcrafted Austrian goods for sale at the Christmas market in Vienna Town Hall Square. For a royal holiday experience, spend a traditional Austrian Christmas Eve Dinner at Weikersdorf Castle, followed by midnight mass at the magnificent St. Stephen’s Cathedral, consecrated in 1147.
Christmas in Iceland, the land of Vikings, elves, and the Northern Lights, is an otherworldly experience. Because capital city Reykjavik is so far north, it only gets four hours of daylight during the winter months. But don’t worry, the long nighttime is illuminated by the stunning emerald lights of the aurora borealis, and much fun can be had enjoying the city’s vibrant nightlife in the wee dark hours. Icelandic winters are milder than you might think, with December temps rarely dropping much below freezing. However, you can still warm up in one of the city’s many geothermal-powered hot springs, an Icelandic tradition. You can also visit the Christmas Village in the nearby town of Hafnarfjördur, famous for having one of Iceland’s largest settlements of “elves, dwarves and other mystical beings.” Christmas is an important family tradition in Iceland, although they do it a little bit differently than we do in the states – instead of Santa, children receive gifts from the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads.
For some, going on vacation over Christmas break is just a good excuse to escape the cold weather at home. If you prefer palm trees to pine trees, San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the average December low is 72.1 degrees, might be your perfect place to spend the holidays. Besides spending time at one of its many luxury resorts, things to do in this 500-year old Caribbean port town and former Spanish colony include exploring the historic walled city of Old San Juan or the nearby Yunque rain forest. There are also some uniquely Puerto Rican traditional Christmas activities you can participate in: check out a parranda, a group of local carolers that travels around singing Christmas carols; attend a misas de aguinaldo, a dawn mass featuring the singing of aguinaldos, the Puerto Rican versions of Christmas carols; and celebrate Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, with a traditional dinner of roast pork, arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), and, instead of egg nog, coquito (coconut nog).
Although a Christmas trip to the North Pole is not really feasible (and if it were, the kids would probably be sorely disappointed that there was no Santa or elves or … anything to speak of), Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, is about as close as you can get. With reindeer safaris, husky trips, snowmobiling, tranquil spas and, notably, Santa’s headquarters, Lapland at Christmastime is a glimmering, joyful spot in the snowy Arctic wilderness that has something for everyone. Santa Claus Village in the town of Rovaniemi is arguably the most magical destination in the Arctic Circle, where you can see elves working at the Santa Claus Main Post office, go to Elf School, pet Santa’s reindeer, and of course, meet the Big Guy himself. Another highlight of Lapland is the Ranua Wildlife Park, where you will get to know, and even feed Arctic animals. You’ll also have the option to spend Christmas Day with Santa and his reindeer, and witness the night sky lit up with the majestic Northern Lights.
For the ultimate Christmas experience, you’ll have to go to the place where it all started: the little town of Bethlehem. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the West Bank city of Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus Christ, Whom for Christians, is “The Reason for the Season.” Bethlehem also has religious significance for Jews and Muslims. Even if you are not religious, Bethlehem is incredible for its historic significance, as humans are believed to have inhabited the area for at least 10,000 years. Since the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, was built in the 4th century AD, Bethlehem has been a major site of Christian pilgrimage.
Today, Bethlehem retains its sacred, authentic feel, particularly in the central area of Manger Square. As you might imagine, Christmas is a significant event in Bethlehem, with multiple processions and services led by a variety of Christian denominations. Catholic Christmas services take place at the Church of St. Catherine, said to be built on the site of Christ’s appearance to St. Catherine of Alexandria, while Protestant services often take place at the Church of the Nativity or nearby Shepherds’ Fields, where shepherds saw the Star of Nativity. For an authentic Christmas that revolves around sacred traditions rather than kitschy consumerism, Bethlehem is the place to go.