Holiday market in Berlin | photo: Kara Walsh
Where to go for maximum festiveness
by Jennifer Mitchell
There’s no place like home for the holidays—but there might be some place better. We love the traditions and time spent with friends and family around the holidays, but this time of year can also be a bit chaotic and/or repetitive. If you’re looking for a last-minute festive holiday escape, or are planning ahead to next year, we’ve got the top 12 best places to travel during the holiday season.
Where to travel for traditional wintry fun:
A perusal of lists of the best places to travel from media heavyweights like Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure and CNN shows a consensus that Germany is without a doubt the most popular destination for traditional holiday travels. There are hundreds of Christmas markets around the country, but the reputed best is located in Nuremburg. With almost 200 booths, the market has a variety of attractions—like the Toy Museum and the German Railway Museum—and only sells traditional handmade toys and holiday goods. Each of the vendors also competes for the Most Beautiful Stall Design award, so the scene is quite festive. Munich also has a Christmas market and live holiday music is played on the balcony of town hall at 5:30 every evening in December through Christmas Eve.
If you’re able to extend your trip through New Year’s Eve, Berlin is considered to be one of the best places in the world to spend New Year's Eve. The city holds a street party with celebrations along Party Mile.
2. Lapland, Finland
Lapland’s capital, Rovaniemi, is known as the “Official Hometown of Santa Claus” and is a true winter wonderland. If you’re traveling with kids, they can decorate gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, enroll in Elf School, sign up to work in Santa’s post office or play with Rudolf and his reindeer friends.
Adults can take snowmobile safaris, go cross-country skiing through the Saariselkä trails, try to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights or take a sleigh ride pulled by reindeer or huskies. Die-hard winter fans can even stay in a hotel made entirely of snow and ice.
3. Reykjavík, Iceland
Though daylight is short lived in Iceland during December, you may be able to see the Northern Lights—the ultimate holiday light show. While in Iceland, you can learn about the Yule Lads (or the 13 Santas) who leave kids small gifts in their shoes between December 12th and 25th.
4. Prague, Czech Republic
There is no prettier destination for the holidays than Prague. Between the snow on the baroque buildings and Gothic churches and the elaborate decorations, you’ll feel like you’re in a holiday fairytale. Stop by the holiday markets in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square for sweet treats and mulled wine.
5. New York City
For those looking to keep their holiday travels stateside, consider a trip to the Big Apple. The massive tree at Rockefeller Center is a must-see—go later at night to avoid the worst crowds but before the lights are turned off at 11:30pm. The holiday markets in Union Square, Bryant Park and Central Park will surely get you in the spirit. You’ll also want to check out the window displays along 5th Avenue (see Eater's helpful holiday window display map), and if you have time, be sure to spend an evening viewing a classic—The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center, the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall—or something less traditional like The Hip Hop Nutcracker.
If you’re planning to stay through New Year’s and are willing to brave the elements, consider heading to Time’s Square to watch the ball drop. As NYC locals, it pains us to say that and you won't catch us there, but it is an unforgettable experience for the uninitiated. For a less crowded celebration, take a boat ride through New York Harbor to watch fireworks light up the sky.
6. Malmö, Sweden
Much like other Scandinavian destinations, Malmö has an undeniably festive vibe. The town gets decked out for the holidays and the Grand Hotel Garden Malmö serves traditional Swedish Christmas dishes during an all-you-can-eat buffet on Christmas Day.
If you’re hoping to soak up all the holly jolly holiday feelings while still making it home in time for December 25th, you can celebrate St. Lucia's Day with the locals on December 13th. Enjoy Swedish pastries made with saffron and admire the elaborate gowns of those dressed up for the occasion.
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, New York City | photo: Kara Walsh
Where to travel to escape the cold but still be festive:
7. Goa, India
Goa offers travelers the best of both worlds. You’ll be able to enjoy a warm and exotic holiday without giving up your Santa hat and Christmas carols. Palm trees are strung with lights and tinsel throughout town and fireworks light up the skies on Christmas. Then the beach parties continue on New Year’s Eve, rounding out a fun holiday trip.
Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are both big holidays in Brazil, but most of the celebrations take place on Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass (Missa do Galo) and a large family meal are mainstays of the holidays and Christmas Day is often spent relaxing on the beach.
When New Year’s Eve rolls around, head to Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, where two million people cram into the a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of sand for a rockin’ party called Réveillon. Partygoers dress in all white, which is believed to bring good luck in the coming year and throw flowers into the ocean as gift to Yemanjá, goddess of the seas.
Enjoy the beautiful seascapes and history of this Mediterranean island during the holiday season. The Corinthia Palace Hotel offers a Christmas morning brunch and festive activities all week. The most prominent tradition in Malta, however, is the Bethlehem f'Ghajnsielem, a life-size nativity spread out over 215,278 square feet of fields and put on by more than 150 actors. The interactive nativity includes live animals and crafts for children that explain traditional skills and folklore.
10. Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town is one of the most popular destinations for celebrating New Year’s Eve—and New Year’s Day. On NYE, the Victoria & Albert Waterfront becomes party central with a carnival and concerts followed by a midnight fireworks display. For the best views of the firework show and a less crowded scene, savvy travelers recommend heading to Cape Town’s Table Mountain.
On New Year’s Day, the party keeps rocking with the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Parade, where 10,000 people in painted faces wind their way through the city to ring in the new year.
11. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Here, Christmas is both a reverent and lively affair. Shops are decorated with piñatas and poinsettias and fireworks light up the night sky. There are numerous theatrical reenactments of the nativity throughout town and dancing in the main square, El Jardín. While in San Miguel de Allende, be sure to try ponche, a Mexican hot toddy, and the rosca de reyes or sweet bread.
12. Sydney, Australia
There are two great reasons to ring in the new year in Sydney. The first being that Sydney is the first major city to greet the New Year. The second is the air and water show in Sydney Harbour, which includes aerial acrobatics, an Aboriginal smoking ceremony that is said to cleanse bad spirits, the Harbour of Light Parade with more than 50 illuminated boats and the largest fireworks display in the world. More than one million people attend the NYE celebrations, but there are a number of islands and parks surrounding the harbor that offer great views of the show.
Are you traveling somewhere special this holiday season? Share your adventures in the comments below or on social with the hashtag #NoSmallPlan. Who knows—you may inspire one another to travel somewhere new next holiday season.
Jennifer Mitchell is a blogger, comedian, freelance copywriter and travel enthusiast.