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December is a magical time for people around the world, and traveling during this most festive of seasons lets you experience a truly global spin on the holidays. Indeed, Christmas travel not only allows you to take full advantage of school and office closures, but also gives you and your family the opportunity to take in rich traditions from all over the world. The best Christmas vacations are meaningful, multicultural, inclusive, and filled with warmth and cheer.
Going beyond the obvious Christmas destinations like New York City and Paris, here are 10 of the world’s best places to go for Christmas, including those that are holy to Christians—as well as those that are decidedly not.
Vatican City, which is ensconced within Rome, is the home of Catholicism, making it one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas. Many practicing Catholics yearn to see the Pope give Christmas mass at the breathtaking St. Peter’s Basilica. Tickets to this epic yet solemn annual event are free, but you’ll need to reserve yours at least two months in advance. Instructions about how to do so are here—note that you’ll need access to a fax machine.
If you can’t get tickets to the papal mass, you can watch Pope Francis deliver his urbi et orbi homily live on a big screen from St. Peter’s Square, shop the lively Piazza Navona Christmas Market (or the Christmas market at the Spanish Steps), inspect one of the city’s many detailed nativity scenes, go ice skating near Castel Sant’Angelo, visit the Hanukkah menorah at Piazza Barberini, or simply stroll around to enjoy this sparkling city all dolled up for Natale.
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Quebec City, Canada
Quebec City is magical any time of year, but winter makes it all the more so. Old Quebec, with its European-style streets and Old World charm, thoroughly transforms into a veritable Christmas village, exuding a very specific type of cozy, snow-covered magic.
The whole city is strung with beautiful lights, the German-style Grand Marche Christmas Market sells one-of-a-kind gifts, and family-friendly offerings abound, including the Quebec Aquarium Light Festival, La Parade des Jouets (“The Toy Parade”), and the chance to meet Santa at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac and other spots around the city. You can also attend Christmas concerts, taste distinctive sweets, and stay through New Year’s Eve to experience the midnight fireworks over Quebec City’s Grande Allee, alongside the party-loving locals.
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How better to spend Christmas than by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? It’s hard to beat Bethlehem as one of the world’s best Christmas destinations. The ancient town’s Church of the Nativity is where Jesus was born, and the annual celebrations there are meaningful and memorable. There are performances in Manger Square, inclusive Christmas masses with audiences from around the world, twinkling lights and ornaments, a parade and other processions, and Christmas markets and trees.
In nearby Jerusalem, there are biblical places galore, including the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus walked, as well as the Church of the Ascension, where Christians believe that Jesus ascended to heaven. Jerusalem also has one of the Middle East’s most impressive Christmas markets. And Jewish people visiting Jerusalem during this time of year will be deeply moved to see the menorah being lit at the Western Wall each night of Hanukkah.
In northern Israel, Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown in the Galilee, also hosts Christmas celebrations worth experiencing. On Christmas Eve, a colorful parade makes its way through town, with the procession ending at the Church of the Annunciation with fireworks as well as a Christmas mass. Surrounding the event are outdoor Christmas and Hanukkah markets, Santas, religious services, and festive lights.
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North Pole, Alaska
Yes, Virginia, there really is a town called North Pole. And if ever there was a Christmas-themed entire town, this is it. Santa’s always available for visits in the Santa Claus House—where 400,000 letters per year addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole” land. (Local volunteers respond to every letter.) And the streets have names like Kris Kringle Drive and Mistletoe Lane.
Even if you can’t arrange a trip here exactly on December 25, no worries: It’s Christmas here all year long, although only December attracts ice sculptors from around the world displaying their prodigious talents.
North Pole is just 13 miles southeast of Fairbanks, but if you want to stay overnight at this ultimate (if only slightly kitschy) Christmas vacation destination, there are several comfy hotels, as well as RV hookups and campsites.
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The best Christmas vacations for families are in Southern California. Mix blessedly snow-free weather with mile after mile of coastline—not to mention decked-out theme park after decked-out theme park—and you’ve got yourselves a Christmas vacation to remember.
At the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, there’s post-fireworks “snow” every night, a 60-foot-tall Christmas tree, holiday-themed parades, explosions of decorations, multicultural seasonal music, and holiday overlays to several beloved rides, including It’s a Small World and the Haunted Mansion. Disneyland makes a heartwarming effort to include traditions besides those that celebrate Christmas—a klezmer band and Jewish food tip a hat to Hanukkah, soul food is offered for Kwanzaa, and Latin favorites get presented for Navidad.
Over in Buena Park, Knott’s Berry Farm transforms into “Knott’s Merry Farm,” with Christmas-themed shows, a Christmas Crafts Village, and nightly snow in Ghost Town. In Studio City, Universal Studios hosts “Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” including an impressive projection show centered around Hogwarts Castle, as well as “Grinchmas,” with a huge tree and caroling Whos. Down in Carlsbad, LEGOLAND has the world’s biggest LEGO Christmas tree, limited-edition holiday treats, live holiday shows—and yes, a LEGO Santa. Keep heading south for San Diego Zoo’s “Jungle Bells,” during which the renowned attraction turns into a light-filled wonderland.
When you’ve had enough of theme parks, head to Malibu or La Jolla for a relaxing December afternoon on one of the Pacific Coast’s best beaches. Or head into the heart of Los Angeles for some culture. L.A. is a particularly great place to celebrate Kwanzaa: Pasadena has hosted a notable Kwanzaa celebration for 30 years now, led by Thanayi Karenga, the daughter of Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga. And South L.A. puts on the annual Kwanzaa Heritage Festival and Block Parade and candle-lighting ceremony.
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The Canary Islands, Spain
Although Barcelona’s Día do los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is one of Spain’s most celebrated festivals, certain types of travelers might prefer for their Christmas travels to take them to Spain’s Canary Islands instead—which are actually not on the European continent, but off Africa’s northwestern coast.
Picture this for your December holiday: 900 miles of sun-drenched coastline, nativity scenes sculpted from sea sand, Christmas markets selling traditional pastries called truchas, Christmas feasts at local restaurants, open-air Yuletide concerts, and New Year’s Eve fireworks on the beach. Best. Christmas. Vacation. Ever?
Check Prices for Costa Sal Villas and Suites in Puerto Del Carmen
For true winter lovers, South Iceland is among the world’s best places to travel for Christmas. Faced with all-day nighttime, this remote island knows how to cheer things up during this dark, frigid time of year with lots and lots of twinkling lights. Visitors partake in Arctic adventures in the plentiful snow and ice, including dog sledding, exploring ice caves by snowmobile, skating on frozen lakes, sampling Christmas buffets in restaurants, and strolling Iceland’s charming Christmas markets.
Southern Iceland provides some of the world’s best views of the northern lights—it’s a great place to check “aurora borealis” off your bucket list. And hotels here let travelers experience Iceland’s Christmastime tradition of getting visited by not one but 13 Santa Clauses. The festively decorated Hotel Rangá, for example, lets kids into the folklore by inviting its young guests to leave a shoe in the windowsill to get a holiday treat from the country’s festive elves.
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San Juan, Puerto Rico
On Christmas Eve—Noche Buena—in San Juan, locals enjoy huge, traditional dinners of pork, rice, and beans. But more importantly, they drink coquito, a creamy, eggnog-like rum cocktail that signifies the occasion. After the feast, roam Old San Juan’s lit-up cobblestone streets and join (or just watch) the parrandas, which are Puerto Rico’s take on carolers, during which groups gather in front of houses late at night with traditional instruments to sing the lively songs of Navidad. In short, the events that happen here every December 24 make Puerto Rico one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas.
Stay on the island for New Year’s Eve and beyond, especially if you’re overnighting at the iconic Caribe Hilton, just as Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren used to do. The property is famous for creating the piña colada, and also for hosting epic New Year’s Eve parties. This year’s bash will be bigger than ever, thanks to the hotel’s recent $150 million renovation. If your schedule allows, stay in Puerto Rico until at least January 6, since Día de Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is the island’s biggest annual celebration.
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Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Another of the world’s best places to visit for Christmas is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and not just because the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue gets magnificently illuminated with the works of significant artists.
On December 1 every year, Rio debuts Lagoa, the world’s largest floating Christmas tree—more than 170 feet tall—to fireworks and fanfare on Copacabana Beach. The impressive tree stays lit and floats on the water until early January.
Rio is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the weather during Christmas is generally quite warm. There are Christmas Day concerts on Copacabana Beach, holiday pastries called panettone and rabanadas in the city’s bakeries, and plenty of restaurants that serve traditional Brazilian Christmas dinners to travelers. On Christmas Eve, the parties start late, with feasts typically beginning at 11:00 p.m. and the celebration escalating at midnight.
Stay through New Year’s Eve for unforgettable fireworks over Copacabana and the company of some of the world’s most enthusiastic partiers.
Check Prices for Miramar Hotel by Windsor in Rio de Janeiro
If the mere idea of all the effort that goes into celebrating Christmas at home—shopping, decorating, wrapping, cooking, hosting—works you into a cold sweat, take a deep breath, call your relatives, and tell them you’re going on a Christmas cruise instead.
Holiday sailings make for the best Christmas vacations for families, and can be a fantastic option for cheap Christmas vacations. Many holiday voyages are reasonably priced and go to beautiful destinations around the world, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to the Christmas markets along European rivers—the Rhone, Seine, Rhine, and Danube.
Onboard, there’s as much holiday theming as you can bear: ugly sweater contests, elaborate holiday shows, massive Christmas trees, Santa appearances, carolers on deck, huge gingerbread houses, mistletoe and wreaths, midnight mass, Hanukkah menorah lightings, and traditional Christmas dinners. Check out the offerings from Royal Caribbean, Carnival (featuring the Grinch!), and Norwegian, as well as Disney‘s Very Merrytime Cruises.
The best part? You’ll be able to kick back and enjoy the celebrations while others are doing the work—kind of like being a kid again.
More from SmarterTravel:
- 10 Tips for Holiday Travel
- 7 Ways to Save on Holiday Travel
- The Cheapest Time to Buy Holiday and Thanksgiving Flights
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