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4 of the World’s Most Incredible Christmas Celebrations
As a traveler, I’ve always been delighted by age-old traditions that take place here in the United States. Abroad, the celebrations leading up to Christmas become downright enchanting. I love family traditions, like having a make-your-own-taco buffet for dinner on Christmas Eve and opening ONE present (please don’t let it be socks, please don’t let it be socks). However, I often daydream about spending Christmas in an ancient European city or maybe even on a beach!
If you’re looking to travel over the holidays, here are four of the world’s most incredible Christmas celebrations.
A few years ago, my husband Kevin and I took my mom, aka Oma, to Munich and Nuremberg for the Christmas markets. It was as magical as everyone says.
Nuremberg hosts one of the oldest markets in the country, dating back to the mid-16th Century. Germans love their traditions, so don’t expect LED lights and sparkling displays. Simple wood stalls tented with candy cane-striped fabric, gussied up with evergreens and white lights, are about as elaborate as it gets. Most of the crafts sold at the market are made by traditional regional manufacturers. Even the stalls are made of local spruce. I don’t think the look of these markets has changed much in decades (maybe even more), and that’s what makes them so special.
There are a few gifts to look for. I love traditional German incense smokers—wooden figurines (typically old men with beards and a pipe) that blow fragrant plumes out of their mouths. You’ll also find nutcrackers, beeswax candles, tons of ornaments, and those spinning Christmas pyramids whose fan blades always seem to fall off as soon as you touch them. Oh well, they’re fun to look at!
The market is as much about the goods as it is about food. Try the traditional rostbratwurst, a skinny sausage served in a roll and topped with loads of mustard. They’re delicious! Nuremberg is the home of the pretzel, so if there was any time to embrace the carbs, this is it. Stay warm with a mug of glühwein, a traditional sweet, spiced wine. They’re quite potent, but the good news is the sweetness will probably make your tummy hurt before you drink too much.
On weekends, you’ll hear concerts and choirs make music all day on the main stage, adding to an overflowing sense of Christmas cheer.
I say Italy is great any time of year, but it’s especially fabulous at Christmas. If you’re lucky enough to visit over the holidays, a trip to Rome is a must. Keep in mind the season here starts on December 8 (the day of the Immaculate Conception) and runs through January 6 (the Epiphany). Does that mean Italians, unlike Americans, don’t see Christmas promotions in August? Hmmmm. While Christmas through New Year is busy, the weeks right before and after are often less so. Experience the festivities without the crowds! Most attractions are open daily except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
First order of business: Seeing the Pope. The ultimate is attending Christmas midnight mass at St. Peter’s Church. Be warned, tickets are required and hard to come by. You must book months in advance! The good news: if you’re planning next year’s Christmas, you’re a year ahead of the game. Without tickets, you can join the throngs of folks outside on the piazza, watching mass on jumbotrons. If you show up at midnight, you’ll miss the action—“midnight” mass actually begins at 9:15 pm. What can I say? Even the Pope needs his rest. There are many other ways to see the Pope over the holidays—check out this list for ideas.
Love nativity scenes? The Italians certainly do. They call them presepios (Italian for “crib”), and they’re all over the place. In fact, they have an entire museum dedicated to them. There truly is a museum for everything!
If I were to spend the holidays in Roma, I’d put on my walking shoes, bundle up and start meandering. The streets are decked with lights, and little family-run shops offer gifts you can’t find at the mall. Stop for an espresso and pastry whenever you like, and once your dogs start barking, maybe tuck into a cozy restaurant for some bucatini and vino Tinto.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
A lot of people flock to Mexico’s beachy all-inclusives over the holidays, but maybe it’s time you look inland. Located in central Mexico in the country’s state of Guanajuato, artists, writers, and travelers swoon over the bohemian vibe of San Miguel de Allende.
This Spanish colonial town celebrates Christmas with plenty of flair. In the days leading up to Christmas, theatrical reenactments of “Mary” and “Joseph” stroll through the streets, as well as the Three Kings and even a few Santas. El Jardin, the central square, serves as the hub for all things Christmas. Expect Christmas Eve fireworks, live music, and a life-size nativity scene, complete with live barnyard animals. Locals sip on ponche, a mulled brandy, and fruit drink, crack piñatas, and feast on Rosca de Reyes, a delicious sweet bread.
In addition to Christmas festivities, the city is home to incredible churches, architecture, and notable art. Food lovers should spend a morning strolling through Mercado Ignacio Ramirez, a market filled with flowers, produce, meats, prepared food, and home goods. For a little R&R, head just north of town for incredible geothermal waters—the perfect reward for those on the nice list… or maybe a needed rejuvenation for those who made the naughty list?
It blows my mind that so many people experience Christmas in the summer. If you’d prefer to spend Christmas in shorts and flip-flops, might a suggest a trip to Sydney?
Unlike most European cities, Sydney puts a more modern spin on the holidays. There’s the majestic Christmas tree at Martin’s Place, decorated with LED lights and adorned with an interactive ribbon that displays Christmas messages delivered via text. St. Mary’s Cathedral goes all out, dressing itself with animated lights set to music. Illuminate your shopping experience under Pitt Street Mall’s Boulevard of Light, a canopy of thousands of twinkling lights. For sensory overload (in a good way), Sydney’s best choirs sing carols at the mall every Thursday night in December.
For a white sand Christmas, head to Bondi Beach. Located just outside Sydney, this beach used to host a Christmas Day party rivaling spring break on Daytona Beach. The police have since banned booze on Christmas Day; however, the spirit of celebration lives on. You’ll see loads of beachgoers in bikinis and reindeer antlers, bros in board shorts and Santa hats, and maybe even Santa in a Speedo. Fingers crossed! A few years ago, the beach even broke a world record for the most surfing Santas. Expect to see lots of families picnicking and basking in the hot summer sun.
Have you ever vacationed over Christmas? What are your favorite Christmas destinations?
photos: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7
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The older you get, the deeper your appreciation for making the trip with your Mother.
I spent a few wonderful Christmas times in Las Vegas! It has a quieter vibe this time of year and so many Christmas decorations – truly fun!
The past several years we have taken a long December weekend trip to enjoy another city/country’s Christmas traditions. All the trips have been great and this year we will be heading shortly to Montreal. Ranking our favorites ( remember we love them all!) is as follows:
1. Munich/rothenberg/Nuremberg/Salzburg, 2. DUblin, 3. Nantucket, 4. Quebec, 5. Manchester VT, 6. Rome, 7. Boston, 8. New York.
Newport, RI, is beautiful at Christmas, especially the cottages along the waterfront.
We spent a week in Rothenburg ob der Tauber at Christmas and visited the small towns on the Romantic Road.
Last year we arrived on 12/26 in Sorrento and stated thru NYE. It was an amazing celebration and the towns that we visited along the Amalfi were all decorated and it was magical. We made our way to montepulciano and the christmas market in the grande piazza then on to Florence and of course amazing Rome. All of Italy is a magical place during Xmas time.
I’ve also spent thanksgiving in London and that city knows how to decorate. All the neighborhoods streets had lights strewn across. And all different…so so pretty. It was so nice to stroll on the south bank and grab a hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts at one of the any little market stalls. Also a beautiful city decorated to the nines for Christmas.
And one of my favorite places to visit with children in early December is to visit Disney World. Best Christmas card picture opportunities-so many decorations and combining the happiest place on earth with the happiest holiday and no crowds was truly magical.
Christmas markets in Rothenberg and Nuremberg and Salzburg. A superb trip began with a 2 night stay in Rothenberg ob der Tauber, including a Nuremberg day trip, followed by 4 days in Salzburg including Christmas eve mass in the Cathedral and buying a few dozen eggs at the Egg shop! Then a couple days in Innsbruck and 5 in Vienna over New Years, highlighted by New Years eve Beethoven 9th concert with the Vienna Symphony and New Years Day, the Philharmonic at the Musikverein (Das Neujahrskonzert der Wiener Philharmonike, televised worldwide). Only negative was weather was a bit warm – watching TV on New Years day we saw it was snowing back home in New Jersey while it was 50 degrees in Vienna.
Nuremberg Christmas Market was definitely one of the largest we stopped at, but my favorite was Prague! Gluhwein! Definitely need some Christmas Markets in the USA.
Google Christmas markets in US. I did and going Dec 3rd to a Scandinavian Christmas Market in Raleigh NC!
Perfect timing on the article Sam! I need your help! I am alone this Christmas and REALLY don’t want to stay home by myself. I figured a getaway was just what Santa ordered. Unfortunately, the unlimited but unsatisfactory options are overwhelming me. I need you and your reader’s help with suggestions, please!!!
I’m in my 40’s and would love a place that is solo-friendly and welcoming, but not boring. Here are some details to help;
Cold Weather, No further than 350 miles from Morgantown, WV, non-skier friendly, budget friendly but I can splurge up to $175 or $200 a night, I’m a water freak and would LOVE a nice indoor pool where I’m staying or if there’s one nearby I could use, not crawling with other people’s kids screaming, maybe someplace that serves family style meals, big lodge or resort with a walk-able cute town not too far away, not in a big city, not a small B&B type thing – wanting more options and variety of people, good food & cozy bars or other attractions that I could enjoy on my own -but not really feel on my own? There are a lot of great organizations and websites that cater to solo travel, but unfortunately they’re often outside of my budget for travel. But, what I can do is drive to places that are solo-friendly if I knew where to find them. I’d love some suggestions. Also I love all things SAM! She’d totally want to be my best friend!
Look at the Pococnos if you want water places, though you aren’t going to find anywhere that won’t have children, especially at Christmas time.
Try Massanutten resort. It meets some if your requirements. We are just checking out after a long weekend
When my granny was still living, we used to travel to Annapolis MD every year to spend the holidays with her. She passed in 2010 which gave me 52 Christmases and NYEs in Annapolis. It is a charming town at any time of year.
Such a great article, I would love to visit the one in Nuremburg!
Jackson hole Wyoming, best place to spend Christmas or summer!!
We were in Nuremberg in November 2018. Great Christmas market. Loved the little sausages in a roll! Budapest had a great Christmas market too!
I “Love Actually” Christmas in London ????????????
Have had a handful of Christmases visiting family in England. Christmas in The Cotswolds is beyond charming. Also, Birmingham (UK) has a fabulous Christmas market. It’s huge! I read it’s the biggest outside of Germany/Austria. Definitely worth a visit.
My daughter and I spent last weekend in New York City. Maybe you missed this one on your list because you live there. But, it was absolutely breathtaking even for us from Colorado.
I love Spain at Christmas time. From Madrid Christmas markets to the lights and donkeys of Mijas, it’s all beautiful..
Christmas is wonderful in Kitzbuhl Austria , a charming ski village in the Alps. Also, Rothenberg Germany. Lans ,Austria in the mountain above Innsbruck, if there is snow don’t miss a sleigh ride its right out of Dr. Zhivago. Very romantic.
7 day Christmas markets bus tour along ‘romantic road’ was great. Just beware it’s all about you ‘buying stuff”. Was priced right. Each town you enter the bus company gives you a sticker to wear on jacket ” in case you get lost”. I assume the bus tour company gets a kickback or wants vendors to see THEIR impact, but not a problem for us. Add a Eurail pass and arrive early, stay after the tour. Several options from Berlin down to Munich.
One year we were at Disney world between Thanksgiving and Christmas when they went into “Christmas mode”.
Overnight there must have been 100,000 poinsettias placed on the ground so that from monorail you couldn’t see grass in Epcot.. JUST flowers. HOW many workers (temps) must have been in there?!
The Biltmore in Asheville,NC gets all decked outuntil early January. Costs about $30 entrance fee.
Kennebunkport,ME. has had http://www.christmasprelude.com since 1986. Singing carols by a bonfire. Pancake breakfast at firehouse. Hayrides. Santa arrives in lobster boat. (Think “It’s a wonderful life”. ) A lot of the activities have a fee but for local charities. Check that link.
Iceland was great – especially if you are staying through New Years. They have an amazing fireworks!
We spent Christmas on the Big Island in Hawaii one year. There was a Christmas parade with hula dancers on the floats and Santa wore shorts. Candy was thrown out to the children. So much fun.
This will be the first year in a long time that we won’t be away the week after Christmas due to the pandemic. We were going to return to Williamsburg, Va. for a colonial Christmas. Buenas Aires, Patagonia, Switzerland, Venice, Quebec City, Key West, Maui, San Francisco, Scottsdale, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head and of course, New York City have been wonderful vacations for Christmas!
A crack pinatas? Sounds like a party!
I like to travel over the holidays! Have been to Napa, NYC, Paris and London. So funny – in NY people kept telling my daughter and I it was too cold to walk (wherever we wanted to go). We still laugh about that.
Last year 2019, we left from Boston airport on Christmas Eve to travel to Turkey for 10 days. This was my dream trip that I has searched for, for many years and I was not disappointed. We travelled on a bus and covered 1900 miles from Istanbul to Cappadocia. If you have only been to Istanbul, you have not seen Turkey. Our guide was the best we have ever had, and we have travelled a lot. Favorite things were the Whirling Dervishes, the Mausoleum of Ataturk, Ephesus and seeing places where the Apostle Paul travelled. Our group of 39 was fantastic. We choose to travel in the Winter months of the country we are travelling. It is less crowded and less hot. We had rain and wind and snow and sunshine. Now, a year later, it is just a dream – a perfect dream.
Tahiti. Jut not my idea of Christmas. Had to leave my 3 kids at home as their dad didn’t want them along. The youngest was an infant. Went back to Tahiti 18 yrs later (different partner) and had a blast! This year we’ll be in Oregon with our son and family. First time in about 15 years to spend Christmas with him!!!
Lucca near Florence is very nice for Christmas. Smallish town, lots of wonderful renaissance architecture, christmas decor all over, very local flavor, Big Ancient Wall around the town. beautiful old tower with trees growing out the top, etc. Relaxing, Foot traffic only.
30 minutes by train to Florence.
And Florence! We spent a great 4 days there after christmas in Rome, really enjoyed it. Stayed two short blocks in nice apartment with view of Duomo. There are almost just many locals and Italians visiting, so very few real tourists, which is great. Museums are mostly open. Weather is cold but wasn’t that difficult, beats summer mosquitos and heat. Loads of old architecture, Christmas cheer to enjoy.
London at Christmas is magical!
The lights draped across streets and alleys, the Christmas markets tucked away and department stores have a bustle and truly remarkable decor!
Church at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve to hear the choir was a special memory.
Fireworks on the Thames to celebrate New Years was the best. Highly recommend
Some of my favorite Christmas markets include: Budapest, Bratislava, Montreux, Prague and York. They were all so lively and while other cities have bigger ones these had a special spirit to them. Didn’t like the big monstrosity in London it was more like a carnival. Unfortunately it seems that Christmas markets have become more of a business and the items you see in one market will be in all the markets and the booths are run by Big companies and just hire some locals to man them. But in places you’ll still be able to find handmade goods and eat unknown meats.
Last year spent Christmas and New Years in Spain and Portugal. It was so incredible. The city’s and small hill town decorated for the holidays with huge lighted trees, bows of lights across the streets and on buildings, cathedrals and small churches with Nativities and beautiful Christmas alters. Christmas stahls and shops decorated to the hilt and selling specialty foods and gifts. Just amazing. I can’t wait to visit some of your recommendations. Thank you.
Thanks for sharing.