While there's much to be said for a quiet Christmas at home, there are also unforgettable holiday memories to be made when exploring a far-flung city over the holiday, particularly one known for its festivities, decorations, and overall spirit. From Vienna to Prague and Zagreb, here are the cities around the globe that travel bloggers and travel industry insiders say are the top places to visit for Christmas.
London starts showing its Christmas spirit at the beginning of November, when famed Oxford Street, the capital's busiest shopping street, switches on a glowing blanket of white lights (some 750,000 lights to be exact). The city also hosts numerous Christmas markets and fairs that are well worth bundling up for, says London resident Deemer Cass, who operates a Christmas tree delivery and decoration business. One of the most famous markets is in Hyde Park. In addition, there are several places throughout the city to ice skate surrounded by Christmas decorations, lights and music. "It feels like a never-ending fairy tale, especially for children," Cass said.
An already fascinating city to explore thanks to its colorful baroque buildings, Gothic churches, and medieval Astronomical Clock, Prague rolls out the charm come Christmas. The holidays here include ice skating in the heart of the historic Old Town Square, a variety of Christmas-themed theater performances and Nativity scenes all over the city, says Czech travel blogger Veronika Hradilikova, who writes TravelGeekery. There are also many Christmas markets around the city.
The capital of Croatia, Zagreb, has twice been recognized as the location of the best Christmas market in Europe. The city also hosts a wildly popular annual Christmas celebration known as Advent Zagreb, during which the sounds of Christmas bells are everywhere, an enormous ice skating rink is set up in Zagreb center, and there are also various concerts and festive events taking place. To complete the holiday scene, the city is draped in countless Christmas lights and mulled wine is available on practically every corner.
While Christmas in the tropics may not conjure idyllic holiday visions, Singapore certainly knows how to celebrate the holiday, says Singapore-based travel blogger Bino Chua, creator of the site I Wander. Orchard Road, the city's main thoroughfare, is glittering with lights and bedazzled with decorations. There's also a spectacular annual Christmas Wonderland that includes skating under the stars, performances by the Ethiopian Circus Abyssinia, food provided by award-winning restaurants, and Southeast Asia's tallest sculpture made of Italian lights.
A city steeped in history, beautiful architecture and classical music, Vienna provides a classic, European Christmas backdrop, finding its way onto numerous lists of top Christmas cities around the world. The city hosts three outdoor Christkindlmarkts. Taking in a performance by the Vienna Boys' Choir is also a must. And don't miss walking along the city's main pedestrian areas to see the giant, illuminated crystal chandeliers decorating the streets.
Tokyo sparkles during the holidays thanks to millions of LED lights and countless displays that blanket the city from mid-November through at least January. City trees, buildings and landmarks such as Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Skytree are all lit up, creating a winter wonderland. There are also seasonal concerts and European-style Christmas markets.
With a majestic backdrop of the ancient Bath Abbey and its soaring spires and 18th century Georgian architecture at every turn, the English country town of Bath offers a uniquely picturesque holiday getaway. "Bath's annual Christmas Market transforms the historic city into an enchanting maze of over 200 wooden chalets, holiday decorations and traditional festivities," says Katryna Balboni, senior editor at TravelPirates.
The Belgian capital is home to one of the largest Christmas markets outside of Germany, says Balboni. Stretching from the Grand Palace to Place Sainte Catherine and beyond, it's a sprawling affair packed with activities for children and adults. "In addition to more than 240 stalls serving everything from warming shots of liquor to fluffy waffles, visitors will find an illuminated Ferris wheel, shimmering light displays and a 200-foot skating rink," said Balboni. Known as Winter Wonders and Christmas Market, the festivities also include sound and light show, and light parades.
Nuremberg is known for hosting one of Europe's most epic Christmas markets. Not only is there and endless sea of stalls selling crafts and Christmas ornaments, but there are also stagecoach tours and a fairytale children's Christmas market that includes a nostalgic merry-go-round, Christmas bakery and Santa Claus house. And don't miss sampling the local gingerbread, which has been made in the city for more than 600 years.
Strasbourg's famous Christmas celebration dates back to 1570, making it one of the oldest in Europe. A city now known as the "Capital of Christmas," the historic center of Strasbourg is filled with more than 300 chalets selling everything from arts and crafts to traditional Alsatian Christmas decorations to local culinary specialties. There's also a wide range of shows, concerts, and cultural events to take in.
Beautiful year round, the Danish capital of Copenhagen comes into its own during the holidays, says Balboni of TravelPirates. "Cheerful markets pop up throughout the city, and every shop window glitters with candles and festive baubles," she said. "But it's the spectacular decorations and 60-odd market stalls at Tivoli Gardens that really steal the show." A charming amusement park, Tivoli Gardens transforms into a dazzling, light-festooned winter wonderland each Christmas. Don't miss sampling some of the many traditional Danish Christmas delicacies being served at local restaurants during the holidays.
Slightly closer to home, Quebec City still offers plenty of Old World charm. "The holiday season transforms the city's old town into an enchanting wonderland of snow-covered cobblestone streets, warm lights and frosty windowpanes," says Balboni. In the heart of Old Quebec is an annual German Christmas market that offers a festive maze of traditional stalls and twinkling decorations along with a variety of German treats ranging from bratwurst to mulled wine and gingerbread. When not shopping or indulging in gastronomic treats, don't miss the choral singing, and various indoor and outdoor performances.
Yet another French city that turns into a fairytale-like vision for Christmas, the romantic churches, picturesque canals, and half-timbered buildings in Colmar's well-preserved Old Town are illuminated by thousands of twinkling lights each holiday season. (The city is full of buildings dating from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.) Five Christmas markets are also held here. "Each one is more charming than the last," said Balboni. The city's pedestrian center meanwhile, makes it quite easy to meander from one merry corner of the medieval city to the other.
It's hard to beat the snowy charm of Reykjavik when it comes to picturesque Christmas settings. The city also loves to celebrate the holidays and starts doing so as early as November when the Christmas tree is lit in Austurvöllur square. An open air ice skating rink is set up in Ingólfstorg Square each December and on the outskirts of the city is an annual Christmas market. An added bonus when it comes to Christmas in Reykjavik: There are regular displays of the Northern Lights, one of the best reasons to put this destination on your Christmas list. Another reason is, prices fall in winter.
Spending Christmas in a city located just north of the Arctic Circle is something you won't soon forget. Rovaniemi, in Lapland, Finland, is a known for deep snow and pine forests. It is also home to Santa Claus Village (because where else would Santa live than in the Arctic Circle?). Visitors can participate in cookie making with Mrs. Claus and meet Santa Claus himself. Santa's main post office is also located here in case you need to drop off a wish list. And when not chatting with the big guy in red, visits to Finland this time of year offer the opportunity for husky-dog sled rides, and even sled-led reindeer safaris.
Estonians believe their capital city was the site of the very first decorated Christmas tree in Europe, says Balboni of TravelPirates. While that claim is impossible to prove, the city's Christmas tree tradition does date back to 1441. Today, the city offers quite the memorable holiday experience. Located in the historic town hall square, Tallinn's annual Christmas market is the heart of much of the activity, where there's festive decorations, lights, and local merchants offering Estonian Christmas cuisine such as black pudding, sour cabbage, gingerbread and hot Christmas drinks.
Another city claiming to have one of the first Christmas trees, (this one dating back to 1510), Riga likes to refer to itself as "the home of Christmas." During the holidays the streets are filled with the sweet scent of gingerbread and mulled wine thanks to the many Christmas markets around the city. Don't miss sampling local delicacies such as grey peas and bacon, which are said to be ideal on a crisp winter day. A variety of child- focused events and a popular carousel of wooden figures are among the highlights. For the adults, there are opportunities to learn about Latvian traditions, such as log dragging and Christmas cooking.
Cologne is home to numerous Christmas markets, the largest of which is held just in front of the city's iconic Kölner Dom cathedral. Millions of visitors from around the world arrive each year to walk amid the hundreds of quaint huts selling crafts and to watch artisans crafting their works. There are also glittering decorations as far as the eye can see, Christmas music, and a Christmas Market Express train that drives through the decked-out streets of the old city of Cologne. Hundreds of Nativity scenes can also be found around the city.