The Best Cities in the World to Experience Christmas
As the song goes, it’s Christmastime in the city! Here are those with the top things to do, holiday sights to see, and all-around seasonal spirit.
New York City
At the head of our list is New York City, the iconic setting for so many Christmas movies. See the “Believe” sign on the facade of Macy’s on 34th Street, go skating in Rockefeller Center in front of the big tree (or if lines are too long, check out Central Park’s Wollman Rink for fantastic skyline views), visit the Christmas shops at Bryant Park Winter Village, and check out the amazing holiday window displays on the stores of Fifth Avenue. And of course, make a stop to see the famous Radio City Rockettes’ Christmas Spectacular. Here are more Christmas movie locations that exist in real life.
For an up-and-coming travel destination (read: affordable) with one of the best preserved medieval towns in the world, head to this Baltic capital across the sea from Finland. It also just so happens to be gorgeous at Christmastime, with an authentic Christmas market, Christmas festival, concerts, and Christmas tree—thought to be the oldest public display of a Christmas tree in the world.
Have an Old World Christmas without leaving North America with a trip to historic Quebec City. With its cobbled streets and stone buildings in the shadow of the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, which looks like a castle but is actually a hotel, visitors feel like they’re in a holiday fairytale. Plus, its northern destination makes a white Christmas nearly a guarantee; enjoy this winter wonderland with a stroll down one of the most beautiful streets in the world, Rue du Petit-Champlain. Cap it off (if you dare) with the toboggan slide right in the center of town, thrilling riders since 1884 with speeds of over 40 miles per hour. Don’t want a white Christmas? Find out the best destinations for a warm Christmas instead.
Although Bruges is beautiful any time of year, this pedestrian-friendly city is breathtaking to walk around at Christmastime—or take a boat ride along the glistening canals. The medieval buildings look like gingerbread houses, and the lights decorating them give a truly magical glow. The city’s holiday events include a midwinter festival, winter market, caroling and music, and an ice sculpture exhibit.
Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock
Snow-covered Boston feels even cozier during the holidays, even with its often frigid temperatures. Celebrate a classic New England Christmas with a walk among the seasonal ambiance of gas-lit Beacon Hill, enjoy the lights show at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and take in a festive concert from the famous Boston Pops. Then, snuggle up by the fire—maybe you’ll even get snowed in! These are the best Christmas towns in every state.
If you like your Christmas carols played on bagpipes, travel to the mix of ancient and modern that is Edinburgh. From the medieval Royal Mile heading up to Edinburgh Castle to the six-week Christmas festival on George Street in the city’s New Town, Edinburgh comes alive with holiday merriment to entertain visitors. Then, stay for Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year’s celebration that’s an even bigger deal than Christmas.
If you’re looking for a genuine German Christmas market, you’ll have to head to (where else?) Germany itself. Although Christkindlesmarkts abound throughout the country, one of the best-loved is in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg. Among the medieval buildings and stone walls of the city’s Old Town, the 400-year-old market lies in the shadow of the Gothic Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). Sample its sausage, gingerbread, and mulled wine; browse the unique shops, and meet the Christkind, the angel-like symbol of the market. Stay closer to home with the best Christmas market in every state.
For those who celebrate religious services on Christmas, there isn’t a more spiritual place to be than Rome with its many beautiful churches and cathedrals. Nativity scenes, or presepi, are big here, and the Vatican (the seat of the Pope and home to St. Peter’s Basilica) features its annual “100 Presepi” exhibition. Visitors can also attend Christmas Eve midnight mass (check the website for the actual time) with the Pope via huge screens in St. Peter’s square; tickets for inside the basilica usually sell out months in advance. In addition, the Pope will appear on the basilica’s balcony to give his “Urbi et Orbi” (“to the city and the world”) blessing on Christmas Day.
You can’t get any Christmas-ier than a sleigh ride pulled by actual reindeer—and that’s one of the highlights of a visit to Rovaniemi, the gateway city to the Lapland area of Finland. “The official hometown of Santa Claus” features Santa Claus Village on the Arctic Circle, where visitors can take reindeer and husky rides, stay in a glass igloo, and of course visit the big man himself. Rovaniemi also offers other seasonal activities like viewing the Northern Lights, winter swimming (yes, that’s a thing), ice fishing, skiing, and enjoying a warm sauna.
Lake Placid, New York
Courtesy Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, Lake Placid
This city was actually America’s first winter resort and hosted two Olympics. In addition to the myriad outdoor winter sports and activities, Lake Placid really gets into the holiday spirit. Stroll along the shops of Main Street—if you get there in early December (7 to 9) you can enjoy the town’s official Holiday Village Stroll. Continue your walk all the way around Mirror Lake (interestingly, the town of Lake Placid is actually not next to its namesake lake, but this smaller one). You can even ride a toboggan chute onto the lake. Or, guests of Mirror Lake Inn Resort and Spa can ski with Olympic medalist Andrew Weibrecht at Whiteface Mountain, where he learned his craft.
Nordic countries are of course associated with Christmas, so we had to include Reykjavik on our list. (Note: If you’re going elsewhere in Europe, you can often get a great rate on a stopover here.) Although there might not be much daylight in Iceland in December, Ingolfstorg Square lights up like a winter wonderland with a skating rink, market, and Christmas village. Plus, see what Christmas was like in earlier Icelandic times at the Arbaer Open Air Museum. But although you might spot Santa in Reykjavik, you’re more likely to come across the 13 “Yule Lads.” According to Icelandic folklore, one lad visits on each of the 13 days leading up to Christmas, and kids put shoes in their windows every night hoping for a gift. Check out these 8 Vintage Christmas ads for the past 90 years.
No doubt “Good King Wenceslas” will be running through your head as you wander through the holiday market of Prague‘s Wenceslas Square, named for the real Bohemian king of Christmas carol fame. But the city has even more to recommend it as a Christmas destination—it’s alive with seasonal arts and culture exhibits, nativity scenes at churches, and more Christmas markets at the Old Town Square and Prague Castle. Plus, Prague is so well-preserved, a walk through the Gothic and Baroque architecture of the Old Town will make you feel as if you’ve gone back in time. Advent in Prague (December 1 to 23) is the only time you can see a uniformed lamp-lighter using an old-fashioned burning wick to light the gas lamps on the historic Charles Bridge.
Get your “hygge” on in the cozy Christmas city of Copenhagen. Hygge is a Danish concept embracing warm, snugly feelings that you get by curling up on the couch with loved ones, a fire, a cup of tea, a thick blanket, and a classic holiday movie. But you can also experience hygge outside among the twinkling lights of Tivoli Gardens, with a mug of hot glogg in the quaint Nyhavn district, and at the city’s many Christmas markets. Here are more Christmas traditions to steal from around the world.
Salzburg is a city of music, as it’s the hometown of Mozart—not to mention The Sound of Music‘s Von Trapp family. Expect to hear lots of the unique Austrian folk tradition of Advent Singing. Visit the “Advent Magic” of Hellbrunn Palace, where the courtyard is transformed with 10,000 red Christmas balls and lights strewn among the fountains and grottoes. For the scarier side of the season, be on the lookout for the folk figures of Krampus and Perchten, who are said to frighten away the dark spirits of winter.
There’s a reason we associate Christmas with Victorian London, and that reason is Charles Dickens’ iconic holiday tale, A Christmas Carol. Today, Christmas in London is a mix of modern merriment and old-time tradition to melt any Scrooge’s heart. Take in the magnificent lights along the Oxford Street shopping district and the South Bank’s riverside walk; go ice-skating in Somerset House’s 18th-century courtyard rink; hear carols at the Royal Albert Hall, and enjoy the festivities of Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. Plus, take a virtual tour of Buckingham Palace’s Christmas decorations.
The “capital of Christmas” is well named—Strasbourg‘s historic Christmas market established in 1570 is the oldest in France and one of the oldest in Europe. Located in the Alsace region, the city looks like a storybook at holiday time, with the central square of Place Kléber illuminated with thousands of lights and the city’s Great Christmas Tree. Ramble along glittering canals lined by half-timbered houses in Strasbourg’s Petite France district. In addition to the main market, have a “greener” Christmas with the alternative OFF Market, which focuses on mindful consumption, recycled offerings, and organic treats.
Holiday activities abound in the Swiss city of Zurich. The huge Christmas tree in the train station is hung with Swarovski crystals, twelve thousand lights illuminate the main downtown street of Bahnhofstrasse, and five ice-skating rinks are spread throughout the city. Choirs serenade Christmas market shoppers from the 80-person Singing Christmas Tree. There’s even a Christmas circus on an island in the Limmat river, and candle-making on Bürkliplatz at the banks of Lake Zurich. Discover these small towns that are even cozier when it snows.
Valkenburg, The Netherlands
Lots of cities have Christmas markets—but how many have one in a cave? Valkenburg’s Velvet Cave hosts the annual more-than-just-a-market subterranean destination: Visit it for seasonal murals and sculptures, an 18th-century chapel, and cozy food and drink spots. Above the cave (actually a labyrinth of passageways) are the ruins of the 11th century Valkenburg Castle. As if one underground market wasn’t enough, other caves throughout the city offer them as well. Find out 20 of the best small towns for Christmas lights.