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Christmas vacations: 15 of the best places to go for holiday spirit

Dec 4, 2022, 12:36 PM
General view during the 2022 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Cen...
General view during the 2022 Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Rockefeller Center on November 30, 2022 in New York City. (John Lamparski/Getty Images)
(John Lamparski/Getty Images)
(CNN) — Anyplace can put up a few lights and call it a holiday celebration, but travelers who really love Christmas want more.

Many places have plans to return to a livelier season after two years of subdued or canceled festivities because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

From Finland to Mexico, these 15 destinations around the world traditionally offer up some of the best holiday atmosphere for a Christmas-themed vacation:

Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

While popular lore would have us believe the North Pole as the official home of Santa Claus and his jolly missus, the Finns would have us believe otherwise.

For them, Rovaniemi is Christmas HQ, located just north of the Arctic Circle in Lapland. Children here make gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, enroll in Elf School or take a calligraphy class and compose their Christmas wish lists with a traditional quill.

You may also want to visit the Ranua Wildlife Park, home to baby polar bears, wolverines and moose.

The Arktikum is a science center where the mystery of the northern lights is revealed.

Those in search of a truly frosty experience can stay in the Arctic Snow Hotel, made entirely of snow and ice, but equipped with saunas and hot tubs in which to thaw.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Close to Philadelphia and New York City, Bethlehem offers a smaller-city Christmas escape.

Settled in the 1700s by Moravian colonists, Bethlehem is justifiably proud of its Live Advent Calendar, which can be enjoyed starting at 5:30 p.m. from December 1 to 23.

It is a free, family-friendly event in which a town crier rings a bell up and down Main Street to call visitors to the Goundie House (the oldest house on Main Street). A child from the crowd is invited to come knock three times, and then a local business comes out with a surprise for everyone.

“The Christmas City” also has added new decorations, including a giant LED star, life-sized toy soldiers and thousands of lights strung up all over the place.

Bath, England

This historic city in southwest England celebrates both the birth of Jesus and the birth of Jane Austen with plenty of fanfare.

The Jane Austen Centre — and on-site Regency Tearoom — is the best place to learn about the city’s most famous resident.

The Theatre Royal, which Austen mentions in “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion,” has a varied program of holiday drama, musicals, opera and concerts.

The Bath Christmas Market has a multitude of wooden chalets selling distinctively British handmade crafts in a quaint Georgian setting. Straddled between the imposing Bath Abbey and the venerable Roman Baths, the market offers a festive way to discover the character of this historic city.

Bath on Ice is a great excuse to bundle up and lace up skates.

San Fernando, Philippines

If Asia were to have a Christmas capital, San Fernando in the heavily Roman Catholic Philippines would be a top nomination.

The city, northwest of Manila, is renowned for its Giant Lantern Festival, which starts on December 17 and ends January 1. San Fernando’s lantern-making tradition dates back to the late 18th century.

The highlight of a visit here is the parol, a colorful, electric Christmas lantern that symbolizes the Star of Bethlehem. The parols recall psychedelic kaleidoscopes, brilliant stained glass windows, prismatic pinwheels or oversized snowflakes.

Barcelona, Spain

Anyone who can manage to extend their holiday until the 12th day of Christmas — aka Three Kings Day or Epiphany — can catch up with Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar in Barcelona.

On the evening of January 5, the kings (also known as the “three wise men”) arrive in bearded and velvet-robed splendor at the city’s port on the Santa Eulalia, their very own ship.

Cannons are fired, fireworks are set off, and as the mayor hands them the keys to the city, the magic of the Magi officially commences.

They parade through the streets in a magnificent cavalcade of floats that includes camels, elephants, giraffes and dazzling costumes.

New York City

Rockefeller Center lies at the core of the New York Christmas. Its famed ice rink has been around since 1936; the decorated tree has been a holiday tradition since 1931.

Nearby Radio City hosts the annual Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes.

On the southwest corner of Central Park, Columbus Circle hosts more than 100 vendors selling clothes, gifts, snacks and drinks at the Holiday Market.

Fashion’s biggest labels join in the festivities, making appearances in elaborate Christmas displays at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s Herald Square flagship store and other department stores.

Nairobi, Kenya

The magic of Christmas is in the holiday chaos of the Kenyan capital.

Visitors will find boisterous carol music blaring in different languages at various stores, on public transportation and in the long lines at restaurants and supermarkets.

A visit to a friend’s house or popular eatery might mean a plate heaped with chapati (flat bread), a spicy rice known as pilau and grilled meat — or nyama choma in Swahili — just to name a few.

Revelers can burn off the calories with a hike at the scenic Karura Forest Reserve, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts made popular by Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai.

Iconic Nairobi National Park offers safari options for visitors to see rhinos, lions, giraffes, and other animals within a backdrop of the sprawling city.

For Christmas gifts, the bustling open-air markets such as Maasai offer authentic African paintings, jewelry, clothes and fabrics unique to Kenya.

Nuremberg, Germany

The Nuremberg Christmas market (Nurnberger Christkindlesmarkt) is a German institution, traditionally pulling in more than 2 million visitors each year. It has a lot of history behind it — its first known written mention dates to 1628.

In “the little city of wood and cloth,” visitors to market booths can find traditional, often handmade Christmas decorations, wooden toys and all sorts of food and drink.

Adults can enjoy Nuremberg spicy gingerbread and mugs of mulled wine.

And for families with the kids along, there’s the Toy Museum.

Bogotá, Colombia

Colombia’s high-altitude capital brightens up each year with Christmas lights galore.

In Bogotá, there’s the tradition of “Ruta Navideña,” or the Christmas Route. Celebrants stroll popular spots around the city to take in the dazzling displays. Click here for some of best places to go, including breathtaking Monserrate, a high mountain that dominates the city.

Día de las Velitas (Little Candles’ Day) is celebrated on December 7, which is the eve of the Immaculate Conception. It officially marks the start of Christmas in Colombia. People light small candles and paper lanterns, placing them on windowsills and balconies.

Christmas is sweet here. Natilla is a custard dish that resembles a flan or pudding and is eaten alongside other festive favorites such as buñuelos (fried dough balls served hot)

There’s a travel bonus to coming to Bogotá at Christmastime: It’s the beginning of the dry season.

Malta

While December is off-season, this heavily Roman Catholic island in the Mediterranean Sea has a festive and spiritual vibe at Christmas.

Visiting presepju, or nativity scenes, is an integral part of Christmas here. Every year, residents proudly open their shutters, and sometimes even their garage doors, to display their holy crib confections to the public.

Downtown Valletta is home to a lively holiday spirit, with carolers singing outside the Baroque St. John’s Co-Cathedral during Advent. See a dizzying display of Christmas lights on Republic Street.

A visit to the privately owned Malta Toy Museum, featuring dolls, soldiers, train sets, and clockwork tin trinkets dating as far back as the 1790s, is a heartwarming homage to childhood.

Quebec City, Canada

A haven for environmentally friendly, outdoor enthusiasts, Quebec bustles with winter activity, offering holiday programs for all tastes.

Old Quebec is turned into a picturesque Christmas village. Sausage and roast chestnut lovers can browse the wares at the German Christmas market. The more religiously inclined can wander an exposition of nativity scenes from around the world.

The nearby Sentier des Caps de Charlevoix offers family-friendly hiking, snowshoeing and skiing.

Speed devils can zoom around in a snowmobile from Nord Expe.

Can’t make it for Christmas? There’s still the Quebec Winter Carnival from February 3 to 12, 2023.

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Piñatas, posadas and ponche sum up the festivities in this colorful town in central interior Mexico, where Christmas is both a solemn and celebratory affair.

Leading up to December 24, visitors are likely to stumble upon Mary and Joseph strolling the streets, as locals make pilgrimages from home to home, singing to beg forposada” (or “shelter”) as they reenact the journey to Bethlehem.

Piñatas and ponche (a mulled fruit drink) cap a long evening of peregrinations around this cobblestoned city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its wealth of grand churches, well-preserved architecture and grand zocalos.

Salzburg and Oberndorf, Austria

Birthplace of Mozart and filming location for “The Sound of Music,” Salzburg is chocolate-box perfect. Think snow-capped mountains, baroque architecture and traditional Christmas markets.

It’s even the home of “Silent Night.” The popular hymn was performed for the first time in nearby Oberndorf bei Salzburg on Christmas Eve 1818.

The town also plays host to a more unusual Yuletide tradition.

Across Austria and Bavaria (in nearby Germany), people dress up as a terrifying Alpine beast known as Krampus and rampage through the streets in search of naughty children in need of punishment. The Krampus runs in Salzburg are held on various dates in December.

Strasbourg, France

Get both French and German flavors of Christmas in this border city that feels the influences of both cultures. Dating back to 1570, Strasbourg claims to be the oldest Christmas market in France and one of the oldest in Europe.

Strasbourg’s series of themed Christmas villages morph the city into a visual and gastronomic wonderland. Hundreds of stalls are spread out in numerous locations.

Make photographic and visual memories with a 30-meter-tall (98-foot-tall) Christmas tree that is brought to the central square of Place Kléber each year and decorated with ornaments and lights.

Alongside the traditional market, there’s the OFF alternative Christmas fair, featuring live music and a street art trail.

Queenstown, New Zealand

The traditional Christmas colors of red, green and white take on an entirely new meaning in New Zealand.

Here, red represents the pōhutukawa (New Zealand’s ruby-red flowering Christmas tree). White represents the pristine sandy beaches. And green? The kiwi, of course!

Sun-lovers who want to join Santa in his surf shorts should definitely head to Queenstown, where warm summer temperatures mean folks can jetboat, river surf or paraglide on Lake Wakatipu.

Or visitors can simply set up camp along the lakefront and enjoy a hearty Christmas meal of lamb, seafood and chicken on the barbie.


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Christmas vacations: 15 of the best places to go for holiday spirit