The Best Places to Spend Christmas
A girl on a donkey leads a candle-carrying procession past San Miguel de Allende's shops festooned with piñatas and poinsettias. When they stop before a Spanish-colonial building and break into song, you realize you’re witnessing the reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter that takes place in the days leading up to Christmas.
Whether your winter holiday trip enhances your yuletide nostalgia with traditions, sparkly lights, and nippy air or makes a radical break from it—by, say, taking you to warmer climes or a quiet, far-flung hideaway—breaking the habit of staying home will always reward you with a Christmas you’ll never forget. With that goal in mind, we’ve rounded up diverse, exceptional places to get you in the spirit of taking off.
Quebec City is one of our favorite historic destinations for the holidays. The narrow cobblestoned streets and stone architecture of the walled city, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, make it as romantic and European as it gets on this side of the pond. Add to that a proclivity for snowfall and an abundance of top-notch bars and restaurants, and you may wish the New Year could be postponed.
But the appeal of warming up over the holidays is undeniable, too. For the die-hard contrarian, Kaikoura, New Zealand, ought to do the trick. It’s the height of summer there at Christmas, a holiday most often celebrated outdoors with backyard barbecues. But it’s also a great time to be hiking the rainforest of the Kaikoura mountain range or on the waters of Kaikoura Bay, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. It’s the summer home of sperm whales, fur seals, dusky dolphins, and pilot whales, and all it takes to commune with them is a boat and a bit of perseverance.
South America has weathered the global recession better than most regions, and it’s not hard to see why. Brazil in particular is peppered with off-the-beaten-track gems that offer a true escape, like the coastal Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, about 140 miles south of Rio. Its friendly locals, cerulean waters, exceptional beaches, and exotic-bird-filled jungles may make you forget what holiday it is altogether. Like we said: unforgettable.
Why Go: The snowy city island of Trømso offers unparalleled views of the northern lights (look for them between 6 p.m. and midnight) and a chance to say you’ve been to the North Pole—well, the Arctic Circle, anyway—for Christmas. Plus, there’s dogsledding, great food, and a mountaintop cable car. Here, “day” is just a couple hours of twilight blue.
Where to Stay: Most hotels shut down for the holiday, but not the Clarion Hotel Bryggen, right on the harbor. The views of Trømso Sound are best admired from the roof’s steamy Jacuzzi.
Holiday Dinner: Stay put at the Clarion for a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner at its restaurant, Astro. The chef has been known to serve Nordic dishes like basil-glazed filet of catfish and whole roasted filet of pork, and recommends a side of French salt-baked Rosewald potatoes.
Why Go: Stroll historic Nerudova street in Mala Strana to view the city’s Gothic and Baroque architecture, or catch an opera or ballet at the State Opera or National Theater. Visit the holiday markets in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
Where to Stay: The 109-room Hotel Josef is outfitted with Baleri armchairs, Philippe Starck bathroom fixtures, and fluffy duvets.
Don’t Miss: Standout local brews; grab a pint of pilsner at cozy U Pinkasů.
Why Go: The wilderness Urho Kekkonen National Park, a 90-minute flight from Helsinki, is an actual winter wonderland: traverse the frosty landscape via a reindeer-pulled sled, or go cross-country skiing on the Saariselkä trails.
Where to Stay: Some of the igloos at Hotel Kakslauttanen are made of thermal glass—so you stay warm watching the northern lights.
Don’t Miss: A four-hour cruise on the Sampo, which served for 26 years as an icebreaker.
Why Go: In this compact Alpine city, a display of 12,000 crystal lights marks the season on November 21. Grab a heissi schoggi (hot chocolate) and explore the galleries on Rämistrasse, check out the Conelli Christmas Circus, or listen to a holiday concert in the Romanesque-style Grossmünster church.
Where to Stay: Set on the Sihl River, the Hotel Restaurant Helvetia has 16 rooms with Art Nouveau touches.
Don’t Miss: On the eve of December 19, children set candles afloat on the Limmat River near City Hall.
Why Go: Charleston puts its own spin on the holidays—pecans roasting instead of chestnuts, eggnog spiked with bourbon, and choirs singing spirituals at Drayton Hall plantation.
Where to Stay: The 21-room Wentworth Mansion dresses in subdued Victorian finery for the holidays with magnolia wreaths, old-world Santas, and two grand Christmas trees in the foyer. Every room has its own fireplace. On your pillow at turndown: chocolate truffles.
Holiday Dinner: At Peninsula Grill, chef Graham Dailey uses a fine selection of glazes and sauces, such as on his grilled bourbon glazed jumbo shrimp, and gives you the option of sinfully grilled steak and sauce. Take your pick among blue cheese–balsamic glaze, red pepper béarnaise, foie gras–truffle butter, or brandy-peppercorn sauce.
Why Go: In this otherworldly landscape, daylight is a four-hour affair and the liquid-green aurora borealis illuminates the nighttime sky. Statues of the 12 Yule Lads (the Icelandic version of Santa Claus) peer out from every corner shop and window.
Where to Stay: For covetable views of the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral and reasonable room rates, check in to the Hótel Leifur Eiríksson.
Holiday Dinner: The seafood restaurant Vid Tjörnina lures locals and visitors alike with its classic Icelandic cuisine. How about hot smoked puffin followed by shots of Brennivín (a.k.a. schnapps, or “firewater”)?
Santa Barbara, CA
Why Go: During winter, the coastal towns in Santa Barbara County combine New England–style comfort and old California elegance with outrageous holiday kitsch.
Where to Stay: In Montecito, the 500-acre San Ysidro Ranch could be a Vermont hunting lodge (rooms have wood-beamed ceilings and stone hearths), except that it’s 20 minutes from world-class surfing at Rincon Beach.
Holiday Dinner: Go super casual at Stacky’s Seaside, which stands out like a grounded trawler. Fortify yourself with its fish and chips before hitting the Summerland Winery’s tasting room for a wine that shouldn’t work but does: a sparkling Zinfandel.
—M. G. Lord
Why Go: New England’s old-world ambience and coziness make Boston a natural choice for the holidays. Enjoy Beacon Hill’s cobblestoned streets dusted with snow, and celebrate the ghosts of Christmases past with the Christmas Revels at Harvard's Sanders Theatre.
Where to Stay: A gas fireplace warms every bedroom at the XV Beacon Hotel, which mixes classic details like an antique cage elevator with bold abstract paintings. Just a few minutes away from Boston Common and Faneuil Hall.
Holiday Dinner: No. 9 Park serves over-the-top, shockingly good cuisine. The menu showcases French- and Italian-influenced dishes such as signature prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras and Vin Santo sauce. A selection of rich desserts and artisan cheeses rounds out the offerings.
—Peter Jon Lindberg
Why Go: In this Scottish gem known for its widespread arts and theater culture, a holiday light show includes fireworks illuminating the sky from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” around the Sir Walter Scott Monument serve even better than carolers.
Holiday Dinner: Sorceresses were burned at the stake beside the gates of Edinburgh Castle in the 16th century, but nothing is scorched at the Witchery by the Castle, which stands on the site. The restaurant serves Loch Duart salmon and Gartmorn Farm duck—all cooked to perfection.
—Heidi Sherman Mitchell
Why Go: Nashville is the most flamboyant ode to the holidays east of the Mississippi; “O Tannenbaum” is sung with a twang as honky-tonks share space with family values.
Where to Stay: With Gaylord Opryland’s nearly 3,000 rooms and more than nine acres of enclosed gardens, it is no surprise that it does Christmas in a big way. Two million lights shine in outdoor displays, while large-scale tributes inside range from campy to breathtaking. If you prefer a quieter place, check into the 124-room Union Station, a refurbished train depot with a grand stained-glass ceiling in its lobby.
Holiday Dinner: With many restaurants in Nashville closed in observance of Christmas Day, why not order gourmet catering from Corner Market Catering Company? Choose from beef tenderloin on grilled crostini with horseradish mustard or tarragon crab salad in a choux pastry. Mini meringues and butterscotch bites are just enough to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Why Go: In this old-meets-new Swedish town, you can shop for Modernist designs while strolling through its 16th-century town square. Locals leave a hearty dinner of aquavit and herring by the fireplace for Santa instead of milk and cookies.
Where to Stay: High-class and centrally located on Baltzarsgatan, the Grand Hotel Garden Malmö serves traditional Swedish Christmas dishes as part of an all-you-can-eat buffet on December 25th.
Holiday Dinner: If you are not a buffet buff, book to eat at Petri Pumpa’s festive spread in the stately Elite Hotel Savoy. The fish-and-meat-centered feast includes a dozen varieties of herring and salmon; ham with red, brown, and green cabbage; and köttbullar (Swedish meatballs).
Why Go: Christmastime may be damp and foggy, but with the hordes long gone, service is relaxed and friendly, and at night, you may have the moonlit Piazza San Marco all to yourself.
Where to Stay: The opulent Hotel Cipriani is available during the holidays, and the staff is sure to fuss over you. For a more intimate experience, consider Ca' Pisani, a boutique hotel with a vaguely futuristic look.
Holiday Dinner: Italians have their big feast on the 24th. At Do Forni, indulge in one of its signature dishes, such as risotto with shrimp and seasonal vegetables or baked branzino with potatoes, tomatoes, and oregano. De Pisis at the Hotel Bauer riffs on traditional fare: turbot fillet with glazed chestnuts, fondant pumpkin and smoked ham from Tyrol.
—Peter J. Frank
Why Go: This mountain town serves up an old-fashioned holiday without all that Aspen attitude. Explore Pueblo dwellings, take a brisk ski run down the slopes, or just curl up with a rum toddy in a true Western saloon.
Where to Stay: The Rochester Hotel pays homage to Durango's cinematic past: each of the 15 rooms recalls a locally produced movie, from the Mexican-themed Viva Zapata suite to a Euro-style room called Around the World in Eighty Days. The grandly restored Strater Hotel houses the Diamond Belle Saloon, Louis L'Amour's preferred watering hole.
Holiday Dinner: Plan a Christmas Eve feast at Ken and Sue's, an easygoing bistro. Try the pork loin medallions wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon with hot cider glazed–cabbage in a sweet molasses sauce.
Why Go: Instead of carols, listen to the haunting sounds of the gamelan gong for a change while you admire the Christmas Eve sunset at the island temple of Tanah Lot.
Where to Stay: Incense wafts through the soaring lobby, and wreaths of rice plants, herbs, and flowers hang on the doors of the 22 suites and villas at the small, affordable but remarkably stylish Hotel Tugu Bali.
Holiday Dinner: The Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan jazzes up the traditional meal: choose from an array of gourmet dishes, such as Ayung "Cocotte," Grilled Yellow Fin Tuna, Oven Roasted Lamb Shank, and much more.
Why Go: Portuguese influences in seaside India, whitewashed Catholic churches, and firecrackers, bells, and carolers will make your holiday perfect as a scene from a Bollywood film.
Where to Stay: Spread over 88 acres, the Fort Aguada Beach Resort was built on the remains of a 16th-century Portuguese fortress. The hotel's holiday extravaganza includes jazz and Goan food.
Holiday Dinner: Feast at the sophisticated Casa Portuguesa, in a converted villa with gardens and verandas a short walk from the Arabian Sea.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Why Go: The Spanish colonial gem and cultural hot spot in central Mexico is electric at Christmas, with theatrical processions around town, numerous posadas reenactments, and fireworks, live music, and dancing in the main square, El Jardín. Be sure to sample ponche, a kind of Mexican hot toddy made of fruits and brandy, and the sweet bread rosca de reyes.
Where to Stay: Casa Sierra Nevada, managed by Orient-Express, is spread among six renovated 16th- to 18th-century historic Spanish colonial mansions—many with alfresco corridors, courtyards, and small gardens. Rooms feature tile baths, wood-burning fireplaces, bóvedas (curved ceilings), and paintings by local artists.
Holiday Dinner: With a shaded courtyard and foundtain, Cafe de la Parroquia is a tranquil setting for gathering over a hearty meal beginning with a bowl of sopa Azteca.
Key West, FL
Why Go: Good cheer and warm temperatures are typically Key West’s winning attributes, and Christmas is no exception. The trimmed palm trees, done-up historic inns, and four festooned blocks of boats along the historic waterfront (the “Bight Before Christmas”) only amplify the town’s merriment.
Where to Stay: Just off bustling Duval Street, the boutique Marquesa Hotel is an oasis of chill: three historic buildings and one sharing a leafy courtyard with two pools. On Christmas morning, a buffet breakfast is served poolside.
Holiday Dinner: Housed in a 1906 Victorian manse, Nine One Five’s holiday menu mixes tapas (bacon-wrapped dates; duck liver pâté) with entrées such as Soul Mama seafood soup and mushroom risotto.
Why Go: The Windy City embraces yuletide cheer to the max, with a million holiday lights along bustling Magnificent Mile; Christkindlmarket, a huge outdoor German crafts market with beer and fare like sausages to stoke your fire; a towering handmade Christmas tree; and Navy Pier’s Winter WonderFest, a holiday-themed amusement park and indoor skating rink.
Where to Stay: Peppy, tropical-themed Hotel Monaco Chicago is a Kimpton boutique hotel with verve and a sense of humor. Its wild combo of lime and plum is eye-popping, and it’s a great value in The Loop.
Holiday Dinner: Cozy wine-driven eatery the Cellar at Bin 36 is serving its creative, locally sourced menu on Christmas Day. Starter highlights like Applewood smoked bacon are followed by the likes of a cedar-plank salmon with beluga lentils and pork schnitzel with butternut squash spaetzle. Expert wine pairings are, of course, de rigueur.
Why Go: An old-fashioned warmth envelops Vienna at Christmas, softening the hard edges of imperial architecture with twinkling decorations and three outdoor Christkindlmarkts. Vendors sell crafts and ornaments, while visitors fuel their shopping with finger food and a glass of spiced mulled wine, or glühwein. The Vienna Boys’ Choir concerts are lengendary.
Where to Stay: Centrally located on Kaerntner Ring right across from the opera, the Ring Hotel is classic Vienna on the outside, but modern, artsy, and decidedly cool on the inside thanks to a top-to-bottom redesign.
Holiday Dinner: Eight, the Ring’s acclaimed restaurant, is offering four- and five-course Christmas menus. Entrée choices range from dishes like beef tenderloin with potato, shallot, and spinach, to game liver with pumpkin, cardamom, and pomegranate.
Why Go: Lit-up cobblestone streets, 16th- and 17th-century stone houses, and lots and lots of snow make Quebec’s 400-year-old walled city an atmospheric and European-like place to be at Christmas. The local good cheer and great food could make even a skeptic love winter after all.
Where to Stay: Housed in former 19th-century stone warehouse in Vieux-Port, Auberge St. Antoine stands out for the perfection with which it juxtaposes old and new. Soaring ceilings and cast-iron beams are complemented with such amenities as heated stone floors, and artifacts unearthed during its renovation are on display throughout.
Holiday Dinner: Serving traditional Québécois cuisine based on 17th-century French recipes, Aux Anciens Canadiens is offering its main menu on Christmas Day. Expect everything from a Neptune's Shell of giant shrimp and scallops au gratin to grilled pheasant breast.
Why Go: Winter in the Bavarian capital means a hundred-foot-tall Christmas tree in the Marienplatz, about two dozen Christmas markets (weekdays draw fewer crowds), and mulled wine and gingerbread, served on a tram that crosses the old city.
Where to Stay: The modern, 72-room Louis Hotel is a snowball’s throw from the lively Viktualienmarkt and has a natural stone fireplace in the lobby.
Don’t Miss: Every evening at 5:30 from November 25 through Christmas Eve, there’s live holiday music on the balcony of the town hall.
Why Go: It may not look a lot like Christmas, but Paraty, a half-day’s drive from Rio, is a hidden gem of a town with astonishingly well-preserved Portuguese colonial architecture, a vibrant cultural scene, and easy access to rainforest and some of the world’s most perfect beaches. Sounds like a holiday to us.
Where to Stay: About a 20-minute walk from the town center, the pousada Bambu Bamboo is a lush retreat unto itself, with a pool, a spa, lovely gardens, two saunas, and easy access to both rainforest and a cluster of some truly stunning beaches. Breakfast is served by the river.
Holiday Dinner: Considered by many the town’s top eatery, French restaurant Voilà Bistrot will be serving foie gras and shitake mushroom empanadas as part of its Christmas dinner.
Why Go: This remote village on a high desert plain is especially magical at Christmas, thanks to its rich mix of cultural traditions. Not to miss: historic Ledoux Street all lit up with luminarias (paper lanterns); the ceremonial reenactments of Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter, called posadas; and the dramatic American Indian Christmas Eve celebration that takes over the main square in Taos Pueblo. Plus, you can ski all day long on Christmas Day at Taos Ski Resort, 18 miles away.
Where to Stay: Near the town square, El Monte Sagrado Living Resort and Spa features objects from around the world in its spare, elegant rooms. Book a room with a fireplace to up the cozy factor.
Holiday Dinner: On twinkling Ledoux Street, the seven-table hideaway Byzantium offers a winter menu with dishes like shrimp ceviche and grilled pork scaloppine with apple, cabbage, and mustard-seed compote.
Why Go: The legend of Santa Claus (or Sinterklaas) is strong in the Dutch capital, where 16th- and 17th-century houses are strung with lights in early December. Consider lingering through New Year’s Eve for champagne and fireworks in the Nieuwmarkt or Dam squares.
Where to Stay: Three 17th-century merchant’s residences make up the Canal House, located on the bustling Keizersgracht waterway.
Don’t Miss: Join locals as they trade their bicycles for noren (long-bladed ice skates) and tour the city’s outdoor rinks.
Why Go: “Jingle Bells” set to a salsa beat will get you dancing and caroling. Palm trees basking in sunlight and exotic flora in the El Yunque rainforest replace your typical snowcapped pines. Wrap up your Caribbean days with an evening stroll through a 500-year-old Spanish colonial city on the Atlantic.
Where to Stay: Hotel El Convento, a converted 354-year-old Carmelite convent, has 72 rooms with handcrafted colonial furniture. The Water Club boutique hotel has 78 rooms overlooking the ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Holiday Dinner: The Parrot Club offers Nuevo Latino cuisine—tamarind-glazed salmon, chicken in a mango barbecue sauce—accompanied by a jazz band.
Why Go: A tiny stone English village dotted with cheerfully lit Christmas trees would be enough of an allure, but caroling by candlelight inside caves seals this southern town’s place on a list of special yuletide travel destinations.
Where to Stay: Just up the road in Hope, the secluded Losehill House Hotel and Spa offers a Christmas package that includes three nights’ accommodation (beginning Christmas Eve), meals (including a Christmas feast), and a spa treatment.
Holiday Dinner: The multi-course Christmas Day dinner kicks off with an afternoon champagne reception. Later, in the evening, an informal hot and cold buffet is served for those with any room left over.
Why Go: A Provençal winter is always fairy tale–like: the villages gone silent at summer’s end come back to life; music from medieval churches fills the cobblestoned streets; women crowd around market stalls to sniff out the freshest foie gras.
Where to Stay: The region’s grand hotels—Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa; the Terre Blanche Resort—pull out all the stops for the season. But for a quintessential country escape, why not rent an old-but-renovated farmhouse with a cozy heart?
Kaikoura, New Zealand
Why Go: The Kaikoura peninsula may not have reindeer, but it is teeming with sperm whales, fur seals, dusky dolphins, pilot whales, and albatross in Kaikoura Bay. Since it’ll be summertime when you visit, you can encounter almost all of them by boat or kayak, then catch some yuletide rays on the beach.
Where to Stay: Hapuku Lodge and Tree Houses is the ne plus ultra of New Zealand’s eco-tourism accommodations: a complex of cedar-covered buildings and six treehouses with views of both the bay and the imperial Kaikoura mountain range. Luxe high design reigns inside and out.
Holiday Dinner: The hotel's decadent winter menu features starters of handmade saffron tagliatelle and lamb backstrap on crispy fried spinach. For main dishes, try the wild venison loin with blueberries and port reduction, or the pan-fried Kaikoura blue cod with basil and chervil mayo.