Christmas is a magical time of year and if you’re dreaming of spending it in a picture-postcard perfect town that seems to have stepped out of the pages of a children’s storybook, these destinations offer the chance for one of the most unforgettable holidays of a lifetime.
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Vienna offers the chance for a delightful old-fashioned Christmas with the smell of gluhwein in the air, twinkling holiday decorations covering imperial architecture and three outdoor Christkindlmarkts. Visitors can have their pick of a wide variety of artisan wares and ornaments as well as tasty finger foods and that wonderful spiced mulled wine. Of course, the Vienna Boys’ Choir concerts are a must during the holidays too.
If you’d like to do a little Christmas shopping, and pick up some one-of-a-kind gifts like traditional Polish handicrafts, Marlstone products and more, there is no better place than the Valkenburg Christmas market. It’s the oldest and largest subterranean Christmas market in Europe, set up in a labyrinth of passages of caves that are underneath the town. The cavern houses sculptures and an 18th-century chapel, as well as preserved mural drawings dating back to Roman times.
The market opens in mid-November and runs until just before Christmas with the entire town transformed into a glistening winter wonderland. Children will be especially happy to find that the caves even include Santa himself, along with his sleigh and reindeer.
Vermont is one of the best places in the U.S. to celebrate Christmas, with the ground typically covered with at least a light dusting of snow and the scent of pine needles wafting through the air. In the historic town of Woodstock, the city really does the holiday up right with its Wassail Weekend, a pre-Christmas festival with 19th century Norse culture traditions. It includes a parade featuring over 50 horses and riders donning holiday costumes and period dress, along with wagon and sleigh rides as well as a 19th century Christmas celebration at the Billings Farm & Museum. Visitors also enjoy a wassail feast, and all the local shops, with beautiful holiday window displays, stay open late throughout the festival.
Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland
Rovaniemi in Lapland, Finland may be the best place on earth to celebrate Christmas. Located just north of the Arctic Circle, Finns argue that it makes a much likelier home for Santa than even the North Pole. What better place to meet the jolly ol’ fellow than in a frozen winter wonderland of deep snow and pine forests. Here, children can make cookies with Mrs. Claus and even enroll in Elf School. Other highlights during this time of year include husky-dog rides, tobogganing in the deep, pristine snow, viewing the Northern Lights, or even taking a sled-led reindeer safari at the Sirmakko reindeer farm. If you want an especially frosty experience, stay at the Arctic Snow Hotel, constructed entirely of snow and ice, though it does come with hot tubs and saunas to offset the frozen temperatures.
Germany’s Nuremberg Christmas market draws over two million visitors each year with its 200 select vendors putting up incredible displays while competing for the Most Beautiful Staff Design award. And, you won’t find any fake, mass-produced plastic decorations and other items – here, the market council is said to be very serious about making sure that only traditional handmade toys and holiday goods are sold. As you wander through, you’ll enjoy the tempting aromas of mulled wine along with gingerbread, sausage and sweet roasted almonds, all in an unforgettable holiday atmosphere in the Old Town, decorated in all its Christmas glory. Kids, and the kid-at-heart, will love the Toy Museum as well as the magnificent two-tiered carousel based on old originals – complete with reindeer and Father Christmas sleighs.
Strasbourg offers a series of themed Christmas villages that transform the city into a fantastic wonderland of holiday sights and gastronomic delights. At the Village of Alsace Farmhouse, visitors can taste prune, apricot and other holiday-inspired variations of farm-fresh foie gras. While in the nearby Village of Bredle, you’ll find its namesake traditional Christmas biscuits and a practically endless flow of mulled Alsatian wine. The city’s Christmas program is filled with concerts and all types of cultural events.
Medieval Bruges is stunning all year round, but it truly comes alive in winter, with its center transformed into a Christmas parade, partially sliding on its large ice rink. Visitors who arrive just before Thanksgiving through New Year’s, can also enjoy the spectacular Snow and Ice Sculpture Festival. This year’s festival will be based on the “land of the hobbits,” with 40 artists making amazing creations out of 300 tons of ice and some 400 tons of snowflakes. Enjoy it with a mug of hot cocoa in this chocolate lover’s paradise.
The Old Riga Christmas Market awaits visitors in a unique architectural setting, the lovely Town Hall Square. There are a number of special children focused-events, like the popular carousel of wooden figures, riding ponies and a horse drawn carriage as well as animal corner with its sheep and rabbits. The cat house features live felines from the local animal shelter. Visitors of all ages can enjoy tasty glazed gingerbread as well as locally crafted items like warm, handmade socks, wooden candlesticks, Latvian honey and patterned mittens. You can even learn about various Latvian traditions like log dragging, stitchcraft and traditional holiday cooking.
North Pole Alaska
The North Pole may be the most obvious Christmas town of all. Here in this community of 2,200 residents, it’s always Christmas with holiday decorations up 365 days of the year. You can drive down streets like Kris Kringle Drive, Mistletoe Lane or Santa Clause Lane and even stay the night at Santaland RV Park. It’s all about Santa here. In December, North Pole really comes alive with its annual North Pole Christmas In Ice Contest attracting ice sculptors from across the globe. National newscasts are frequently broadcast live from the Santa Clause house as well. Of course, this is also the place where you’ll have the chance to mail your postcards from Santa’s official zip code so that friends and family receive mail postmarked from North Pole, Alaska.
The Estonian capital is known for its wonderful Christmas spirit, with its medieval old town dusted in snow and lanterns lit after dark providing a glow to the cobblestone streets. The world’s first Christmas tree was erected here in 1441 – and today, Tallin’s holiday traditions still include the legendary tree on Town Hall Square. The famous tree is surrounded by little huts selling their wares and you’ll also find a number of handicraft specialists hard at work along with snow sculptures, Estonian food and drink, and a mini-zoo. An international Christmas market, outdoor ice rink and Estonian Open Air Museum’s elaborate Christmas Village are all mainstays of the holiday season too.
While it may be a bit chilly, doesn’t that make it even more Christmas-like? The capital of Iceland offers a spectacular Yule Town Christmas and all sorts of rather unique holiday traditions, like the 13 “Yuletide Lads,” or scruffy Santas, that bring gifts to kids who’ve been good for the 13 nights leading up to the big day. The Yule Town Christmas market is filled with rows of small, picturesque huts where locals and visitors can pick up some great gifts, holiday decorations and treats. Every day you’ll find something different as some of the craft-makers and artisans set up their stalls just for one day. Of course, the highlight of a winter excursion to Reykjavik is the chance to see the brilliant northern lights flash across the night’s sky with the city covered in snow and dazzling Christmas lights.
Cologne has an especially irresistible Christmas vibe with its magnificent buildings, decorations and town center holiday markets. In fact, you’ll find eight different Christmas markets on both sides of the Rhine including the largest, which can be found on the plaza in front of Cologne’s iconic cathedral, the Kolner Dam. Visitors can enjoy a cup of hot gluhwein, a spiced mulled wine that is sure to warm even the deepest chill, as well as stroll the markets, with each offering something a bit different along with a wide array of gifts, holiday decorations and foods.
Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is well-known for its magnificent gothic architecture and unique folkloric traditions, and at Christmas, it’s truly unlike any other city of earth. From its famed Christmas markets with beautifully decorated wooden huts filled with festive treats including everything from craft gift items and ornaments to fantastic delicacies like spit-roasted hams and trdelnik, a traditional hot sugar coated pastry. In the Old Town Square, you’ll find a stable, complete with goats, donkeys and sheep set around a traditional nativity as well as lots of holiday lights and music.
Amsterdam does it up right with its legend of Sinterklaas going strong, including 16th– and 17th-century houses strung with lights in early December. This Dutch capital doesn’t have just one Christmas market – visitors can browse or buy at 26 different markets. Many feature additional attractions, such as Leidseplein with its ice skating rink. You can also try delectable olibollen, or Dutch doughnuts. Not only are they especially tasty, Dutch tradition says they help to ward off evil spirits.
This renowned ski town is transformed into a beautiful Victorian-style Christmas town during the holidays. It kicks off with the Lightening of Breckenridge on the first weekend in December and throughout the holidays visitors can enjoy carriage rides, lots of shopping opportunities, and the chance to feel as you’ve you stepped into an old-fashioned holiday painting.
Thisold-meets-new Swedish town dishes up an incredible smorgasbord of Christmas markets, holiday concerts and twinkling trees. Here you can shop for Modernist designs or handmade decorations at Sodertull while stopping to warm up over a nice mug of glogg – Swedish mulled wine that is. Head to Katrinetorp manor for poinsettias, festive food and antiques or Good Jul for fair trade vintage and recycled gifts. To top off a day of holiday cheer, slip on some skates and take a whirl around the open-air ice rinks at Folkets Park or Raoul Wallenberg.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
A short ferry ride will bring you to this picturesque island town with just 500 residents where everyone celebrates the holidays just like they did 100 years ago. Here, people travel by horse and buggy as motorized vehicles have been banned for the past century. At Christmas, Santa actually visits every child to their Christmas wishes, and they also feature an annual island Christmas bazaar where unique crafts and decorates filled with green, red and lots of lilac – a favorite local color.
The village of Grindelwald sits at the foot of two dramatic peaks of the Swiss Alps – it’s so picturesque that it’s been used as the setting of a number of films, including “The Golden Compass.” This notable winter resort destination stands apart from the rest due to its especially charming atmosphere during the holidays – so much so that it just might make you believe in Santa Claus again. You’ll find beautiful decorations lining the streets and massive Christmas trees around every corner, along with mulled wine and plenty of goods to purchase at the Grindelwalder market stands.
Leavenworth, set on the eastern edge of Washington State’s Cascade Mountains, is a Bavarian village that that is transformed into a virtual snow globe of Christmas magic during the holidays. The Christmas Lighting Festival, held from December 5 to December 21 in 2014, features plenty of old fashioned caroling, Christmas characters and practically an endless amount of dazzling lights. On Fridays, St. Nikolas himself welcomes children with song and fruit. The A&E Network even crowned Leavenworth the “Ultimate Holiday Town USA.”