The holiday season is traditionally seen as a time to head back to stay at your childhood home, having a strange blend of nostalgia and shame at the stylistic choices your teenage self made in decorating your bedroom. According to a survey conducted by AAA, around 90 million Americans typically travel during the holiday season, which includes Christmas and New Year.
We all know that Christmas doesn’t always resemble the stereotype. Not everywhere has snow in the winter, and not everyone eats Turkey or puts up a tree. Christmas celebrations around the world are shaped uniquely by the cultures that embrace the tradition, and you’ll be blown away at the breadth of festivities you could discover elsewhere in the world.
If you’re an American traveler yearning for a memorable holiday experience, we’ve curated a list of some of the most captivating and offbeat destinations that promise to make your next Christmas holiday extraordinary.
The Christmas Continent
Europe boasts a rich tapestry of Christmas traditions all within close proximity to each other, making it an ideal continent to explore during the holiday season.
Many of the must-see Christmas destinations and unique getaways are based in the continent where the holiday began. You can spend a few days experiencing the historic allure of German Christmas markets, (think mulled wine and handcrafted ornaments) then catch a train to Switzerland in under an hour to experience their famous hearty cuisine.
From there, fly only two hours to witness the iconic traditional British Christmas trees adorning Trafalgar Square – and you begin to appreciate just how easy it is to get around Europe and experience unique Christmas celebrations within hours of each other. While not all our suggestions are European, we highly recommend checking out the continent to see this tightly-woven tapestry of national Christmas traditions for yourself. With great travel links to all these locations that share many similarities, but each has individually made Christmas their own, too.
Netherlands: The Winter Wonderland in Amsterdam
Amsterdam, with its cobblestone streets, historic canals, and charming architecture, transforms into a magical winter wonderland during the holiday season. Couples seeking a romantic escape can revel in the city’s cozy, intimate energy. Roughly 7 to 10 hours’ flight away, depending on where in the US you‘re coming from, you’ll feel a world away from home. The Amsterdam Light Festival is a must-see. The famous illuminated artworks grace the waterways, creating a captivating visual spectacle, drawing over 1 million visitors annually, reflecting its international popularity.
Outside of the organized festivities, traveling families can visit the iconic Keukenhof Gardens, famous for its stunning spring tulip displays. While tulips might be out of season, the gardens offer a Winter Wonderland event featuring ice skating, holiday markets, and captivating light installations. And don’t think Holland is lacking in the food department. Dutch traditions like savoring oliebollen (a type of Dutch doughnut) while exploring the bustling Christmas markets that dot the city is a must-try.
Canada: A Truly Unique Christmas Retreat Next-Door
If a snowy Christmas is your dream, but a transatlantic flight doesn’t sound like much fun, Canada offers a fantastically unique Christmas destination, within a few hours from most parts of the US. Specifically, we recommend checking out Quebec City. Quebec City’s Old Town exudes a real charm and romance, making it a perfect choice for couples seeking an intimate Christmas escape.
During Christmas, Quebec City’s Winter Carnival is one of Canada’s most famous winter events including a German-inspired food market, attracting more than 600,000 attendees on its own each year. The cobbled streets adorned with twinkling lights, horse-drawn carriage rides, and a picturesque blend of French and Canadian cultures create an enchanting holiday atmosphere.
Visitors looking to see truly stunning winter landscapes away from the crowds can head to the Canadian Rockies, with Banff and Jasper National Parks offering snow-capped mountains and untouched frozen landscapes. From ice skating on frozen lakes to horse-drawn sleigh rides through the snow-covered landscape, there’s no shortage of activities to keep the whole family entertained. For a unique experience, attend the Santa Claus Parade in downtown Toronto, where your children can delight in the festive spirit of the season.
Scandinavia: A Nordic Christmas Celebration
In Scandinavia, the Christmas experience is truly worth seeing, where the winter landscapes and rich traditions offer a one-of-a-kind holiday getaway. In Norway, we recommend visiting Bergen to witness the magical Christmas market, complete with wooden stalls selling handmade gifts and local delicacies. The city’s stunning backdrop of rugged mountains and fjords adds to the enchantment factor.
In Sweden, the town of Jokkmokk hosts a traditional Sami Christmas market, providing a glimpse into indigenous culture and crafts. The chance to witness the Northern Lights adds an extra touch of magic to your holiday adventure.
Switzerland: Alpine Charm and Festive Joy
Switzerland is one of those countries that finds itself going viral on Instagram all year round, as visitors are blown away by landscapes and a way of life that is both peaceful and breathtaking in equal measure. From the hundreds of charming villages speckled amongst the imposing mountain ranges, you’ll get to enjoy a Christmas experience straight out of a fairy tale.
In Geneva, you can stroll through the famous Christmas market against the backdrop of stunning mountain scenery within easy distance of the major airports and train stations. We recommend savoring some Swiss delicacies, like fondue and raclette if you get peckish too. In mountainous countries like this, the food is decadent and calorie-rich to make up for all the hiking, but for you, it’s also a chance to indulge! You’re also only a few hours from cities like Paris, Berlin and countries like Luxembourg. When it comes to convenient European travel-times, it doesn’t get much better than Switzerland.
Japan: A Unique Blend of Cultures
We’ve discussed places close to home, and the European delights, but for a Christmas that’s a departure from any tradition you’re likely to recognize, consider Tokyo, Japan. In this bustling metropolis, you’ll find a fusion of Christmas and Japanese New Year celebrations.
Tokyo’s dazzling illuminations and festive decorations create an amazing atmosphere, while the city’s culinary scene offers a unique take on holiday dining, swapping out turkey for Chicken and – rather oddly, KFC is actually a really popular Christmas choice amongst locals!
Scotland: A Festive Highland Retreat
The rugged landscapes of Scotland offer a Highland Christmas, complete with cultural delicacies and incredible natural displays of beauty. In Edinburgh, the historic streets come alive with Christmas markets and traditional events, such as the Torchlight Procession. If you head to the Scottish Highlands you can stay in remote and cozy cabins, inns and hotels, where scenic walks, whisky tasting are the order of the day. A final special Christmas memory might be made if you catch a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights too.