Some destinations put on some beautiful Christmas finery: wreaths, lights and maybe some mistletoe. But others? They go all-out to create Christmas-time magic with extravagant decorations and thoughtful traditions, in addition to showcasing their natural beauty.
If you want to be whisked away to a winter wonderland, these 12 destinations will have you feeling as though you’ve stepped into a real-life snow globe this holiday season.
1. Reykjavik, Iceland
Come for Christmas, but stick around for New Year’s! Christmas-time in Iceland is especially cozy, as families get together for a big meal and exchange books as gifts. On New Year’s, it’s common for families to set off fireworks. Both holidays are great for visitors, though. If you’re vacationing in Iceland, check into the new Canopy by Hilton, which is in the heart of downtown. After a chilly night out watching the Northern Lights, you can borrow a book from the hotel’s towering bookcase and sidle up to the fireplace. Or, the hotel will even loan you a record player and some records to take to your room to really get this whole hygge thing right. (Bing Crosby + snow + hot cocoa is a Christmas trifecta). The town goes all out for Christmas, affixing actual Christmas trees on downtown buildings and there’s even a bright red mailbox stationed downtown that’s reserved for letters to the Icelandic Santa.
2. Frisco, Colorado
Dreaming of a white Christmas? Slip away to Frisco, a mountain town that’s the perfect basecamp for all of your skiing or snowboarding adventures. They’ve even got groomed snow tubing hills that you can zoom down at the Frisco Adventure Park. If you can sync up your vacation time with Wassail Days, you’ll be in for a special treat. The December festival includes a holiday lighting with 600 luminaries, Santa visits, caroling, free sleigh rides, and, of course, lots of wassail. More than 70 businesses brew the hot spiced cider for visitors to try. It’s born out of an European custom and is meant to be a sign of hospitality during the cold winter.
“The Wassail Days festival is about exchanging good cheer in the tradition that was started in southern England and at holiday markets around Europe,” Vanessa Agee, Frisco’s marketing and communications director, tells us.
3. Helsinki, Finland
The Finnish capital calls itself the “Christmas city” and has pinpointed Aleksanterinkatu as the official “Christmas street.” The downtown street lights up for the holidays, and the shop windows are decorated to outbid one another for the attention of shoppers. (The unveiling of the Stockmann department store’s window is a tradition children look forward to in Finland). You can toast to tradition with a mug of Glögi, a Christmas-time drink that’s made with spiced wine, almonds, raisins, and that can be spiked with vodka. Plus, your kids can make a trip to meet Santa Claus at his year-round residence in Finland. If you can’t make the trip this year, though, you can tune into the live camera.
4. Lake Oconee, Georgia
In warmer months, The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds Lake Oconee feels like summer camp, complete with yard games spread about the green lawns, jet skis to rent and an infinity pool that stretches out near the lake. But this lakeside resort takes winter just as seriously. You can glide around a 6,000-sq.ft. ice skating rink and your kids can ride along a train while singing Christmas carols. The pièce de résistance, though? The hotel’s pastry chef David Campbell and his team create an enormous, life-sized Gingerbread House for the hotel’s main lobby. There’s also a letter-writing station where your kids can pen their wish lists, and the hotel puts on fun events like “reindeer games” and storytime with Mrs. Clause. Also, the hotel offers “elf tuck-ins” for you children that includes milk and cookies and a Santa-autographed copy of either “T’was the Night Before Christmas” or “How to Catch and Elf.”
5. Santa Fe, New Mexico
This southwestern city’s rooftops are bedecked in farolito candles, which are homemade candle lanterns that set a warm and unique tone throughout the holiday season. But Christmas Eve is especially wonderful in Santa Fe. Visitors can take part in the Canyon Road Farolito Walk. You can weave your way through the century-old adobes, checking out artwork, sipping hot chocolate or cider and singing carols. The midnight mass on Christmas Eve at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi is also special, incorporating an old Spanish tale about a rooster who greeted Christ with his joyful crow. The cathedral is decorated to reflect its Native American and Spanish heritage. Round out your holiday escape with a trip to Ski Santa Fe,. (Yes, Santa Fe gets snow! Lots of it!) After you kick your ski boots off for the day, you can sink into an outdoor jacuzzi at the nearby 10,000 Waves spa.
6. Norfolk, Virginia
Can’t make it all the way to the North Pole? You’ll feel as though you’ve teleported there when you take a trip to the Norfolk Botanical Garden. The garden sets up the “Dominion Energy Garden of Lights,” which, with more than 1 million lights twinkling, has nabbed awards for being among the best lights displays in the country and emulates the North Pole. Guests can drive through, take a walking tour, or even hop on the Norfolk Botanical Garden Express for a tram ride.
7. Vienna, Austria
Once you arrive, your next task is deciding which Christmas market to hit up first. Let the aroma of chestnuts roasting on an open fire be your GPS. More than 20 Christmas-time markets sell handmade gifts and treats throughout Vienna. One of the most famous ones is the Viennese Christmas Market in front of City Hall, which is sparking in white lights. Inside City Hall, an area is dedicated to children and they can learn how to make Christmas cookies and candles. International choirs sing carols on the weekends.
8. Nuremberg, Germany
The Christkindlesmarkt here looks as though a page has been torn out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Try local treats, like German gingerbread known as lebkuchen, which comes with toppings such as chocolate or strawberry. For Instagram gold, climb the stairs of Church our Lady and you’ll get a spectacular snapshot of the red-and-white colored booths and the lights of the market. Next to Christmas Market, you’ll find international gifts—everything from Scottish kilts to French marmalades—at the Market of the Sister Cities.
9. North Pole, Alaska
This city just outside of Fairbanks embraces its Christmas connections with streets like Santa Claus Lane, Kris Kringle Drive and Mistletoe Lane. Come December, the town gets in the Christmas spirit, drawing ice sculptors from around the world, and a fair share of national television broadcasts. The Santa Claus House is a sprawling toy store with ornaments and a giant outdoor statute of Santa. Thousands of letters of Santa get routed through this city and volunteers (AKA Santa’s Helpers) make sure the envelopes get a North Pole stamp.
10. Nashville, Tennessee
Gaylord Opryland pulls out all the stops for its “Country Christmas” celebration, with more than three million twinkling lights throughout the hotel and a full slate of holiday events. Among them? “ICE feature A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which tells the classic Christmas story through interactive ice sculptures and “Cirque Dreams Holidaze,” an acrobatic extravaganza featuring 20 acts and 30 gravity-defying performers.
11. Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World is truly a magical place during the Christmas season. (Here’s all the reasons we love the theme park during Christmas-time). From extravagant Christmas trees to Cinderella’s castle that is twinkling in icicle lights, it’s safe to say this vacation spot is like a fairytale. Disney also does Christmas-time parades, candlelight processional dinners, fireworks at the Jingle Bell, Jingle BAM! and over-the-top desserts, as well as sharing international Christmas traditions at Epcot.
12. Christmas Farm Inn & Spa in New Hampshire
At this charming Christmas-centric inn, you can book the “Sleigh Bells” room or, perhaps, the “Mr. and Mrs. Claus” room. It’s open year-round, so you can celebrate the holidays again with a Christmas in July escape. Sip on a hot toddy in the Mistletoe Pub or take a mountain train ride with Santa and his elves.