Deck the halls with boughs of holly—or better yet, take a break this year and let somebody else do the work. Now that Halloween has come and gone, we're already looking forward to the most wonderful time of the year (after all, it's never too early to start celebrating). A smart town doesn't let the presence of reindeer, snowy backdrops, and holiday lights go to waste. Around the globe, seasonal displays spark dazzling artistry, salute time-honored traditions, and infuse busy corridors with a festive air.
While there's truth to the notion that there's no place like home for the holidays, there are places to visit throughout the holiday season that offer a memorable experience to rival any. Throw in a dash of holiday magic at these vibrant locations, and you'll simply be in yuletide heaven. We've compiled a list of destinations that celebrate holiday festivities unlike any other. Whether you're looking for a quiet family getaway or an energetic tour of seasonal sites, these ideas for the best outings are sure to spark your holiday cheer.
1. Giant Tree at Rockefeller Center
There's something about the holiday decorations that makes even New Yorkers gawk like tourists. Such locations are old Yuletide standbys that are much more impressive in person. Nothing beats carriage rides through Central Park, the elaborate department store displays, and strolls through the some of the city's classic brownstone-lined streets. Most notably, the tree at Rockefeller Center is almost certainly the world's most famous Christmas tree, but it's only the centerpiece for a city-wide Christmas display. It's not just Manhattan that puts on a show during the holidays; neighborhoods such as Dyker Heights in Brooklyn and Ozone Park in Queens are famous for their over-the-top decoration competitions.
2. Magnificent Mile in Chicago
The Windy City certainly has the brisk weather conditions to deliver a White Christmas, or at least a very cold one. For 50 years, the trees along North Michigan Avenue have been illuminated to signal the official kick-off of the holiday season in Chicago and around the nation. Towering hotels and shops light up in glorious fashion, with more than one million lights adorning 200 trees. In addition to having superb shopping, it's a great place to find unique gifts as well as checking off everything on your own wish list. Tourists go to Chicago for Christmas for its classic city activities, like viewing the millions of lights on the Magnificent Mile and enjoying Chicago's German heritage at the popular Christkindlmarkt, a German Christmas market filled with holiday crafts, traditional wooden toys, and German food and drink. Like New York City, Chicago also has a giant tree, which is set up in Daley Plaza and inaugurated each year with much fanfare.
3. Northern Lights in Alaska
While local Christmas lights brighten dark nights around the country, travelers seeking a more exciting display may want to set their sights a bit higher this winter. You have to be really committed to the idea of a cold, white Christmas to want to head to Alaska for the holidays, but for some people, Alaska is the North Pole. In fact, since 1952, thousands of children who have written to Santa with their Christmas wishes have sent their letters to the Santa Claus House in North Pole, Alaska (near Fairbanks). The Santa Claus House also writes letters back to kids, indeed a very exciting prospect for a child still moved by stories of Saint Nick. Christmas is also prime time for catching the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, in Alaska. Bright, energetic curtains of yellow, green, red or even purple light brighten their night skies regularly. Indeed, if you can handle the chill and snow, Alaska provides a picturesque place for spending the holidays.
4. Aspen, Colorado
The historic streets and scenic mountains of Aspen provide the perfect backdrop for holiday celebrations. It's always a white Christmas at Colorado's most famous mountain town and ski resort area, but there's more to Aspen at Christmastime than sliding down mountains toward lodges with fires and warm drinks. A combination of luxe living and quaint charm helped this Rocky Mountain town capture the spot as the merriest of them all. The town hosts a series of popular holiday music events, the shopping streets are well-attired for the season with tasteful displays of holiday cheer that encourage wintery strolls, and there's a rustic Colorado-country vibe to Aspen's Christmas celebrations that makes for memorable holiday vacations (especially if you like spending them going downhill at 20-25 miles per hour). Wandering along Cooper Avenue, you may also chance upon cookie exchanges, public s'mores roasts, or elf meet-and-greets.
5. The Rhine in Cologne, Germany
Half-timbered buildings are festively illuminated and the aromas of mulled wine out of the local vineyards and cinnamon permeate the air at the Rhine's traditional Christmas markets. Guests can snuggle up at cozy hotels; the region's beautiful cities captivate visitors with their rich history, labyrinthine old quarters, mediaeval market squares, and striking cathedrals. There are many towns in Germany where the town center holiday markets create an irresistible Christmas vibe, but few can beat the appeal of Cologne, which boasts eight different Christmas markets on both sides of the Rhine, with the largest one located on the plaza in front of the city's iconic cathedral, the Kolner Dam. Buildings steeped in history are illuminated by thousands upon thousands of fairy lights, while the aroma of gingerbread wafts through the air. It is not just children's eyes that light up when pewter pourers, wreath binders and glassblowers demonstrate their art, and the aroma of hot chestnuts permeates the center. Grab a cup of hot gluhwein, a spiced mulled wine that warms the most stubborn Christmas chills, and stroll the stalls at the markets, each of which is slightly different and offer a wide array of gits, foods, and holiday items.
6. Santa Claus Village and Santa Park, Napapiiri in Lapland, Finland
Take Napapiiri, in Lapland, Finland, a place with conditions prime for holiday revelers and where Christmas fantasies abound. Capitalizing on its extreme northern location at the foot of the Arctic Circle, Napapiiri considers itself Europe's Christmas capital due to the fact that it is Santa's "true base of operations." Open each day of the year in the city of Rovaniemi, children and adults can visit Santa's office, enjoy a private chat with him and revel in the enchanted atmosphere. Every year, the town draws thousands of visitors from all over Europe to tour the two different Santa-themed attractions, Santa Claus Village and Santa park, which offers tours of Santa's workshops, opportunities to buy some of the Santa's merchandise, encounters with genuine reindeer, and visits with the big man himself. There's also a Santa-dedicated post office which function as the European hub for its Indiana counterpart. And when parents begin to feel like they've overstayed their welcome with Santa, the nearby city of Rovaniemi provides a wider array of holiday delights. Everyone knows Santa—the one and only—comes from Finland, so don't pass up the invitation!
7. Branson Area Festival of Lights in Missouri
In Branson, Missouri, last glimmer of Halloween and the Jack O Lantern is quickly replaced by the glow of millions of sparkling Christmas lights as it begins its celebration of Ozark Mountain Christmas. Venturing around town to see all the homes and businesses decked out in thousands of colorful twinkling lights is a favorite Christmastime activity in Branson. From November 1 and lasting 6 weeks, there are millions of visitors to the area to check out the great display and of course, the parade and musicals that are enacted by local theaters. This year, there are three immersive drive-through light displays that welcome guests from dusk until late-night—perfect for the after-show crowd! In addition to a "magical mile" drive-through display, the Ozark Mountain Christmas Lights & Village will also feature rides on the North Pole Express train, selfies with Santa, laughs with the Crackling Christmas Chickens, gourmet hot chocolate, photos with the Clydesdale horses, and a life-size nativity experience.
8. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Some people may think you're a little off for going to Myrtle Beach in December - like six months or so off. But that's one of the reasons that makes it the ideal time of year to visit. Sure, the Christmas season may not be the time you will find sunbathers lined on the sand along the Carolina shores, but the Grand Strand transforms into a holiday spectacle before children can eat their last piece of trick-or-treat candy. In addition, late fall and early winter are a good time to score lower rates in this family-friendly town. While the winter ocean temperatures are too cold for swimming, it is not unusual to have crisp sunny days for enjoying walks on the beach and boardwalk. Winter sunrises and sunsets along the coast are often memorably brilliant. Showstoppers around Myrtle Beach also include the twinkling Christmas trees and 5,500 hand-lit candles at Brookgreen Gardens as well as the Festival of Trees—with themed trees for all 50 states—at Ripley's Aquarium.
9. Park CIty, Utah
There's more to Park City at Christmas time than sliding down our world-class slopes.The holiday season ushers in serious wattage—star-powered and otherwise—in this Utah mountain town. In late November, Park City holds its annual Electric Parade, in which locals light up their trucks, cars, and bicycles and crank up the holiday tunes as they march down the roads. Take time to explore more than 100 unique shops and boutiques, art galleries and specialty stores that line the charming streets of Historic Main Street. On Christmas Eve, Saint Nick spends the day skiing the slopes and then leads a torchlight parade down the PayDay trail. January's Sundance Film Festival draws a Hollywood crowd, yet Park City also scored well for feeling family-friendly. During the holidays, kids and sweet tooths of all ages will love the life-size gingerbread house (nearly 13 feet tall, made with 11,000 cookies) at Montage Deer Valley.
10. Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The Dutch really know how to make the most of the holiday season, starting with Sinterklaas: a Dutch tradition complete with pepernoten and parades. Want more of an old-school approach to your holiday pursuits? Book a ticket to Amsterdam, the country where Santa Claus himself was born. The Dutch Christmas celebration is a bifurcated affair, with Sinterklaas arriving on December 5 to bring all of the good children gifts, and Christmas being celebrated on the 25th, a time reserved for family and close friends. From traditional Dickensian markets that aim to capture all the magic of a traditional Victorian Christmas to trendy food festivals inside old industrial buildings, there's a Christmas market to suit everyone. No matter what time you arrive, you'll be greeted by a city that positively twinkles with white lights everywhere you look, with reflections from the city's canals creating a magnificent mirroring effect—that is, unless you've hit one of those lucky Christmases when the temperature drops enough to turn the canals to ice.
11. Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Carmel brings Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to life with its cottage like buildings, winter trees with twinkling lights, miles of garland, and big red bows tied around bountiful wreaths. This California town with a rocky coastline doesn't experience much in the way of winter, but the chilly air makes the crashing waves and neighboring wine country seem all the more enticing. Carmel has its own tree lighting—a huge resident tree at the corner of Junipero and Ocean avenues—and the quiet days of early December also make it a little easier to get a table at nearby restaurants. December also brings the Inns of Distinction Tour, which includes the Cypress Inn (dating back to 1929) and the cottage-style Wayside Inn, as well as wineries such as Heller Estate and Cima Collina.
12. Annapolis, Maryland
Welcome the holidays with an evening stroll and a pleasant remembrance of Christmas past. The Christmas season is a great time to visit Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland, and enjoy a variety of exclusively seasonal activities. Glowing lanterns light your way as you stroll around Maryland's historic State Capital, all trimmed in holiday greenery. The military town along the Chesapeake Bay does plenty of pomp, circumstance, and tailgating during the holiday season. Walk along the streets of past colonial mansions, Victorian townhouses, and quaint shops. Annapolis also ranks especially well for Christmas lights, notably the drive-through Lights on the Bay in Sandy Point State Park, which starts up in mid-November. To celebrate alongside the military locals, you can hear Handel's Messiah performed by the Naval Academy Glee Club in the Naval Academy Chapel, or just sit tight until the Military Bowl, which comes every year in late December, at the U.S. Navy–Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. No surprise, the locals also earned points for being passionate sports fans.