We’re all for snow days and cuddling up with loved ones by the fire, but the month of December is also prime time for traveling—mainly to see how the rest of the world celebrates Christmas. These cities are worth a visit any time of year, sure, but they seem to be exceptionally magical during the holiday season. Whether they’re European classics with storybook Christmas markets, Asian cities where you can see twinkling lights from a rooftop pool, or ski paradises right here in the U.S., some celebrations are worth the price of a plane ticket. And let’s face it: You haven’t really seen Christmas lights until you’ve seen 26 million lights all at once (we’re looking at you, Colombia). From Cologne to Cape Town, here are the best places to spend Christmas this year.
Cape Town, South Africa
Why we go: If you’re looking to escape winter this Christmas, you can’t do much better than Cape Town—it’s summer in the Southern Hemisphere, after all. You can even visit one (or several) of the South African city’s holiday markets without having to wear a coat and scarf.
Stay here: The ocean-side Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa, which will be offering a special five-course Christmas dinner on December 24.
QUEBEC CITY, CANADA
Why we go: Quebec City is one of the oldest cities in North America, and its colonial French architecture gives it an unmistakably European feel. The cobbled streets of the Old Town are packed with quaint shops and delicious bistros, all merrily decorated for the holidays.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit:: The toboggan run at Château Frontenac (open from mid-December to March), one of the city’s oldest traditions—and quite the thrill. Zoom down icy tracks overlooking the city on a wooden sled reaching speeds of up to 45 miles per hour.
Stay here: You can’t go wrong with Auberge Saint-Antoine, especially with its lobby fireplace and heated bathroom floors.
Why we go: Hugging the Arctic Circle, Finland’s Lapland region is the birthplace and home of Santa Claus. In the city of Rovaniemi, Santa Claus Village amusement park and resort creates an unforgettable Christmas experience for children with snow-covered cottages, reindeer rides, and a friendly staff dressed as elves who refuse to break character.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: An evening snowmobile trip to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights overhead (we recommend the Rovaniemi Adventureprogram through Off the Map Travel).
Stay here: One of the houses at Arctic TreeHouse Hotel, a truly once-in-a-lifetime accommodation with panoramic views and private saunas.
Why we go: You haven’t seen Christmas lights until you’ve seen Sydney’s Christmas lights. Plus, the holiday season lasts an entire month here (take that, 12 days of Christmas) with “Sydney Christmas,” an aptly-named festival taking place from November 24 through December 25. The citywide celebration kicked off this year with a tree lighting at Martin Place, and continues with Christmas markets and nightly concerts.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The 94,000 twinkling LEDs at the incredible Pitt Street Mall Boulevard of Light.
Stay here: The 2017-launched Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour hotel, where you can enjoy a Christmas Day buffet lunch followed by a nap by the rooftop pool (remember, it’s summertime Down Under).
Why we go: Located in southern Spain, Málaga really goes all out for the holidays. Aside from the Christmas markets, massive nativity scenes, and free concerts at Plaza de la Constitución, the city holds its annual Verdiales Music Festival on December 28. All day, visitors can watch competing couples don extravagant costumes and practice different forms of verdiales, the regional flamenco dance. Now where can you get something like that in the States?
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The lights along shopping street Calle Larios, lit in late November and kept on through December.
Why we go: Every December, this tiny New England town bursts with holiday cheer during its annual Christmas Prelude, an 11-day bash that’s about as New England as it gets (I mean, one of the main attractions is a tree made of lobster traps). The lobster rolls at The Clam Shack—considered to be some of the best rolls in Maine—will make you forget about gingerbread and sugar plums altogether.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: Santa Claus arriving to the Christmas Prelude on a lobster boat. (This year’s arrival already occurred on November 29, but the festival lasts until December 9.)
Stay here: Our readers love Cape Arundel Inn & Resort for its oceanside location and restaurant serving up fresh seafood (and, unlike a lot of Maine resorts, it’s actually open during the winter months).
Why we go: The city turns the voltage up each year with its winter illuminations, with different districts competing with each other to create some truly sensational displays. This year’s illuminations include over 100,000 twinkly blue and silver lights at Tokyo Midtown and a massive Baccarat crystal chandelier at Yebisu Garden Place. And don’t worry if you can’t get there before December 25—the winter illuminations have become so popular that most remain up until February.
This one thing will really get you in the spirit: The Blue Cavern (“Ao no Dokutsu“) illumination in Shibuya (pictured), an electric version of the blue grottos found in the Mediterranean.