The scent of eggnog and spiced nuts fills the air, the skyline is illuminated with lights, and in the distance you can hear carolers singing. While this may sound like a fantastical land as described in a holiday fable, such scenes do exist—at least to some degree—in locales across the globe. (If that's not enough motivation to take a trip, we’re not sure what is.)
While a cozy Christmas at home is always lovely, this year, consider starting a new tradition with a trip to discover the true majesty of the season. For a vacation you and your loved ones will never forget, set your sights on a holiday-centric city. From Edinburgh’s snow-capped castle and Rovaniemi’s Santa Claus Village to Vienna’s famed outdoor ice rink and Prague’s legendary Christmas markets, Europe is particularly magical this time of year. But that doesn’t mean you need a passport to escape somewhere special. Two domestic destinations also made our winter travel wishlist—Charleston and Maui.
And good news for last-minute planners: It’s not too late to book! Yes, there’s still time to experience these yuletide festivities first hand. But, we wouldn’t too long...there are only 54 days until Christmas.
Why visit: It's impossible not to get swept up in the spirit of the season on a trip to Zurich. This Alpine city is home to traditional advent concerts, world-class shopping, thousands of fairy lights, and the largest covered Christmas market in Europe.
What to do: Grab a heissi schoggi (hot chocolate) or glühwein (warm mulled wine), and head to Bahnhofstrasse,the main street, bedecked with 12,000 twinkling lights. Pop into the luxury shops for last-minute gifts. Visit the Christmas market at Zurich main station and marvel at the massive, 50-foot, Swarovski crystal-trimmed tree. Takes kids for a ride on the Märlitram, a delightfully decorated streetcar.
Where to stay: When it comes to accommodations, The Dolder Grand is Zurich’s holiday headquarters. In between decadent brunches and afternoon tea by the fireplace, carve out time to admire the hotel’s incredible art collection, which includes works by Andy Warhol, Henry Moore, and Salvador Dalí. Baur au Lac has a long history of hosting esteemed guests. Today, its lakeside setting, scenic views, and exquisite design continue to attract royals, A-listers, and lovers of luxury.
Why visit: For an authentic Christmas experience, there’s no place like Rovaniemi, an actual winter wonderland and the “official hometown of Santa Claus.” Besides, spending holidays in the Arctic Circle is about as close to the North Pole as you can get.
What to do: Lapland’s most famous and festive attraction, Santa Claus Village, makes childhood dreams. Visitors can meet (and have their picture snapped with) Saint Nick, go for reindeer sleigh rides, take a snowmobile tour, learn about Christmas customs across the globe, and more.
Where to stay: Equally as spirited as the attractions are the accommodations. From December to March, guests can enjoy a genuine Arctic experience at the Igloo Hotel. For those looking for more luxurious lodgings, the superior rooms at the new Glass Resort flaunt sleek, Scandinavian-inspired furnishings and a private hot tub or sauna.
Charleston, South Carolina
Why visit: Charleston’s charm is undeniable during any season. But come winter, historic homes festooned with garlands and magnolia wreaths, roasted pecans, and palmetto trees trimmed with bright lights make it all the more enchanting (as if that’s even possible).
What to do: Explore the beautifully-preserved Historic Downtown District—stroll the scenic promenade, admire the antebellum mansions, snap a photo of the iconic Rainbow Row, and pick up presents for friends and family at the historic Centre Market or one of the shops lining King Street. The "Holy City," is home to 400 houses of worship, including Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, the mother church of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston, and St. Michael's Church, the oldest surviving religious structure in the city—both hold Christmas mass.
Where to stay: The historic French Quarter Inn puts a festive spin on their existing amenities (notably evening wine and cheese receptions), offering bourbon-spiked eggnog, apple cider, and hot chocolate. To add to the merriment, the grand staircase is adorned with tinsel and ribbons and there’s even a tree in the lobby. At The Restoration guests can enjoy a true Charlestonian Christmas with in-room tree decorating, wreath-making class, and a holiday cookie workshop.
Why visit: Edinburgh delights with its magnificent castle and old-world ambience. Every winter, heaps of snow and seasonal gaiety turn this fairytale city into a real-life winter wonderland.
What to do: Scotland‘s compact, hilly capital captivates tourists and locals alike with its mirthful atmosphere. Rent a pair of skates and go for a spin across outdoor ice rink at St Andrew Square, ride the Big Wheel at East Princes Street Gardens (remember your camera to capture the panoramic views!), and browse the posh boutiques along Multrees Walk. Of course, no visit would be complete without a trip to Edinburgh Castle, home to Scotland’s crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny.
Where to stay: Set in the heart of the city, The Balmoral offers five-star accommodations and upscale seasonal programming, such as a timely twist on afternoon tea with themed takeaways and a “Christmas countdown masterclass” with Chef Brian Grigor. The Waldorf Astoria Edinburgh, a former Victorian railway hotel, distinguishes itself with castle views, warm Scottish hospitality, and the country’s only Guerlain Spa.
Why visit: Vienna radiates yuletide cheer with a blend of nostalgic traditions, charming customs, and seasonal attractions. Go for the Christmas markets and sparkling lights, stay for the mouth-watering Viennese treats.
What to do: Starting in November, Rathausplatz square is transformed into winter wonderland complete with a colossal ice skating rink. The plaza is also home to the city's largest Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market), with 154 vendors selling hand-crafted gifts, mulled wine, and Viennese pastries, like apple strudel and vanilla kipferl (crescent-shaped vanilla cookies). Plus, there’s a carousel and international choirs singing carols.
Where to stay: One block from the State Opera is Grand Hotel Wien, a Belle Époque hotel that first opened its doors in 1870 and continues to impress discerning travelers more than 175 years later. Occupying a 100-year-old building, formerly an Austro-Hungary Monarchy Bank, the Park Hyatt Vienna exudes turn-of-the century elegance with gilded accents, restored wood floors, and mother-of-pearl inlay.
Why visit: A white Christmas may be quintessential, but who says it has to be snow? Change it up with a Hawaiian-style holiday in Maui. From the brightly-lit banyan trees to the white-sand beaches, this warm-weather escape abounds with seasonal spirit—and sunshine.
What to do: Every December, Banyan Tree Park displays thousands of colorful string lights. Join the crowds that flock to view this spectacular sight after dark. Maui’s official whale-watching season kicks off in mid-December, when humpback whales migrate to Hawaii’s warm waters. Don’t miss a chance to see these amazing marine mammals and hear their haunting melodies. Hike to the summit of Mountain Haleakalā, where you may even witness a light dusting of fresh flakes.
Where to stay: Grand Wailea kicks off the season with its annual tree lighting ceremony, followed by Santa’s arrival via Hawaiian voyaging canoe on Christmas. In between, guests relax by the pool (there are nine!) or book a service at the award-winning spa. The neighboring Fairmont Kea Lani, which sits on 22-acres of pristine beachfront property, boasts a bevy of (family-friendly and adults-only) activities to get everyone in the spirit. Craving a Christmas feast? Savor holiday favorites at the 'ohana dinner.
Prague, Czech Republic
Why visit: With its baroque and gothic architecture, snow-covered cobblestone streets, and storied Christmas markets, this picturesque Eastern European city looks like a postcard come to life.
What to do: Prague’s most popular landmarks—the Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague Castle, and the Astronomical Clock—look even more magical when illuminated by the warm glow of Christmas lights. Be sure to give yourself some time to stroll historic Nerudova Street in Mala Strana (the Lesser Quarter), the Castle District, the Jewish Quarter, and Old Town Square. While you’re there, visit the largest and most frequented Christmas market in the city, and treat yourself to a trdelník (cinnamon roll) and a cup of svařák (mulled wine).
Where to stay: Housed within a former 14th century monastery, Mandarin Oriental, Prague combines old-world beauty with modern amenities—including a seasonal package that would grow even the Grinch’s heart. Each of the 372 sophisticated rooms and suites at InterContinental Prague offer stunning city views. And you don’t have to venture far for fine fare. Celebrate Christmas with a four-course feast at Zlata Praha Restaurant.
Why visit: The “Cradle of Renaissance” attracts tourists year-round with its art, architecture, and cuisine. Coupled with the colorful lights, mirthful decorations, music, and lively atmosphere, it’s easy to see why Florence is such an idyllic place to spend Christmas.
What to do: For many Italians, the start of the holiday season is L'Immacolata Concezione (Feast of the Immaculate Conception). On December 8, droves of people head to Piazza del Duomo, in the historic city center, for the lighting of the Christmas tree. Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore displays a life-sized nativity scene, made of terracotta statues. Both remain up until January 6—the day of Epiphany, or Three Kings Day—giving tourist and locals plenty of time to visit. Wander the pictorial streets and peep into the gleefully-dressed shop windows and stop by the city’s largest holiday market in Piazza Santa Croce.
Where to stay: Set along the Arno River is The St. Regis Florence, a historic palace (originally built by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1432) turned five-star hotel. Adding to the allure, is the Michelin-starred Christmas Day lunch at Winter Garden by Caino. The newly renovated Hotel Lungarno—part of the Ferragamo family-owned hospitality group, Lungarno Collection—serves up Christmas brunch with unparalleled views of the Ponte Vecchio.