The holiday season is upon us, seemingly sooner than ever before. If you're not packing your bags to a relative's house, why not plan a holiday-themed excursion elsewhere in the world? Whether you can't get enough of Christmas (we're looking at you, Hallmark movie lovers!), observe a different holiday entirely, or prefer to spend the season soaking up the sun with a caipirinha in hand, we have a place for you.
Drawing on the insights and experience of our worldwide stable of writers and editors, we picked out 12 unique places worth visiting this November and December. From the pueblos of Taos to the synagogues of Italy, here's where to slow down, relax, and savor the sights and sounds of the festive season.
For the Sweet Tooth: China
Travelers with a hankering for sweets and giant block parties should head to China’s Zhejiang Province to pop Tangyuan and party with the locals for Dongzhi Festival. Tangyuan, chewy glutinous bright pink and yellow rice balls, are served in syrupy ginger soup. They symbolize reunion, prosperity, and hope, and come plain or get filled with red bean or sweet sesame paste. Cinnamon-tasting rice wine is served on the side, thought to aid the body with yang energy.
Families gather to share Tangyuan or another hot meal whenever the Dongzhi Festival falls, between Dec. 21 and 23. But why just make it a family thing, when you could party with a whole village? Yangjiacun, a village in Sanmen County of Taizhou City, make this an all-day affair with Dongzhi festivities beginning at 3 a.m. Listed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of China by UNESCO, the event has prayers and ceremonies for ancestors, traditional clothing, and fireworks. — Christine Gilbert
For a Warm-Weather Christmas: Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro might not be the first Christmas destination you think of—and that's exactly why you should visit the Cidade Maravilhosa this holiday season! In addition to being home to a floating Christmas tree which, at 278 feet, is the tallest in the world, Rio de Janeiro boasts balmy weather on Christmas Day, with average highs in the upper 80s or low 90s F.
If you do decide to visit Rio de Janeiro at Christmas, keep in mind that this can be a busy time. You should arrange your flights and accommodation as soon as possible, especially if you plan to stay in popular Rio neighborhoods like Copacabana, Ipanema or Leblon. The good news is that U.S. citizens no longer require visas to enter Brazil as tourists, so you're guaranteed a stress-free Christmas trip on that front. What better gift could you give yourself this than a caipirinha, a golden tan, and the sounds of samba coloring your yuletide? — Robert Schrader
For the Party Animal: Scotland
No one celebrates like a Scot. Every year Scotland rings in the New Year with Hogmanay, an annual celebration with joyful, raucous festivities on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. The biggest event is held in Edinburgh, where events take place from Dec. 30 through Jan. 1, including a street party, club and DJ nights, and even an official after-party (you know, in case you need more partying post-midnight). It’s not all about the late-night festivities, though. On Jan. 1, locals gather for Loony Dook, which involves jumping into the cold water at South Queensferry, usually in costume.
Similar Hogmanay celebrations take place in Inverness, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Stirling, but you can find festivities even in the smallest Scottish towns, particularly the annual torchlight procession that kicks off the events throughout the country. Fire is a theme, too: In Stonehaven, locals put on a fireballs parade, a cleansing ritual to ward off the spirits from the past year, while Biggar hosts a yearly bonfire in the center of town. — Emily Zemler
For a Fairy-Tale Holiday: Budapest
Get into the holiday spirit when the Christmas markets transform downtown Budapest into a winter wonderland. This pop-up Christmas village with stalls resembling wood cabins tempts shoppers with artisanal wares such as gingerbread hearts, folk art, and crafts from local designers like vintage-style diaries, lavender-infused cosmetics, and handmade bonbons.
However, Budapest’s advent markets offer more than seasonal shopping. Just grab a steaming hot cup of spiced mulled wine and a freshly-grilled chimney cake hot off the coals before being rolled in cinnamon or ground walnuts, and immerse yourself in a landscape straight off a chocolate box.
There’s plenty of magical things you can do in Budapest, even in the cold. You can get your skates on at City Park’s ice rink set on a lake overlooking Vajdahunyad Castle, soak an art nouveau thermal bath or 16th-century Turkish bathhouse, or relax in one of Budapest’s beautiful cafes, like the opulent New York Cafe. — Jennifer Walker
For the Griswold Wannabe: Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
Get to Dyker Heights just before sundown to beat the crowds of Christmas light fiends that make their way to this southern extreme of Brooklyn each year for a display that we're nearly certain you could at least see from the window of a plane taking off from JFK, if not space.Between Thanksgiving and New Years, the grid between 83rd and 86th Streets and 11th and 13th Avenues comes alive with blow-up snowmen, glowing plastic Santas and what seems like millions of bulbs. Expect to share the sidewalk with babies, dogs, and Instagram influencers as you pose with Frosty and stroll past ice cream trucks slinging hot chocolate.End your adventure with a warm meal nearby—for Italian, head over to Ortobello or La Palina east of Bensonhurst. For Chinese, skip over to Sunset Park's 8th Avenue. Uber is your friend in this neck of the woods, but during the busy holiday season, expect a wait. — Elspeth Velten
For the Multi-Faith Family: Italy
Though Italy is a predominantly Catholic country, in December’s festive season, mixed-faith and non-denominational families will still find plenty of ways to celebrate that aren’t overtly linked to the Church. Christmas markets around the country create a joyful atmosphere and offer regional foods, hot mulled wine, and often handmade gift items. In northern cities like Milan and Bolzano—home to Italy’s largest Christmas market—they might be made more magical with a blanket of fresh snow.
Italy has Europe’s fourth-largest Jewish population, with many core communities traceable to the Ancient Roman era. Hanukkah celebrations and the lighting of menorahs take place in Rome, Florence, and Milan, all of which have significant synagogues, as well as in smaller cities around Italy. Venice has one of Italy’s most interesting Jewish ghettos, which still houses five synagogues and hosts a lively Hanukkah observance along the canals of the Cannaregio area. In Ferrara, the Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah opened in 2019 and examines the long, complicated history of Judaism and Christianity in Italy.
Whatever your beliefs, you’ll find a festive, welcoming spirit in the air in Italy’s cities and towns during December. Kids are out of school from Dec. 20 through Epiphany Day on Jan. 6, and many workers have the week off between Christmas and New Year’s. The period is marked by lots of dinners and parties—with any luck, you’ll get invited to one! – Elizabeth Heath
For a Holiday Parade Lover: Dallas
Move over, Macy's! Every year, tens of thousands of runners descend on the downtown Dallas for a Thanksgiving parade of a different kind. The YMCA Turkey Trot, the biggest Thanksgiving Day running event in Dallas, and one of the biggest races of its kind in the country, drawing more than 25,000 runners. It’s a fun, family-friendly event—there’s a 5k run or walk, an 8-mile run, and a 1k Junior Trot for the little ones. Talk about a great way to feel better about ingesting heaping piles of turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes.
Of course, the Big D is also just an enchanting place to be during the holidays. Check out the 12 Days of Christmas at the Arboretum and don’t miss the Parade of Lights in Grapevine, with more than 100 lighted floats and marching bands, making it the largest lighted Christmas parade in North Texas. — Justine Harrington
For the Over-Exuberant Christmas Lover: Philippines
The Philippines celebrates Christmas fiesta-style, befitting Asia’s biggest Catholic-majority country. While you’ll find the country’s historic churches all bedecked in lights for the season, venture north of Manila to the city of San Fernando, Pampanga, for a Filipino Christmas turned up to 11.
A generations-old Pampanga cottage industry produces parol: illuminated Christmas lanterns representing the star of Bethlehem. Modern technology has helped Pampanga’s lanterns grow to massive sizes, with the largest and blingiest participating in San Fernando’s Ligligan Parul, or Giant Lantern Festival.
From Dec. 14 to Jan. 1, giant parol will flash merrily from Robinsons Starmall Pampanga, competing for prestige and a hefty cash prize. Take time to visit other Pampanga highlights as well, among them a wide-ranging food scene starting with Mangan Tamu Food Street at Clark Freeport’s Comercio Central; and midnight masses at the San Fernando Cathedral. (Pampanga’s Clark Airport hosts international flights, allowing travelers to visit while avoiding Manila entirely.) — Michael Aquino
For the Grinch: Austria
Do saccharine Christmas tunes and gingerbread lattes make you wince? A trip to the Austrian Alps in time for the Krampus Festival may be the perfect antidote. This Tyrolean folk tradition sees participants don monstrous, hand-carved wooden masks, horns, bells, and pelts to fend off evil spirits in the run-up to Christmas. And parents sometimes persuade naughty children to behave by warning that Krampus—a half-goat, half-demon "Bad Santa"—might come to punish them along with his band of perchten (elves).
Krampuslaufen (Krampus "runs" or parades) are a great way to enjoy wintery Austrian landscapes and holiday decor while taking part in an unusual pre-Christmas ritual. In 2019, Salzburg makes an ideal hub for seeing the runs, which take place on the evenings of Nov. 30, Dec. 3, and Dec. 5. Vienna's Prater Park will also host one on Dec. 1 at 5 p.m. — Courtney Traub
For the Big City Lover: Chicago
There is much to do in the Windy City this season, just be sure to dress warmly. Even though the temps can drop to below freezing, Chicago heats up with the BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, which kicks off the holiday season on Nov. 22 with a tree lighting parade, live music, and photos with Santa.
Celebrate with your family at holiday tea service at many of the hotels in the city, including Four Seasons Hotel Chicago, Drake Hotel, and Palmer House Hilton, or ice skate at McCormick Tribune Plaza and Ice Rink and the Maggie Daley Park Ice Ribbon. Take your multigenerational family for a classic holiday dinner at the Walnut Room at Macy’s. Savor the winter season with spiced wine and shopping at Christkindlmarket in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.
For the Hallmark Movie Lover: Dahlonega, Georgia
Already a year-round destination for its award-winning wineries, an abundance of outdoor activities, proximity to Atlanta, and small-town Southern charm, this city nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains transforms into a Hallmark movie-worthy winter wonderland during the holidays—literally. The Hallmark Channel has filmed many of its signature seasonal films here, including "Christmas in Homestead."
Dahlonega’s Old-Fashioned Christmas kicks off the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 29), with the annual lighting of the town's 30-foot Christmas tree in the town square, horse-drawn carriage rides through historic downtown, extended shopping hours for over 65 local merchants, and visits from Santa and Mrs. Claus.
The festivities continue through the end of the year, with additional highlights including the annual Christmas parade on Dec. 7, a weekend Christmas market to rival those of any European city, and performances of the perennial favorite “A Christmas Story,” at the appropriately named Holly Theater. — Laura Scholz
For a Celebration Rooted in History: Santa Fe, New Mexico
A holiday season with a visit to Santa Fe is likely to set off a life-long love affair with this charming Southwestern city. As one of the oldest cities in the U.S., Santa Fe, and its Christmas celebrations, draw on influences from the region's First Nations people; Spanish colonists; and the numerous artists and frontiersmen who have called the Land of Enchantment home over the years.
Kick-off your wintertime visit at the Santa Fe Winter Indian Market, held on Dec. 14 and 15 this year. More than 130 local Native artists sell their beautiful hand-crafted jewelry, pottery, weaving, and more.
On Christmas Eve, join the Canyon Road farolito walk at dusk. One of Santa Fe's most beloved Christmas traditions, streets are lined with farolitos (small, sand-filled bags with votive candles) and luminarias, meant to signify lighting the way for Mary and Joseph, as locals and tourists walk through the secluded streets, often caroling and enjoying the wintry solitude. Afterward, head to Midnight Mass at St. Francis Cathedral.
Finally, on Christmas Day, the Taos Pueblo is open to visitors, as the community performs the Deer or Los Matachines Dance, a Native American ceremonial performance honoring the season. The pueblo's elders decide which dance to perform just weeks before the holiday, with the former honoring the hunt and the latter a ceremonial dance handed down by the Spanish. — Laura Ratliff