A girl on a donkey leads a candle-carrying procession past San Miguel de Allende’s shops festooned with piñatas and poinsettias. When they stop before a Spanish-colonial building and break into song, you realize you’re witnessing the reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter that takes place in the days leading up to Christmas.
Whether your winter holiday trip enhances your yuletide nostalgia with traditions, sparkly lights, and nippy air or makes a radical break from it—by, say, taking you to warmer climes or a quiet, far-flung hideaway—breaking the habit of staying home will always reward you with a Christmas you’ll never forget. With that goal in mind, we’ve rounded up diverse, exceptional places to get you in the spirit of taking off.
Quebec City is one of our favorite historic destinations for the holidays. The narrow cobblestoned streets and stone architecture of the walled city, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, make it as romantic and European as it gets on this side of the pond. Add to that a proclivity for snowfall and an abundance of top-notch bars and restaurants, and you may wish the New Year could be postponed.
But the appeal of warming up over the holidays is undeniable, too. For the die-hard contrarian, Kaikoura, New Zealand, ought to do the trick. It’s the height of summer there at Christmas, a holiday most often celebrated outdoors with backyard barbecues. But it’s also a great time to be hiking the rainforest of the Kaikoura mountain range or on the waters of Kaikoura Bay, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. It’s the summer home of sperm whales, fur seals, dusky dolphins, and pilot whales, and all it takes to commune with them is a boat and a bit of perseverance.
South America has weathered the global recession better than most regions, and it’s not hard to see why. Brazil in particular is peppered with off-the-beaten-track gems that offer a true escape, like the coastal Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, about 140 miles south of Rio. Its friendly locals, cerulean waters, exceptional beaches, and exotic-bird-filled jungles may make you forget what holiday it is altogether. Like we said: unforgettable.
Why Go: The snowy city island of Trømso offers unparalleled views of the northern lights (look for them between 6 p.m. and midnight) and a chance to say you’ve been to the North Pole—well, the Arctic Circle, anyway—for Christmas. Plus, there’s dogsledding, great food, and a mountaintop cable car. Here, “day” is just a couple hours of twilight blue.
Where to Stay: Most hotels shut down for the holiday, but not the Clarion Hotel Bryggen, right on the harbor. The views of Trømso Sound are best admired from the roof’s steamy Jacuzzi.
Holiday Dinner: Stay put at the Clarion for a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner at its restaurant, Astro. The chef has been known to serve Nordic dishes like basil-glazed filet of catfish and whole roasted filet of pork, and recommends a side of French salt-baked Rosewald potatoes.
Why Go: Stroll historic Nerudova street in Mala Strana to view the city’s Gothic and Baroque architecture, or catch an opera or ballet at the State Opera or National Theater. Visit the holiday markets in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
Where to Stay: The 109-room Hotel Josef is outfitted with Baleri armchairs, Philippe Starck bathroom fixtures, and fluffy duvets.
Don’t Miss: Standout local brews; grab a pint of pilsner at cozy U Pinkasů.
Why Go: The wilderness Urho Kekkonen National Park, a 90-minute flight from Helsinki, is an actual winter wonderland: traverse the frosty landscape via a reindeer-pulled sled, or go cross-country skiing on the Saariselkä trails.
Where to Stay: Some of the igloos at Hotel Kakslauttanen are made of thermal glass—so you stay warm watching the northern lights.
Don’t Miss: A four-hour cruise on the Sampo, which served for 26 years as an icebreaker.
Why Go: In this compact Alpine city, a display of 12,000 crystal lights marks the season on November 21. Grab a heissi schoggi (hot chocolate) and explore the galleries on Rämistrasse, check out the Conelli Christmas Circus, or listen to a holiday concert in the Romanesque-style Grossmünster church.
Where to Stay: Set on the Sihl River, the Hotel Restaurant Helvetia has 16 rooms with Art Nouveau touches.
Don’t Miss: On the eve of December 19, children set candles afloat on the Limmat River near City Hall.
Why Go: Charleston puts its own spin on the holidays—pecans roasting instead of chestnuts, eggnog spiked with bourbon, and choirs singing spirituals at Drayton Hall plantation.
Where to Stay: The 21-room Wentworth Mansion dresses in subdued Victorian finery for the holidays with magnolia wreaths, old-world Santas, and two grand Christmas trees in the foyer. Every room has its own fireplace. On your pillow at turndown: chocolate truffles.
Holiday Dinner: At Peninsula Grill, chef Graham Dailey uses a fine selection of glazes and sauces, such as on his grilled bourbon glazed jumbo shrimp, and gives you the option of sinfully grilled steak and sauce. Take your pick among blue cheese–balsamic glaze, red pepper béarnaise, foie gras–truffle butter, or brandy-peppercorn sauce.
Why Go: In this otherworldly landscape, daylight is a four-hour affair and the liquid-green aurora borealis illuminates the nighttime sky. Statues of the 12 Yule Lads (the Icelandic version of Santa Claus) peer out from every corner shop and window.
Where to Stay: For covetable views of the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral and reasonable room rates, check in to the Hótel Leifur Eiríksson.
Holiday Dinner: The seafood restaurant Vid Tjörnina lures locals and visitors alike with its classic Icelandic cuisine. How about hot smoked puffin followed by shots of Brennivín (a.k.a. schnapps, or “firewater”)?
Santa Barbara, CA
Why Go: During winter, the coastal towns in Santa Barbara County combine New England–style comfort and old California elegance with outrageous holiday kitsch.
Where to Stay: In Montecito, the 500-acre San Ysidro Ranch could be a Vermont hunting lodge (rooms have wood-beamed ceilings and stone hearths), except that it’s 20 minutes from world-class surfing at Rincon Beach.
Holiday Dinner: Go super casual at Stacky’s Seaside, which stands out like a grounded trawler. Fortify yourself with its fish and chips before hitting the Summerland Winery’s tasting room for a wine that shouldn’t work but does: a sparkling Zinfandel.
—M. G. Lord
Why Go: New England’s old-world ambience and coziness make Boston a natural choice for the holidays. Enjoy Beacon Hill’s cobblestoned streets dusted with snow, and celebrate the ghosts of Christmases past with the Christmas Revels at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre.
Where to Stay: A gas fireplace warms every bedroom at the XV Beacon Hotel, which mixes classic details like an antique cage elevator with bold abstract paintings. Just a few minutes away from Boston Common and Faneuil Hall.
Holiday Dinner: No. 9 Park serves over-the-top, shockingly good cuisine. The menu showcases French- and Italian-influenced dishes such as signature prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras and Vin Santo sauce. A selection of rich desserts and artisan cheeses rounds out the offerings.
—Peter Jon Lindberg
Why Go: In this Scottish gem known for its widespread arts and theater culture, a holiday light show includes fireworks illuminating the sky from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” around the Sir Walter Scott Monument serve even better than carolers.
Where to Stay: Fireplaces are continuously rekindled at the baronial Balmoral. The Caledonian Hilton Edinburgh is Scotland’s answer to the Plaza and equally as opulent.
Holiday Dinner: Sorceresses were burned at the stake beside the gates of Edinburgh Castle in the 16th century, but nothing is scorched at the Witchery by the Castle, which stands on the site. The restaurant serves Loch Duart salmon and Gartmorn Farm duck—all cooked to perfection.
—Heidi Sherman Mitchell
Why Go: Nashville is the most flamboyant ode to the holidays east of the Mississippi; “O Tannenbaum” is sung with a twang as honky-tonks share space with family values.
Where to Stay: With Gaylord Opryland’s nearly 3,000 rooms and more than nine acres of enclosed gardens, it is no surprise that it does Christmas in a big way. Two million lights shine in outdoor displays, while large-scale tributes inside range from campy to breathtaking. If you prefer a quieter place, check into the 124-room Union Station, a refurbished train depot with a grand stained-glass ceiling in its lobby.
Holiday Dinner: With many restaurants in Nashville closed in observance of Christmas Day, why not order gourmet catering from Corner Market Catering Company? Choose from beef tenderloin on grilled crostini with horseradish mustard or tarragon crab salad in a choux pastry. Mini meringues and butterscotch bites are just enough to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Why Go: In this old-meets-new Swedish town, you can shop for Modernist designs while strolling through its 16th-century town square. Locals leave a hearty dinner of aquavit and herring by the fireplace for Santa instead of milk and cookies.
Where to Stay: High-class and centrally located on Baltzarsgatan, the Grand Hotel Garden Malmö serves traditional Swedish Christmas dishes as part of an all-you-can-eat buffet on December 25th.
Holiday Dinner: If you are not a buffet buff, book to eat at Petri Pumpa’s festive spread in the stately Elite Hotel Savoy. The fish-and-meat-centered feast includes a dozen varieties of herring and salmon; ham with red, brown, and green cabbage; and köttbullar (Swedish meatballs).
Why Go: Christmastime may be damp and foggy, but with the hordes long gone, service is relaxed and friendly, and at night, you may have the moonlit Piazza San Marco all to yourself.
Where to Stay: The opulent Hotel Cipriani is available during the holidays, and the staff is sure to fuss over you. For a more intimate experience, consider Ca’ Pisani, a boutique hotel with a vaguely futuristic look.
Holiday Dinner: Italians have their big feast on the 24th. At Do Forni, indulge in one of its signature dishes, such as risotto with shrimp and seasonal vegetables or baked branzino with potatoes, tomatoes, and oregano. De Pisis at the Hotel Bauer riffs on traditional fare: turbot fillet with glazed chestnuts, fondant pumpkin and smoked ham from Tyrol.
—Peter J. Frank
Why Go: This mountain town serves up an old-fashioned holiday without all that Aspen attitude. Explore Pueblo dwellings, take a brisk ski run down the slopes, or just curl up with a rum toddy in a true Western saloon.
Where to Stay: The Rochester Hotel pays homage to Durango’s cinematic past: each of the 15 rooms recalls a locally produced movie, from the Mexican-themed Viva Zapata suite to a Euro-style room called Around the World in Eighty Days. The grandly restored Strater Hotel houses the Diamond Belle Saloon, Louis L’Amour’s preferred watering hole.
Holiday Dinner: Plan a Christmas Eve feast at Ken and Sue’s, an easygoing bistro. Try the pork loin medallions wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon with hot cider glazed–cabbage in a sweet molasses sauce.
Why Go: Instead of carols, listen to the haunting sounds of the gamelan gong for a change while you admire the Christmas Eve sunset at the island temple of Tanah Lot.
Where to Stay: Incense wafts through the soaring lobby, and wreaths of rice plants, herbs, and flowers hang on the doors of the 22 suites and villas at the small, affordable but remarkably stylish Hotel Tugu Bali.
Holiday Dinner: The Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan jazzes up the traditional meal: choose from an array of gourmet dishes, such as Ayung “Cocotte,” Grilled Yellow Fin Tuna, Oven Roasted Lamb Shank, and much more.
Why Go: Portuguese influences in seaside India, whitewashed Catholic churches, and firecrackers, bells, and carolers will make your holiday perfect as a scene from a Bollywood film.
Where to Stay: Spread over 88 acres, the Fort Aguada Beach Resort was built on the remains of a 16th-century Portuguese fortress. The hotel’s holiday extravaganza includes jazz and Goan food.
Holiday Dinner: Feast at the sophisticated Casa Portuguesa, in a converted villa with gardens and verandas a short walk from the Arabian Sea.