Thursday, September 23, 2021

Going away for the holidays? 8 perfect destinations for festive travelers

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While most of us would agree that Christmas is normally spent at home with the family, in truth there is something special about - once in a while - spending the holiday on holiday. Going away at Christmas may not be for everyone, but it is worth experiencing the season in a magical far-off destination at least once in your life. After all, one of the great joys of traveling is the chance to experience different cultures and ways of life. And few things are more special and particular to a culture than the way they celebrate major events and festivals. 

Of course, picking your destination is important here. Not every country celebrates Christmas, and not all that do will celebrate it uniformly in late December (so if you’ve always wanted to see Kiev, read up on when is the best time to visit for Ukrainian Christmas). Many tourist destinations and resorts will lay on Christmas festivities in recognition of their clientele’s wish to celebrate, but if you’re looking to make the trip under your own initiative, do bear in mind whether or not you’ll be in a place where December 25th is just another day - it won’t mean you can’t celebrate, but there might not be much of a Christmas vibe.

With that said, there are some awesome overseas destinations (and some domestic ones, too), where a Christmas holiday can be spent in style - and below, we’ll look at some of the best places to go away for the holidays.

Iceland: Magical Christmas scenery

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If you want a destination that makes even the most special Christmas card look pedestrian, then spending Christmas in the secluded North Atlantic paradise of Iceland is a promising option. The streets do fill up with lights and trees, and you won’t go very far without finding a traditional Icelandic wooden booth selling warming food and drink. And you’re likely to need it, too - December temperatures in Iceland’s capital Reykjavik never get far above freezing.

Perhaps the best reason to spend Christmas in Iceland, though, is the chance to see the Northern Lights. Whatever you might hang from your tree on the average Yuletide season, you can be sure it will have nothing on the Aurora borealis as viewed from the banks of an Icelandic glacier. Also, you won’t need to dream of a White Christmas. In Iceland, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll have one.

New York: Silver screen, White Christmas?

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If you’ve watched any Christmas films at all, the chances are that they were set in New York: Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone 2, Elf, Gremlins (sort of), Santa Claus: The Movie, It’s a Wonderful Life… the list is surprisingly long, and it’s hard not to feel like a pilgrimage to the Christmases of your childhood when you head to the Big Apple for a festive holiday. There’s no doubt that the city pushes the boat out for the festive season, as the big department stores battle to outdo one another with remarkable window displays.

You can spend days walking around the city ticking off iconic traditional sights from those Hollywood blockbusters, like the huge tree at the Rockefeller Center (and just as importantly, the famous ice-skatng rink). One word of warning, though. Those childhood movies may have made you overly optimistic about the chance of snow - it’s possible, but far from guaranteed, though that shouldn’t spoil the magic of an NY Christmas.

Australia: Christmas in summer?

Because close to 87% of the world’s population live in the Northern Hemisphere, we’ve come to associate Christmas with winter - but if you’re Australian, it’s actually right in the middle of summer. It’s not unheard of to have heatwaves reaching into the 100-degree region, so not so much a White Christmas as a White-Hot one. Most cities will have recurring celebrations of “Carols by Candlelight”, where traditional songs are sung after nightfall, but it’s still pretty warm outside.

Australia gets many of its traditions from the British people who first colonised the island, and so there’s a fair chance of a traditional turkey-and-trimmings festive dinner. On the other hand, depending where you are staying, you may have the option to enjoy a grilled alternative including a hog roast. Eaten alfresco, it’s a rare opportunity to enjoy Christmas dinner in warmer temperatures and then head down to the beach.

Florida: Fairytale Christmas

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Let’s face it, if you grew up in the West, a lot of your early memories of Christmas will involve Disney films and the familiar cast of characters we all know and love. That makes it more than permissible to spend at least one Christmas at Orlando’s DisneyWorld, where the kids can meet those characters and experience the Magic Kingdom Christmas decorations for themselves. 

Also, if you are planning to head to DisneyWorld for the festive season in 2021, be aware that it’s the 50th anniversary of the theme park opening, so this year it’s going to be a bit extra-special. It’s also going to be busy, so be ready for that, but it is likely to see some once-in-a-lifetime celebrations, so if you’re a Disney fan - or have some in your family - then this might just be the best Christmas of your lives.

Germany: Christmas markets, mulled wine and so much more

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If some of our previous entries have been about the Hollywood glitz version of the festive season, then Germany is very much an antidote to the silver screen feel of the others. In just about every major city across the country, there are traditional Christmas markets that can easily feel like a step back in time - although, because this is Germany, they are still resolutely efficient and well-planned.

The architecture of German town squares, the splendid castles and ornate town halls, should feel anachronistic set next to the funfairs that are often a major part of the market layout. Somehow, they don’t, and this makes it an absolute joy to browse from stall to stall, buying traditional ornaments and souvenirs, sampling the warming cups of Gl├╝hwein and tasty Christmas treats. Enjoy a currywurst in a bread roll and then, if you have room and a sweet tooth, nibble on some stollen - a popular marzipan-based festive cake.

Thailand: Christmas in a Buddhist country

Christmas is not a national holiday in majority-Buddhist Thailand, but tourists are a valued part of the scenery and there is a significant ex-pat community - particularly in the big cities like Bangkok. So you’re not going to feel uncomfortable celebrating Christmas among the beautiful buildings and lit-up streets of the Thai capital. The traditional mode of city transport, the tuk-tuk, is often given a festive glow-up as the drivers festoon them in ornaments and Christmas lights.

In the more coastal tourist resorts, particularly the stunning Phuket, you’ll find bars and restaurants serving a mix of tasty Thai cuisine and more traditionally Western fare, and the hospitality sector is very much ready for a mix of tourists and people who have made Thailand their second home. Thailand itself may not celebrate the season in the way most Western countries do, but it will facilitate a dream Christmas holiday for you.

A Danube Cruise: Multiple cities in multiple countries, one Christmas

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The Danube is one of Europe’s most important rivers - it flows through four capital cities on the continent. Those are: Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary), Bratislava (Slovakia) and Belgrade (Serbia). These are also some of Europe’s most beautiful cities, with the former two in particular among the most idyllic destinations for a holiday at any time of year. With snow dusting their streets and stone buildings, though, they are even more rewarding in the festive season - and just like in Germany, the Christmas markets are something to behold. 

Perhaps one of the most essential stopping points, though, is not a capital city at all. Salzburg, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is arguably Austria’s most culturally-important city and is stunning enough to make you weep. Additionally, it is the setting for one of the best-loved musicals of all time, The Sound of Music. Some of the movie was actually filmed here, so you’ll have the chance to tread in the footsteps of Maria, Liesl and Captain von Trapp. And what could be more Christmassy than that?

Scotland: Stay until Hogmanay

While there is a lot to love about many of Britain’s cities at the festive end of the year, it’s an inconvenient truth that London can get too busy, too smoggy and too expensive to be a great Christmas trip. Head North instead to the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. Its free galleries and museums are an excellent place to shelter from the frequently freezing Caledonian winter weather. The highlights include Princes’ Street’s big wheel and a lot of excellent bars around George Street which provide a wide selection of fine Scotch whiskies.

Going away at Christmas isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t for every year, but if you’ve ever considered it, the above destinations are some of the best in the world. They’re also well worth visiting outside of the season, of course, but they’ve got something special about them when the Christmas spirit is in the air.

This post was written with the Life According to Steph audience in mind

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