Top Places to Celebrate the Yuletide Season

The holiday season is a joyous time around the world with celebrations rich with tradition and culture. Here, some yuletide hotspots from Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences.

New York City, USA

There’s more to the holiday season in New York than horse-drawn carriage rides through Central Park and skating at Rockefeller Center beneath one of the world’s tallest Christmas trees. See the lights and enjoy some holiday cheer in Brooklyn on a “Christmas Lights and Cannoli” tour, and check out the origami tree at the Museum of Natural History. New York is known for its arts, and holiday specials like the New York Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker or Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular offer a nice alternative to Broadway. And you’ll want to check out the holiday markets at Union Square, Columbus Circle and Grand Central Terminal or the shops at Bryant Park. Even mainstream stores like Macy’s get in the spirit with themed window displays.

For more information, visit

Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, Finland

When seeing Santa at the local mall just won’t cut it, head to the Arctic Circle in Finland to meet this Christmas icon. Rumour has it Santa made Rovaniemi his hometown, and, though he keeps the location of his home top secret, he meets with adoring fans at his workshop in Santa Park (a Christmas-themed amusement park near the village.) Get a glimpse of traditions all around the world at the Christmas Exhibition, and send a letter from the Main Post Office.

Though open year round, a dusting of snow makes the village look even more like a set from a holiday movie. The snow is also a boon to the many outdoor activities in Rovaniemi — like ice fishing, winter golf and spying the Northern Lights. You can even take a “winter safari” in a sled pulled by reindeer.

You’ll want to time your visit before the big day as the village is closed December 24 and 25 (so Santa can deliver presents, of course!) For more information, see Visit Rovaniemi and

Nuremberg, Germany

Prefer to do your Christmas shopping far from crowded malls? The historic Bavarian city Nürnberg — or Nuremberg — gets the nod from Lonely Planet for its 400-year old Christkindlesmarkt (Christmas Market). Featuring over 180 stalls, this expansive market offers a wide variety of traditional foods and crafts — like its famous spicy gingerbread cookies, baked goods, toys, crafts, decorations and, of course, rostbratwurst (roasted sausages) and mulled wine.

Naturally, the market isn’t the only long-standing tradition in town: The Toy Museum (or Spielzeugmuseum) has a vast collection covering Germany’s 500-year history of play. The displays include everything from the historic to the modern, and have entire floors dedicated to wooden toys and dolls. It’s not all show and tell — there are also hands-on activities for the youngsters too.

If your tastes run to art and architecture, Nuremberg won’t disappoint with gems like the Albrecht Dürer House and the Nuremberg Castle, once home to German kings and emperors.

For more information, see

Zurich, Switzerland

Dreaming of a white Christmas? You might feel like you’re walking into a Christmas card with this city’s snowy peaks and cobblestone streets. A guided walking tour of the historic parts of the city might just get you in the Christmas spirit — not to mention a little shopping. In addition to the 400 shops in town, there are Christmas markets dotted throughout the city and no shortage of places to tempt your taste buds.

One of the city’s unique traditions is the Singing Christmas Tree: a pyramid shaped stage draped with lights and greenery, and the decorations are young carolers giving nightly concerts.

If the holiday rush tires you out, indulge in some serious pampering at one of the local spas — like the Thermal Baths & Spa Zürich. Still have lots of energy? You won’t have to go far to find the slopes.

For more information, visit

Rome, Italy

How does the Eternal City celebrate Natale?  From December to early January, Rome is full of tradition and culture — but the sites aren’t full of tourists. In fact, some travel guides say the holidays are the best time to see Rome. (Besides, we Canadians aren’t afraid of the cold.)

In Italy, the season gets underway with the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8. It’s not long before decorations start popping up, including presepi (nativity scenes) almost everywhere you go. Do some shopping at the Christmas Market in Piazza Navona and stop to enjoy zampognari and pifferai — bagpipe and flute players donning traditional costumes playing outside the churches and public buildings. Don’t forget to indulge your inner foodie: just in case you weren’t already in love with Italian cuisine, wait until you see the seasonal treats.

However, the main celebrations happen during the twelve days from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, so expect to join in the fun and eschew typical tourist activities as many places are closed for the holidays.

For more information, see Christmas in Rome.

For the devout, experiencing Midnight Mass or Christmas Day Mass at the Vatican may just be the ultimate yuletide pilgrimage. Tickets are free, but aren’t easily obtained. You’ll have to request them well in advance from the Prefettura della Casa Pontificia. If you miss Christmas, masses are also held New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Dublin, Ireland

Don’t expect somber celebrations in this fair city: holiday cheer flows as freely as the Guinness and the craic (that is, fun and good conversation). Dublin is home to over 1000 pubs — a sampling of which experts say shouldn’t be missed — not to mention holiday displays, markets and a host of events. Try the Docklands Christmas Market and catch a fairytale panto (don’t worry: these pantomimes have nothing to do with silent performers dressed in black and white).

As with other major cities, the merriment gets underway mid-November — that’s when the Christmas lights and window displays officially launch and Santa makes his first appearance. It’s also time to get an early sampling of the season with food and wine festivals and shows.

And don’t forget to pack your bathing suit for a wacky local Christmas tradition: the Annual Forty Foot Christmas Day Swim. If the thought of this chilly plunge has your teeth chattering, better skip ahead to the warming drink.

For more information, see

San Juan, Puerto Rico

What if you’re thinking green instead? This sunny spot gets the nod from many experts for its inviting atmosphere. Even in December, temperatures reach 28 degrees Celsius and the sun shines more often than not. You won’t have to sacrifice your Christmas with family for this getaway as celebrations start mid-November and continue to the finale for Three Kings Day on January 6.

However, you won’t miss the snow with the variety of traditions and celebrations Puerto Rico has to offer — and we’re not just talking about turkey-free feasts. From mid-December to Christmas Eve, churches hold misas de Aguinaldo — special masses held at dawn featuring Puerto Rican carols.

While Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena, is the main event with a big feast and Midnight Mass, New Year’s Eye and Three Kings Day are also times for celebration.

For more information, see

Learn more about Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences.

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Photo copyright Singing Christmas Tree Zürich

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