If you travel long enough, you’re eventually going to miss a major holiday at home. Sometimes, this can be tremendously depressing (like over Thanksgiving), but Christmas, fortunately, is one of those holidays that can be totally awesome to spend abroad. In part, this is because Christmas is a virtually global holiday — it’s celebrated in almost all of Christendom (and if you haven’t noticed, Christians are everywhere), and it’s also celebrated secularly in much of the world.
Probably the best part of celebrating Christmas abroad is that it’s one of those rare moments, like during sporting matches or religious ceremonies, where the citizens of your host country aren’t paying any attention to you as a tourist. They’re focusing on themselves and their family, so your experience is going to be just slightly more authentic, as you’ll get to see everyone in your element. Granted, this all changes when you start shopping, but if you’re trying to “blend in” at Christmas markets or shopping malls, you’re kinda fucked from the go.
That said, I’ve made a scientific, indisputable list of the very best places on the planet to celebrate Christmas.
Daylight is overrated. And you won’t be getting much daylight in Iceland. What you will be getting is the Northern Lights, one of the world’s most beautiful and surreal landscapes, and some of the friendliest people on the planet. Also, apparently they go all out on Christmas lights as well.
Part of the Christmas holiday, though, is enjoying winter, and while it’s not the snowiest of all possible destinations — go to parts of the Northern US or Canada for that — it’s definitely one of the best. Iceland is incredible, and if you get tired of the cold, you can go to the super touristy but absolutely awesome Blue Lagoon geothermal hot springs and spa.
Also, Iceland has 13 Santas. They’re called the Yule Lads, and apparently they once were trolls that were used to terrify children. They’re friendlier than they used to be, and are far from the weirdest Santa Claus tradition, but they’ll be a fun thing to ask the locals about when you go into the bar for one or 17 schnapps.
4. European Christmas markets
Okay, this could be read as a way-too-broad cop-out, but have you ever been to any European Christmas markets? They are delightful. Street meat, powdered pastries, and mulled wines all packed into open-air markets where you can get literally all of your Christmas shopping done in five minutes, to the tune of live brass ensembles playing classic Christmas tunes. The bad news is there are just too many of them to limit it to one. The good news is Europe is actually pretty tiny, and Europeans believe in public transportation. So you can see a ton over the course of the month of Christmas.
We recently posted a video of the beautiful Christmas markets in Mainz and Weisbaden, Germany, and also a video of the famous Prague Christmas market, but there are so many more you should visit. Personally, I would recommend the market in Bruges, Belgium (which you may have seen in the fantastic In Bruges), as well as the tiny Christmas market in Luxembourg City. I’ve also heard good things about the Christmas markets in Munich, Provence, and Vienna.
3. New York
There are a ton of great places to celebrate Christmas in America, many of them possibly better than NYC (although Santa Claus, Indiana, can suck it: I could never go to a Christmas-themed town without spending my time there thinking about how depressing the town must be the other 11 months of the year). But New York is the most iconic place in America to spend Christmas.
Americans everywhere ring in the Christmas season when Santa comes at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. It’s another big television event when they light the massive Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. And then there’s the fact that some of our best Christmas movies, which are playing on a loop during the holidays, are set in New York: Home Alone 2, Elf, Miracle on 34th Street, and Scrooged.
New York is, admittedly, not as charming as it’s portrayed in any of these movies. But it is a winter wonderland, even if a slightly dystopian one.
Unlike New York, London lives up to the charm with which it’s portrayed in its famous Christmas stories: notably, A Christmas Carol and Love, Actually. A lot of the internet is blowing up right now over whether or not Love, Actually is a good movie, or, indeed, is even a Christmas movie (the answers are, respectively, “who gives a shit?” and “yes”), but one thing it does indisputably do is make you want to live in London over the holidays.
I had the good fortune of spending a recent Christmas in London, and it is truly wonderful. Their Christmas markets are among the best, and, for an American at least, the holiday appeared charmingly uncommercialized — though every Brit I know would strongly disagree with me on that point. Also, there are actual carolers roaming the city. They are usually raising money at Tube stations, but they at least put out more effort than the American Salvation Army Santa’s, who just sit there ringing a loud menacing bell at you as you pass.
The British don’t have Thanksgiving, so their eating holiday is Christmas, and it’s the one time of the year that the British cook really, really well. If you get the chance, spend a Christmas in Britain, and make at least one trip to London and pretend you’re a character from Love, Actually. Preferably one of the porn stars.
When I spent my Christmas in London, I got up on Christmas Day and rode the bikeshare all over the city. The town was empty: no buses, no cabs, no cars. The entire town to myself. It was awesome at first, but after riding around for a little while, I began to realize that the teeming masses were out of the streets because they were spending their holiday around a fire and a turkey with their family. And then I started to miss my family and friends. A lot.
So home is still the best place in the world to spend your holidays. Unless, of course, you can get all your loved ones to come to London with you.
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Matt is a writer and blogger based in Washington, DC who has lived in London, Buenos Aires, and Beijing. His hobbies include profanity, Scotch consumption, and human rights activism. You can find him at A Man Without a Country.