In 2011, I decided I couldn’t afford a trip back from London, where I was in grad school, to Cincinnati, where my family lives, for the holidays. So I told them I’d see them in a few months, and hunkered down in my student housing with a few friends. Christmas season in London, in general, is amazing: there are carolers and bands playing just outside tube stations, there are quaint, wonderful little Christmas markets, there are pubs serving mulled wine, there are strange German Christmas carnivals that pop up in Hyde Park, there are beautiful symphonies in Royal Albert Hall. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better Christmas city.
But I was anxious about Christmas Day itself. I’d never spent the holiday away from my family, and I was feeling a bit sad about it. I’d planned dinner with a couple of friends, but it would be strange going a year without the traditions and rhythms of the holidays at home.
So on Christmas Day, I walked out into the city of London, and found something absolutely magical: nothing.
I’ve always loved apocalypse movies, and 28 Days Later in particular. The first scenes of that movie, when Cillian Murphy wakes up in his hospital bed and then wanders around a totally empty London, are spectacularly creepy.
And here, on Christmas Day, I was in the exact same London. The busses had stopped running. There were no cars. It was cloudy, with just a sprinkling of snow, and there was no one out. None of the stores, of course, were open, nor were any of the pubs, but that didn’t matter. I walked over to the bike share, took one out, and with a friend, rode around the empty streets of London for hours. It was magical and weird, a glimpse into what the world looked like before cars and when there were a bit less people, all juxtaposed against the curving, windy architecture of the London streets.
I have been told since that New York is similarly quiet on Christmas Day. So many of us who travel regularly aspire to finding the “untouched” places, the “hidden gems,” as advertisers call them, where there are no other tourists, just us and nature, or just us and the locals. But those places are harder to find, and, once they’re mentioned in an article somewhere online, they get swarmed with tourists.
And in major cities, it just doesn’t happen. There aren’t places without crowds, or if there are, you’re lucky if it’s just you and a dozen others. But seeing a new city on a major holiday is a kind of tourist hack, where you can basically live out the fantasy of being the last man alive in an empty city.
Every city shuts down at least one day a year
The trick, then, is to find the most important family and feast holiday for a country — the day when even people who hate their families can’t totally avoid spending time with their families — and to visit them on that day. It can’t just be any holiday — many holidays feature huge parades, fireworks shows, or widespread binge-drinking, and that, if anything, will only serve to crowd the streets. In Europe, the Americas, and much of Africa, the best day is Christmas. In Muslim countries, I assume — but am not remotely sure — it’s Eid.
For the record, it was super sad not being home with my family. We like to sit around and sip eggnog and sing Christmas carols, and then we watch Home Alone while paging through the books we got for Christmas. But if you find yourself caught in a major city, far away from home, on one of the big holidays, do yourself a favor — don’t mope. Go out and fantasize about fighting off hordes of zombies or vampires. It sucks being alone, but it sucks less if you have an entire city to yourself.