Think of the emotions that arise when watching a Hallmark Christmas movie: warmth, cheer, comfort. And think of the emotions that travel can bring: excitement, wanderlust, love, wonder. What if you could combine all those feelings on one trip abroad? What if, for Christmas, you traveled to a destination that made you feel like you’re the star of your own holiday Hallmark movie?
Here are the best places to visit during Christmas, from a country that sparks a childhood sense of awe to cities where holiday festivities go back centuries.
Prague feels like a fairy tale at all times of year, with a castle, cobblestone streets, and centuries-old Gothic buildings lit softly from below. Around the holidays, it’s even more special. The Christmas market of Old Town Square offers festive live entertainment, while the one in Wenceslas Square is worth visiting for handmade gifts. Best of all, the squares are an easy walk from one another, and you can make the stroll even merrier with a glass of hot mulled wine, or svarák. (Warming up with traditional beverages is just one of many things you can do at Europe’s Christmas markets.)
“I highly recommend the Christmas market tours offered, and we see ourselves doing others,” said traveler Carol, who went on our Christmas Markets of Budapest, Vienna & Prague tour. “Towns and cities are dressed in their festive finery, everyone is in a great mood, and it is just a fun time to see Europe.”
The joy of Rome at Christmas is in its vibrant decorations and festivities backdropped by some of the world’s historic marvels, like a grand Christmas tree in front of the Colosseum and a sprawling Christmas market in the millennia-old Piazza Navona. (Check out more top things to see in our Beginner’s Travel Guide to Rome!) To watch the magic of Christmas come alive, Go Ahead staffer Jules recommends visiting Piazza Venezia. “They set up a big Christmas tree in the middle of the piazza,” she said. “At night, with the Vittorio Emanuele monument lit up too, it’s such a beautiful sight.”
If you’re wondering why we’d recommend visiting Iceland in the heart of winter, we get it. But Christmastime is when this North Atlantic island nation is at its most surreally beautiful. The magic of an Icelandic winter on our Iceland: Reykjavik & the Northern Lights tour comes from natural beauty: waterfalls frozen into towering icicles, glaciers dusted in pristine snow, and, most staggering of all, the aurora borealis, in which a kaleidoscope of light dances across the sky. To warm up, let your mind and body be restored by the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s glowing geothermal spa, before visiting Reykjavik’s best restaurants. You’re sure to feel the wonder of the season—and to discover that the country’s nicknamed the Land of Fire and Ice for good reason.
At the Salzburg Christkindlmarkt, the scent of bauernkrapfen, or fried dough, and the sound of music fill the air. (Or maybe that’s just The Sound of Music, the heartwarming musical that takes place in Salzburg.) Salzburg’s UNESCO-listed Old City has played host to the city’s Christmas market for hundreds of years, and today you can join traditional sing-alongs while sipping mulled wine.
Spending Christmas solo? We recommend visiting Europe’s Christmas markets on tour, and putting Salzburg on your list. You’ll know exactly where to go, get insider tips on which authentic gifts to buy, and meet solo travelers who share your goal of celebrating the season with new—and lasting—friends. “On my very first Go Ahead Christmas market tour, my sister and I became friends with a few fellow travelers and toured Christmas markets again with them in subsequent years,” said traveler Barbara.
5. Cape Town
There are so many reasons to visit Cape Town, and if your idea of a merry Christmas involves hanging out with penguins—basically the elves of the animal kingdom—then the South African city is the destination for you. It won’t be cold or snowy (December is peak summer in Cape Town because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, after all!), but Cape Town still celebrates the season with an annual Festival of Lights, Christmas markets selling artisanal gifts, and Christmas movie. Plus, you can visit the penguins at the Boulders Point Penguin Colony, which is one of the best things to do in Cape Town. Just remember: No one’s stopping you from wearing a Santa hat at the Clifton Beaches (or any other beach, for that matter).