Most Festive Christmas Cities
Vienna sparkles with Christmas cheer, and the holiday season is easily the most festive time of year to visit this magical city. Twinkling holiday lights glow, strung from every imaginable building and tree, while the city's signature Christmas markets spring to life with stalls selling hand-crafted gifts and vendors hawking mulled wine and street foods. While wandering the markets, indulge in traditional Austrian treats, like lebkuchen (gingerbread), waffles, maroni (sweet chestnuts), bratwurst and spiced, warm glühwein (mulled wine).
Then immerse yourself in a winter wonderland by going ice skating at the enormous rink on the Rathausplatz plaza, set before the town's stunning town hall building appropriately bedecked in a vibrant display of Christmas lights. The plaza also houses the city's largest Christkindlmarkt, or Christmas market, with more than 140 vendors selling everything from wooden toys to candles and pickle jars. Finally, be sure to book tickets to celebrate Christmas Mass at the Hofburgkapelle chapel, featuring the world-renowned Vienna Boys Choir.
It's impossible to escape the Yuletide spirit on a trip to Iceland during the holiday season -- a visit to Reykjavik will be filled with an overwhelming amount of Christmas cheer. The city goes wild for a good Christmas celebration, and starts ringing in the season at the end of November, with the lighting of the town's Christmas tree at Austurvöllur square. The celebration includes choirs singing carols and the arrival of the first of the "Holiday Lads," 13 Santas who appear throughout town during Lent.
Other favorite holiday spectacles include the Christmas Village in Hafnarfjörður town, a tiny, festive town chockfull of shops selling holiday gifts and traditional foods amid live entertainment, and a visit to Reykjavik's main Christmas Market in Ingólfstorg Square, which fills with vendors selling holiday gifts, mulled wine and performances from a plethora of musicians. Finally, to experience an old-fashioned, Nordic Christmas, head to the Christmas exhibition at the Reykjavik City Museum, where exhibits show how fried bread is made, tallow is used to make candles, and visitors can learn traditional Yuletide songs and dances.
New York City
For many Americans, the start of the holiday season is synonymous with the lighting of the massive Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center Plaza, New York City's veritable holiday headquarters. Tourists and locals head to the plaza in droves, where they can ice skate on the rink built below the plaza's Prometheus statue or simply stare in wonder at the enormous Christmas tree, strung with some 30,000 LED lights.
Grab the kids and hightail it to every child's dreamland, FAO Schwarz, the massive toy store where it actually is possible to play the piano with your footsies on the giant floor keyboard, a la the Tom Hanks' movie, Big. Next, you'll want to meander to Macy's Santaland, a true winter wonderland filled with toy trains, elves, Christmas trees and other holiday scenes sure to invoke wonder in the whole family. Finally, if you haven't maxed out on the holiday crowds, be sure to book tickets to the Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular, where you'll not only see dozens of dancing Santas but the high-kicking legs of the iconic Rockettes.
Europe's sprawling Christmas markets continue to grow in popularity among travelers, but the Nuremberg Christmas Market handily ranks as the most epic of the bunch. More than 200 vendors squeeze into wooden stalls in Hauptmarkt Square in the city's Old Quarter, selling traditional goods, from mulled wine and gingerbread to handmade Christmas tree angels, ornaments and jewelry.
Some 2 million visitors descend upon the Christmas market each year, wandering the stalls and, in the case of kids (and those at heart) enjoying children's rides like a wooden Ferris wheel, carousel and steam train. Be sure to purchase some of the market's iconic wares, like a mug for mulled wine, and the Zwetschgenmännle, or "Little Prune People," tiny figures made from prunes. If you haven't filled up on the spiced wine, sate your appetite with tasty treats like Nuremberg sausages, potato pancakes and roasted almonds.
Taos, New Mexico
For a truly unique take on Christmas celebrations, plan a visit to Taos during the holiday season. The town's Native American and Hispanic influences are prevalent, bringing a multicultural twist to the holiday season with activities like the lighting of Ledoux Street, when the charming street's shops, galleries, studios and museums offer music, food and drink, and bonfires to passersby, and the street is lined with farolitos, or little lanterns, warmly glowing.
Taos's Christmas tree lighting takes place at the end of November in a celebration that includes carol singing and the arrival of Santa Claus in an antique fire truck. In the days prior to Christmas, the town also celebrates the Hispanic tradition Las Posadas, a candlelight processional at Ranchos de Taos Plaza, as well as a performance of Los Pastores, a Spanish morality play. The peak of the holiday celebrations occurs on Christmas Day, on the Taos Pueblo. The pueblo dwellers have a processional through the pueblo's plaza while carrying the statue of the Blessed Mother. Bonfires are also lit and traditional tribal dances performed.