The World’s Most Picturesque Holiday Destinations
Experience a picture-perfect holiday while exploring Christmas markets in Prague, going sleigh riding in Vermont or visiting Santa Claus in Finland.
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Quebec City, Canada
Come the holidays, the Old Town portion of the city literally turns into a holiday spectacular worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting. No tree is left untrimmed, strings of garlands and lights stretch between buildings, and welcoming wreaths festoon doors. And snow-covered everything is practically guaranteed. Rounding out the holiday spirit is the annual German-style Christmas Market, holiday concerts, wandering carolers and Santa Claus, who can be found along Quartier Petit Champlain — one the world’s most iconic holiday street scenes.
It’s easy to sing the fairy tale-like praises of many European destinations, but Salzburg is one of those spots that inspired the term in the first place. The historic section is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, deemed in part for the remarkable preservation of its Baroque architecture. Add an abundance of lights, along with snow, a giant Christmas tree and ringing church bells, and you have all the makings for the fairy-tale holiday of your dreams. There are also numerous Christmas and Advent markets, where you can seek out the perfect Nutcracker while sipping mulled wine. But 2018 is extra special, as it marks the 200th anniversary of the song Silent Night, first sung at St. Nicholas’ Church just outside of Salzburg on Dec. 24, 1818.
Christmas markets originated in Germany, with early roots tracing back to the Middle Ages. Although Nuremberg’s Christkindlesmarkt market is found in 16th-century records, it isn’t Germany’s oldest — that distinction goes to Dresden — but it is undoubtedly the most famous. The medieval town square is the perfect picturesque backdrop for the holiday market, consisting of upwards of 200 stands. The experience can be overwhelming, so start by hunting down local gingerbread cookies, called lebkuchen, wooden toys and rauschgoldengel (gold-foil angel) ornaments. The latter is the market’s official symbol of the Christkind; instead of Santa Claus, Christkind is the benevolent gift-giver, represented by a young blonde woman wearing a gold crown and robe. And similar to Santa, Christkind kicks off the market’s official opening every year.
Rovaniemi might not sound familiar, but since 2010 it’s been the "official" home of Santa Claus. (A claim also held by the North Pole in Alaska.) Rovaniemi is also the capital of Finnish Lapland, and straddles the Arctic Circle. As befitting for Santa’s hometown, the quaint village is dedicated to reindeer sleigh rides, stores selling all manner of Christmas items, and, of course, Santa’s post office. (Yes, it is a real post office, just one staffed by elves.) Meanwhile, Santa holds court in his office, where there’s the opportunity to make your gift request and snag the obligatory photo. Plus, Rovaniemi is one of those rare places where you can channel your Frozen fantasies by dining in an ice restaurant, staying in a glass igloo hotel and ice skating with costumed snowmen (and snowwomen).
The Flemish city of Bruges provides a glimpse into medieval times, where well-preserved Gothic architecture surrounds the historic square. (Yes, it’s a UNESCO site.) Bruges is also a serene stunner dotted with canals and chocolate shops, where horse-drawn carriages trot along cobblestone streets. During the holidays, the famed Christmas Market dominates the main square, selling signature Belgium chocolate, along with crafts, Christmas ornaments and more. A large ice skating rink surrounding an even larger Christmas tree completes the idyllic holiday scene.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe’s historic plaza delivers an impressive light display, complete with a focal point Christmas tree, but it’s the capital’s many other holiday traditions that are unlike anywhere else in the U.S. Here you’ll find red chili pepper wreaths adorning doorways, pinon-scented bonfires and farolitos, small paper lanterns that line walkways, stairways and even the edges of traditional adobe buildings. But the best place to experience these lights is during the Farolito Walk along Canyon Road on Christmas Eve. It’s a simple tradition where Canyon Road is closed off to car traffic, and holiday revelers walk past the farolitos and bonfires. Drinking hot apple cider and breaking into Christmas carols is also encouraged.
The charming village of Colmar, a medieval town near the German border, is believed to have inspired the setting of Beauty and the Beast. Some of its iconic timber-frame architecture has miraculously survived intact throughout the centuries, best experienced in the Little Venice section. Because, of course a town this picturesque has canals and bridges, as well as a fountain in the town square. Fun fact: The fountain features a replica Statue of Liberty in honor of Auguste Batholdi, the statue’s creator, who just happened to be from Colmar. As to be expected, Colmar is mobbed during the summer, but the holidays are a magical time to visit. In addition to tasteful holiday decor, Colmar boasts five Christmas markets, including one that’s indoors and another dedicated to children. And since Colmar is the wine capital of the Alsace region, turning down hot mulled wine isn’t really an option.
Prague, Czech Republic
With its eclectic architecture, ranging from Gothic to Baroque, Prague is magical any time of the year, but the holidays take it to the next level when the larger Christmas markets pop up around the main squares of Old Town and Wenceslas. Expect to find wooden stalls selling items like winter accessories, traditional puppets and trdelnik, or chimney cake, a hot, sugar-dusted pastry that’s twirled around a stick. The main squares are also the epicenter for larger-than-life Christmas trees, plus carolers and even a Nativity scene with live animals. Or simply wander around bedecked Prague, where you’ll encounter even more Christmas markets and Nativity scenes.
For those craving an old-fashioned New England Christmas along the lines of the rebooted Little Women series, Woodstock, Vermont, fills that need. Odds are high that the town will be blanketed in snow, while the main street stretch, lined with cute independent shops, is carefully draped in white lights and green garlands. Nearby, there are opportunities to ride in a horse-drawn sleigh. But the highlight is visiting during the annual Wassail Weekend, where you can pretend you’re in the 19th century by visiting historic homes done up in their holiday finest and watching men in top hats riding sleigh-belled horses in the popular Wassail Parade.
One detail almost every picturesque place has in common? At least one comprehensive Christmas Market with high-quality stalls that are festooned with holiday decor. Copenhagen has upwards of 10 markets, and the one at Tivoli Gardens is the main standout. When you’ve finished covering all of your shopping needs at its 60-some stalls, the amusements at Tivoli Gardens await: 27 rides, performance venues, an ice skating rink, food hall and more. And since Denmark has mastered winter gloom, all of this is illuminated by a seemingly endless number of twinkly lights. Don’t worry, the festive trimmings extend around the city as well, especially the country’s traditional red and white hearts.