Where are the most festive holiday spots around the world? We enlisted a panel of travel experts — including Travel Channel TV host Samantha Brown; Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder of the family travel blog Ciao Bambino!; and Mickela Mallozzi, creator and host of the travel dance series Bare Feet — to share their recommendations for Travel’s Best Holiday Attractions 2014.
From visiting Santa on his home turf in Finland's Santa Claus Village to taking in Brooklyn's over-the-top Dyker Heights lights, here are our favorite places to get into the holiday spirit.
1. Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, Finland
Visit Santa Claus on his own turf in the Arctic Circle. Rovaniemi, Santa’s official town, is a very popular place in December as holiday preparations reach a fever pitch. Meet Santa in his office and visit wish-list central, his post office. “This is the place where Christmas dreams come to life,” says Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder of the family travel blog Ciao Bambino! “Families can send letters to friends around the world with the assistance of Santa’s official postal elves. After you meet Santa, take a sleigh ride with traditional Sami reindeer.
2. Skating by the Sea, San Diego
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“Ice skating by the Pacific Ocean is one for the family holiday card,” says family travel blogger Amie O’Shaughnessy, founder of Ciao Bambino! San Diego’s landmark Hotel del Coronado offers an ice rink on the lawn with breathtaking ocean views. Skating sessions are offered daily from Thanksgiving through Jan. 4. San Diego’s mild weather makes it easy for families to pair holiday festivities with the area’s extensive list of kid-friendly attractions and activities.
3. 12 Pubs of Christmas, Dublin
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Dublin is a festive city all year round, but when it comes to celebrating the holidays, the Irish capital definitely knows how to party. A recent tradition includes the 12 Pubs of Christmas, where revelers will don tacky “jumpers” (think of those gross Christmas sweaters from the ’80s) and then make their rounds to 12 different pubs, swigging a pint at each one. “At every pub we visited, there were trad sessions with about 12-15 musicians making the most incredible music,” says Mickela Mallozzi, host of the travel dance series Bare Feet. “After a few pints, Irish step dancers in the crowd always break out into well-known reels and jigs, shaking the entire pub into a raucous frenzy!”
4. Sponza Palace, Dubrovnik, Croatia
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Starting on St. Lucy’s Day on Dec. 13, the Christmas fair in Dubrovnik’s Old Town is one of the lesser-known holiday markets in Europe. With the 1,000-year-old city festooned with twinkling lights along the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik’s Old Town becomes a scene right out of a storybook. The Sponza Palace at the edge of Old Town’s walls transforms into a Christmas mecca, hosting local artisans, musical performances, klapa groups (traditional a cappella singers) and traditional dance performances by the renowned folk ensemble Lindjo. “I was lucky enough to have danced with Lindjo,” says Mickela Mallozzi, host of the travel dance series Bare Feet. “These dances are over 300 years old! Croatia’s traditions are so strong; it is beautiful to witness this country’s culture, especially after such devastation during the civil war in the ’90s.”
Spencer County Visitors Bureau
With a name like Santa Claus, IN, you can imagine that this town celebrates Christmas 365 days of the year. Family-owned since 1946, the town’s popular amusement park, Holiday World, gets more than 1 million patrons annually. “I love it because it is able to claim itself as the first themed amusement park ever created and boasts 3 of the world’s top 10 wooden roller coasters,” says Brian Leonard, executive producer of Travel Channel’s Christmastown USA.
You couldn’t dream up a more magical place to spend the holidays than Reykjavik, with its dramatic winter landscape and unique traditions. Visit the Christmas Village in Hafnarfjordur or Reykjavik's main Christmas market in Ingólfstorg Square for traditional Nordic holiday gifts, mulled wine and Yuletide music. Children will rejoice: There is not just one but 13 Santas, or Yule Lads, bearing gifts. “Don’t miss the northern lights that light up the sky this time of year — the most spectacular light show I’ve ever seen,” says Kathleen Rellihan, a Travel Channel interactive producer.
Yes, there really is a North Pole, and believe it or not, 3 men named Santa Claus live there. “What I love about it is that it truly is small-town America, where everybody knows everybody,” says Brian Leonard, executive producer of Travel Channel’s Christmastown USA. Opened in 1952, Santa Claus House, the town’s biggest attraction, is a Christmas-themed gift shop with oodles of ornaments, a 42-foot Santa statue and real reindeer you can visit. Also, 1 of the 3 live Santas works there as well.
8. Dyker Heights Lights, Brooklyn, NY
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What’s Travel Channel host Samantha Brown’s favorite hometown holiday attraction? Every year, Brown and her husband (and, soon, when they’re old enough, their kids) head to a section of Brooklyn that’s famous for being John Travolta's neighborhood in Saturday Night Fever. “This neighborhood transforms into a holiday spectacle where you can see the most delightful, delirious and over-the-top Christmas decorations,” Brown says, “and I'm not just talking lights. There are life-size ice skating figurines (that skate!) and 70-foot-high toy soldiers that move.” The best times to view the outrageous light displays are weekends in mid-December from 5 to 9 p.m.
9. Christkindlesmarkt, Nuremberg, Germany
“Even I still have places that, through seeing pictures, I have always wanted to go to,” says Travel Channel host Samantha Brown. “For me, it's this city's world-famous Christmas market.” The 180-plus decorated wooden stalls sell Christmas decorations and treats galore, including Nuremberg bratwurst, gingerbread and mulled wine. Don’t miss the trademark souvenir: Nuremberg Plum People, miniature figures made from prunes. “I always imagine it being like walking through one of those model villages in department stores’ window displays,” Sam adds.