Dreaming of a white Christmas? Or even one away from the family craziness this year? Well, a festive adventure is an amazing way to really see a city, but what can you do at during the holiday season if you’re not a local? We asked some intrepid festive travellers to tell us what it’s like to spend December abroad – in five of the best Christmas destinations for a Winter city break!
Best Christmas Destinations
🎄 Recommended by Elle from This Is Yugen.
Tour Eiffel. 📷: @thisisyugen
Visiting Paris at Christmas time is like entering into a never-ending Christmas-themed snow globe. With Christmas markets and ice skating rinks seemingly around every corner and with some of the most beautiful cathedrals and basilicas hosting Christmas mass, there is simply no experience quite like Joyeux Noël in Paris.
In the mood for ice-skating? Paris takes ice-skating to all new heights – quite literally. From December through to February, the first floor of the Eiffel Tower is converted into an ice skating rink. Yes, you read that right, you can go ice skating 57 metres above the ground on the EIFFEL TOWER! While it’s an experience I encourage everyone to try at least once, prepare yourself for lengthy queues as approximately 1,000 people tick this unique experience off of their bucket list each day over the festive season.
Part of what makes Paris one of the best Christmas destinations is that there’s something for everyone. For a more relaxed festive experience head across the Seine to the Trocadéro Christmas Markets. This market is basically a Christmas hamper of all the best festive activities in Paris in the one place. Take in the festive atmosphere as you stroll through the marché de Noël, hands full of freshly roasted chestnuts and vin chaud. Afterwards, enjoy ice skating on the accompanying ice rink that features a postcard-perfect view of the Eiffel Tower. The experience will have you falling head over heels in love with the city, though hopefully not literally onto the ice.
No matter your beliefs or persuasions, experiencing the Christmas Eve midnight mass at the Sacré Cœur Basilica is sure to be a memorable and rewarding experience. Every year on December 24th, the famous snow-white basilica opens its doors to the public, inviting people inside to view performances by various choirs and instrumental ensembles. If you happen to arrive early, I also recommend climbing the 300-step spiral staircase to the basilica’s dome. Many visitors to the basilica often limit their visit to the main hall, so you are likely to have the dome largely to yourself. As you look out from the dome across the city and it’s many twinkling lights, it appears as one giant Christmas lights display, reminding you why the city is often referred to as the City of Lights.
During the Christmas season, don’t leave Paris without partaking in some window licking. Don’t worry, despite how it may sound, this activity does not involve licking windows in any way. The French phrase for window shopping, lèche-vitrine, translates into English as ‘window licking’. Each year, locals and tourists alike head to the city’s most prominent department stores – namely Galeries Lafayette, Printemps and Bon Marché – to go ‘window licking’ and see the charming Christmas window displays. This tradition dates back over 50 years, with each display telling its own themed story through animated puppets and props.
Sparkling Galerie Vivienne. 📷: @lapetitecanadienne
Eiffel Tower Ice Skating Rink. 📷: @kyliewinkler
🎅 Recommended by Ollie Chakraverty.
Princes Street Gardens. 📷: @edinburgh_j
With the reputation of Edinburgh’s ever popular Fringe fest, you’d be forgiven for thinking the best the city has to offer is reserved for the summer months. However, come winter time you’d have a hard time finding a city with better winter festivities than Scotland’s capital, which is exactly why it’s one of the best Christmas destinations in Europe – especially for a cheap and cheerful city break!
One of the many great things about Edinburgh is just how easy it is to get around: most attractions within the city centre are just a short walk away and, come Christmas time, you won’t be short of beautiful sites to take in. A great place to start is the Princes Street Gardens in the heart of the city centre. At night the gardens lie in the glow of Edinburgh castle and are covered from top to bottom with a maze of German markets, fairground rides and ice skating. If you are a fan of hot chocolate or mulled wine, this is the place to be.
The gardens in Edinburgh are without a doubt the busiest place to be at Christmas and, although they are well worth the crowds, if you’re looking for something quieter there are plenty of options. You could duck into one of Edinburgh’s independent cinemas, enjoying bar service straight to your seat, so you can kick back and enjoy a classic Christmas film in the perfect way. If you fancy more than popcorn head to Grassmarket in Edinburgh’s Old Town: a picturesque stretch of cobbled road lined some of the best pubs and restaurants in the city, where you will be sure to find a place to spend an evening.
A new addition to the winter festival has been the addition of ‘The Street of Light’, which only adds to Edinburgh’s clout as a top Christmas destination. It’s bound to be the most impressive Christmas lights you’ll see this year, the canopy of light tall as the buildings that surround it, is available to walk through on George Street in New Town. Choirs and musicians will perform throughout the Christmas period underneath the tunnel of light, and with the bulb flashes synchronised to the music of the performers, it’s light show like no other.
If you are in Edinburgh over New Year, you can’t miss the three-day celebration that is Hogmanay. On the first night of Hogmanay, the ‘Torchlight Procession’ sees people flood the streets of the city with torches, bagpipes and drums, creating a flowing river of light. It winds to a stop at the Palace of Holyroodhouse where fireworks bring the night to a close. The next day is New Year’s Eve, where thousands gather for a street party, Scottish dancing and a concert in the gardens which fittingly reaches its climax with a rendition of Auld langsyne. ‘The Stoats Looney Dook’ a New Year’s Day tradition sees Scots in fancy dress jumping into the freezing water of the River Forth. If you’re brave enough to make the plunge you’ll be cheered on by a crowd watching on and are given a free bowl of porridge upon completion.
Tasty street eats. 📷: @fresheima
Festive Bothy Bar. 📷: @sara_h_edinb
🎁 Recommended by Tara from Where Is Tara.
Nollaig Shona Duit (Happy Christmas To You). 📷: @themillennialnomad
I’ve spent most of the Christmasses of my life in Dublin, with “Fairy Tale of New York” playing in every other shop and people competing for the title of most blindingly bright Christmas jumper. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on Dublin for a White Christmas (though it does snow to some extent most years) but it’s got an awful lot more than snow to offer any Christmas visitor.
If Christmas is all about the decorations for you then make sure to visit the Powerscourt shopping centre, an old Georgian townhouse from the 18th century. Stand on the hanging stairs and take in the impressive display of twinkling lights, stars and trees. Then head down Grafton Street, the main shopping street on the south side of Dublin, where you’ll be met with even more Christmas lights and eventually arrive at Brown Thomas, an Irish department store established in 1848. The window displays of Brown Thomas on Grafton Street are legendary, especially at Christmas. If you’re in Dublin at Christmas you owe it to your eyes to see this artistry.
Probably the most famous and unique of Irish traditions is to watch celebrities busking on Grafton Street on Christmas Eve for charity. Though it’s never certain who might appear, previous years have featured Bono, Glen Hansard, Hozier and Sinead O’Connor – plus it’s completely free (apart from donations). There’s a great feeling of excitement and community as people huddle together for warmth and bop along to the music. Before that have a Christmas Eve drink (try a hot toddy) in one of the many cosy bars in the city centre. I recommend Bruxelles on Harry Street or O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Way.
If you really need to get into the festive spirit then make sure to check out the Christmas markets down at Merchant’s Quay, full of all the usual fare from gingerbread hearts to bratwurst and more. Half of the stalls float on the water of the river Liffey, so it’s quite an experience. Another MUST do in Dublin during the festive period is the “12 Pubs of Christmas” pub crawl. This is basically a regular pub crawl to 12 different pubs, but everyone has to dress up in their most festive of Christmas finery (think Christmas jumpers with flashing lights, reindeer antlers etc). The area around Trinity College is great for this with pubs such as The Gingerman & Doyle’s. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water between each pub and line your stomach with plenty of food in preparation!
If all of this sounds a bit too “normal” for you then I suggest observing the time-old tradition of a Christmas Day jump off the forty foot in Sandycove into the freezing cold sea. I like to believe it’s what Santa would do. Or maybe catch a drive-through Christmas movie at Leopardstown racecourse, “Elf” is screening on the 10th December. No matter how you choose to celebrate Christmas in Dublin, you’ll have an incredible time in Dublin.
Buskers on Christmas Eve. Can you spot the celebs? 📷: @flynnstomgram
Grafton Street. 📷: @unviajede2
New York, USA
❄️ Recommended by Sarah from SarahFunky.
The huge Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Center. 📷: @sarahfunky
Looking for one of the best Christmas destinations in the US? There are unlimited reasons to love New York during the holidays. Whether it be the twinkle of Christmas lights at every corner, the romantic evenings spent on the ice rink, or the elaborate holiday nightlife experiences. Everyone can find something they’ll love in NYC during the winter season. Here are a few of the most iconic, romantic, and one-of-a-kind things to do in the Big Apple during the holidays.
The lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas Tree is a sign to New York that the holidays have begun. Every year, the massive tree is lit during a night of performances by world-renowned artists and entertainers. The atmosphere is glowing with energy and excitement over the event. Insider tip: You can attend the pre-performances the day before. Each year, they have the artists perform a day in advance in case it rains during the actual event. They need people to be in the audience to make it seem “live”. To apply to see the event then, you can visit www.1iota.com. To see the live version, you will need to arrive very early to secure your spot.
Another reason to visit the Rockefeller Centre at Christmas is to try the ice skating. There are few moments as iconic as skating under its beautifully lit Christmas tree. Grab your partner, rent a pair of skates, and head out onto the ice for a night of Christmas fun. This rink does get extremely crowded during the holidays, so I recommend trying the rink at Brookfield Place as well. It’s cheaper, larger, and has its own beautiful Christmas tree.
New York also has some great Christmas themed bars and restaurants worth visiting. Head over to Rolf’s German Restaurant on 3rd Ave if you’re looking for a festive Christmas meal. All year long Rolf’s quite literally “deck’s the halls”. The interior of the restaurant is covered with ornaments, lights and tinsel. It’s an incredibly memorable experience! Just make sure to get reservations at least six weeks in advance. If you’re craving a break from the cold weather, try the Sippin’ Santa Surf Shack at the Boilermaker on 1st Ave. At this tropical Christmas bar, you’ll find eight yuletide-themed cocktails on the menu.
It’s practically become a holiday tradition that Mace in the East Village transforms itself into a festive Christmas pop-up bar every year. Here you can find themed holiday drinks in a tinsel-filled atmosphere. Plus, you can feel good about drinking your sparkling cocktails because a percentage of the sales go towards Action Against Hunger. Order the “Muletide” cocktail made with Vida Mezcal, Amontillado Sherry, allspice dram, ginger syrup, and lemon juice. You’ll be in Christmas bliss!
Christmas in New York City is something that everyone should experience at least once in their life. Grab your warm winter jacket, a pair of comfy walking shoes, and join the holiday fun!
It doesn’t get much festive than Rolf’s German Restaurant. 📷: @sarahfunky
Iconic iceskating at the Rockefeller Center 📷: @sarahfunky
🎄 Recommended by Elle from This Is Yugen.
Ice skating at the Natural History Museum. 📷: @vasver35
Of all the best Christmas destinations, London is THE place to visit for some festive cheer. Having grown-up on Richard Curtis’ ‘Love Actually’, Christmas time is synonymous with London to me. Despite these high expectations, I was not disappointed with I spent the festive season in London. Christmas is not just a day of the year in London, but a two-month long celebration of jolliness. Let’s just say that the Grinch would have a mighty job trying to steal Christmas from London!
If you’re spending Christmas time in London, you cannot miss the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland. The annual event features festive fairground rides, warming winter food, Christmas markets, two circuses and the largest outdoor ice skating rink in the entire United Kingdom! If you’re looking to absorb the Christmas jolliness in liquid form, there are also a number of themed bars around the park including an ice bar. Another major drawcard for the festival is the Magical Ice Kingdom that takes visitors on an immersive walk-through experience filled with ice and snow sculptures so extravagant they will freeze you in your tracks.
Looking for an even more magical experience this Christmas? Look no further than the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London. Here, the festive season transforms one of the most magical places into an even more magical place: Hogwarts! During the Christmas season, Christmas trees and decorations line the Great Hall and Gryffindor common room and a blanket of filmmaking snow cover the majestic Hogwarts castle model. Visitors can even touch samples of the various types of ‘snow’ used in the films, each selected for its unique ability to float like real falling snow, crunch under one’s foot or glisten like ice in the light.
As the city winds down for the Christmas break, there’s no better way to spend it than by taking a casual night-time walk along the Southbank on the River Thames. As you stroll along, grab some hot cider or mulled wine from one of the many German-style markets that line the river bank and watch all of the city’s lights twinkle before you. Whether you’re with a loved one or new friends you made at your hostel, it’ll have you singing, ‘I feel it in my fingers, I feel it in my toes. Christmas is all around me and so the feeling grows’.
Shopping for Christmas trees on the Southbank. 📷: @amykathrynm
Christmas lights on Carnaby Street. 📷: @elena_sk
Still feeling festive? Check these out:
- 12 Crackin’ Christmas Markets in Europe
- Vienna like a local: Exploring the 10 most amazing Christmas markets
- Best UK Christmas Markets for a Quick Fix of Festive Cheer
- 9 Of The Best Berlin Christmas Markets Not To Miss!
- 5 Enchanting Prague Christmas Markets for a Winter Escape