The World's Most Magical Christmas Towns and Villages
The World's Most Magical Christmas Towns and Villages
Although many Christmas traditions began in Europe, activities such as putting up lights, building snowmen, decorating Christmas trees, opening presents, caroling and more have spread around the world. Many big cities - such as New York City, London, Hong Kong and more - are famous for their larger-than-life Christmas decorations and festivities. While these celebrations can be impressive, there's something magical about experiencing a small-town Christmas.
Being able to stroll down the street without jostling through crowds, learning about a town's history and culture and supporting local artisans while shopping for unique gifts are just some of the benefits of exploring a small town or village this holiday season. These towns and villages around the world celebrate the holiday season with their own unique spins on familiar traditions. Whether they've been embracing holiday traditions for a thousand years or a few, these towns have become beloved destinations for tourists looking for charming holiday happenings that are off the beaten path compared to mega-metro areas. If you're looking for a peaceful small-town winter getaway that will also offer lots of Christmas cheer, here are 25 destinations around the world that each offer magical seasonal sights.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
The picturesque medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber's Christmas markets date back to the 15th century and are what many people imagine when they picture a cozy, traditional small-town Christmas. The Bavarian city's gabled roofs and cobblestone streets dusted with snow and strung with fairy lights provide a magical backdrop for enjoying mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.
The North Italian town of Bressanone, also known as Brixen, has a gorgeous medieval city center that is more than 1,000 years old. Shop for handmade Italian Christmas items at the market in Cathedral Square, which also hosts cultural events such as a Christmas crib exhibition and musical light show and activities such as carriage and carousel rides.
Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, has become synonymous with Christmas and Santa Claus. The town of Rovaniemi is known as "the official hometown of Santa Claus" and visitors to the charming Santa Claus Village can meet St. Nick himself, go to Elf School, visit the post office and more. This winter wonderland also offers plenty of outdoor adventure and awe-inspiring sights, such as taking a reindeer-drawn sleigh ride or sleeping beneath the Northern Lights in an igloo.
Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its historic buildings make a charming setting for holiday celebrations. The Christmas market has almost 200 stalls with the majority of vendors coming from the Bath region and selling goods made in the U.K. The Winter Festival on Walcot Street features activities and a lantern processional, and the No. 1 Royal Crescent museum will be festooned in period decor and host lectures and presentations about the history of Christmas celebrations.
Located in the Alsace region of France near the German border, Colmar is an adorable small town that hosts five different Christmas markets that wind through the town's historic cobblestoned streets, each with a different selection of local artisans and decorations. Other seasonal activities include ice skating, wine tastings, concerts and workshops.
The charming town of Woodstock goes all out during the holiday season. Woodstock's vintage style and decorations make it look like a quaint snowy postcard scene come to life. The city is famous for its annual Wassail Weekend. Events include a parade, concerts, craft fairs, a holiday house tour, horse-drawn sleigh rides, a community yule log and a family-style wassail feast.
Courtesy of the Woodstock Area Chamber of Commerce
Kilkenny is a gem that's one of the most adorable small towns in Europe. Ireland's former medieval capital, the town's historic courtyards, churches and castle make a picturesque backdrop for the town's month-long Yulefest celebration, which wonderfully combines historic and modern traditions. The James Stephens Military Barracks & Museum hosts a special reenactment of the WWI Christmas truce. Entertainment includes fire performers, jesters, pantomimes and concerts of every genre. Kilkenny also has a Christmas market, Victorian carousel, ice skating rink, Christmas village and more.
Courtesy of Dylan Vaughan, Yulfest Kilkenny
Every December, the historic city center of Deventer is transformed into the 19th-century world of Charles Dickens for a weekend. More than 950 costumed performers dress as carolers, shopkeepers, dapper gentlemen, thieves, orphans and more, including the famous characters from Dickens' works such as "A Christmas Carol," "Oliver Twist" and "Great Expectations." The streets will be bustling with a Christmas market selling both traditional and more modern wares and holiday treats.
Alexandria, Virginia, is famous for its quirky, unique holiday traditions. The city hosts Waterskiing Santa, a parade of water-skiing Christmas characters that's been a D.C.-area tradition for 30 years. The Scottish Christmas Walk Parade celebrates the town's heritage, while Holly's Tacky Christmas Lights at 1601 Collingwood Road draw visitors from miles around to see the elaborate home display. Visit Mount Vernon to watch fireworks choreographed to holiday music, and to meet Aladdin the Christmas Camel.
The medieval Alpine town and Swiss capital of Bern is home to two different Christmas markets. In Orphanage Square, shop Christmas items before stopping to make your own fondue at the market's chalet. In Cathedral Square, shop regional foods, crafts and handmade items. In between shopping, take a serene sleigh ride to Gurten mountain or go ice skating.
Taos, New Mexico
The small, romantic town of Taos is truly magical around the holidays. Its southwestern architecture glows with the light of hundreds of farolitos, small paper lanterns that are a New Mexico holiday tradition. Carolers and a Southwestern Santa help celebrate the illuminations from farolitos, luminarias and bonfires during the Lighting of Ledoux event. Another Taos neighborhood joins in on the fun with the Bonfires on Bent Street, which features Aztec fire dancers and iconic New Mexico foods like posole and green chile. You can also take part in Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration that reenacts Mary and Joseph's biblical journey that culminates at San Geronimo Church at Taos Pueblo on Christmas Eve.
Courtesy of Danita Delimont/The City of Taos
As Austria's oldest village and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that's one of the most gorgeous spots in Europe, Hallstatt is dotted with 16th-century Alpine buildings and only has a population of about 800. Around the holidays, it turns into a peaceful, snowy town straight from a storybook. Surrounded by real Christmas trees and topped with festive decorations, the town's idyllic Christmas market is a peaceful change of pace from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.
The Valkenburg Christmas market has a unique location that makes it stand out from all the other Christmas markets. It's the oldest and largest subterranean holiday market in Europe. Shoppers head underground into a series of passages and caves, one of which was the site of an 18th-century chapel. Another cave in the area is home to a display of hundreds of holiday miniatures. Aboveground, the city hosts a Christmas parade with floats and dancers as well as a culinary walking tour.
Courtesy of Kerststad Valkenburg
Known as a hub for the auto industry and one of the safest cities in the world, Stuttgart also turns on the charm when Christmastime rolls around. The town hosts a traditional, glowing Christmas market with hundreds of vendors that winds through the square beneath a 10th-century castle. It also hosts an antique market with free appraisers on hand to evaluate any items you may bring. The city also hosts more than 60 Christmas music programs, a live nativity, a giant Christmas pyramid and more.
The town of Leavenworth is modeled after a Bavarian village, and it definitely gives visitors a taste of the of the Old World with its German holiday celebrations. The city hosts two big holiday festivals each year: a Christkindlmarkt with crafts, entertainment and food, and the Christmas Lighting Festival, during which the village is covered in 500,000 Christmas lights. Leavenworth also offers concerts, tubing, sleigh and dogsled rides and more ways to enjoy this winter wonderland.
North Pole, Alaska
While larger cities like Fairbanks have festive holiday celebrations, nothing can top the Christmas cheer of North Pole, Alaska, home to its own version of Santa's workshop. Kids can meet Kris Kringle and his reindeer there all year round, and around the holidays, the city hosts special events like a world-class ice carving contest.
Vilnius, Lithuania is an underrated European destination to explore during the holiday season because it has something for everyone to enjoy. Stroll through the cozy Christmas market around the dazzling tree in Cathedral Square, or shop for unique presents at the International Christmas Charity Bazaar or picturesque market at Town Hall Square. Catch a projected light show on Vilnius Cathedral, take a Christmas train tour through town and more.
Estonia has similar Christmas traditions to its Scandinavian and German neighbors, but draws smaller crowds. The country's capital of Tallinn has a lovely Christmas market, ice rink and decorated tree in Town Hall Square. The Gingerbread Mania exhibition has creative, intricate all-gingerbread creations from a hundred Estonian artists. The Estonian Open Air Museum depicts how Christmas was celebrated in centuries past in rural farm communities across the country, making for a truly Old World Christmas feel.
While Strasbourg has one of the more famous Christmas markets in France, the eastern town of Montbeliard, not far from the German and Swiss borders, holds a magical traditional Christmas market worth visiting as well. The market combines traditions from the region, including St. Nicholas, St. Lucia and Aunt Airie, the good fairy of the Montbeliard area. The streets and town center are draped in unique light displays arranged in arches, pyramids and canopies.
Cluj-Napoca, located in the historic region of Transylvania and another one of the safest cities in the world, hosts an annual Christmas Fair in Union Square. Festivities take place in the city's heart beneath the highest church tower in Romania and fir trees draped in lights. Live entertainment includes carolers, choirs and soloists from the Romanian opera.
Park City, Utah
The ski town of Park City makes for so much more than a great ski vacation around the holidays thanks to its festive decor and events. Santa Claus comes to town via a ski lift chair decorated as a sleigh and covered with Christmas lights. Santa later hits the slopes at the annual Traditional Torchlight Parade, where St. Nick leads more than 100 ski and snowboard instructors down the mountain who are each holding lights. This creates a truly unique sight to behold. Park City Mountain's 16-day winter festival, Snowfest, brings in lots of fun holiday entertainment as well.
Tromso, Norway, is a winter wonderland located north of the Arctic Circle, so it's no wonder you'll feel like you're at the North Pole when you visit. Though the town only gets a few hours of light each day, locals make the most of it with seasonal celebrations and plenty of lights draped around town. Christmas fairs are great places to shop and enjoy treats like lefse pancakes and coffee brewed outdoors over an open fire. The town's giant Christmas tree is delivered by helicopter, then illuminated in a cheerful lighting ceremony. You can attend carol concerts on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service at the landmark Arctic Cathedral.
The sound of jingle bells carries on the winter breeze as horsedrawn carriages walk down the cobblestone streets of Odense, Denmark. Odense is the birthplace of famous fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen, and its annual Christmas market takes place in the square outside his home and museum. Enjoy costumed performers and entertainment both historical and modern.
Freedom Square and the Renaissance-style Old Market Square in Poznan both have off-the-beaten-path Christmas markets on top of the town's arts and crafts fair, making it near impossible to leave without acquiring a beautiful handmade memento. Old Market Square also hosts the International Ice Sculpture Festival in early December in which champions from around the world create jaw-dropping frozen creations.
While big celebrations take place in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the idyllic Highlands capital of Inverness is the place to be for a small-town Scottish Christmas. The town kicks off the holiday season with a torchlight parade and lighting ceremony at the annual Christmas Lights Switch On. Whin Park hosts a winter festival where you can meet Santa and his reindeer, while the Victorian Market offers unique shopping. Head to Eden Court to catch a traditional British panto, short for pantomime, performance. If you stay longer, Inverness hosts a family-friendly Highland Hogmanay Fling with dancing, fireworks and more to ring in the new year.
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