15 places to visit around Christmastime

Editor’s Note: Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and limitations on travel, CNN did not update this annual story for 2020 or 2021. A new version will be published for 2022.

Story highlights

Visiting presepju, or nativity scenes, is an integral part of Christmas in Malta

The Arctic Snow Hotel in Finland is made entirely of snow and ice, but equipped with saunas and hot tubs

Christmas is a year-round occasion in Santa Claus, Indiana, a town of fewer than 3,000 residents

CNN  — 

Anyplace can string up a few lights and call it a holiday celebration. When you travel, you want more.

From Mexico to Malta and northern lights to sunny skies, these 15 destinations celebrate Christmas better than the rest:

1. Malta

Visiting presepju, or nativity scenes, is an integral part of Christmas in Malta. Every year, residents proudly open their shutters, and sometimes even their garage doors, to display their holy crib confections to the public.

Downtown Valletta is home to a lively Christmas spirit, with carolers singing outside the Baroque St. John’s Co-Cathedral during Advent, and a dizzying display of Christmas lights on Republic Street.

The Manoel Theater is well known for its annual Christmas pantomime. (Old Theatre Street, Il-Belt Valletta, Malta; +356 2124 6389)

A visit to the privately owned Malta Toy Museum, featuring dolls, soldiers, train sets, and clockwork tin trinkets dating as far back as the 1790s, is a heartwarming homage to childhood. (222 Republic St, Valletta, Malta; +356 2125 1652)

2. New York

Rockefeller Center lies at the core of the New York Christmas. Its famed ice rink has been around for 80 years; the decorated tree has been a holiday tradition since 1931. (45 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10111)

Across the street, Radio City hosts the annual Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes. (1260 6th Ave, New York, NY 10020)

On the southwest corner of Central Park, Columbus Circle hosts more than 100 vendors selling clothes, gifts, snacks and drinks at the Holiday Market. (Columbus Circle, 59th Street and Central Park West)

Fashion’s biggest names join in the festivities, setting up impressive Christmas window displays. The most glamorous cases are at the Fifth Avenue flagships and department stores such as Saks and Bergdorf.

3. Bath, England

Plunge into Christmas in Bath, England.

There are few cities in the world where you can celebrate the birth of Jesus and the birth of Jane Austen with the same amount of fanfare, but Bath, England, happens to be one of them.

The Jane Austen Centre – and on-site Regency Tearoom – is the best place to learn about the city’s most famous resident. (40 Gay St, Bath BA1 2NT, UK; +44 1225 443000)

The Theatre Royal, which Austen mentions in “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion,” has a varied program of holiday drama, musicals, opera and concerts. (Saw Cl, Bath BA1 1ET, UK; +44 1225 448844)

The Bath Christmas Market has more than 170 wooden chalets selling distinctively British handmade crafts in a quaint Georgian setting. Straddled between the imposing Bath Abbey and the venerable Roman Baths, the market offers a festive way to discover the character of Bath, which is the only entire city in the UK to have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bath on Ice is a great excuse to bundle up and lace up skates. (Royal Pavilion, Royal Ave, Royal Victoria Park,, Bath BA1 2NR, UK; :+44 1225 436888)

The Thermae Bath Spa is the perfect reason to strip down and savor the steam emanating from the thermal mineral-rich waters of an open-air rooftop pool with spectacular views over the city. (The Hetling Pump Room, Hot Bath Street, Bath, BA1 1SJ; +44 1225 33 1234)

4. Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona's Copa Nadal is a 200-meter swimming competition across the harbor on Christmas Day.

Anyone who can manage to extend their Christmas holiday until Three King’s Day (Monday, January 6, in 2020), can catch up with Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar in Barcelona.

On the evening of January 5, they arrive at the city’s port on the Santa Eulalia – their very own ship – in bearded and velvet-robed splendor. Cannons are fired, fireworks are set off, and as the mayor hands them the keys to the city, the magic of the Magi officially commences.

They parade through the streets in a magnificent cavalcade of floats that includes camels, elephants, giraffes and dazzling costumes.

5. Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

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Fun in Finland
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While legends dating as far back as the 1820s cite the North Pole as the official home of Santa Claus and his jolly missus, the Finns would have us believe otherwise.

For them, Rovaniemi, Lapland, located just north of the Arctic Circle, is Christmas HQ.

Here, children make gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, enroll in Elf School or take a calligraphy class and compose their Christmas wish lists with a traditional quill. There are even seasonal positions available as elf workers in Santa’s post office.

You may also want to visit the Ranua Wildlife Park, home to baby polar bears, wolverines and moose. (Rovaniementie 29, 97700 Ranua, Finland; +358 40 5177 436)

The Arktikum is a science center where the mystery of the northern lights is revealed. (Pohjoisranta 4, 96200 Rovaniemi, Finland;: +358 16 3223260)

Those in search of a truly frosty experience can stay in the Arctic Snow Hotel, made entirely of snow and ice, but equipped with saunas and hot tubs in which to thaw. (Lehtoahontie 27, FI-97220 Sinettä, Finland; +358 40 845 3774)

6. Nuremberg, Germany

The Nuremberg Christmas market (Nurnberger Christkindlesmarkt) is a German institution, pulling in more than 2 million visitors each year. Highlights include a giant carved wooden Ferris wheel, old-fashioned carousel and a steam train.

Nuremberg’s Christmas Market Council is serious about making sure only traditional handmade toys and holiday goods are sold. No mass-produced plastic garlands here.

The market’s 200 select vendors also put up fantastic displays as they compete for the Most Beautiful Stall Design award. The top three walk away with a gold, silver or bronze “Plum People” awards.

Adults can enjoy Nuremberg spicy gingerbread and mugs of mulled wine. For kids, there’s the Toy Museum. (Karlstrasse 13-15, 90403 Nuremberg, Germany; + 49 911 2313164)

7. Honolulu, Hawaii

Santa Claus dons his beach wear for the Christmas celebrations in Hawaii. What the Aloha State lacks in snow it more than makes up for in festive vibes of peace and goodwill.

The celebrations center around Honolulu City Lights, a monthlong Christmas display with an opening parade, live music and a 15-meter Christmas tree.

At 6 meters tall (almost 20 feet) Shaka Santa – Mr. Claus dressed down in red shorts and open shirt – takes pride of place downtown, seated next to his mu’umu’u-wearing wife, Tutu Mele.

8. Quebec City, Canada

Say "Joyeux Noël" in Quebec City, Canada.

A haven for environmentally friendly, outdoor enthusiasts, Quebec bustles with winter activity, offering holiday programs for all tastes.

Old Quebec is turned into a picturesque Christmas village. Sausage and roast chestnut lovers can browse the wares at the German Christmas market. The more religiously inclined can wander an exposition of nativity scenes from around the world.

The nearby Sentier des Caps de Charlevoix offers family-friendly hiking, snowshoeing and skiing. (2 Rue Leclerc, Saint-Tite-des-Caps, QC G0A 4J0, Canada; +1 418-823-1117)

Speed devils can zoom around in a snowmobile from Nord Expe. (996 Avenue Ste Brigitte, Sainte-Brigitte-de-Laval, QC G0A 3K0, Canada; +1 418-825-1772)

And when Christmas is over, there’s Quebec Winter Carnival from February 7 to 16, 2020.

9. Reykjavik, Iceland

When it comes to Christmas celebrations, Iceland has a few peculiarities.

Among these, 13 “Yuletide Lads” (scruffy Santas) are said to bring gifts to nice children for the 13 nights leading to Christmas.

Rows of small, beautiful huts make up the Yule Town Christmas market on Ingolfstorg square in downtown Reykjavík. Here, visitors can pick up colorful Christmas gifts, decorations and treats.

The shopping differs day to day as some craftsmen and designers set up stalls for only one day.

Beaming down onto a city covered in snow and Christmas lights, northern lights displays add to Reykjavik’s festival feel.

10. San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

Pinatas, posadas and ponche sum up the festivities in this colorful Mexican city, where Christmas is both a solemn and celebratory affair.

Leading up to December 24, visitors are likely to stumble upon Mary and Joseph strolling the streets, as locals make pilgrimages from home to home, singing to “ask for posada” or “beg for shelter” as they re-enact the journey to Bethlehem.

Pinatas and ponche (a mulled fruit drink) cap a long evening of peregrinations around this cobblestoned city, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its wealth of grand churches, well-preserved architecture and grand zocalos.

11. Salzburg and Oberndorf, Austria

Is this Christmas or Halloween in Salzburg? You'll have to go there to find out.

Birthplace of Mozart and filming location for “The Sound of Music,” Salzburg is chocolate-box perfect. Think snow-capped mountains, Baroque architecture and traditional Christmas markets.

It’s even the home of “Silent Night.” The popular hymn was performed for the first time in nearby Oberndorf on Christmas Eve 1918.

The town also plays host to a more unusual Yuletide tradition. Across Austria and Bavaria, in December people dress up as terrifying Alpine beasts known as krampuses and rampage through the streets in search of naughty children in need of punishment.

The Krampus Runs in Salzburg are held on various dates in December.

12. Santa Claus, Indiana

The town of Santa Claus was originally called Santa Fe, but that's not half as much fun.

Christmas is a year-round occasion in this town of fewer than 3,000 residents. Santa Claus, Indiana, gets thousands of letters a year from children trying to reach St. Nick himself. A group of volunteers called Santa’s Elves was set up in the mid-1930s to reply to each letter.

The Land of Lights display is a 1.2-mile drive around the Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort.

Among various Christmas-themed events, Santa hosts buffet dinners at Santa’s Lodge the first three weekends in December. (91 W. Christmas Blvd., Santa Claus, IN 47579; +1 812 937 1902)

13. Strasbourg, France

Get both French and German flavors of Christmas in this border city that feels the influences of both cultures.

Strasbourg’s series of themed Christmas villages morph the city into a visual and gastronomic wonderland. Some 300 stalls are spread out more than 10 locations.

Alongside the traditional market, there’s the OFF alternative Christmas fair, featuring live music and a street art trail.

14. Queenstown, New Zealand

Dreaming of a warm Christmas? Head to Queenstown, New Zealand.

The traditional Christmas colors of red, green and white take on an entirely new meaning in New Zealand, where red represents the “pohutukawa” (New Zealand’s ruby-red flowering Christmas tree), white represents the pristine sandy beaches, and green? The kiwi, of course!

Sun-lovers who want to join Santa in his surf shorts should definitely head to Queenstown, where warm summer temperatures mean folks can jetboat, river surf or paraglide on Lake Wakatipu, or simply set up camp along the lakefront and enjoy a hearty Christmas meal of lamb, seafood and chicken on the barbie.

15. Valkenburg, The Netherlands

This small town is the Dutch center for Christmas festivities.

Valkenburg’s Velvet Cave is transformed into a Christmas Market and the residence of Santa, where visitors can see his room of presents and reindeer sleigh.

The cavern houses sculptures and an 18th-century chapel, as well as preserved mural drawings that date to Roman times. Gifts, luxuries, culinary treats and traditional crafts can be found at Valkenburg’s Christmas market.

Best way to reach the Christmas town? A Christmas Express train that runs regularly between Simpelveld and Valkenburg.

This article was originally published December 2013 and last updated September 2019.

CNN’s Maureen O’Hare and Forrest Brown contributed to this story.