Why Go: Christmastime may be damp and foggy, but with the hordes long gone, service is relaxed and friendly, and at night, you may have the moonlit Piazza San Marco all to yourself.
Where to Stay: The opulent Hotel Cipriani is available during the holidays, and the staff is sure to fuss over you. For a more intimate experience, consider Ca' Pisani, a boutique hotel with a vaguely futuristic look.
Holiday Dinner: Italians have their big feast on the 24th. At Do Forni, indulge in one of its signature dishes, such as risotto with shrimp and seasonal vegetables or baked branzino with potatoes, tomatoes, and oregano. De Pisis at the Hotel Bauer riffs on traditional fare: turbot fillet with glazed chestnuts, fondant pumpkin and smoked ham from Tyrol.
Why Go: In this Scottish gem known for its widespread arts and theater culture, a holiday light show includes fireworks illuminating the sky from Edinburgh Castle to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace” around the Sir Walter Scott Monument serve even better than carolers.
Where to Stay: Fireplaces are continuously rekindled at the baronial Balmoral. The Caledonian Hilton Edinburgh is Scotland’s answer to the Plaza and equally as opulent.
Holiday Dinner: Sorceresses were burned at the stake beside the gates of Edinburgh Castle in the 16th century, but nothing is scorched at the Witchery by the Castle, which stands on the site. The restaurant serves Loch Duart salmon and Gartmorn Farm duck—all cooked to perfection.
Why Go: In this otherworldly landscape, daylight is a four-hour affair and the liquid-green aurora borealis illuminates the nighttime sky. Statues of the 12 Yule Lads (the Icelandic version of Santa Claus) peer out from every corner shop and window.
Where to Stay: For covetable views of the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral and reasonable room rates, check in to the Hótel Leifur Eiríksson.
Holiday Dinner: The seafood restaurant Vid Tjörnina lures locals and visitors alike with its classic Icelandic cuisine. How about hot smoked puffin followed by shots of Brennivín (a.k.a. schnapps, or “firewater”)?
Why Go: In this compact Alpine city, a display of 12,000 crystal lights marks the season on November 21. Grab a heissi schoggi (hot chocolate) and explore the galleries on Rämistrasse, check out the Conelli Christmas Circus, or listen to a holiday concert in the Romanesque-style Grossmünster church.
Where to Stay: Set on the Sihl River, the Hotel Restaurant Helvetia has 16 rooms with Art Nouveau touches.
Don’t Miss: On the eve of December 19, children set candles afloat on the Limmat River near City Hall.
Why Go: The wilderness Urho Kekkonen National Park, a 90-minute flight from Helsinki, is an actual winter wonderland: traverse the frosty landscape via a reindeer-pulled sled, or go cross-country skiing on the Saariselkä trails.
Where to Stay: Some of the igloos at Hotel Kakslauttanen are made of thermal glass—so you stay warm watching the northern lights.
Don’t Miss: A four-hour cruise on the Sampo, which served for 26 years as an icebreaker.
Why Go: Stroll historic Nerudova street in Mala Strana to view the city’s Gothic and Baroque architecture, or catch an opera or ballet at the State Opera or National Theater. Visit the holiday markets in Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square.
Where to Stay: The 109-room Hotel Josef is outfitted with Baleri armchairs, Philippe Starck bathroom fixtures, and fluffy duvets.
Don’t Miss: Standout local brews; grab a pint of pilsner at cozy U Pinkasů.
Why Go: The snowy city island of Trømso offers unparalleled views of the northern lights (look for them between 6 p.m. and midnight) and a chance to say you’ve been to the North Pole—well, the Arctic Circle, anyway—for Christmas. Plus, there’s dogsledding, great food, and a mountaintop cable car. Here, “day” is just a couple hours of twilight blue.
Where to Stay: Most hotels shut down for the holiday, but not the Clarion Hotel Bryggen, right on the harbor. The views of Trømso Sound are best admired from the roof’s steamy Jacuzzi.
Holiday Dinner: Stay put at the Clarion for a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner at its restaurant, Astro. The chef has been known to serve Nordic dishes like basil-glazed filet of catfish and whole roasted filet of pork, and recommends a side of French salt-baked Rosewald potatoes.
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Why Go: The Spanish colonial gem and cultural hot spot in central Mexico is electric at Christmas, with theatrical processions around town, numerous posadas reenactments, and fireworks, live music, and dancing in the main square, El Jardín. Be sure to sample ponche, a kind of Mexican hot toddy made of fruits and brandy, and the sweet bread rosca de reyes.
Where to Stay: Casa Sierra Nevada, managed by Orient-Express, is spread among six renovated 16th- to 18th-century historic Spanish colonial mansions—many with alfresco corridors, courtyards, and small gardens. Rooms feature tile baths, wood-burning fireplaces, bóvedas (curved ceilings), and paintings by local artists.
Holiday Dinner: With a shaded courtyard and fountain, Cafe de la Parroquia is a tranquil setting for gathering over a hearty meal beginning with a bowl of sopa Azteca.
Why Go: An old-fashioned warmth envelops Vienna at Christmas, softening the hard edges of imperial architecture with twinkling decorations and three outdoor Christkindlmarkts. Vendors sell crafts and ornaments, while visitors fuel their shopping with finger food and a glass of spiced mulled wine, or glühwein. The Vienna Boys’ Choir concerts are lengendary.
Where to Stay: Centrally located on Kaerntner Ring right across from the opera, the Ring Hotel is classic Vienna on the outside, but modern, artsy, and decidedly cool on the inside thanks to a top-to-bottom redesign.
Holiday Dinner: Eight, the Ring’s acclaimed restaurant, is offering four- and five-course Christmas menus. Entrée choices range from dishes like beef tenderloin with potato, shallot, and spinach, to game liver with pumpkin, cardamom, and pomegranate.
Why Go: Lit-up cobblestone streets, 16th- and 17th-century stone houses, and lots and lots of snow make Quebec’s 400-year-old walled city an atmospheric and European-like place to be at Christmas. The local good cheer and great food could make even a skeptic love winter after all.
Where to Stay: Housed in former 19th-century stone warehouse in Vieux-Port, Auberge St. Antoine stands out for the perfection with which it juxtaposes old and new. Soaring ceilings and cast-iron beams are complemented with such amenities as heated stone floors, and artifacts unearthed during its renovation are on display throughout.
Holiday Dinner: Serving traditional Québécois cuisine based on 17th-century French recipes, Aux Anciens Canadiens is offering its main menu on Christmas Day. Expect everything from a Neptune's Shell of giant shrimp and scallops au gratin to grilled pheasant breast.
Why Go: Winter in the Bavarian capital means a hundred-foot-tall Christmas tree in the Marienplatz, about two dozen Christmas markets (weekdays draw fewer crowds), and mulled wine and gingerbread, served on a tram that crosses the old city.
Where to Stay: The modern, 72-room Louis Hotel is a snowball’s throw from the lively Viktualienmarkt and has a natural stone fireplace in the lobby.
Don’t Miss: Every evening at 5:30 from November 25 through Christmas Eve, there’s live holiday music on the balcony of the town hall.
Why Go: The legend of Santa Claus (or Sinterklaas) is strong in the Dutch capital, where 16th- and 17th-century houses are strung with lights in early December. Consider lingering through New Year’s Eve for champagne and fireworks in the Nieuwmarkt or Dam squares.
Where to Stay: Three 17th-century merchant’s residences make up the Canal House, located on the bustling Keizersgracht waterway.
Don’t Miss: Join locals as they trade their bicycles for noren (long-bladed ice skates) and tour the city’s outdoor rinks.
Why Go: “Jingle Bells” set to a salsa beat will get you dancing and caroling. Palm trees basking in sunlight and exotic flora in the El Yunque rainforest replace your typical snowcapped pines. Wrap up your Caribbean days with an evening stroll through a 500-year-old Spanish colonial city on the Atlantic.
Where to Stay: Hotel El Convento, a converted 354-year-old Carmelite convent, has 72 rooms with handcrafted colonial furniture. The Water Club boutique hotel has 78 rooms overlooking the ocean through floor-to-ceiling windows.
Holiday Dinner: The Parrot Club offers Nuevo Latino cuisine—tamarind-glazed salmon, chicken in a mango barbecue sauce—accompanied by a jazz band.
Why Go: A tiny stone English village dotted with cheerfully lit Christmas trees would be enough of an allure, but caroling by candlelight inside caves seals this southern town’s place on a list of special yuletide travel destinations.
Where to Stay: Just up the road in Hope, the secluded Losehill House Hotel and Spa offers a Christmas package that includes three nights’ accommodation (beginning Christmas Eve), meals (including a Christmas feast), and a spa treatment.
Holiday Dinner: The multi-course Christmas Day dinner kicks off with an afternoon champagne reception. Later, in the evening, an informal hot and cold buffet is served for those with any room left over.
Why Go: A Provençal winter is always fairy tale–like: the villages gone silent at summer’s end come back to life; music from medieval churches fills the cobblestoned streets; women crowd around market stalls to sniff out the freshest foie gras.
Where to Stay: The region’s grand hotels—Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa; the Terre Blanche Resort—pull out all the stops for the season. But for a quintessential country escape, why not rent an old-but-renovated farmhouse with a cozy heart?
Holiday Dinner: Christmas Eve dinner at the Château d’Estoublon's Bistrot Mogador is a traditional gros souper or “Great Supper.”