A girl on a donkey leads a candle-carrying procession past San Miguel de Allende’s shops festooned with piñatas and poinsettias. When they stop before a Spanish-colonial building and break into song, you realize you’re witnessing the reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter that takes place in the days leading up to Christmas.
Whether your winter holiday trip enhances your yuletide nostalgia with traditions, sparkly lights, and nippy air or makes a radical break from it—by, say, taking you to warmer climes or a quiet, far-flung hideaway—breaking the habit of staying home will always reward you with a Christmas you’ll never forget. With that goal in mind, we’ve rounded up diverse, exceptional places to get you in the spirit of taking off.
Quebec City is one of our favorite historic destinations for the holidays. The narrow cobblestoned streets and stone architecture of the walled city, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, make it as romantic and European as it gets on this side of the pond. Add to that a proclivity for snowfall and an abundance of top-notch bars and restaurants, and you may wish the New Year could be postponed.
But the appeal of warming up over the holidays is undeniable, too. For the die-hard contrarian, Kaikoura, New Zealand, ought to do the trick. It’s the height of summer there at Christmas, a holiday most often celebrated outdoors with backyard barbecues. But it’s also a great time to be hiking the rainforest of the Kaikoura mountain range or on the waters of Kaikoura Bay, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. It’s the summer home of sperm whales, fur seals, dusky dolphins, and pilot whales, and all it takes to commune with them is a boat and a bit of perseverance.
South America has weathered the global recession better than most regions, and it’s not hard to see why. Brazil in particular is peppered with off-the-beaten-track gems that offer a true escape, like the coastal Portuguese colonial town of Paraty, about 140 miles south of Rio. Its friendly locals, cerulean waters, exceptional beaches, and exotic-bird-filled jungles may make you forget what holiday it is altogether. Like we said: unforgettable.
Northern Lights in Tromso, Norway
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.
Christmas vacations in Prague, Czech Republic
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 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: 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.
Charleston, South Carolina
Why Go: Charleston puts its own spin on the holidays—pecans roasting instead of chestnuts, eggnog spiked with bourbon, and choirs singing spirituals at Drayton Hall plantation.
Where to Stay: The 21-room Wentworth Mansion dresses in subdued Victorian finery for the holidays with magnolia wreaths, old-world Santas, and two grand Christmas trees in the foyer. Every room has its own fireplace. On your pillow at turndown: chocolate truffles.
Holiday Dinner: At Peninsula Grill, chef Graham Dailey uses a fine selection of glazes and sauces, such as on his grilled bourbon glazed jumbo shrimp, and gives you the option of sinfully grilled steak and sauce. Take your pick among blue cheese–balsamic glaze, red pepper béarnaise, foie gras–truffle butter, or brandy-peppercorn sauce.
Christmas getaways in Reykjavík, Iceland
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”)?