15 of the best places to spend Christmas

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)Any old city can string up a few lights downtown and call it a holiday celebration.

From Mexico to Malta, northern lights to sunny skies, these places are doing Christmas better than the rest this year.


    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.
    On a grander scale, the Bethlehem f'Ghajnsielem is a life-size nativity experience spread over 20,0000 square meters of formerly abandoned fields.
    Inhabited and animated by more than 150 actors, including entire families, the village takes visitors back in time to Judea of 2,000 years ago, complete with oil lamps, turn mills, grazing animals, crafts areas teaching traditional skills and folklore, a tavern and, of course, a grotto housing baby Jesus.
    Downtown Valletta is also 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 -- this year it's festive favorite "Puss in Boots."
    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.

    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.
    Across the street, Radio City hosts the annual Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes.
    On the southwest corner of Central Park, Columbus Circle hosts more than 100 vendors selling clothes, gifts, snacks and drinks at the Holiday Market.
    Central Park has two ponds for skating and horse-drawn carriage rides.
    Fashion's biggest names join in the festivities, setting up impressive Christmas window displays.
    The most glamorous cases, at the Fifth Avenue flagships and department stores like Saks and Bergdorf, are impressive enough to melt the heart of Anna Wintour.

    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 happens to be one of them.
    2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the much-loved writer's death, and while the main Austen love-in is during the festival in September, the Jane Austen Centre -- and on-site Regency Tearoom -- is the best place to learn about the city's most famous resident.
    The Theatre Royal, which Austen mentions in "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion," has a varied program of holiday drama, musicals, opera and concerts, including "Aladdin" and "Robin Hood."
    A little earlier in the season (the 2016 dates were November 24 to December 11), 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 (until January 3, 2017) is a great excuse to bundle up and lace up skates, while 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.

    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 (January 5), can catch up with Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar in Barcelona.
    On the evening of January 4, they arrive at the city's port on the Santa Eulalia -- their very own ship -- in bearded and velvet-robed splendor.
    Canons 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.

    Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland

    Santa Claus Village hires extra elves from November to March and June to August.
    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.
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    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.
    Other area attractions include the Ranua Zoo, home to baby polar bears, wolverines and moose, and the Arktikum, a science center where the mystery of the northern lights is revealed.
    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.

    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, while the German Railway Museum is a hit with everyone.

    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 month-long Christmas display with an opening parade, live music and a 15-meter Christmas tree.
    The 6-meter-tall 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.

    Quebec City, Canada

    Quebec brings ye olde European Christmas charm to 21st century North America.
    A haven for environmentally friendly, outdoor enthusiasts, Quebec bustles with winter activity, offering holiday programs for all tastes.
    Old Quebec is turned into a Christmas village straight out of a story by Charles Dickens.
    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, while speed devils can zoom around in a snowmobile from Nord Expe.
    And when Christmas is over, there's Quebec Winter Carnival to look forward to, from January 27 to February 12, 2017.

    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.
    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.

    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 reenact 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.

    Salzburg, Austria

    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 last Krampus Run in Salzburg this year is on the winter solstice, December 21.

    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, receives 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.

    Strasbourg, France

    Strasbourg's series of themed Christmas villages morph the city into a visual and gastronomic wonderland.
    300 stalls are spread out over 12 locations, with Luxembourg being honored this year with its own dedicated village.
    Visitors can feast on Luxembourg-style gromperekichelcher (potato cakes) and boxemannercher (brioche men), washed down with gluhwain (mulled wine).
    Alongside the traditional market, there's the new OFF alternative Christmas fair, featuring live music and a street art trail.

    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.

    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.
    Originally published December 2013, updated December 2016.