Ice skating with the city skyline in the background. Drinking hot wine and browsing trinkets at Christmas markets. Aweing at light displays and massive Christmas trees. This is the magic of Christmastime in the city captured in every cliche Christmas movie to date! While some prefer to spend Christmas closer to home, there are plenty of Christmas city breaks to take if you’re looking to switch it up.
This year Christmas will likely look a lot different for most of us, due to the ongoing pandemic. While some of us may not be able to travel overseas for the holidays this year, you may be able to visit one of these Christmas city breaks within your region. If not, you can always add these destinations to your bucket-list for a dream, winter getaway.
This list compiles some of the lesser-known Christmas markets across the U.S., U.K. and Europe. Check out the unique Christmas attractions within each of these cities!
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Christmas City breaks in the U.K.
Entry from: Allan Wilson, It’s Sometimes Sunny in Bangor
Belfast is a vibrant city rich in character, which comes to life during the winter months when the city is dressed in lights and baubles to celebrate Christmas. Central to this celebration is the Belfast Christmas Market on the grounds of Belfast City Hall. The Christmas Market features two heated beer tents with festive drinks, meats, sweets, and of course local banter and shenanigans. The festival features an annual hog roast, marshmallow roasting, and meats of the world, including kangaroo and ostrich. Wandering through this area is an attraction in itself, but you can also find free guided tours.
But for many the real charm of Christmas in Belfast is in the surrounding streets, where the traditional bars and pubs are alive and cosy with trad music and plenty of local craic (Ireland’s word for banter). Otherwise there is plenty to explore in the city including the main shopping streets with a free viewing dome at Victoria Square with panoramic views of the city, as well as the Titanic Quarter which was the birthplace of the world-renowned sinking ship.
Entry from: Pauline Vergent from Bee Loved City
Located in North West England, Manchester is mainly known for its music, friendly locals, and industrial background. But it is also one of the best Christmas city breaks in the UK! Beginning in November, the city centre becomes one huge winter wonderland with nine Christmas markets scattered throughout the city.
Each market has a bit of a different atmosphere. The one in Piccadilly Gardens features fantastic Christmas lights. The one on Kings Street is the perfect place to find craft presents. But the star market is the one on Albert Square. You will find there Manchester Big Santa, the German Village, all sorts of foods and drinks and can look at the beautiful town hall, all at once! Craft and local producers from all over the UK and Europe come to Manchester to present and sell their best products!
If you fancy seeing or doing something a bit different, make sure to check out the market in Cathedral Gardens. It’s home to the ice-rink and the ice village. Kids (and grown ups!) love it!
If you’re looking for other things to do around the city, make sure to check out the Gay Village, Alan Turing Statue, street art in Northern Quarter, the Royal Exchange and Castlefield!
Entry from: Kat, The Wandering Bird
Winchester is a beautiful city at any time of the year, but during Christmas time it really comes to life. Consistently voted one of the best Christmas markets in the UK, Winchester Christmas Market is set in the grounds of the famous Winchester Cathedral. The market is open daily from the end of November until just before Christmas, from 10am until 6.30pm.
There are over 100 traditional wooden stalls, featuring everything from trinkets, decorations, ornaments, and more. There’s also food stalls selling crepes, bratwurst, mince pies, chestnuts and plenty of places to enjoy a mug of warm spiced wine. My favorite part of the festival is the open-air ice rink inside the Cathedral grounds! You need to book tickets in advance, but it’s definitely worth every penny.
As well as the market, take time to explore the city of Winchester. Home to Jane Austen’s grave and one of the oldest bibles in the world, the city has tons of attractions, shops, and history to explore during any time of the year!
Christmas City Breaks in Europe
Despite winning best Christmas market in Europe several years in a row, Zagreb advent remains one of the most underrated holiday destinations in Europe. As the inland capital of Croatia, Zagreb features charming Austro-Hungarian architecture similar to Vienna mixed with an eclectic, funky culture. This atmosphere comes to life during the annual Advent festival, which takes place from the end of November through mid-January. The festival goes much beyond just having hot wine and wooden houses, with tons of events, performances, concerts, and unique decorations.
Every year the festival in Zagreb has a theme. In years past the themes were the Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. Grgic tunnel, a former WW2 shelter converting into a walking tunnel, is decorated to fit this theme every year. You’ll also find several decorations within this theme throughout the city, and you can see these plays/ballets at the Croatian National Theatre. Afterwards head over to the large ice skating rink in lower park with the gorgeous park as the backdrop.
Some of the best views of the city are in the Upper Town area of Zagreb, where locals flock to the hip coffee bars. During the advent this area features lots of live music and community events, with retro decorations that truly amplify the uniqueness of Zagreb’s Christmas market.
Entry from: Roshni, the Wanderlust Within
Known as the most sustainable city in the world four times in a row, Gothenburg is home to some of the most unique holiday attractions in Europe. Gothenburg has several Christmas markets scattered across the city, and the most popular and largest one is at Liseberg Theme Park. The whole park is covered in five million Christmas lights powered by wind energy. On top of that, the Christmas market combines thrilling roller coaster rides with dozens of festive stalls and even an ice skating show.
Gothenburg also has three other Christmas markets, including a modern designer market set in an old boiler house, a traditional market in Kronhuset, one of the oldest buildings in the city, and also a foodie inspired Christmas market in the quaint residential neighbourhood of Haga.
Speaking of food, Christmastime is an ideal time to try some festive Swedish cuisine. Make sure to try sweet mulled wine called glogg and Swedish gingersnap biscuits called Pepparkaka. You can also book a four course buffet Christmas dinner with all the Swedish favorites such as pickled herring, saffron buns, and cured salmon.
Entry from: Diana, The Elusive Family
As the official hometown of Santa Claus, Rovaniemi is a Christmas city break that the whole family will love. Here you can visit Lapland with kids, while also visiting this real-life “Santa Claus Village”. Of course the kids can “meet Santa” at two different sites in town. Other activities include reindeer and husky rides through snow. Don’t miss taking the kids to visit the Santa post office to get an official stamp from Santa!
There are plenty of adult activities to choose from as well. This region offers accommodation in cozy cottages, where you can see the Northern lights and indulge in the traditional Finnish Sauna experience. There are several restaurants to have a hearty winter meal, making for a once in a lifetime Christmas vacation!
Deventer, The Netherlands
Entry from: Manon, Visiting the Dutch Countryside
Deventer is a historic town in the Netherlands where Charles Dickens comes to life. Every year the city hosts the annual “Dickens festival” (Dickens Festijn), where the streets are decorated based on his stories and locals dress up as characters. This along with the Christmas market festivities at Lebuinus church make Deventer one of the most unique Christmas city breaks in Europe.
Deventer is also an ideal destination for Christmas shopping. You have plenty of eclectic and funky shops to choose from. Think of visiting De Kruidnagel, for instance, which is an authentic drugstore. December is usually a chilly month in The Netherlands, so why not get warm with a cup of tea and some traditional Deventer koek? This honey cake is one of Deventer’s specialities, and its recipe dates back to 1593. You can try it at the Deventer Koekwinkel.
Entry from: Megan Starr, Megan Starr
One of the most interesting cities to visit during the winter holiday season is Bergen, the second-largest city in Norway and the gateway to the fjords. The city is home to the world’s largest gingerbread city called ‘Pepperkakebyen’. This collection of gingerbread houses, buildings, and Bergen landmarks lures in thousands of visitors annually and has become one of the coolest things to do in Norway during the holiday season.
But, Bergen has far more to do during the winter than just visit Pepperkakebyen! It is also a fantastic place to embark on a winter cruise of the fjords. You can visit Mostraumen fjord right from the Bergen harbor, with scenery out of a winter storybook. You can also head to Voss or Myrkdalen and go skiing, enjoying one of Norway’s most famous exports. Alternatively, you can head to Flåm where you will have the Flåmsbana, or Flåm train, waiting for you. The journey is supposed to be one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. There is so much to do in Bergen in winter, and yet it’s such an underrated destination!
Entry from: Paula Martinelli, Paula Pins the Planet
With iconic castles and baroque buildings surrounded by alps, Salzburg’s scenery is straight out of a fairy tale. Winter in Salzburg begins with the opening of Christmas markets at the end of November. Of course you’ll find traditional Christmas markets at Damplatz and Mirabell square, featuring hot wine and wooden huts selling Salzburg delicacies and trinkets. But as the birthplace of Mozart, you’ll find several winter concerts in the city unique only to Salzburg.
One of the most traditional attractions in the city is “Salzburger Adventsingen”, a nativity scene play performed by local boys in different Salzburg dialects. It was founded by the local folk-culture-expert Tobias Reiser in 1946 and draws an audience of thousands of people every year, especially Austrians.
Salzburg is a great place to visit all year long, but Salzburbug is a great destination for winter sports. The region’s Alps offer countless winter activities to try. You can go skiing, snowboarding, ride a sled, go cross-country skiing, or ice skating.
Entry from: Nicole Sunderland, Eat Live Travel Drink
One off-beat Christmas bucket list destination is Tallinn, Estonia, most known for its Old Town, lined with cobblestone streets and pastel colored buildings. This Baltic country in Eastern Europe is just far enough from the hordes of visitors to Germany and the markets on the Danube and Rhine Rivers. What makes this special is that it is not overcrowded and prices are extremely reasonable. You can get luxury hotels for next to nothing and the food is priced reasonably.
Beyond the Christmas Market, some of the other fun things to do in Tallinn during the winter is visit the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Kadriorg Art Museum, St. Olaf’s Church, and to walk up to the Kohuotsa viewing platform, where you can see the snow capped rooftops of the Old Town.
(One tip to note: the Old Town is cobblestone and paired with the snow and freezing temperatures, it turns to ice quickly. Wear comfortable and practical shoes to walk in.)
Christmas City Breaks in the U.S.
Entry from: Derek and Mike, Robe Trotting
Christmas in Philadelphia hosts festive activities like ice skating, Christmas Villages and light decorations in the city parks. One of the best Christmas markets in Philadelphia is at LOVE Park. Here you have rows of vendors selling homemade gifts and ornaments. You can continue to City Hall to experience the magnificent holiday tree in the courtyard, the carousel ride, and entertainment on the weekends. At the adjacent Dilworth Plaza, you can enjoy more holiday vendors and warm up with a chocolate at the ice skating rink and refreshment tent. Another great ice skating venue is the equally fun and scenic Blue Cross River rink at Penn’s Landing.
If you’re looking for impressive light displays, head to Franklin square, also known as the Electrical Spectacle. Another impressive and offbeat light display is a neighborhood-initiated display at 13th Street and Tasker. It’s dubbed Miracle on 13th Street and a great community effort. A great way to end the night is at Tinsel, a pop up Christmas-themed bar in midtown. It can be tough to get a table, so it’s smart to check in and reserve a spot earlier in the day.
Entry from: Stella Jane, Around the World in 24 Hours
Not nearly as many people know that New Orleans is also an amazing destination during Christmas, without the crowds of Mardi Gras. One unique feature of Christmas in New Orleans is the traditional “Reveillon” dinner in the month of December. These dinners are a long-time New Orleans tradition, and you can expect a lavish tasting menu at most restaurants throughout the city. This includes decadent treats like oysters, caviar, and steaks. Commander’s Palace serves one of the best in the city!
Of course, New Orleans has exciting Christmas activities throughout the month of December, not just Christmas feasts. There are special holiday tours of the interiors of some of the homes in the historic French Quarter. These homes only open their doors to tourists at Christmas time, so this is a rare treat! At City Park, you can see the sparkling Christmas lights that glow at night during the Celebration in the Oaks. Finally, check out a seasonal Christmas jazz concert. The one at Preservation Hall is one of the finest.
Entry from: Sally Lucus, Our 3 Kids V. The World
Looking for a Christmas city break with historic charm? Look no further than Boston. In the heart of Boston you’ll find Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a top tourist attraction dating back to 1742. Also home to the iconic bar from the Cheers sitcom, this area comes alive during the holiday season with street performers, Christmas carollers, and performances. During the holidays you’ll find a 65 foot tall Christmas tree imported from Norway illuminated with Christmas lights. Each hour people gather around the tree for the spectacular ‘Blink’ Christmas light and sound show.
Another popular area is Boston Common, a central public park dating back to 1634. During Christmas season the area features an ice skating rink and Christmas lights draped from above. Especially with a light covering of snow, it’s one of the best places to winter things to do in Boston.
If you’re looking to take a walking tour around the city, rug up and explore the Freedom Trail. This 2.5 mile historic walk covers 16 historic significant sites through the city. The walk takes you through downtown Boston, where you’ll see the festive street decorations along the way as well.
New York City
Entry from: James Ian, Travel Collecting
New York City is most known for iconic attractions like the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty and Times Square. It’s also known for many incredible things to do at Christmas in NYC. Create your own walking tour of the holiday windows in all the major department stores and visit Santa at Santaland in Macys. Go ice-skating at the Rockefeller Center rink below the iconic enormous live Christmas tree, at Bryant Park surrounded by skyscrapers or in Central Park with views of the Plaza.
If you’re looking for some lesser-known Christmas attractions in NYC, you can check out all the Christmas trees at every major museum and park across the city. For example, the Museum of Natural History features a Christmas tree covered in origami animals. The MET decorates their tree with antique angels and crèche. For camp Christmas decor, check out DYker heights and Astoria. Lastly, you can’t miss the Holiday train show at the New York Botanical Gardens and Grand Central Terminal.
Entry from Harshi and Aman, Trot.world
There is no shortage of things to do while in Vegas ,but the Sin City is also a magical and romantic getaway during the holiday season. Gaze at the 65-feet tall Christmas tree at The Venetian. Go ice skating on Cosmopolitan’s pool that has been converted into an ice-rink and have s’mores by the fire with snow showers. Have yourself a feast at the countless lavish buffets serving Christmas themed dishes and deserts and end your night marveling at the famous Bellagio fountain show where the water sways to the tunes of the Christmas carols during the holiday season.
Despite being known for gambling and partying, Las Vegas can be a family-friendly destination during Christmas as well. A fun activity to do as a family is hotel/resort hopping to enjoy the grand and impressive decorations consisting of giant polar bears, Santa’s sleigh, trees, and more. Kids love all the glittering light shows, rides, and entertainment that Las Vegas has to offer!