The 5 Best Christmas Celebrations Outside the United States
When you’re spending Christmas abroad, it’s hard not to yearn for the little traditions of home, from the way the family exchanges presents to the obnoxious songs on the radio. Instead of being lonely, though, think of your time away as a chance to bask in the yuletide traditions of other cultures. The folks in these five foreign destinations put stateside celebrations to shame, whether with the light shows they put on display, the parties they hold in the streets, or the free concerts they perform in their ancient churches.
- San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
- Bethlehem, West Bank
- Manila, Philippines
- Lapland, Finland
- Florence, Italy
Christmas Destinations: San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Just about any time of year is perfect for visiting San Miguel de Allende, a colonial-era mountain town in Mexico's belly button. But show up in December, and you'll be treated to a month-long Christmas party. The celebrations begin in full on December 16, with a giant procession through town. Fireworks and live bands enliven the events, which center around the plant-filled main square, called the jardin. Because everything closes down on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, book a room at a downtown inn, like the 18th-century villa Casa Shuck, to celebrate with other travelers (rates start at $150 a night).
SIDE ADVENTURE: The locally owned bike shop Bici Burro in town rents bikes and offers laid-back mountain bike tours of the surrounding villages and mountain peaks. One of it's best rides takes you through oak forests in the Sierra Quanajuato on old, winding mining roads (tours start at $30).
Christmas Destinations: Bethlehem, West Bank
Remember that one Christmas story about the three guys bringing gifts to a baby in a manger? In Bethlehem, you can go back to where it started. The narrow streets of this ancient hillside city are packed and crazy during the holiday season, but that’s the point. Travel back through time in the Old City to observe midnight mass on Christmas Eve in Manger Square, or cram into the Church of the Nativity, built by the Romans roughly 1,700 years ago.
SIDE ADVENTURE: Bethlehem’s significance in history dates well before the baby Jesus, as you’ll see if you go south of town to hike around Solomon’s Pools. These stone reservoirs received biblical mention and supplied water to Jerusalem nearly 3,000 years ago. An afternoon’s hike will take you around the pools, past the Ottoman garrison Murad Castle, and into the surprisingly verdant, inviting town of Artas. The pools are accessible by taxi.
Christmas Destinations: Manila, Philippines
As one of the few largely Christian cities in Asia, Manila knows how to put on Christmas with style, mixing faith with festiveness—and lots and lots of colored lights. The people who live here take full advantage of the holiday season, which they call Paskong Pinoy, with decorations going up as early as September. People in the city begin religious observations of Christmas on December 16, by attending pre-dawn mass, and don’t stop until January. Take a ride down Policarpio Street, lined with light-festooned mansions. Check out the creepy but amazing moving Christmas Show mannequins at the mammoth Greenhills Shopping Center. And walk through the living Nutcracker display at the Manila Hotel.
SIDE ADVENTURE: Visit the Dampa Sa Farmer's Market in Cubao and pig out on fresh seafood, cooked to order. The market stays open until 11 p.m..
Christmas Destinations: Lapland, Finland
Instead of hoping for Santa to find you while you’re overseas for Christmas, you can always find him instead by heading north of the Arctic Circle. Rovaniemi, the capital of the snowbound Lapland region of Finland, claims to be the home of the Jolly Old Elf. You can meet him at Santa Claus Village just north of town, where you can take a dogsled ride, go to the reindeer farm, and walk into the underground, indoor Santapark theme park to hop on a magic sleigh ride.
SIDE ADVENTURE: The snow base is always deep at Suomu, one of Europe’s best under-the-radar ski resorts. Though you wouldn’t go to northern Finland just to snowboard or ski this resort—unless you’re competing in one of the World Cup events held annually here—it’s worth a day’s detour to tackle the expert trails on the 800-foot-vertical slopes of the mountain’s north face.
Christmas Destinations: Florence, Italy
Let the crowds pack into Rome and the Vatican on December 25. Instead of joining them, head to Florence, where you'll be one of the few tourists there to enjoy the festivities. The city erects Christmas markets in the main plazas where you can buy ornaments or taste Italian holiday treats from the bakery stalls. Each church in town painstakingly creates a nativity scene, all worth admiring, and most put on impressive free Christmas concerts. Maybe the greatest tradition in town is sipping a cup of otherworldly (and insanely expensive) Florentine hot chocolate at Caffé Rivoire in the Piazza della Signora.
SIDE ADVENTURE: Every winter the city creates the Winter Park at Florence on the right bank of the Arno River, a cold-weather wonderland complete with a skating rink and a 200-foot-long slope for skiing, snowboarding, and tubing. It may not measure up to the big mountains of the Alps, but on the plus side, the park is surrounded by bars and cafes.