It’s the most wonderful time of the year, replete with trees, trimmings, carols, and the unmistakable sounds of shoppers and merrymakers preparing for the holidays. No matter where you are or where you’ll be for Christmas—be it among the snow-capped mountains or in the sunny climes south of the Equator, where it happens to be summer—we’ve gathered our favorite ways to celebrate the season. So grab your stockings and a mug of something toasty, and prepare to make this year’s holiday the best one yet.
Related: The Best Places to Spend Christmas
Read on for our list, or skip ahead to your city of interest: Amsterdam; Atlanta; Chicago;Hong Kong; London; Melbourne; New York City; Paris; Philadelphia; Portland, Oregon;Prague; San Francisco; Tokyo; Toronto; Vancouver; and Washington, D.C.
Amsterdam is positively low-key at Christmas, which makes it a relaxing place to be during this festive season. There’s no Santa here—kids get their presents from Sint Nicolaas on December 5, not Christmas Day. And for the Dutch, Christmas dinner takes place on the evening of December 24. Until recently, there were no Christmas markets and even Christmas trees were a rarity (both, however, have gained in popularity), and plenty of restaurants, cafés, and stores are open over the holiday period.
If you’re in town, take advantage of this mellow vibe, and enjoy these seasonal activities that best capture the feeling.
1. Ice Skating
The Dutch are passionate about ice-skating, and every winter, outdoor ice rinks appear in the stately locations of Leidseplein and Museumplein—complete with skate rentals, music, and refreshments. If you’re not great at skating, you can book a lesson. After whizzing around on the ice, warm up with a hot chocolate, a plate of poffertjes (mini pancakes), or a hearty pea soup.
While it’s still light out, get in a little shopping, and hunt down a special souvenir to commemorate your trip.
2. Light Festival
It’s dark in the Netherlands in the winter months, but the Amsterdam Light Festivalbrightens up the city with a variety of multi-colored installations by Dutch and international artists. To enjoy them at their best, book a special canal cruise or walking tour.
3. Church Services
In the beautiful Begijnh of, the medieval Engelse Kerk (English church) has been leading English-language worship in Amsterdam since 1607. Check out their website for times of Christmas services.
Other Amsterdam churches with holidays evening masses are the Noorderkerk, Westerkerk, and the Oude Kerk. The Mozes & Aaronkerk (on Waterlooplein) has a multi-faith celebration with representatives from different religions (a priest, Buddhist monk, Islamic imam, and Jewish chazzan).
4. Christmas Circus
The beautiful Royal Carré Theatre stages the award-winning World Christmas Circus, uniting some of the world’s best circus acts in one child-friendly, spectacular seasonal show. The Christmas circus has been a tradition in this theatre for more than 25 years; book tickets here.
5. Hänsel und Gretel
What’s Christmas without a fairy tale? The Dutch National Opera performs a new production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel at Amsterdam’s National Opera and Ballet. This quirky contemporary version is staged on a giant trash pile, which is brought to life by children.
With temperatures averaging in the 50s and the smell of smoked turkey in the air, Atlanta is the perfect place for a southern Christmas celebration. Some of its biggest attractions are open and waiting with surprises, while many of its restaurants serve traditional holiday fare with a downhome twist.
6. Thank “SCUBA Claus” for the Gifts
After Santa’s biggest night, he likes to blow off some steam in the South before returning to the North Pole. You’ll find him downtown at the Georgia Aquarium, wearing a wetsuit and plunging into a 6.3 million–gallon tank, while hundreds watch from outside the glass. Ol’ Saint Nick isn’t bothered in the least by the whale sharks and manta rays swimming around him in the world’s largest aquatic habitat; instead, he chats amiably with onlookers through a special waterproof microphone.
7. Eat Some Southern-Smoked Turkey
At Atkins Park Restaurant and Bar in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood, the hugely popular Christmas dinner menu includes a platter of smoked turkey, and not just any smoked turkey. It’s cooked “low and slow” on a Big Green Egg, an Atlanta-made kamado-style cooker with a huge cult following. Accompanied by caramelized apple and sage stuffing, and cider gravy, it’s a Christmas meal with serious Southern cred.
8. Ride an Atlanta Landmark
One of Atlanta’s most photographed attractions, SkyView Atlanta soars 20 stories above famed Centennial Park in the heart of downtown. Hop on one of its 42 climate-controlled gondolas and take in the city’s best sights, including Stone Mountain 20 miles away. For a Southern splurge, opt for a VIP gondola with leather seats, a glass floor, and a longer flight time (30 minutes instead of roughly 12).
9. Forget Prime Rib; Feast on Shrimp and Grits Instead
At Southern Art, a Buckhead restaurant owned by Oprah’s former personal chef Art Smith, Christmas Day means jumbo Georgia shrimp served over creamy grits. Sop up extra sauce with cheddar cheese biscuits, and save room for the pecan tarts from the sprawling dessert buffet. (Bless your heart, didn’t you know? In the South, calories don’t count on Christmas.)
10. See Magnolias Illuminated by Twinkling Lights
Take advantage of Atlanta’s mild winter temps and check out Garden Lights, Holiday Nights at the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Midtown. Though the event launched just five years ago, it’s already an area classic, drawing some 200,000 visitors annually. Two million energy-efficient lights illuminate the sprawling grounds filled with Southern magnolias, Chihuly sculptures, and a wide variety of orchids.
Before you go, don’t forget to pick up a special gift to mark the trip.
Sure, many stores and restaurants are closed on Christmas Day, but visitors and locals in the Windy City have plenty to celebrate come December 25. Check out these ideas for making the most of a mostly closed holiday.
11. Skate the City’s Rinks
If you’re ready for a day on the ice, you can pick from one of three options. The McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park ($12) is possibly the city’s most famous. But for skating with a view, try the Sky Rink at the Peninsula Hotel, which is four stories above Michigan Avenue ($15). The curved Skating Ribbon, which winds through Maggie Daley Park, offers a unique and stunning view of the city’s skyline ($12).
12. Browse the Holiday Windows
It’s the 47th anniversary of the State Street holiday windows in Chicago this year. Check them out along the perimeter of Macy’s, animated and in full sparkling holiday glory. This year, the theme is the fantastical “Santa’s Journey to the Stars,” about a boy named Alex who receives a magical and mystical telescope that enables him to experience the wonder of the holiday on other planets before landing back on Earth.
13. Sample the Christmas Brunch at Sixteen
Sixteen, the fine dining restaurant in the Trump Hotel, has a Christmas spectacular planned, complete with brunch, reindeer, hot chocolate and mulled wine, a string trio, and a visit from Santa and Mrs. Claus ($158 per person).
14. Smell the Flowers
Two flower shows are open to the public on Christmas. The Garfield Park Conservatory holiday flower show decks the halls with poinsettias and winter-themed décor. Over at the Lincoln Park Conservatory, a pink and white theme comes complete with poinsettias, a miniature model of Chicago made from natural materials, and model trains coursing through the building. Both events are free.
15. Go to the Movies
Six much-anticipated movies are hitting theaters Christmas day, and with everyone together doing family celebrations, you may not have to fight so hard for seats. The biggest blockbusters slated for the time are Concussion, Daddy’s Home, The Hateful Eight, Joy, Point Break, and The Revenant. At ARCLight Chicago, Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema, and ShowPlace ICON at Roosevelt Collection there’s a bar and elevated snacks on offer, making the experience feel extra-celebratory.
Between the mild temperatures and overflowing ads for end-of-year sales, Hong Kong may not be your first destination of choice for getting into the festive spirit. However, experiencing the city’s unique Yuletide celebrations can be a memorable and rewarding experience, provided you know where the locals go for fun. Follow our action plan for a picture-perfect Christmas in Hong Kong—even if the snowflakes aren’t making an appearance this year.
16. Symphony of Lights
This 15-minute light show is a recommended stop in any season, but especially around Christmas, when the skyscrapers on both sides of Victoria Harbour are decked out in holiday-themed LED displays. Catch it from the Tsim Sha Tsui side, near the Avenue of Stars, to take in the iconic Central skyline on Hong Kong Island. Once the show finishes, walk to the nearby Hong Kong Cultural Centre and the Clock Tower for the seasonal Pulse 3D light show—a vivid outdoor projection experience that will delight the younger travelers among the group.
17. Visit A Christmas Market
Stanley Market is your go-to for trinkets that make great souvenirs, but it will gain an uncanny resemblance to a German village during the latter half of December: With support from the German Consulate in Hong Kong, the plaza area will transform into an outdoor holiday market featuring 80 vendors selling nutcrackers, bratwurst, and gifts under festive lights. The best part? Visitors above the age of 18 will receive a cup of complimentary mulled wine.
18. Stroll Around A Mall
Shopping arcades are the nerve center of Hong Kong’s retail scene, which explains the breathtaking decorations that are on display at every mall come Christmas time. Whether it’s the aerial Christmas trees at IFC Mall, the teddy bear wonderland at the LANDMARK, or Harbour City’s Disney character takeover, these thoughtful spaces are well worth an afternoon stroll—and a few photo ops.
19. Have A Non-Traditional Holiday Feast
With such a diverse culinary offerings in town, having a carved turkey for Christmas dinner almost seems passé. The festive menu at the recently opened Issaya Siamese Club will tickle your senses through Thai dishes reimagined with French gastronomical standards: The Khao Soy Moo, a grilled Iberico pork dish on which diners pour rich khao soy curry sauce from a teapot, is a notable highlight. For lunch, fine dining hotspot VASCO offers a sophisticated four-course meal—featuring Chargrilled Rhug Estate venison, sans turkey—for $100. Just make sure to book a table ASAP.
20. Enjoy A British Afternoon Tea
Hong Kong’s appreciation for everything British is deeply rooted in its colonial past, so naturally afternoon tea plays a big part in local’s leisure activities. Working in tandem with Burberry, the Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s MO Bar is offering the Simply British Afternoon Tea for a limited time. Guests will enjoy traditional three-tiered delicacies paired with a complimentary beauty consultation at the Burberry Beauty Box at Times Square.
Christmas doesn’t always mean turkey ’round the table with relatives, and if this year, you’re doing it differently, this is a great time to visit London. It’s more picturesque than ever with trees in every square, lights on every street, and spectacular shop windows, and there are fewer crowds, too. Many city dwellers hightail it out of town for the holiday, so you practically get it to yourself. Here’s how to make the most of it.
21. Stroll Hampstead Heath
Ask any North Londoner what to do on Christmas morning (they typically stay for the holidays), and they’ll tell you they go for a brisk stroll across Hampstead Heath. The air is always crisp, there’s often a coating of frost on the grass, and the views across the city are stunning. Join the rest of the neighborhood for a little light exercise before the rest of the day’s indulgence, not forgetting to do the very British thing of wishing Merry Christmas to all passers-by.
22. Go for Afternoon Tea
For something quintessentially British, how about taking tea against the backdrop of Buckingham Palace? Indulge in the Snow Queen afternoon tea at Conrad London St. James, a festive treat inspired by the enchanting Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Sweets include the Magic Mirror salted butter shortbread, glitter-dusted meringues, and blackcurrant and cardamom cakes, all accompanied by G.H.Mumm Champagne (the official champagne supplier to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II).
23. Toast with Champagne
One of London’s top spots for champagne, Bob Bob Ricard, is open on Christmas Day, and that’s reason enough to pop a bottle. The sophisticated Soho club is open 365 days of the year, and on this day, you’ve got a sound chance of getting a reservation. Get comfy in a booth and ‘Press for Champagne’ (the on-call buzzer on the wall). If you’re in the mood for food, but overdid the turkey at Thanksgiving, Bob Bob Ricard is defiantly serving its regular menu (no Christmas specials here), including chicken and champagne pie, lobster macaroni cheese, and its signature beef wellington.
24. Eat a Non-Traditional Christmas Lunch
Chances are you’ve spent most every holiday of your life eating turkey, so why not do this year’s a little differently? TĪNG, the oriental restaurant 35 floors up at Shangri-La, The Shard, will be serving a three-course Christmas Day lunch menu, with Eastern specials including slow-cooked iberico pork and Dover sole with miso. Those views and those flavors aren’t cheap—it’s $256 per person with wine pairings—but there’s no doubt it will make for a special day
25. Pretend You’re on the Slopes
Everyone else going skiing? Worry not. What London lacks in slopes and snowfall, it makes up for with ski resort vibes, so at least you can relate to your friends The Goring, an impeccably British hotel in Belgravia, has transformed its outdoor terrace into the St. Moritz Ski Bar, an alpine joint that oozes with old school glamour. Inspired by vintage photographs of his great-grandfather on the slopes, Jeremy Goring has recreated St. Moritz in the heart of the city, with cozy sheepskins, wooden sled tables, cashmere rugs, lanterns, a perfumed scent of pine, and even waiters in vintage ski jumpers. Chef Shay Cooper has put a Michelin-star spin on Swiss-inspired canapes such as tartiflette, potato rosti, and mustard and Emmental macaroons.
26. Bliss Out in the Spa
If you can get a couple of hours away on this day, plan for a little ‘you’ time at Mandara Spa, which is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the holiday this year. Reap the benefits of a little festive TLC with its Comforting Retreat, a one hour and 20 minute anti-fatigue package that includes an aromatherapy-reflexology foot treatment, and an invigorating full body massage. Complimentary mince pies and mulled wine will be served, too.
27. Go Truly British
If you want to go all out, go to The Lanesborough, where Christmas is a classic, luxurious affair. The hotel is sumptuously dressed in festive decorations throughout, and is warm and inviting, thanks to the roaring real fires. Christmas lunch is quite the spectacle; guests can choose between five or seven courses from a menu designed by sister hotel Le Bristol’s award-winning Chef Patron Eric Frechon, and executed by The Lanesborough’s Florian Favario, all to be enjoyed under a glass sky dome and accompanied by a live pianist.
Santa usually arrives dashing through the snow in a sleigh pulled by a slew of reindeer, right? Not in Melbourne, where the high temperatures play havoc with poor old Prancer and Dancer’s constitutions (to say nothing of the snow). Should you find yourself in this sunny clime come the holidays, you can celebrate the season with its summery offerings—possibly a welcome change if you’re already feeling snowbound come end of December. Here’s how to have a perfect Christmas holiday in the city (while you’re in town, don’t forget to stock up on some shopping).
28. An Aquarium Outing
On the big day at SEA LIFE Melbourne Aquarium, the jolly fat man arrives wearing a scuba tank, making an appearance in the 580,000-gallon Oceanarium among the sharks, rays, and schools of fish. It’s all part of the Christmas Day celebrations, where guests can arrive starting at 11 a.m. for a three-course lunch. In addition to Santa’s appearance, Sharkie, the SEA LIFE mascot, will be entertaining the crowd; a marine specialist will be giving a presentation; and every child who attends gets a present.
When you’re not enjoying the food, wander around getting to know the more than 10,000 residents at the aquarium, including penguins, sea horses, brightly hued tropical fish, and Pinjarra, who at 16 feet long, is one of the largest saltwater crocodiles in Australia. From $87; includes lunch, unlimited wine, beer, and cider for the adults, and soda and juice for the kids.
29. Presents at the Zoo
It isn’t only the humans who get to tear the wrapping paper off gifts at the Melbourne Zoo. As you’re strolling around the grounds, look out for the keepers handing out special treats to the animals in their care. While tickets for the holiday three-course lunch have all been sold, visitors can tuck into seasonal fare at the zoo’s Lakeside Bistro. The regular menu will be available, but there also will be festive treats, including mince tarts, panettone and berries, and semifreddo Christmas pudding. The zoo is open all day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with all the exhibits open as normal. Entry from $23.
30. Hit the Beach
At any time of year, there are plenty of travelers milling in Melbourne, and the holiday season is no exception. While most of the city’s big hotels offer spectacular Christmas day celebrations, sometimes it’s good to simply relax by the sand. For festive fun in the great outdoors, head to St. Kilda Beach. On a glorious day, the stretch of sand will be packed with backpackers and locals escaping family duties, many of them wearing bikinis, board shorts, and Santa hats. Pack a picnic, go for a paddle, and check out the view. Just don’t forget a hat and sunscreen.
New York City
It’s the most wonderful time of year, and the reason for the spirit? Christmas in New York City is spectacular. So much so that Clement Moore Clarke’s famous poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas was inspired by all the magic that the city offers during the season.
The sights, the sounds and the smells are unlike that of any other city, and as one of the biggest holiday destinations in the world, sometimes it can seem overwhelming to choose what to do. If you’re in New York City this holiday, here’s our picks of the best—including several that are free—for you to enjoy.
31. Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
Perhaps the most famous holiday attraction in New York City, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is a sight. Standing at 78 feet, the iconic Norway spruce offers spectacular viewing if you’re strolling by.
32. ‘Holiday Lights & Movie Sites’ Bus Tour
Ever wondered where some of your favorite holiday movies were filmed in New York City? From peering in the holiday windows at Bloomingdale’s in Miracle of 34th Street, to the exact location in front of the Rockefeller tree where Macaulay Culkin reunited with his mom in Home Alone 2, this tour gives you a fun, cinematic way to visit some of the cty’s top attractions.
33. New York Hall of Science Gingerbread Lane
What’s synonymous with the holiday season? Gingerbread, of course. To create Gingerbread Lane, the New York Hall of Science constructs the world’s largest gingerbread village, made entirely of edible gingerbread, peppermints, and icing. With more than 1,050 houses spread over 500 square feet, you can walk through it (or sneak a quick bite) for hours on end. Gingerbread workshops and holiday giveaways take place at the exhibit every day from now through January 9, though the village itself is closed on Christmas Day.
34. Radio City Christmas Spectacular
Nothing says “Christmas” quite like the Radio City Rockettes. The show, which has become a fan favorite, made its annual return on November 13, and runs through the New Year, ending on January 3. The 90-minute show includes some of our favorite numbers, including the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,’ “Rag Dolls,” and the world-famous kick line.
35. New York City Ballet
A night at George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is one you won’t forget. The annual performance features some of the world’s most elite dancers, and is complete with marching toy soldiers, a one-ton Christmas tree, and crystal white snowflakes. The show runs through January 3 and it’s a guaranteed sell-out, so get tickets in advance.
36. Woolworth Building Lobby Tours
Once the tallest in the world, the Woolworth Building is one to be adored. Built by famed architect Cass Gilbert in 1913, its architecture boasts a similar style to that of Christian cathedrals, Medieval guild halls, and Italian Byzantine churches, and is set right in the middle of the city. Though usually closed to the public, guests can reserve a visit to the magnificent lobby, which features festive holiday décor and a Christmas tree underneath grand stairwell.
37. Holiday Nutcracker Tea at the Mandarin Oriental
After a day of shopping, sightseeing and family time, guests can head to the Mandarin Oriental for an afternoon of unwinding. Featuring an array of sandwiches, sweet treats, and of course tea, you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the views of Central Park from the lobby lounge. You can also try the seasonal cocktail: the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Nutcracker Tea is available daily from 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. through December 25.
38. New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show
The New York Botanical Garden’s train show is an annual tradition for families, with more than 20 miniature model trains that ride past 150 iconic buildings in a city landscape that is a replica of the five boroughs. The show runs from through January 18; reserve tickets in advance.
39. Slice of Brooklyn’s Christmas Lights Tour
Now in its 10th year, the Dyker Heights neighborhood become a state-of-the-art holiday exhibit, featuring 30-foot toy soldiers and nativity scenes. This illuminating scene will take your breath away. Tours run through the end of December, except for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Book your tour in advance.
40. Coney Island Holiday Market
If you’re looking to escape the chaos of Fifth Avenue, head to Brooklyn this holiday season for the Coney Island holiday market, every weekend from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., running through Christmas. There’s festive décor, crafts, and collectibles, and kids can take their picture with Santa Claus.
41. Queens Historical Society’s Historic Holiday House Tour
The Queens Historical Society’s guided trolley tour stops at seven museums and historical sites in Queens. You’ll visit the Kingsland Homestead, the Flushing Quaker Meeting House, Flushing Town Hall, the Voelker Orth Museum, Lewis H. Latimer House, Louis Armstrong House Museum, and the Bowne House (from $20).
42. The Louis Armstrong House Museum
Once the Queens home of famed jazz musician Louis Armstrong, the 40-minute guided tours here pay tribute to the life of Louis and his wife, Lucille. In addition to hosting its traditional holiday tours, the museum also plays Armstrong’s voice recording of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” for visitors.