These Are the Best Places to Spend the Holidays, According to Travel Experts
From Bizarre Foods' Andrew Zimmern to Rick Steves and the founder of Frommer's Travel Guides.
The holiday season is a time to reflect and relax at home — until it’s not.
We’re not talking about that three-hour road trip or a quick train ride to see friends and family — we’re talking about the urge you might feel to spend the holidays somewhere new, somewhere unfamiliar, somewhere exotic.
If you’re dreaming of spending Christmas under the Northern Lights in Iceland or New Year's Eve under a stream of confetti in Times Square, New York, look no further. We spoke to 17 renowned travel personalities who looked back on their experiences while traveling during the holidays. Here are the places they recommend:
The British capital's holiday experience can be polarizing because many of the city's businesses and transit options tend to shut down during Christmas. But some appreciate London's tranquility during the time.
Take, for example, Richard Quest, a CNN International correspondent and host of CNN Business Traveller, who said Christmas has to be spent in his native country. "Even if not every shop is closed, at least there is a feeling that this is a day in the year where public transport stops, the big stores are closed, and at least something has come to a rest, " said Quest, who now lives in New York City but hails from Liverpool.
Brian Kelly, otherwise known as The Points Guy — the popular airline consumer blog he founded — also enjoys London during the holidays. "I think London is its prettiest over the holidays with decorations on pretty much every corner," Kelly said.
While the city is largely shut down, Jeremy Jauncey, founder of the creative agency Beautiful Destinations, has a few recommendations for those in London over the holidays. First, check out The Scoop amphitheater at the More London development along the River Thames, where you can find Christmas stalls with vendors selling "the finest mulled wines, Christmas puddings and Christmas tree decorations," he said.
"The lights of Regent Street and Oxford Street strung up high above the roads provide the most iconic views of festive London," Jauncey added, also suggesting visitors make their way to Borough Market — the famed food and drink market that he described as "one of my favorite parts of the city at Christmas."
The second most populous country in the world isn't typically associated with Western holiday traditions — but that doesn't mean there isn't a community to celebrate with.
Rick Steves, perhaps best known for his expertise of Europe (as seen in his long-running PBS documentary series Rick Steves' Europe), said despite his appreciation for Christmas in Paris, parts of Germany, and Rome, travelers might want to consider spending their holidays on the Indian subcontinent.
"I had a beautiful Christmas in Kerala, in India," he said of the south Indian state on the Malabar Coast, noting its significant Christian population — nearly a fifth of its 33 million residents, according to a 2011 census. "To be in a village, or just in a society where everybody is in it together, it just feels like there's a feeling that everybody celebrates together," Steves said. "Everybody works together. Everybody needs each other."
Murad Osmann, the photographer behind the Instagram sensation #FollowMeTo, where he photographs his wife, Nataly, leading him towards landmarks around the world, said India is "a magical place indeed."
"One of our favorite locations is India. Every time we go there we open that country from the new, different side," Murad said.
Christmas in Germany is a big deal. It's a holiday that doesn't just occur on Dec. 25, or even its eve, but the entirety of the month.
James and Susan Feess, the couple behind the travel blog The Savvy Backpacker, perhaps summed it up best: "Germany is king of old-world Christmas."
"Almost every town is well-decorated and has a market, or 60. Plus, German towns all seem to have that wonderful medieval vibe, so that adds to the ambiance," they said. And they had one particular recommendation for the holidays: "If you only go to one German city, make it Nuremberg."
Samantha Brown, the seasoned Travel Channel host with an upcoming series on PBS titled Samantha Brown's Places to Love, gave her seal of approval to the German city as well. She said she spent the holidays there with her mother, who has a German-American background, which gave them both an appreciation for their roots.
"We traveled around to Nuremberg and Munich and it was such a special trip, especially when she was stopped in the streets by locals asking her for directions," Brown said. "'They think I’m from here!' she’d say, so proudly. And I’d reply, 'Mom, that’s because you are!'"
"One of the most memorable experiences was walking around the Christmas markets in both cities," Brown added. "German markets are pure magic and they have everything you can ask for. We drank Glühwein [German mulled wine] at nine in the morning hoping it would be an elixir for jet lag — it wasn’t — but it helped us pronounce 'Good morning' in German easier."
The award-winning photographer Chris Burkard has traveled all over the world for his work, but he said his holiday expedition to the Nordic nation was "easily one of the most amazing places I’ve spent Christmas."
"Tons of fireworks. They also keep the lights on all night long since geothermal energy powers the city of Reykjavik, and there were festive treats, drinks and cookies everywhere you go," Burkard said.
He added that Iceland's version of Christmas is particularly unique due to its Yule Lads folklore, which personifies Santa Claus through not just one character, but thirteen. Not to mention all the snow, he said.
"Coming from California I had never had a snowy Christmas, let alone have the chance to see the Northern Lights in action during such an incredible time of year. Amazing experience to say the least."
Matthew Kepnes, founder of the blog Nomadic Matt and bestselling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, recommends Iceland over the holidays because "it's a really fun place. Snowy, Santa-y, Northern Lights kind of place."
And for New Years, Kepnes recommends Reykjavik in particular. "They have one of the best parties out there," he said. "They start early, they go late, and there's lots of music."
Chef Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods has a secret holiday destination – the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica.
"It's unlike anything I've ever experienced," Zimmern said. "And certainly unlike anything I've ever experienced within a couple of hours of a major airport."
The peninsula on Costa Rica's Pacific coast remains partially isolated, Zimmern said, because it doesn't have many paved roads or deep water harbors for cruise or commercial ships to sail into. But some tourists have started to figure out the region's allure without compromising its native charm, he said, making it the "peak where the old and the new cultures are both prevalent and extant at the same time for people to enjoy."
Zimmern said that in the small village towns of the Nicoya you can encounter, for example, an Italian immigrant who has opened a bakery with Italian espresso and sandwiches. Nearby will be local Costa Rican eateries with fresh seafood meals of the day. Untouched beaches and jungles are nearby for adventure, he added.
"I've never experienced anything like it," Zimmern said. "You can connect with local companies that do excursions there and take horseback rides in the jungle and come out into abandoned orchards that were part of large farms 50 years ago that have fell into disrepair and ride horses through streams and wild fruit trees that have gone unattended and look at the monkeys and sloths in the trees."
For those looking for a U.S. holiday vacation, the Big Easy might be one of your best bets, according to Arthur Frommer – founder of the legendary travel guide company, Frommer's.
"There's no other city in America that quite celebrates the Christmas period in the way that New Orleans does," Frommer said.
He highlighted the city's traditional Reveillon dinners that have commemorated the holiday season since the early 19th century. "It's a historic tradition of serving giant Christmas feasts in the several days leading up to Christmas and then for a few days there afterwards," he said. "There's also special concerts and special shows. It's an exciting time to be in New Orleans."
Alex Howard, managing editor of Lonely Planet magazine, said New Orleans is also perfect for New Years.
"New Orleans knows how to party. They're going to throw a great celebration on New Years Eve," Howard said. "Jackson Square is kind of the main center, but there's live music, a great fireworks display, and they drop the fleur-de-lis to usher in the New Years," he added, referring to French symbol that is synonymous with New Orleans.
Ben Schlappig, sometimes known as "Lucky," flies an average of 400,000 miles a year and blogs about it at his popular site One Mile at a Time. All of that experience led him to suggest a unique place to spend New Years, in particular — Edinburgh.
"The city is beautifully decorated, and has a unique assortment of festivities. 'Hogmanay' [the Scottish word for 'last day of the year'] celebrations start with a massive torchlight procession on the 30th, and continue with various concerts, events, and parties on the 31st," he said, adding that that Edinburgh's processions are family-friendly and filled with fireworks.
Schlappig said another major plus of Edinburgh is that it doesn't get too uncomfortable for people like him, who would rather avoid large New Years crowds. "Our group was able to enjoy a wonderful dinner at a restaurant just off the main street, then wander through town enjoying live music before watching the fireworks and having a champagne toast in a plaza below the castle.
"I also liked that the city didn't entirely shut down on January 1st, like many do in Europe," Schlappig added.
If you think a snowy holiday season is overrated, then Thailand might be the place for you.
Longtime travel journalist Peter Greenberg said that every three or four years, he tries to spend Christmas and New Years Eve in the southeast Asian country.
"The weather's great, and everything else is great," Greenberg said. "And it's not overly crowded. You don't have to go up north to Ching Mai or down south to Phuket — you can stay in Bangkok if you want and have a great time."
"You're on the [Chao Phraya] river, that's where you want to spend it," he added. "What I did a couple of years with friends of mine is I rented a barge and we came down the river. Right when we got in front of the Oriental Hotel, there were the fireworks. It was our barge, our friends, and we got to celebrate."
"On Ko Lanta you can celebrate New Years on the beach and everybody's cheering and setting off lanterns, those falling lanterns in the sky," she said.
New York City
It's no secret that New York City is a holiday destination, with everything from the Radio City Rockettes to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and Times Square ball drop. But John DiScala, who runs the Johnny Jet blog — says there's a reason the city has the reputation.
DiScala, who grew up in Connecticut, said he used to visit New York City for the holiday shops and Rockette shows around Christmas. "You don't get more Christmas-y then that," DiScala said.
"New York City achieves a peak of its cultural significance it seems to me during the Christmas period," added Arthur Frommer. "There's just a heightened sense of excitement that takes place around that time."
And Kate McCulley of Adventurous Kate said that if you're going to spend the holidays in New York City, get away from the potential tourist traps of Midtown and venture off the beaten path.
"Go to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn," she said of the neighborhood that is locally famous for its extravagant holiday decorations. "There are crazy Christmas lights in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and that's much more of a local thing. It's all New Yorkers who are there checking them out."
Cassie De Pecol has literally done it all when it comes to travel. She holds two Guinness World Records for being not only the fastest woman to travel to every sovereign nation in the world, but also the fastest person to do so period.
"I've experienced the massive lead-up of Christmas in countries around the world, but the one that stands out the most would be Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark," she said. "If Tivoli Gardens doesn't get you into the Christmas spirit, I don't know what will. They have market stands with all different sorts of treats and warm drinks, music, peacocks roaming around, and of course, Gløgg [Scandinavian mulled wine].
"It's just the perfect place to visit with family and friends, in my opinion," De Pecol added. "I was there alone of course, but wishing my family were there to experience the awe of it all with me."
Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify Cassie De Pecol's Guinness World Records. She is the fastest person to ever visit every sovereign nation in the world, not the first woman to do so.
This story originally appeared on Travel + Leisure.