It’s the most magical time of year—to travel. Sure, it’s chillier than normal in half the world, but glimmering holiday displays around the globe more than make up for the weather. From a park-turned-winter-wonderland in Singapore to an ice-skating trail through the trees in Vienna, a festive palace in England to a brightly lit town in Italy, here are the merry moments you won’t want to miss.
Anyone who’s ever visited Italy over the holidays knows it’s a Christmassy thrill, with vendors proffering hot chestnuts and cobblestone streets hung with twinkling lights. The port town of Salerno goes even further with extraordinary displays between November and January. The themed lighting extravaganza blankets the waterfront and town squares in festive lights—last year, a marine life motif included twinkling dolphins that appeared to frolic overhead and the god Neptune, complete with a trident. Look for the 98-foot-high Christmas tree lording over Salerno’s medieval Piazza Portanova, plus a Ferris wheel where guests can soar up to 197 feet over the surrounding rooftops and Tyrrhenian Sea.
Christmas Wonderland at Gardens by the Bay
Singapore itself had a starring role in the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians because it’s that cinematic. Case in point: Gardens by the Bay, a 250-acre park that’s among the city’s top attractions, with nearly 50 million visitors since it opened in 2012. During the holiday season, the Gardens offer arguably the most next-level Christmas wonderland on the planet. Some 160,000 light bulbs adorn the seven-story-high Luminarie maze; there’s a skating rink flown in from Switzerland and decorated with a 26-foot-tall tree; and a blizzard of faux snow dusts the park five times a night.
VanDusen Festival of Lights
Vancouver, British Columbia
Set on a 55-acre former golf course, the manicured VanDusen Botanical Garden transforms into an equally polished Christmas nirvana come December. Not only are the grounds decked with bountiful twinkling lights in every color, but guests also find a bedazzled carousel, Santa’s Cabin (complete with Saint Nick himself, ready for photo ops with children), and a 20-minute light show brightening Livingstone Lake on repeat. If you’re inclined to give back this holiday season, stop by the Make-A-Wish grotto, where you can light a candle and donate to the foundation before toasting with a hot cup of cheer at Frosty’s Heated Patio Bar.
Christmas in Tivoli
Founded in 1843, Tivoli Gardens—the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world—does Christmas the old-fashioned way. More than 1,000 Christmas trees dot the grounds, glittering lights hang from every structure, and stocking stuffers lure from the 60 artisan stalls in the holiday market. Visitors can also catch a performance of The Nutcracker by Tivoli’s in-house ballet company at the park’s modernist concert hall or enjoy a meet-and-greet with Santa and his team of live reindeer.
Vienna Christmas Dream
From mid-November until December 25, Vienna’s City Hall Square transforms into a Christmassy delight with 153 buzzing market stalls, a 32,000-square-foot ice rink that includes fairy-tale-like trails through the trees, and baking and craft workshops aplenty. Christkind (the Austrian version of Santa Claus) can often be found floating around the grounds, while live choirs and trumpeters take the stage daily from December 1 to 23.
Christmas at Blenheim Palace
Christmas at Downton Abbey looks positively Dickensian next to the opulent show at Blenheim Palace, the 187-room estate that is still home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough. The palace pulls out all the stops for its Christmas extravaganza: This year, an Alice in Wonderland theme means visitors will be gallivanting through a magical world of mirrored hallways and rabbit holes among the castle’s ornate baroque architecture. Afterward, head outside to the palace grounds, where the Illuminated Light Trail delights with 100,000 string lights, a scented fire garden, and a Victorian-era carousel.
The Garden of Illuminated Flowers
From late November to late December, this three-time winner of Japan’s Illumination Awards turns Ashikaga Flower Park into a Christmas fantasy, with more than 5 million LED lights casting their glow over wintertime pansies, violets, and dangling wisteria. Be sure to check out the “One Earth for All” display, which showcases a veritable Noah’s ark of animals rendered in twinkling lights over a reflecting pond. And come hungry—on-site cafés offer cozy Japanese dishes, such as deep fried lotus roots and lamb shabu-shabu (hot pot).
New York City
New Yorkers tend to avoid the annual tree lighting at Rockefeller Center (happening on December 4 this year) with the same vigor they apply to steering clear of the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square. However, the event is an American classic, having started in 1931 when local demolition laborers pooled their hard-earned paychecks to purchase a 20-foot balsam tree and spread some much-needed joy in the midst of the Great Depression. Last year, the 87-year-old tradition rose to a new level of glamour—the Norway spruce tree was 72 feet high and topped with a Swarovski crystal–encrusted star. On Christmas Day, Rockefeller Center keeps the lights blazing for 24 hours straight, but guests can visit throughout the holiday season to ice-skate under the tree, surrounded by shimmering angels and other festive decorations.