Travel Tips

Holiday Celebrations and Winter Wonderlands Around the World

Locations in this article:  Austin, TX Los Angeles, CA Orlando, FL Rome, Italy St. Louis, MO

Nantucket Christmas strollAs the holidays rapidly approach, destinations around the world ring in the season with traditional ceremonies, tree lightings and other winter wonderland celebrations. contributors share their favorite holiday experiences, from quaint New England towns to sparkling European cities.

Christmas Stroll, Nantucket, Massachusetts

There’s something special about being in a quintessentially summer destination in the winter, and Nantucket is particularly charming during the early part of December each year.

Nantucket Town CrierShops lining the historic cobblestone streets are graced with small lights and decorated trees. Windows and doors all over the island celebrate the season and hope to win the Nantucket Noel Window, Tree & Doorway Decorating Contest. Residents and visitors stroll from shop to shop, restaurants and art galleries. Businesses offer discounts and seasonal refreshments.

To kick things off, Santa and Mrs. Claus arrive in Nantucket on a Coast Guard boat and process up Main Street in a horse-drawn carriage led by the Town Crier. Children visit with Santa at the Pacific National Bank at the top of the hill, while Victorian carolers, bell ringers and other musicians stroll around town performing all weekend.

This year, the Annual Christmas Stroll Weekend is December 4-6, as part of Nantucket Noel which runs through December 31.

This themed weekend began 36 years ago to encourage holiday shopping and off-season tourism. Click here for this year’s specials and packages.

By Ann P. Cochran,

Boat Parade of Lights, Alexandria, Virginia

Evergreen BoatThis chic colonial city of Alexandria, Virginia, turns into a Christmas Village for the holidays. Parading Scottie dogs, bagpipers and 100 Scottish Clans march through Old Town as part of the festivities for the Boat Parade of Lights.

Later, a fleet of 50 decorated powerboats and sailboats will cruise down the Potomac from nearby Washington DC, in a festive procession along the waterfront for this traditional celebration day. Kids can bring their doggies to pose for free pictures with Santa, who arrives in the lead on the village fireboat.

The Bells of Mount Vernon, a hand bell choir, and the Braddock Brass Quintet are among the live music events being offered. Save time for holiday shopping at the Torpedo Factory Art Center down by the river or in the many blocks of boutiques and stores in Old Town.

Other highlights include Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, where George Washington often socialized in Alexandria and, less than 10 miles away, Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, where “Mrs. Washington” will lead holiday candlelight tours, fireside caroling and dancing.

Stay along the parade route in Old Town, within walking distance of the action, at the eco-friendly Hotel Monaco Alexandria where special packages are available for families and their pooches.

By Kathy Baruffi, freelance writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley

Washington Wonderland, Washington, D.C.

Crystal Village - FairmontCome to Washington, DC in December for the National Christmas Tree and the National Menorah on the White House Ellipse, Handel’s “Messiah” at Washington National Cathedral and the “Nutcracker” at the Warner Theatre and the Fairmont Washington, DC, for affordable luxury at special holiday rates.

The inviting courtyard views of the hotel’s grand lobby just got better, with thirty animated reindeer and thousands of tiny white lights on the holiday trees. Sip hot chocolate and check out the Gingerbread Village display as part of this swank hotel’s Holiday Lights and Breakfast Delights Package, rates start at $142 per night and include a healthy continental breakfast, through January 11, 2010.

Walk along M Street from the hotel to neighboring Georgetown for holiday shopping at the many boutiques. Stop at Paper Source for fancy wrappings then have dinner at Zed’s Ethiopian Cuisine or Bistro Français, also on M Street.

By Kathy Baruffi

O Tannenbaum!, Fredericksburg, Texas

A gingerbread villageIn Fredericksburg, Texas, the ice-skating rink and a 26-foot high, revolving Christmas pyramid in the Marktplatz (central square) of this historic Texas Hill Country town are updates of traditions dating back to the early German settlers.

Thousands of white lights along the traditional Main Street of this pioneer-chic town, just over an hour from either San Antonio or Austin, add holiday sparkle to the many family-friendly events throughout the season.

Crowds line up early for the annual Christmas Parade on December 4. Everything in the parade—vehicles, animals, floats, even a precision lawn chair drill team dancing with their chairs—must be completely lit up on this night.

Sit by the window and get in line early for the Christmas Journey Drive Through  on December 11 and 12, to see the many different live dioramas, complete with background music, that tell the Christmas story on outdoor stages.

“Willkommen” signs beckon visitors to great shopping. Buy gifts, clothing, antiques, hand-made chocolates and crafts at more than 100 stores. An old-fashioned five-and-dime has real-deal bargains. Stay in historic structures throughout the town, from limestone loft buildings to log cabins, also constructed by early German settlers.

By Kathy Baruffi

A King’s College Christmas, Cambridge, England

King’s College ChapelDozens of people crowd inside King’s College Chapel, but it’s so silent that if you dropped a pin on the 15th century stone floor, you’d hear it land. With a quick nod from the choir director, a young boy’s soprano voice soars up to the high vaulted ceiling, solo-singing the first verse of “Once in a Royal David’s City.” Thus begins A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a world-renowned holiday concert at King’s College, Cambridge University, England.

Every Christmas Eve since 1918, the King’s College men and boys’ choir—30 voices and two accompanying organists—sing nine carols in between Bible readings. This Christmas, the choir will sing Gabriel Jackson’s commissioned version of G. K. Chesterton’s “The Christ Child Sat on Mary’s Lap.”

The rich blend of male voices will melt the heart of even the most Scrooge-like characters. Concert seats open to the public are first come first serve, and people typically begin queuing outside King’s College Chapel before 9 a.m.

If you won’t be in Cambridge, BBC broadcasts the concert through NPR and other overseas programs, so millions of international listeners can tune in. The concert goes live at 3 p.m. British time.

By Patty Hodapp,

Dancing Lights, Home at Last, Orlando, Florida

Before Bill Clinton took over The Oval Office in 1993, Little Rock, Arkansas had few international claims to fame.

Among them, the annual Osborne holiday light display was a shining star—one local family’s show so spectacular that it drew visitors from near and far. The experience began in 1986, when Little Rock resident Jennings Osborne strung a reported 1,000 lights, and each year, more and more lights bedecked the Osborne home.

While thousands of local visitors, myself included, eagerly anticipated the luminous exhibit, some neighbors didn’t hold such a neighborly view. In 1994, the show’s plug was pulled, but to the benefit of millions more travelers, the Arkansas family’s lights soon found a new, and even brighter, home.

Osborne Lights

In 1995, The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights debuted at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida.

In a 3-D holiday show set to rock, heavy metal and symphony sounds, more than 5 million bulbs currently flicker along The Streets of America, sending out glowing images of iridescent angels, twirling carousels and a shimmering Santa and his shiny reindeer.

More Osborne lightsProclaiming, “Peace on Earth,” above it all, is a spinning world globe which was once a beacon to the Osborne’s Arkansas mansion.

Last Christmas, I glowed in my one-time neighbor’s festive lights once more—this time delivered along with a holiday treat that only theatrical magic could provide: snow. To sum it up: jaw-dropping. To the Osborne family, thank you, for re-igniting the magic of an American hometown holiday, and to Disney, thanks for a Southern white Christmas, at long last.

By Jackie Perrin, New York-based freelance writer

The Nativity at Museo del Presepio, Rome, Italy

While certainly not one of the Eternal City’s most famous museums, the Museo del Presepio (Museum of Nativity Scenes) takes on special meaning this time of year.

PresepiItalians are crazy for holiday crèches (presepi) and this small museum houses 3,000 nativity figures from all over Italy and around the world.  The pieces show various interpretations of the Nativity, and are made of many different types of materials, including in paper, Sicilian clay, wood, ceramics, glass, stone, coal, cloth, and even marzipan and eggs!

The best come from Naples where craftsmen have been creating nativities and figures for centuries. If you’re traveling to Rome with kids or are a fan of nativity scenes yourself, don’t miss Rome’s Museo del Presepio.

By Kathy McCabe, editor and publisher, Dream of Italy

Winter Wonderland at Tilles Park, St. Louis, Missouri

Cold winter nightThe Winter Wonderland at Tilles Park has been a St. Louis holiday tradition for 24 years. “Wonderland” is no exaggeration either—as you leisurely meander through the mile-long stretch of twinkling lights and festive displays, you can’t help but get swept up in the whimsy and wonder of the season.

Staff and volunteers went all out again this year to set up over a million lights in 30 unique display sections. The Winter Wonderland is open every night from 5:30 p.m. – 9:30 p.m., now through January 3. You can drive your car through the park for $9, or you can really get into the spirit of the season and take a horse-drawn carriage ride.

Small carriages are $60 and fit up to four people, so you can get cozy with that special someone or a few of your closest friends. Or you can get the whole gang together and take a big carriage that fits up to 10 people for $100.

If you’re taking a carriage ride, make sure you bundle up because, baby, it’s cold outside—as it should be. To this St. Louis native, it doesn’t feel like Christmas if your cheeks aren’t rosy and you can’t see your breath.

So sip some hot cocoa, marvel at the glistening lights, and huddle together with your nearest and dearest friends. Even if you stay in your car, you’ll still leave feeling downright jolly.

By Dan Bence, Editorial Assistant for

Festivities at the Willard, Washington, D.C.

Washington Monument at NightNo surprise, the Christmas festivities are quite traditional at the Willard InterContinental, a clubby 160-year-old Washington, DC, hotel that’s been visited by every U.S. president since Franklin Pierce. As part of its annual Holiday Lobbying series a different musical ensemble from the DC area performs a free concert daily December 1-23 and December 29-31, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

To get into the holiday spirit, walk by the White House and the National Christmas Tree and over to the Willard to sip special holiday drinks, and listen to live music beneath the large Christmas tree in the lobby. After the caroling, wander over to the Willard’s Round Robin Bar for another drink and to mingle amongst power brokers and out-of-towners hoping to catch a glimpse of those “famous-for-DC” types. And to cap off this ye olde Christmas of yore, head across the street for a session at Pershing Park Ice Skating Rink.

By Zach Everson,

Celebrating Old and New, Palos Verdes, California

Terranea Resort (, a new luxury property in Southern California, is offering traditional holiday celebrations with a modern twist.

Terranea fountainThe Concert of Lights features classic holiday music that plays in sync with the dancing poolside fountain. On December 21, 23, 28, and 30, guests can participate in the Terranea by Starlight program, which includes a guided tour to view the constellations and a bottle of wine, champagne or sparkling cider ($59 per guest). Yummy Christmas treats and festivities abound throughout the holiday season, including the Holiday Party on Friday, December 11, designed for small groups to celebrate in the grand ballroom for lunch or dinner.

Holiday packages are also available, including accommodations in a family-friendly two-bedroom casita, plus a bedtime visit from the holiday elves with sweet treats, holiday stories and a gathering at the poolside fire pit. This package is available from December 1-30 starting from $1,160.

By Marjorie Hope Rothstein, Los Angeles-based freelance writer

The Plaza Lights, Kansas City, Missouri

Plaza lightsOne of the Midwest’s premiere holiday traditions reportedly started not long after the pedestrian-friendly Country Club Plaza opened in the 1920s. These days, the crowds are bigger than ever, but as friendly as they ever were.

Though the official lighting ceremony takes place on Thanksgiving night, the district is decked out in 80 miles of lights through January 17. Take a stroll through the brightly lit streets, do your Christmas shopping at eclectic local shops, and keep your ears perked for carolers. And if you get cold or hungry, there are restaurants galore: grab a steaming plate of KC-style barbecue at Fiorella’s Jack Stack or check out the new Brazilian churrascaria Fogo de Chao for gaucho-style skewers.

And if you don’t feel like walking, opt for a carriage ride. All I know is that as a native Kansas Citian, for me it never really feels like Christmas until I’ve seen the Plaza Lights.

By Matthew Calcara, New Media Manager for