Promise a magical Christmas to kids and their imagination knows no bounds. Here are twelve places, near and far, which exceed even the wildest expectations.
Bruges smells like Christmas from the middle of November when chocolatiers’ windows begin to fill with fantastic creations. The competition is fierce, and if you don’t see at least one festive cityscape made entirely of chocolate, consider yourself short changed.
By December, a light dusting of snow, wintery canals, skinny fairy tale houses, bell ringers, traditional markets and living nativities, are all in place. So all you have to do is add your rosy cheeked, bundled-up-cosy kids into the scene, and the magic is complete.
How to get there
Direct flights from the UK to Brussels take one hour.
Bruges is an hour by train from Brussels.
A major ski resort, historic mining town and, come December, the home of one of the most twinkly Victorian Christmases in the US, Breckenridge is every kid’s fantasy made real.
Piles of fresh snow are a given. Extreme decorating is almost as much of a local sport as skiing. Horse drawn carriages and sleighs are the way to get about, and don’t pack presents, the shops and markets are too good to even try resisting
Christmas should be a rule-free zone, so there’s nothing to say you can’t squeeze in some skiing with the mulled wine, markets, and fairy lights.
Snug under the north face of Eiger, Grindelwald is the type of traditional Alpine village you normally find painted on the lid of antique Swiss music boxes. It’s not all for show either, they take Christmas as seriously here as black runs, and super-fast lifts.
The snow lined streets are trimmed with quaint market stalls, carol singers and forests of beautifully decorated trees. Cute little shops are tucked in between even cuter chalets, and the atmosphere couldn’t be more festive.
But if you really want the full Grindelwald effect, stroll out after dark and gaze in wonder at the entire twinkling, starlit village against the backdrop of mighty Eiger.
Christmas magic with a side-order of astounding adventure is a promise you can easily make for Luleå in Swedish Lapland. It’s so cold here in winter, you can skate on the frozen sea, and skiing around town is easier than walking. Sounds more extreme sport, than festive fun? Not in the slightest, simply wrap up warm and follow the locals.
This is the land of the Sami people and you’re welcome to spend a few days as guests in a traditional village. Gammelstad Church Town, one of Sweden’s most mysterious World Heritage sites, is close to Luleå. Dog sledding, snow biking, and ice hiking are all incredible experiences for intrepid kids and, naturally, there’s a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights too.
Imagine the glitter of Paris, only with heaps of snow, and big-mountain skiing less than an hour’s drive away; that’s Christmas in Montreal.
You can’t miss the French influence in the seasonal markets, especially when it comes to food. But, Santa’s Kingdom at Desjardins, the gorgeous Westmount tree lighting ceremony, and stunning torchlit evening parades along Mont-Royal Avenue are just a few free festive events which reveal Montreal as a generous Christmas Canadian at heart.
The time-stood-still medieval town of Rothenberg is one of Bavaria’s best loved. All year round people come to swoon at its twisty little bridges, higgledy-piggledy half-timbered houses, soaring spires and cobbled lanes. But at Christmas, it’s just busy enough to be lively and, with a light powdering of snow, almost lovelier than ever.
The traditional Reitelsmarkt dates back to the 15th century, and it’s exactly as you imagine a Bavarian market, right down to roasted chestnuts and handmade tree ornaments. Santa wears red velvet robes and hands out sweets and nuts to kids. The townhall tower is open in the evening to let you admire the glittering view from above, and cosy family restaurants and charming hotels, round out the whole festive experience.
Santa Claus Village nestles round vast pine forests on the edge of Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland. With everything from Elf Schools and Reindeer Farms to baking with Mrs Claus and meet ‘n’ greets with the old man himself, it’s the type of Christmas wonderland every child should see, at least once.
A whisker north of the Arctic Circle means plenty of snow, so sleigh rides, tobogganing, dog sledding, and cool winter safaris are all part of the fun. There are cosy log cabins or dramatic ice hotels to cocoon in, and if all that isn’t awesome enough, Rovaniemi also happens to be a legendary Northern Lights’ hotspot.
If your idea of winter magic is gorgeously decorated streets, twinkling skies, a distant view of majestic Alps, and more festive theatre, ballets and concerts than seems strictly fair, you’ll love Salzburg at Christmas.
The world’s most beautiful Baroque city looks even lovelier in the snow. Expect to be enchanted by the ancient Glockenspiel playing carols in the old town, and make a point of wandering round the Christmas Market.
It’s the oldest in Europe and still has traditions dating back centuries. Go in the early evening, just after dark, and you’ll see the Christkindl Christmas Angel, arrive to bless the market. It’s a truly fairy tale moment for kids, and you don’t ever have to tell them she isn’t really an angel.
Strasbourg calls itself the ‘Capital of Christmas’ and leaves no room for argument.
The old town’s half-timbered buildings and cobbled streets are a dream backdrop for acres of cute market stalls selling everything from stripy stockings to beribboned Bredel biscuits. Gothic angels trumpet from the top of cathedral spires. It’s always snowy, carollers are tuneful and prettily costumed, the mulled wine’s authentically spicy, and there are enough fir trees to fill a decent sized forest.
More German than French in terms of traditions, Strasbourg is as Christmassy as it gets, without hitching reindeers to a sleigh and heading for the North Pole.
Tucked around freezing seas in the shelter of snow-laden mountains, Tromsø looks exactly like you imagine a perfect, old-fashioned Nordic city should; and it may very well be the most Christmassy spot in the entire Arctic Circle.
When Polar Night falls here at the start of December, there isn’t a glimmer of daylight for weeks on end, but the locals don’t mind a bit. They just go mad with street lights and extravagant decorations, storefronts glitter until all hours, landscapes of fir trees are bedecked to extremes, and you can’t move for jolly, sweet-smelling, musical Christmas Markets.
Don’t worry, there are quiet moments too; mainly when everyone’s staring in awe at the spectacular Northern Lights.
It’s hard to decide what is most Christmassy about Vienna. Is it the miles of glittering skating trails winding through city parks or the huge ice rink in front of the magnificent medieval Rathaus? Perhaps dozens of festive markets give it the edge, or maybe it simply comes down to how much the Viennese obviously adore winter.
Whatever the reasons, Christmas in Vienna makes almost everywhere else seem a little restrained. But it is the city that invented the snow-globe and hot chocolate, so would you expect anything less?
Often called the prettiest town in New England, Woodstock lives up to its reputation in winter by looking like an old-fashioned Christmas card for months on end. But not content with snow-covered 18th century houses, charming wooden churches, and sledges gliding down main street, it pulls out all the stops on seasonal festivities too.
Visitors travel from all over for the brilliantly colourful Wassail Festival in December. Dozens of historic houses open their doors for enchanting Christmas tours. There are markets and fairs, carolling choirs, kids events, and even hot-air balloon rides over the picture-book perfect Vermont countryside. All you need is a friendly heritage inn to welcome you for the holidays, and of course Woodstock does those beautifully too.