The 5 Best Places to Spend the Holidays Abroad

The 5 Best Places to Spend the Holidays Abroad

Written by Shannon O’Donnell on

Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008 and has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Barcelona, where she now calls home. She travels slowly and supports responsible tourism along the way, winning numerous awards for her work advocating for the communities impacted by travel and tourism.

The 5 Best Places to Spend the Holidays Abroad

The 5 Best Places to Spend the Holidays Abroad


All of the best Christmas songs glorify being home for the holidays. There’s a difference between sugarplum schmaltz and real life, though, and nobody knows that better than a world traveler. Spending the holidays abroad, whether intently or as part of a longer international trip, can be magical. While the holidays at home conjure up memories of long-held family traditions, those spent on the road are all about discovering new ones, adapting and refashioning your own customs, and making the kind of Yuletide memories that will last a lifetime. From the deeply traditional to the offbeat, we’ve whittled down our list of the globe’s best holiday destinations to our five favorites.


The fabled European Christmas markets don’t get bigger or brighter than those of Germany. If you are looking for a destination where December 25 feels like Christmas, this is a great choice. From festive decorations and tchotchkes to traditional yumminess and eclectic holiday souvenirs, the markets are a fantastic place to browse and have fun—many feature midway rides or ice-skating rinks for bonus enjoyment. The sound of brass bands fills the air, and the street is perfumed with the scents of powdered sweets, cooking meats, and mulled wine. The small size of Europe means that you can visit many Christmas markets over the course of days, but the quality of the German markets makes the country a great home base for your travels.


Sunlight is scarce in Iceland during December, but they have the only lights that matter—the Northern Lights! A sighting of the gorgeous aurora borealis will be a Christmas miracle you won’t soon forget. Learn about the Yule Lads, the “13 Santas” (one for each day of Christmas celebrated by Icelanders) who leave children small gifts in their shoes between December 12th and 25th, and the mischievous “Christmas Cat,” who can be warded off by acquiring a new piece of clothing. Dine on ham, smoked lamb, or ptarmigan and enjoy your holiday on top of the world!


Catholic traditions are deeply held in Brazil, which means Christmas is lavishly—and religiously—celebrated here. Most of the gift-giving, feasting, and celebrating of the holiday is done on Christmas Eve, although Christmas Day is a state holiday. Perhaps the most visible symbol of the season is the presépio, or nativity scene, set up in churches, homes, and storefronts. Children go to bed early on the 24th to hasten the arrival of Papai Noel, the Brazilian analogue of Santa Claus. Midnight Mass (Missa do Galo) and a huge family supper, or ceia, are diehard components of Christmas Eve celebrating. The 25th is reserved for sleeping in and going to the beach! In big cities like Brasilia, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro, every big tree in town will be bedecked with Christmas lights.


The Thai generally don’t celebrate Christmas, being Buddhist, but tourism has bridged the culture gap to some extent. The holiday spirit is definitely noticeable in Thailand, albeit with the colorful, highly adaptive spin that’s ubiquitous in Southeast Asia. Areas populated with ex-pats are visibly festive, with plastic Christmas trees and Santa hats on statues everywhere. The New Year is a time of spiritual celebration in Thailand, and for families to come together. The Thai exchange gifts, make merry, donate to charity, and meditate on thoughts and wishes for the year to come. At midnight on December 31st, the sound of fireworks resounds through each city, and hundreds of khom fai, or floating lanterns, fill the air. Make a wish on one, and according to tradition, the new year will bring you whatever you desire.


Christmas is a summer, not a winter holiday south of the Equator, so expect beachside grilling on the barbie and surfing Santa’s. Children are on their summer holidays from school, so many local families go camping or are on their own travels. Visibly, Christmas in Australia is very similar to the States—folks decorate Christmas trees and deck the halls with lights, hang wreaths on the front door, and go caroling by candlelight! As for Santa, Australian lore claims that he trades his reindeer in for six white kangaroos and wears lighter clothes to deliver gifts ‘round these warmer parts!

Have you ever spent the holidays abroad? Sound off on your travel experience in the comments!

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