One of the most iconic symbols of Christmas is the tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City. // © 2013 Thinkstock
New York City, New York
Christmas in New York City goes beyond mere tradition — it is a part of our national heritage. Dozens of films have been set in the city during the holidays and seemingly everywhere visitors turn there is another symbol of Christmas. Heck, the modern version of Santa Claus himself was practically invented on Madison Avenue.
Probably the most famous Christmas activity is visiting the tree and ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center. Although for outdoor skating, try Wollman Rink in Central Park instead — it’s less expensive, less crowded and the city skyline offers a great backdrop.
Other popular activities include seeing the Rockettes’ holiday show at Radio City Music Hall and “The Nutcracker” performed by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center.
Another favorite with locals is to grab a hot chocolate and visit some of the department store window displays. This year, rapper Jay Z decorated a window at Barneys, while illustrator Al Hirschfeld is being honored at Henri Bendel. No matter what visitors end up doing, it’s pretty much guaranteed that they will be touched by the Christmas spirit.
And for those visitors who don’t celebrate Christmas, well, there are always steaming plates of delicious dumplings waiting to be had in Chinatown. — Kenneth Shapiro
New Orleans, Louisiana
On the lower Mississippi River in Louisiana, cruise passengers celebrate Christmas, Cajun-style. Locals set the scene, with spectacular bonfires standing 20-30 feet along the river. Built on wooden towers, often with fireworks planted inside, they are all set off together at 7 p.m. to welcome Papa Noel, who arrives on a small boat pulled by alligators.
Dinner is a rich and delicious Reveillon (awakening) holiday feast, though the sumptuous dishes are perhaps more likely to put you to sleep than awaken you. Lavish wines accompany the essential dishes, such as gumbo, oysters and Buche Noel, a Yule log sponge cake filled and frosted with chocolate buttercream. — Marilyn Green
Taking place during the peak of Australia’s summer, Christmas is a popular beach day in Sydney. In the land of Oz, swimsuits pair up with Santa Claus hats, Christmas meals consist of seafood on the barbie, Santas can be spotted surfing and families in red-and-white board shorts and fur trimmed-bikinis plant beach chairs alongside decorated mini-trees. Sydney locals and an outpouring of the season’s international tourists take part in the holiday tradition — if only to make their freezing friends back home jealous.
Bondi Beach, in particular, attracts an eclectic, multilingual crowd and an unconventionally jolly spirit. Live music performances are a regular fixture at the beach’s pavilion, so be sure to check ahead to see who’s playing and when.
Unfortunately, flying to Australia during this time of year is very expensive, so book far in advance. — Mindy Poder
Work off the inevitable holiday pounds on an evening stroll through Austin’s much-anticipated Trail of Lights and wind through Zilker Park, the crown jewel of the city’s public green spaces.
On this festive stroll, visitors will see more than 100 trees wrapped in lights, walk through three lighted tunnels and have access to three entertainment zones featuring children’s activities, dance performances, carolers and live music performed by regional and national headliners.
And for those who aren’t too concerned about their waistlines, dozens of food trailers are at the ready, serving some of the city’s most beloved cuisine, from barbecue to Tex-Mex. The Trail of Lights is open to the public for two weeks in December.
While touring the park, be sure to take in the Zilker Holiday Tree, which has inspired onlookers since its first lighting in 1967. At 155 feet tall and 120 feet across, the tree is composed of 3,309 multicolored light bulbs and topped by a 10-foot lighted double star. Its annual lighting ceremony traditionally takes place in early December. — Skye Mayring
Mexico City, Mexico
With its temperate climate and predominantly Catholic population, Mexico City offers the ideal Christmas getaway.
Christmas, which remains largely a religious celebration, officially begins the first week of advent, which always falls on the first weekend of December.
Although the most devout can celebrate the Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, a massive pilgrimage to the Basilica de Guadalupe that takes place on Dec. 12, there are plenty of more secular ways to celebrate the season in Mexico’s capital.
Mexico’s favorite indoor pastime, shopping, is particularly popular during this time of year, and sales abound, so travelers can pick up plenty of unique gifts for friends and family.
For the nine days leading up to Christmas, Mexicans celebrate Las Posadas, a reenactment of Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging. Generally held in neighborhoods throughout the city, friends gather and travel from house to house singing hymns and asking for shelter, before finally arriving at a pre-determined location where snacks and drinks are given out to participants and children break a piñata.
Visitors lucky enough to stay through the New Year should pick up a couple dozen cascarones – brightly painted, hollowed out eggs that are filled with confetti. It is believed to be good luck to have one of these confetti eggs broken on your head and, at midnight during New Year’s Eve, visitors will be hard pressed to avoid this good fortune. — Monica Poling
Vancouver is beautiful year-round, but it is especially picturesque in winter, when Stanley Park is blanketed with snow and shoppers seek shelter in glowing downtown bars or noodle shops in Chinatown.
If the cold doesn’t deter you, a trek to Brockton Point is a must, where you can study the carefully carved faces on the park’s iconic totem poles or organize a snowball fight under their gaze. In the evening, have a drink with friends while you try your hand at Canadian bowling — there are just five pins to knock down, but the ball is smaller and has no finger holes.
As much as there is to do within the city limits, many snow bunnies leave Vancouver to hit the slopes in resorts like Whistler Blackcomb and Cypress Mountain. At just 15 minutes north of the city, Grouse Mountain is a perfect day-trip option. The resort offers plenty of ski trails, but guests can also lace up their skates on the mountaintop ice rink, go for sleigh rides or visit reindeer in the wildlife refuge. — Chelsee Lowe
Warm in both spirit and climate, Hawaii's capital injects a heady dose of aloha into its annual holiday happenings. Santa arrives by outrigger canoe and flashes the shaka (hang loose) sign and hula girls take precedence over sugarplum fairies. Gingerbread villages sport palm trees and grass shacks and choirs sing traditional carols in Hawaiian.
Throughout December, the annual Honolulu City Lights celebration dazzles the downtown area. Opening night electrifies the crowd with its tree lighting ceremony, food, music, rides and parade.
On New Year’s Eve, hotels present live entertainment reflecting Hawaii’s diverse cultural mix — think Chinese lion dancers and Samoan fire knife performers — but it’s just as easy to find theme parties cementing the city’s status as a hip gathering place. Come midnight, island skies erupt with fireworks, from formal presentations at parks and resorts to mom-and-pop pyrotechnics. — Marty Wentzel