Sampling the different ways in which global cities celebrate Christmas and New Year is one of travel’s richer treats. Here’s a look at how five popular destinations enjoy the festive season, stoking up the last bright embers of December to often unforgettable effect. In search of a last-minute break? Read on.
A Manhattan Christmas
Best for: Shopaholics
There’s still something defiantly enchanting about New York over the festive period. The Big Apple’s all-pervasiveness on screen means those classic Christmas images – ice-skating at the Rockefeller Centre, the window displays along Fifth Avenue, carriage rides in Central Park, and so on – are familiar even to those who’ve never set foot in the city.
Needless to say, when you’re actually there among the bauble-strung trees and the candy canes – with, if you’re lucky, maybe a dusting of snow on the skyline – there’s the feeling of being somewhere a bit special. Shopping’s a big draw at any time, but the whole thing really ramps up at this time of year, and not just at Macy’s, Tiffany’s et al. Try the Columbus Circle Holiday Market (59th Street and Broadway, until 24 December), a great option for everything from handmade jewellery to gingerbread houses.
Travellers who don’t fancy the midnight throng of the Times Square ball drop on the 31st, meanwhile, should try snagging a ticket for one of the numerous party yachts cruising the Hudson River.
A Spanish Shindig
Best for: Late, late nights
End-of-year traditions burn long and hard in Spain, and nowhere more so than in Madrid. It’s a hugely enjoyable city to visit at any season – world-class art galleries and old-school sherry bars, anyone? – but factor in the heightened buzz of Christmas and you’re seeing somewhere that still places real value on both the religious importance of the period and the excuse it provides to have a full-blaze fiesta.
Madrid’s city centre gets festooned with lights from late November onwards, although it’s New Year’s Eve that arguably holds the most potential for visitors. A huge fun run takes place at 8pm, in which around 30,000 people cover a 10-kilometre course, while the stroke of midnight sees attention turn to the mass celebrations on Puerta del Sol – tradition dictates the eating of 12 grapes, one for each chime of the clock.
This being Spain, of course, midnight is essentially early evening, so don’t expect things to wind down until sunrise. And if you’re still in the mood for revelry at sundown on 5 January, the Three Kings Parade is a major city-centre event – it heralds Epiphany the following day, celebrated by many Spaniards as the chief occasion of the whole Christmas period.
Best for: A winter warmer
Stockholm’s huge watery spread of islands and museum-piece buildings means Sweden’s capital has personality in spades, something doubly true when the chill and cheer of Christmas arrives. The festive markets are among the best in Europe, with the most famous of them, in Stortorget in the Old Town, dating back to 1915. Pour out a glass of glögg (the city’s omnipresent mulled wine) and join the crowds.
If you want to really delve into local traditions, join the daily Christmas-themed walking tour offered by Stockholm Our Way (+46 (0)8 4107 7330), which includes an insight into the festive smorgasbord known as the jolbord, the customary Swedish dinner eaten on the 25th. If you want somewhere atmospheric to tuck in, join one of the Christmas dining cruises offered by Strömma (+46 (0)8 1200 4000).
As you’d expect, Stockholm also sees in the New Year in some style. If you’re looking for a prime location to watch fireworks exploding over the Old Town at the stroke of midnight, seek out a spot on Västerbron, the double-arched bridge linking the islands of Södermalm and Kungsholmen.
Best for: Young revellers
Fairy lights, street markets, canal-side parties and the smell of winter spices in the air – Amsterdam does a good line in charm year-round, but come Christmas its cosier qualities come to the fore. In keeping with the spirit of the place, you can expect a mix of warm tradition and open-minded creativity.
Returning this winter after its 2012 debut is the Amsterdam Light Festival (until 19 January), which sees the city’s famous squares and waterways illuminated by avant-garde projections and art installations. There’s entertainment of a different kind at the now long-established World Christmas Circus, a highly-rated extravaganza taking place at the Royal Theatre Carré (Amstel 115-125, +31 900 252 5255, until 5 January).
And if you’re here on New Year’s Eve? On the night the Dutch call Oud en Nieuw (Old and New), the main focal point is Museumplein Square, which hosts fireworks and live music, but you’ll find plenty of heady celebrations elsewhere – the party-hard atmosphere at Nieuwmarkt Square in Chinatown being possibly the pick of the bunch.
Best for: A drink and a dance
Some cities have reputations that stride before them. It’s something that’s certainly true of Dublin, which still carries a good-time brand strong enough to turn most destination marketers green with envy. Visions of a city of tin whistles, peat fires and cobblestone poets might be outdated, but Ireland’s urban heart remains somewhere with huge character and an unflagging propensity for a good night out, not least over the Yuletide period.
How to busy yourself? Strap on your skates at iSkate, Ireland’s biggest Christmas ice rink (RDS Main Complex, Merrion Road, until 12 January), warm up with a hot Irish whiskey at the Airtricity Docklands Christmas Festival (IFSC, George’s Dock, until 23 December), or check out the chandelier-style light display along Grafton Street – if you have time to call into Wilde Restaurant (Grafton Street, +353 (0)1 646 3311) to get a taste for Dublin’s ever-burgeoning food scene, so much the better.
New Year’s Eve is always a big bash here, and the official Countdown Concert on College Green is headlined this year by those perennial party-starters, Madness. Earlier in the evening, at 6pm, the family-friendly People’s Procession of Light is a lantern parade through the city centre.