Hidden Gem Holiday Destinations Around The World

Christmas is a perfect time to try something new when it comes to travel experiences. Sure, NYC's Ball Drop is still a must-see, Prague's Christmas Market is as magical as it gets, and Champs-Élysées illumination in Paris is spectacular. But with the great popularity come high prices at overbooked accommodations, uber-touristy culinary offers, and faux-festive kitsch. How about turning your attention to the lesser-known destinations that offer more authenticity and fewer crowds? It's there that you find real holiday spirit, a genuine local way of life, and a more peaceful atmosphere. These places are ideal for embracing festive joy at an unhurried pace.

From the Danish heritage in the heart of Southern California to the Finnish capital of Christmas, from the pearl of Italian Dolomites to the postcard-perfect German medieval town, these hidden gem holiday destinations offer tasty local food, plenty of exciting things to do, and a magical ambiance.

Solvang, California, U.S.A.

Timber houses with thatched roofs, a windmill at the end of the street, the click-clack of the horse carriages, and the scent of the gingerbread cookies in the air. While it may seem for a second that you've been teleported to a Danish countryside, the place is Solvang and you're in Southern California. Nicknamed "Danish Capital of America" and founded in 1911, this town is a beautiful oddity less than 45 minutes from Santa Barbara. Christmas is the ultimate time to be here when the iconic Julefest is organized. The celebration that lasts from the end of November to the beginning of January is a charming example of a fusion of Danish traditions with Californian flair.

The myriads of lights decorate the pretty houses, the central Christmas tree is a glistening moment, and everything radiates with holiday spirit. Don't miss the Julefest Parade, which has a different theme annually, then take an obligatory picture with Santa himself at the Christmas Village. After, feel the hygge (Danish concept of coziness) sipping a coffee with butter cookies at one of the local cafes. Families with kids will also love the thematic nisser (or gnome in Danish) hunt adventure and evening candlelit tours around town.

Turku, Finland

Rovaniemi in Lapland may be the official Santa Claus village, but Turku unofficially reigns as "Finland's Christmas City." This mid-sized historic gem located on the country's southwest coast is a perfect slow tourism spot for a Christmas break. Bringing the festive spirit to life is a matter of local pride here. Year after year, Turku kicks the most magical holiday festivities in Finland. The picturesque surroundings definitely help. The city boasts a delightful medieval Old Town with cobblestone streets, a scenic Aura River promenade, a plethora of superb museums, and an imposing 13th-century castle. Once the capital of the country, Turku is also where you find one of the finest cathedrals in Finland, the Turku Cathedral.

During the holiday season, the city hosts not one but several Christmas markets scattered around its historic core. The biggest and most action-packed one is on the Market Square. Here you'll find a lushly decorated Christmas tree, hear carol-singing performances, and can browse through countless stalls selling local food, drinks, and artisanal souvenirs. It's essential to have a cup of glögi (Finnish-style mulled wine), a bite of rusinamakkara (a Turku sausage superstar), and jam-filled cookies for dessert. Activities-wise, you can take part in an elf run, meet Santa Claus, catch a traditional festive parade, and witness the symbolic declaration of Christmas Peace (a Finnish tradition with 14th-century origins).

Merano, Italy

If you're looking for an under-the-radar Christmas destination that also happens to be a stunner, Merano fits the bill perfectly. Fusing Italian and German heritage and being one of the important resort centers of the South Tyrol region, this town is an amalgam of beauty. Your breath will be immediately taken away by the sheer grandeur of the surrounding Dolomites. The mountains are seen from every corner of the city and serve as an unforgettable backdrop for your time here. The holiday season is ideal for coming to this gem of Italy, as the peaks are covered in snow and Christmas cheer fills the town's elegant streets.

You will have a chance to sample local delights at the Christmas Market. The mulled wine and vanillekipferl (a crescent-shaped vanilla cookie) combo is a must-have when exploring the many stalls selling artisanal products. Apart from the traditional festive activities, you can fully relax in the warmth of Terme (a renowned, local thermal baths complex with 15 indoor pools), take in fresh air at the numerous mountain hiking trails, or enjoy thrilling rides at Meran 2000, a sprawling ski resort with 11 slopes and 25 miles of ski runs.

Wroclaw, Poland

Holidays are taken very seriously in Wroclaw. This city in southwestern Poland boasts one of Europe's most epic Christmas markets. Over 180 wooden stalls occupy the colorful medieval Market Square and nearby streets. Here you will find local food delights, artisanal souvenirs, and deliciously warming drinks. Having a sip of grzaniec (or mulled wine) from a ceramic shoe mug (a local tradition) next to the imposing Gothic Old Town Hall is an essential Wroclaw moment. Moreover, you can sample a variety of Polish Christmas food staples like kielbasa (smoked sausage), bigos (meat and sauerkraut stew), pierogi (stuffed dumplings), and traditional oscypek cheese with cranberry topping — all yummy and very affordable.

Families with kids will especially love the holiday proposition in Lower Silesia's capital. The Christmas market comes with children-focused workshops, a carousel, and even a special "Children's House" with an interactive exhibition for the younger ones. Then there are krasnale, or Wroclaw gnomes, which can be found everywhere around the city and serve as an unofficial local symbol. There are more than 400 little gnome statues scattered both in the center and in the outskirts. During the holidays, "gnome hunting" is a popular family activity and a fun way to explore the city.

Görlitz, Germany

Stepping into the gorgeous Görlitz Department Store is guaranteed to give all Wes Anderson fans chills. The celebrated "Grand Hotel Budapest" film was shot here. But it's not only that, Görlitz locations appeared in such productions as "The Reader," "Inglourious Basterds," and "The Book Thief" winning the town the nickname "Görliwood." Once you walk its atmospheric cobblestone streets and see the appeal of the Baroque, Rennaissance, and Art-Nouveau architecture, it all starts making sense. This eastern German hidden gem right on the Polish border is extremely cinematic. And it's during the holidays that Görlitz is at its most captivating.

The joyful spirit of Christmas abounds on the narrow medieval streets of the Old Town. Cozy Untermarkt hosts a compact Christmas market where vendors pour you aromatic mulled wine, real alpacas stand as a part of a nativity scene, and artisans sell their wooden handmade decorations to the sound of carols. Time seems to stop next to the Baroque burgher houses and the Old Town Hall — it's pure German holiday magic. Fancy more winter action? The Obermarkt square has a large skating rink, and a heated cabin nearby serves a welcoming punch drink.

Mons, Belgium

Rarely does Mons appear on the itineraries of travelers who come to Belgium. Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, and Bruges righteously take the lead. But those who'd like to experience an entirely local way of celebrating Christmas, with almost no tourists in sight, will love it in the capital of Hainaut Province. The Grand-Place square is as beautiful as they come, greeting you with gingerbread-like houses from the 15th century, numerous cafes, and the Gothic grandeur of the Town Hall. A bit further you find the UNESCO-protected Belfry, which is among the tallest in Belgium.

It's among this beauty that Coeur en Neige (the local name for a Christmas celebration) unfolds. The Grand-Place and the surrounding streets become one big festive village with paraded processions, glistening illumination, and a Christmas tree. The toboggan run at Marché aux Herbes will keep kids busy, a rink at Alter Schlachthof will ensure plenty of romantic moments on the ice, and numerous stalls will provide a first-class souvenir shopping experience. As for the food, be sure to try the cougnoles (traditional Belgian Christmas bread), waffles with various toppings, and tartiflette (a baked potatoes, cheese, and onions casserole).

Helen, Georgia, U.S.A

Munich Strasse crosses Narr Weg with all roads leading to a Marktplatz where the holiday wurst is served as a part of Christkindlmarkt. The gentle mountains stand as a picturesque backdrop to the half-timbered houses and the cobblestone streets. It's not Bavaria, though; it's Northeast Georgia. "Willkommen" to Helen, one of the most original places in the U.S. to spend the holidays. A small Appalachian town of less than 600 inhabitants, it's packed with photogenic buildings, cozy cafes, and outdoor attractions. Every year, a Christmas market is organized that closely follows German traditions. Essentially, you'll get a taste of an authentic Bavarian holiday celebration in the American South — just slightly warmer.

A lushly decorated Christmas tree is set up and the festive spirit takes over Helen in December. Try the traditional German mulled wine, sip locally brewed beer, savor the gingerbread cookies, and feast on spätzle noodles with goulash. Souvenir stalls will be in abundance, too, so don't leave without some beautiful, handcrafted gifts for your loved ones. A curious fact, the town was featured in the second season of Donald Glover's FX show "Atlanta," in which the protagonists visit the local Octoberfest celebration and have some weird interactions.

Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa is hardly a secret destination. It's just not the first place you think about when it comes to the picture-perfect winter getaway in Canada. While Lake Louise, Banff, Whistler, or Quebec City are undoubtedly tourist beacons for spending Christmas, Canada's capital has several aces up its sleeve. From November 24 to December 23, you can visit the Ottawa Christmas Market, a European-style Christmas market that presents a modern take on festivities in Lansdowne at Casino Lac Leamy Plaza. Expect more than 45 vendors occupying charming wooden chalets, a Santa's Workshop with a kid-oriented animation program, lots of live performances, and a superb light show. Ottawa's Christmas market tradition only started in 2021, but it's getting traction and deserves your full attention. 

Along with danceable DJ sets, there's also a special Silent Disco area where you can dance as if nobody's watching. Classic festive staples like mulled wine and hot chocolate are widely available, too, and the ice rink in front of the Aberdeen Pavillion will provide an active edge to your time at the market. And don't forget to check out central Ottawa to witness the dance of more than 300,000 holiday lights on the majestic Parliament Building, along Rideau Canal, and in Jacques-Cartier Park. There's even a city-curated Winter Lights Map to help guide your festive tour.

Aarhus, Denmark

Calm, uncrowded, and laid-back, Denmark's second city is a perfect destination for discovering hygge and having some of the most rewarding Christmas experiences in Scandinavia. It's not a surprise that Aarhus is among the best under-the-radar Danish cities (and just as cool as Copenhagen). Officially nicknamed the "City of Smiles" for its welcoming attitude toward visitors, this town is effortlessly stylish and very cozy. With Viking-era beginnings and a strategic maritime position in the Bay of Aarhus, it's also a treat for architecture aficionados with a fusion of Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Art-Nouveau, and contemporary styles. 

The holiday season gives Aarhus a festive makeover, bringing a myriad of lights to the streets and buildings. Den Gamle By, an open-air, Old Town museum complex, is the best place to be for immersing in a classic Danish Christmas atmosphere. Half-timbered houses straight out of a fairytale reflect in the canals, and the 400 years of holiday traditions can be experienced in historic shops selling authentic baked goods and souvenirs. An elven hunt and a lantern-lit route are organized for kids, too. Another must-visit is Tivoli Friheden, a vintage amusement park that transforms into a Christmas village with food stalls and theme rides.

Telluride, Colorado, U.S.A

The heart wants some magic during the holiday season, and with the imposing snow-covered mountains seen from every corner, Telluride is certainly magical. Set in the southwestern part of Colorado, it's an idyllic destination that combines the small-town charm with world-class skiing. During Christmastime, the Gold Rush-era heritage houses wear festive decorations with class, the surrounding rocky peak panoramas are breathtaking, and the dining options are plenty. The town also offers a wide variety of holiday shopping boutiques where you can get artisanal souvenirs and Rockies-themed gifts.

Still, the surrounding mountains take center stage, and meeting them up close is very easy. Just get a free gondola ride to the Telluride Ski Resort. The resort boasts 2,000 skiable acres, three terrain parks, and the highest concentration of 13,000- and 14,000-foot peaks in North America. Families can try snowshoeing, ice-skating, and snowmobiling to fully immerse in the winter wonderland mood. Finally, the apres-ski scene here is on par with the Swiss resorts offering slopeside bars, French cuisine restaurants, and cocktail-serving venues.

Regensburg, Germany

Even without the holiday makeover, Regensburg in eastern Bavaria is a treat for explorers. With more than 2000 years of history, not one but two UNESCO protection distinctions, and a well-preserved medieval Old Town core, this city is an outstanding German destination. The Danube rapidly sends waters under the ancient stone bridges, as the towering spires of centuries-old churches stand timelessly above. However, when you come here for the holidays, you'll experience the Bavarian zest for creating an unforgettable Christmas celebration. Regensburg becomes an ultimate festive city with markets popping up in multiple locations of its historic core.

The central Neupfarrplatz market is a great place to start. The 16th-century-built New Parish Church and the striking Gothic silhouette of St. Peter Cathedral set the scene at this joyful gathering of vendors selling bratwurst sausages and Christmas gifts. You can then walk over to Stone Bridge, where you can try a traditional blueberry mulled wine with a scenic Danube panorama. Yet another Christmas market awaits you at the sprawling Rococo Thurn and Taxis Palace, where you'll find meat dishes prepared over open fires, children's rides, and even a petting zoo. 

Mulhouse, France

The Alsace region of France is a treasure trove of towns that look like they were created for postcards, and Mulhouse is no exception. Located minutes away from both the Swiss and German borders, it's often overlooked by tourists in favor of nearby Colmar and Strasbourg. People often visit the town to explore the Cité de l'Automobile Museum. Exhibiting over 520 vintage vehicles, the museum features the world's largest collection of Bugatti cars. Mulhouse is more than its displays of automobile history, though. Once a leading textile center in France, the town showcases its colorful past during Christmas. In addition to classic holiday decorations like glistening lights and toys, the Old Town facades and windows use fabrics to create a uniquely vibrant atmosphere. That, in turn, makes a visit to Mulhouse an exceptional and memorable experience.

Gorgeous Temple Saint-Étienne presides over the Christmas market, which occupies the whole square of Place de la Réunion. You can also get a taste of authentic Alsitan holiday dishes here, like bredele Christmas cookies, gingerbreads with cinnamon, and wine chaud (mulled wine). More than 70 thematic events are organized during the days of operation of the market, which include knitting workshops for children, guided tours, treasure hunts, cookie-baking workshops, and carol-singing performances.

Klagenfurt, Austria

Austria treats Christmas celebrations with unmatched elegance and grace. That's why millions come to the holiday markets of Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck annually. But you can escape the crowds and embrace the authenticity of the Carinthia region's traditions by visiting Klagenfurt. With access to the scenic Lake Wörthersee and the encircling gentle peaks of the Karawanken Alps, it's a gem in the Austrian tourism crown. The epicenter of Christmas celebrations is Neuer Platz, where wooden stalls sell festive drinks, food, and handicrafts, and if you walk over to Domplatz, the market's extension, you'll find a small stage with regular live music performances.

Along with the market, you can take a special Advent boat cruise on the lake, or go see the floating Christmas tree in Pörtschach, a Wörthersee town less than 20 minutes from Klagenfurt. You could also visit the 328-foot-high Pyramidenkogel to enjoy a magnificent 360-degree view of the lake and the mountains. At the foot of the observation tower, you'll have another Christmas market to explore. However, hardly anything can beat the magic of the Katschberg Advent Path, a lantern-lit thematic tour through the alpine landscape in the traditional village of nearby Katschberg. 

Valkenburg, Netherlands

You will have a hard time finding anything quite like the Valkenburg Christmas Market. What is so special about it? Well, it's underground. Yes, the festivities in this quaint Dutch town located in the southeastern province of Limburg take place below the street level in the caves. The latter are man-made former marl quarries that are now used as an extension of the traditional holiday celebrations. You'll have a chance to sip mulled wine while doing some festive underground shopping walking through subterranean passages covered in merry lights.

Largely unknown outside of the Netherlands, Valkenburg hosts one of the most unusual Christmas market traditions on the globe, making it a truly unique bucket-list kind of destination. Apart from the caves, it's a quintessential Dutch small town with romantic 14th-century castle ruins, pretty canals, and narrow streets dotted with picturesque medieval houses. And the Christmas market is a big deal here. Along with its costumed parades, you'll find a holiday-themed marl sculptures exhibition at MergelRijk cavern, a Santa's Village in the center of Old Town, and a dedicated culinary route for food enthusiasts.