How to do Christmas differently this year: 5 unexpected places to get festive

How to do Christmas differently this year: 5 unexpected places to get festive

    It’s that time of year again: the nights are cosier, chocolate for breakfast is totally acceptable, aaand Michael Bublé is defrosting.

    As soon as November rolls around, lots of us start planning which French, German, or Austrian city we’re gonna flock to, to soak up all the festive vibes—like the aptly named “Capital of Christmas”.

    But once you’ve ticked off all the best European Christmas markets…what’s next?

    Well, luckily for you, we’ve done the leg work and found all the places you might not have thought of, but are just as festive at this time of year.  Just, in a different way.

    So grab your blanket and a mug of hot chocolate and we’ll get started :-)


    “Gleðileg jól!”

    Now this one takes unusual Christmas traditions to the next level…

    When you’re thinking of festive decorations, it’s probably Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman, or good ol’ Rudolph that come to mind. Well, let us introduce you to (or rather, warn you of) the legends you might come across in Iceland:

    • The Yule lads - These lil’ pranksters are named after their cravings: Spoon Licker, Sausage Swiper and Skyr Gobbler to name a few. There’s no need to worry about being boiled by these guys (that’ll make sense in about 5 seconds), and if you’re really lucky, they might just leave a gift in your shoe.
    • Christmas Witch - Pffft, and you thought witches were just for Halloween. Gryla (the Yule Lads’ mum) will collect all the naughty children, put them in her sack, and boil them in her cave.
    • Yule Cat - This bloodthirsty kitty appears on Christmas Eve, and if you didn’t buy new clothes to wear on Christmas day, well, she might just eat you.

    You’ll spot statues of the family all around Iceland at this time of year, but if you really fancy your chances, why not go and visit their cave up in the north? Juuuuust make sure you’re all clued-up on how to avoid being tricked, or, you know, eaten.

    If nothing else, at least you’ll be a bit less surprised when you walk past a glimmering cat now :-)

    CC image courtesy of Edvard Gudnason on Flickr

    Festive food to try

    If you head out to a traditional Icelandic restaurant at this time of year, you can expect dishes of fermented fish, marinated herring, or the slightly more appetising smoked lamb.

    But what we’re really interested in are the festive snacks you can find at the local Christmas markets. We’re talking meringue chocolate chip cookies dipped in liquorice (lakkrís toppar), rice pudding with a dollop of whipped cream and almonds on top (möndlu grautur), accompanied by a jólaöl concoction to wash it down.

    Will I still get a white Christmas?

    That’s a hard yes. For most people, Iceland is at the top of the winter destination list, what with its ice caves, glacier hikes and snowmobiling. And thanks to December being when the snowfall hits its peak, Christmas is no different! 

    But seriously, is there anything more magical than a Christmas spent in the snow and under the dancing lights?


    “Kala Christougena!”

    If you’ve only ever thought of Greece as a summer destination, then this one’s for you.

    On the first week of December, Christmas well and truly arrives at Athens’ main square (Syntagma) as they put up a huuuuge fir tree—we’re talking about 19 meters tall.

    But, they’ve really only started doing that recently. Traditionally, people would decorate their boats by adding colourful lights to welcome sailors home after long voyages. Here’s how it looks at the harbour in Chania.

    CC image courtesy of R Igor on Flickr

    Festive food to try

    Now, when it comes to sweet Christmas treats, two of the most loved around here are melomakarona honey biscuits and kourabiedes buttery cookies. Yum! You’ll find them in all  local bakeries and pâtisseries, but one of the best places to try them in is at the themed ‘Little Kook Café’ in Athens—they go all out for the holidays.

    And while we’re on the topic of food, if your trip runs over New Year's too, then don’t be alarmed if someone chucks a pomegranate at your door. It’s all in the name of good luck, promise!

    Will I still get a white Christmas?

    You don’t think we would have skipped the white stuff, did you? Well, another surprise is that Greece does, in fact, have ski resorts! Kalavrita is around 2 hours away from Athens and is one of the biggest in Greece. You’ll find 12 slopes for all abilities, and with equipment rental available, there’s no need to and squeeze your skis into your suitcase :-)


    “Merii Kurisumasu”

    Okay, okay, we know Japan and the phrase ‘unusual travel destinations’ doesn’t really go together. BUT, while it’s common to visit in winter (special shoutout to those super cute snow monkeys), you may not know what to expect when it comes to Christmas. 

    Festive food to try

    This time, we’re gonna start with the food… 

    In case you didn’t know, it’s traditional in Japan to grab a KFC party bucket for your Christmas dinner. Yep, we know it’s a bit different to turkey and spuds, but over 3 million people here are tucking into their chicken wings as they go rockin’ around the Christmas tree. So it’s gotta be good!

    If you’re British and don’t like our raisin filled Christmas cakes, then listen up. Japan’s version (Kurisumasu keki) is a light spongy cake filled with whipped cream, frosting AND fresh strawberries. You’ll find it pretty much anywhere here at this time of year, along with a whole host of other festive bakes

    Honestly, between the creamy strawberry cakes and finger lickin’ Christmas dinners, we’re drooling already.

    Oh, and Christmas Eve in Japan is basically our Valentine's Day. So if you pop into a restaurant on the 24th and it’s full of couples having a smooch before Santa comes, now ya know why :-)

    Now, while we wipe off our fried chicken-y fingers, let’s talk about what else there is to do.

    Christmas has only really been a thing here since the ‘60s, but as you may expect with Japan, they don’t do things by halves. 

    Most cities and towns have started doing their own markets, and some (like the one at Hibiya Park) are actually supported by the German embassy and tourism. So chances are you’ll find yourself having a mulled wine in a traditional Christmas market that feels just like a true weihnachtsmarkt—just, you know, 9000 km away…

    Once you’ve had your fill of markets, Tokyo and Osaka have some of the most impressive light displays—seriously, imagine walking down a street like this

    A great place to enjoy the Christmas lights is at Tokyo Midtown. Starting in mid-November, this place turns on thousands of lights with a huuuuge snow globe, bubbles, and an ice rink in case you fancy strapping on your skates.

    If nothing else, we reckon it’s virtually impossible to not get into the Christmas spirit when you’re soaking up a bit of festive Disney magic.

    Will I still get a white Christmas?

    Like we needed another excuse to talk about those snow monkeys :-) Okay, okay, we won’t…

    December sees most of the country covered by a blanket of the white stuff, which we hear is pretty perfect for hitting the slopes. If that’s what you’re after, we’d make a bee-line for the Niseko Village ski resort. Here you’ll find 27 trails for all abilities, and when you’re skiing with these views, there’s really no question about it.

    Or if it’s dreamy, winter wonderlandy, fairytaley (you can see where we’re going) vibes you want, well, not much compares to Shirakawa-go.

    Watch out for those snow monsters though…


    შობას გილოცავთ

    Georgia celebrates Christmas according to the Orthodox calendar, so 2 weeks after you’ve had your traditional celebrations (13 days, to be exact), get ready to start allllll over again.

    One of the most impressive spectacles here is the Alilo Parade on Orthodox Christmas day (7th January). You’ll see thousands of people march through the streets singing and chanting as they carry Georgian flags and wear traditional robes. It’s free to watch the parade, but people will usually donate food, sweets and gifts to later give to those in need.

    CC image courtesy of ლევან ნიორაძე on Flickr

    And don’t worry, you haven’t got to wait until January to start singing your Christmas songs. The festivities start here in early December when the light displays in Tblisi’s Freedom Square are turned on, followed by the opening of Christmas markets around the 23rd, and last right until the end of January. 

    For a full guide on what to expect in Tbilisi over the festive period, check out this Wander-Lush blog :-)

    Festive food to try

    While you’re walking through those Christmas markets, you’ll find plenty to snack on. But if you’re asking us, washing down a few gozinakis and curchkhelas with a sip of warming chacha is basically compulsory.

    Will I get a white Christmas?

    Well, it’s super rare to catch snow in Tbilisi, but elsewhere in Georgia are some of the best and cheapest slopes around—one of our top picks is the Gudauri Ski Resort. You’ll find it around 2 hours further north into the Greater Caucasus Mountains, and with 70 km of routes available for all levels at just $120 for 4 days (yeah, that’s just £25 a day!) it’s a great shout.

    Pluuuus, given Christmas isn’t celebrated on the 25th here, their resorts stay open—turns out you might get a white Christmas on the slopes after all. Happy skiing!


    “Feliz Navidad!”

    Christmas is a big thing right across Colombia, but Medellín in particular is where you wanna be when December rolls around. 

    CC image courtesy of Pouya on Flickr

    At the start of the month, the city hangs up literally millions of lights (or Alumbrados Navideños) in a display considered by National Geographic to be one of the best in the world. 

    While you will find some classic red, green and gold lights, the city chooses a different theme to base their main display on each year. In previous years it’s been things like family, biodiversity, inclusion etc. but last year they decided to go all out Disney for an ‘Encanto’ theme. 

    You’ll see most of the city’s lights by walking along the Medellín River, which runs right through the centre of the city. The water reflects a kaleidoscope of lights in the shape of flowers, boats, and rainbows, as well as some seriously huge structures lining the river which last year depicted characters from the movie.

    Christmas officially starts in Colombia after the “dia de las velitas”. On December 7th, people make up paper lanterns and light some small candles to place on either their own windowsills, or to decorate their nearby parks and roads—like this one in Medellín.

    CC image courtesy of J. Kaphan on Flickr

    Then comes the annual Myths and Legends Parade. Early on in December hundreds of artists take over the city as they dress up as fantasy creatures. While it’s maybe not the most festive parade going on at this time of year, watching witches dance along under the Christmas lights, is a spectacle you’re gonna want to see.

    Festive food to try

    Well, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some goodies. Some of the country’s most loved are natilla, which is a custard dish that looks a little like a flan, and buñuelos which are fried dough balls with a soft, cheesy filling. Yum!

    Will I still get a white Christmas?


    Sorry, but not in Medellín, aka the ‘City of Eternal Spring’. You’ll have to go riiiight up into the Andes for that.

    Honourable Mention: Best Christmas markets in Germany

    Okay, so what if you’ve already booked to go to Germany for their Christmas markets, but you’re looking for something a little less traditional?

    First off, please send us your pics :-) Secondly, here’s a quick rundown of some more unique ones to try:

    Dog Christmas market (Berlin)

    Yes, and it’s everything you could imagine. Picture dog-friendly mulled wine (it exists!), festive dog snacks, and even some Christmas jumpers. Plus, some of your admission fee (€2.50 each) will be donated to the local animal food bank. 

    Pink Christmas market (Munich)

    Barbie called, she wants her market back! This one is organised by the city’s LGBT community, and everyone is welcome to join in. Each night you’ll have performances by comedians, musicians and drag shows—all the good vibes!

    Medieval Christmas market (Berlin)

    Nothing quite says Christmas like a bit of axe and flame throwing, right? Yeah, thought so. As well as some more usual handicraft stores, wooden gifts and Ferris wheels, you’ll also find jugglers, acrobats, and the chance to practice your archery skills. And you thought Iceland’s witches and evil cats were strange for Christmas!