New York, London, and Vienna are the best places in the world to be during the holidays. Each city captures the spirit of the season uniquely, blending centuries-old Yuletide traditions with up-to-the-minute, kick-up-your heels holiday fun.
New York City
Big and bold, with bright lights and dazzling events, New York City does an in-your-face version of the holidays, and the fun lasts right up till 11:59 December 31.
Do: If you’ve never done it before, now’s the time to get a ticket to the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. A ticket buys you access to fireworks, a snowstorm, and a sky-high Santa that swoops over the stage. Something more subdued? Check out the New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, which transports audiences into a magical world with living toys and a glowing, growing one-ton Christmas tree (daily through 12/30).
No holiday celebration in New York is complete without a peek at the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center (through 1/7) and a walking tour of the glittering window displays at Macy’s (34th and 7th), Lord and Taylor (5th and 39th), Saks Fifth Avenue (5th and 49th), and Bergdorf Goodman (5th and 57th).
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Feeling the chill? Stop in for a hot chocolate to go at La Maison du Chocolat (30 Rockefeller Plaza) or stock up on Venezuelan chocolate bars, rich French truffles, or superbly crafted coffee-chocolate bon-bons.
In the mood for a festive late lunch or early dinner? The Mandarin Oriental’s Holiday Jingle Tea includes a horse-and-carriage tour around Central Park followed by afternoon tea in the hotel’s 35th-floor Lobby Lounge. Tea sandwiches and scones with Devon cream, holiday cookies, and open-face lobster BLTs tempt taste buds. $450 for up to four people. Bookings must be made at least one week in advance. Call 212/805-8890 to make a reservation.
Dine: Payard Patisserie & Bistro is decked out in great holiday style through the new year, but the holiday fare at this Upper East Side stalwart is likely to upstage the decorations. The New Year’s Eve menu includes Turbot Fricasee, Roasted Rack of Lamb with Meyer Lemon Crust, Filet Mignon, and Soy-Honey-Balsamic-Glazed Chilean Sea Bass. The restaurant is rightly lauded for its exquisite tarts and soufflés.
Stay: Book a room overlooking Central Park at the Ritz-Carlton NYC, where everything from the views to the high-thread-count sheets is absolute perfection. Rooms are luxurious without being stuffy, and the onsite Ritz-Carlton Spa has no end of pampering pleasures for tired bodies. Rooms from $995.
At the Hotel Plaza Athénée, guests enjoy the top service and exclusivity of a luxury boutique hotel in a residential neighborhood filled with museums and high-end shopping. Beautifully furnished suites come with dining tables, and 12 suites have balconies with views of the park. Stop in for a drink at cozy Bar Seine. From $700 a night.
London’s holiday celebrations are a mix of the old and new, and given the Victorian vibe of so many of our treasured traditions, you may feel as if you’ve finally come home for the holidays.
Do: Check out the lights and decorations on Regent Street, home to one of the city’s most festive holiday displays. It’ll get you in the mood for carol singing in Trafalgar Square. Follow it up with a warm drink and a seasonal treat at the Café on the Square (bottom of the central staircase and to the right as you face the National Gallery).
For those who like their holiday cheer with a little ice, London delivers. For £10-£15 you can rent skates at the enchanting rink at Somerset House (photo, right) and trip the light fantastic. Skaters can also join the queue at Kew Gardens Rink or head for “Currier and Ives Meets the Executioner” at the Tower of London, where skaters glide around the dry moat beneath the North Wall. The rinks are wildly popular, so buying advance tickets is recommended.
For something that just vibrates with tradition, catch a live performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at Henry VIII’s beloved Hampton Court Palace. Act One takes place in Henry’s Great Watching Chamber, Act Two in front of the roaring fire in the Tudor Kitchens. (6 p.m., through December 23; must be booked in advance by calling 0844-482-7795.)
Dine: London’s oldest restaurant, Rules, does the holidays right with cheerful decorations and festive dishes like Loch Duart Scottish Salmon, roasted pheasant, humble pie, treacle tart, plum pudding, and much more. (Reservations required; meal for two runs about £ $125 USD.)
London’s beloved Paternoster Chop House goes all out at this time of year with a special “winter warming dishes” menu that includes potted game with prune, Galloway beef cottage pie, and mulled wine poached pear. For December, the prix-fixe menu of £55 per person includes these dishes along with a British cheese course, spiced wine, and Christmas crackers.
Stay: Live out your royal dreams at the Lanesborough, where your personal butler ensures that your stay in the hotel — and the city — is extraordinary. You’ll be surrounded by antiques, gem-stone-colored silks, and evocative art. At night, slide into the most comfortable bed you’ve ever snoozed in. Rooms start at £350.
If you want the ultimate in British tradition, The Claridge is for you. Recent renovations have restored the hotel to her former glory. Expect an interesting mix of traditional and hip, utter “Britishness,” and fashionable clientele. Rooms start at £395.
Open-air markets, fabulous music and dazzling décor — head to Vienna for an old-fashioned exuberant holiday celebration.
Do: Admire the gaily decorated holiday trees, or ride the Viennese-merry-go-round or the reindeer train at the city’s 700th annual Christmas Market, where you can shop and snack on candied fruits, Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and gluhwein (hot spiced wine) while shopping at more than 150 stalls. The Christmas Market is held in front of City Hall through December 24, daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna for New Year’s Eve, walk the mile-long New Year’s Eve Trail, which winds its way through the narrow lanes of the Old City, starting from City Hall. Dozens of refreshment stands offer wine-spiked fruit punch and snacks, and live performances along the trail include waltzes and rock and folk music.
Dine: Drei Husaren Restaurant has a motto — “Contentment is rooted in perfection.” Here, in a former 17th-century monastery decorated for the advent season, you can dine on Viennese classics like “Tafelspitz” (boiled beef with ox marrow) and braised sirloin with cabbage pasta and veal goulash with small butter dumplings. About $200 for two.
A meal at Steirereck is a treat you’ll long remember — a four-hour culinary adventure. The menu changes daily according to what’s fresh at the market. Choose the six-course tasting menu and place yourself in the chef’s hands. You won’t be disappointed. Service is impeccable. Reservations essential. Dinner for two from $250.
Stay: It’s hard to imagine a place more sumptuous than Grand Hotel Wien with its rich décor, Old World luxury, and outstanding service. This Belle-Époque gem is perfectly situated on Kärtner Ring, near the Vienna State Opera and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Suites from about $600.
The Sacher has been pleasing guests since 1876 and is the perfect mix of historical ambience and modern-day comfort — guest rooms are furnished with beautiful antiques and original artwork. Do sample the famous Sacher-Torte (chocolate cake with apricot jam and whipped cream) at Café Sacher. Rooms from $800 a night.