For those of us blessed (or cursed) with incurable wanderlust, the allure of an unexplored city or destination is hard to resist. But, this time of year, what I crave is tradition and a deep-rooted sense of home.
I asked ten of my most trusted friends around the world about their favorite winter traditions in their home cities, and it put me in a wonderful, festive, globally inspired mood. I hope their stories do the same for you. Happy Holidays!
1. Christmas Teatime in London
“A Christmas tea is a not-to-be-missed treat in the midst of shopping at Harrods and ice skating at Somerset House. Try Claridge’s, the Ritz, or smaller boutique hotels like Montague on the Gardens. Each tea room has its own flourish for the occasion, but you can often find carolers singing, mince pies mixed in among tea cakes, and festive blends of tea that make the season a bit brighter.” –Lauren Bryan Knight, creator of the Aspiring Kennedy blog, London
2. A Candlelit Historic Home in D.C.
“Many Washingtonians might choose the lighting of the national Christmas tree as the emblematic holiday tradition in D.C., but I look to a different ‘Washington’ for inspiration. Candlelight holiday tours of America’s first president’s home, Mount Vernon, transport you to Christmases of the 18th century. Visiting always resets my frenetic, holiday demeanor to a slower more pensive and, I think, more appropriate, state of mind.” –Jean Newman Glock, director of global relations for Connoisseur Travel, Washington, D.C.
3. Beating A Hollow Log in Catalonia
“The Tió de Nadal is typical in Catalonia at Christmastime, but not in the rest of Spain. Imagine the little ones of the family, and even adults, with a stick in their hands beating a hollow log, tió in Catalan, while singing traditional songs and praying for it to ‘defecate’ gifts. Tradition dictates that, before beating the tió, all the kids have to leave the room and go to another place in the house to ask the tió to deliver a lot of presents–making the perfect excuse for relatives to do the trick and put the presents under the blanket while the kids are praying. It is such a funny gathering.” –Sonia Graupera, Barcelona-based travel writer
4. Massive Ice Sculptures in China
“The Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival is the one true winter event that China offers to the world. Harbin is interesting as it is situated in northeastern China in Heilongjiang province, which was formerly Manchuria. The Russians really developed the city in the 19th century as part of the Siberian rail line, so it has a strong Russian atmosphere. Winters are long and cold, so a tradition of ice carving developed. I first visited in 1991 and loved it. There are the ice sculptures [at the festival], of course–which are now beyond belief in terms of intricacy, size, and themes–but there is also sledding, tobogganing, ice hockey, and polar bear swimming competitions. This cross-cultural mishmash of a romantic Russian winter [is] lots of fun.” –Gerald Hatherly, director at Abercrombie & Kent Hong Kong
5. A Living Crèche in Puglia’s Grottoes
“The presepe vivente, nativity scene, is a much older and more meaningful tradition than the Christmas tree in southern Italy–and the one in Pezze di Greco is a unique and exciting example. Apulian people lived in caves, or grottoes, up until the modern era to avoid being seen by invaders. About 20 years ago a group of locals decided that they could use the caves as a setting for a live performance of the nativity. This has turned into a non-profit organization [comprised] of more than 400 volunteers from the village–a very large chunk of the population. People dressed up as farmers from the olden days bring in animals and put olive presses, stone ovens, and carpenters back to work producing food and artifacts–all in grottoes. The very last grotto represents the nativity scene. The site is open to the public for several days around Christmas each year.” –Aldo Melpignano, owner of San Domenico Hotels, Puglia, Italy
6. Festive Cocktails and Haute Style in L.A.
“Los Angeles might not seem like an obvious choice to spend the holidays. However, it’s almost as if the city tries to make up for that, and gets into the holiday spirit in a big way. One of my favorite things to do at the holidays is to sip on festive cocktails at the Beverly Wilshire while touring their luxurious lobby filled with Christmas trees. I also love visiting The Grove shopping center to see their jaw-dropping 100-foot white fir Christmas tree with more than 15,000 lights and 10,000 ornaments, visit Santa at his ‘cottage,’ and watch magical ‘snowflakes’ fall from above.” –Christine Kirk, founder and CEO of Social Muse Communications, Los Angeles, California
7. One-of-a-Kind Traditions in Oaxaca
“You’re not likely to see Santa Claus roaming around the zócalo (main plaza) in Oaxaca de Juárez; the traditions in Oaxaca are found nowhere else on Earth. The city abounds with calendas–processions of people on foot, carrying torches, followed by decorated vehicles, and huge dancing puppets accompanied by a band–and posadas, groups of families and neighbors led by children dressed as Mary and Joseph. On December 16th, the nine days of posadas begin, as well as the calenda of Oaxaca’s patron saint, the Virgin de Soledád (Virgin of Solitude). And the Noche de los Rábanos (Night of the Radishes), when the zócalo becomes the scene of a huge exhibition of figures sculpted from radishes, is also quite unique.” –Zachary Rabinor, CEO of JourneyMexico, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
8. Finding the Perfect Tree in Paris
“As a child, we would go and cut down our Christmas tree on our family’s ranch. It was so exciting to choose the perfect tree and bring it home. That same tradition continues to this day when I select over 50 trees for the Hotel George V at a place near Versailles called Jardin de Gally and choose the tree for my own home at a little flower shop in my Parisian neighborhood.” –Jeff Leatham, artistic director for the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris, France
9. Traditional Winter Foods in India
“During winter, the cuisine of local Kashmiris changes to heavy stews of goat meat, turnips, kohlrabi, radishes, lotus stems, and other winter vegetables. Families sit around a fire and hand huge pots of such stews back and forth for hours.” –Soumya Goswami, chef de cuisine at The Oberoi, New Delhi
10. Carriage Rides & Holiday Lights in Dallas
“The lights decorating the homes in the Park Cities area of Dallas are magical, and I love meeting up with my extended family to take a carriage ride and sip hot cocoa through the neighborhood. Some are elegant and reserved, others are dramatic and sparkly and, of course, there are always a few that have a bit of a Clark Griswald [of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation fame] inspiration. Afterwards, we all enjoy checking out the amazing Trains at NorthPark.” –Kimberly Schlegel Whitman, television host, author, and editor-at-large for Southern Living, Dallas, Texas
Annie Fitzsimmons is Intelligent Travel’s Urban Insider, giving you the dish on the best things to see and do in cities all over the world. Follow her on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram@anniefitzsimmons.