10 Magical Christmas Vacation Ideas for Families

These family-friendly Christmas vacation destinations go all in for the holidays.
German Christmas Markets (Photo: Juergen Sack, iStock via German National Tourist Office)
German Christmas Markets (Photo: Juergen Sack, iStock via German National Tourist Office)

Christmas getaways represent a rare opportunity for families who like to travel. Whether your kids are toddlers, teens, or all grown up, you can usually count on some time off from school and work for everyone to gather in one place. And one of the great things about Christmas vacations is they don’t have to be spent at home for everyone to have quality family time together. In fact, some of the best Christmas vacations for families are the trips where everyone’s traveling to a new and exciting destination that goes all in on Christmas spirit.

Where to Go for Christmas Vacations

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas (whether snow or sand), here’s where to go for Christmas in the U.S., Caribbean, Europe, and Central America.

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1. San Antonio, Texas

San Antonio River Walk at Christmas (Photo: Visit San Antonio)
San Antonio River Walk at Christmas (Photo: Visit San Antonio)

For hundreds of years, the home of the Alamo has adorned its iconic River Walk with Mexican Christmas lanterns believed to help light the way for the Holy Family. Families visiting San Antonio for Christmas vacations between mid-November and mid-January can immerse themselves in this awe-inspiring tradition either by foot or boat with Go Rio Cruises, a kid-friendly tour operator that even lets you stow strollers onboard.

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The holiday magic continues at The DoSeum, San Antonio’s kids museum, which hosts an elaborate Winter Wonderland event once a year; and at the San Antonio Botanical Garden, whose enchanting grounds twinkle with more than a million Christmas lights. Celebrations continue underground at the Natural Bridge Caverns, where professional Christmas carolers’ voices echo 180 feet below the surface.

2. Puerto Rico

La Fortaleza in Old San Juan decorated for Christmas (Photo: @agreateuropetripplanner via Twenty20)
La Fortaleza in Old San Juan decorated for Christmas (Photo: @agreateuropetripplanner via Twenty20)

Taking the award for world’s longest Christmas season, Puerto Rico makes it easy for families to plan Christmas vacations that suit their schedule and budget. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving and ending weeks after New Year’s Day, Puerto Rico’s Christmas celebrations comprise colorful street parties, boat parades, lights, lively music, and holiday dishes.

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One of the best places to visit for Christmas with family, San Juan is at the heart of Puerto Rico’s seasonal festivities. The city’s waterfront amphitheater, Bahia Urbana, becomes Navitown, a Christmas-themed carnival with rides, whimsical decorations, and a special rendition of Santa’s Workshop. 

3. German Christmas Markets

German Christmas Markets (Photo: Maik Schuck-Weimar GmbH via German National Tourist Office)
German Christmas Markets (Photo: Maik Schuck-Weimar GmbH via German National Tourist Office)

Nowhere else in the world does Christmas vacations quite like Germany. The birthplace of the Christkindlmarkt could easily light up a map with its sheer number of markets, each commingled with intricate wooden huts selling everything from handcrafted toys and ornaments to fresh-cooked delicacies and warm gluhwein

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While you really can’t go wrong with any German Christmas market destination, those in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Trier, and Dresden are particularly well regarded for their authenticity and kid-friendly atmosphere. For an extra special Christmas vacation, try a European river cruise: Family-favorite guided tour company Adventures by Disney has both Rhine and Danube Christmas market cruises.

4. St. Augustine, Florida

Plaza Gazebo during Nights of Lights (Photo: St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, and The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau)
Plaza Gazebo during Nights of Lights (Photo: St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra, and The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau)

America’s oldest city, St. Augustine, has had a lot of time to build upon its Christmas traditions over the years. The city’s annual Night of Lights event, during which three million white lights illuminate the historic district from mid-November to late January, has been recognized as one of the world’s top light displays.

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In addition to this feast for the senses, families can savor the holiday spirit on Christmas vacations with cheerfully cheeky historical tours, St. Augustine’s annual Christmas Parade, and the Holiday Regatta of Lights. Landmark attractions such as the Castillo de San Marcos and the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum are also incorporated into the city’s Christmas experiences. 

5. South Tyrol, Italy

South Tyrol Christmas Markets (Photo: IDM Sudtirol-Alto Adige:Alex Filz)
South Tyrol Christmas Markets (Photo: IDM Sudtirol-Alto Adige:Alex Filz)

Cocooned amongst fairy tale towns like Bolzano, Merano, Brunico, Vipiteno, and Bressanone, dramatic views of the Dolomites and Italian Alps serve as the backdrop to South Tyrol’s Christmas markets. Appearances by Santa Claus, horse-drawn carriages, Thun teddy bears, and the world-famous Angel of Bozen further make it one of the best places to visit for Christmas with your family.

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Adding to the region’s charm is its melding of Italian, German, Austrian, and Ladin (native Dolomiten) cultures. Families will enjoy chowing down on Tyrolean goulash, strudels, and other diverse specialties while relishing the local scenery, history, and traditions. Bonus: The region is also known for some of Europe’s best skiing.

6. Costa Rica 

Costa Rica beach (Photo: @ridenourphoto via Twenty20)
Costa Rica beach (Photo: @ridenourphoto via Twenty20)

Adventurous families love Costa Rica family vacations, but many people are surprised to discover Costa Rica is one of the best Christmas vacations for families too. The Christmas spirit shines in one of the country’s most distinctive holiday events, Tope Nacional de Caballos, a horseback parade held in San Jose every December 26.

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Beyond this popular tradition, float parades, musical festivals, and beautifully handcrafted nativity scenes light up throughout the country during the holiday season. Perhaps the biggest draw? Perfect weather to enjoy activities ranging from hiking and zip lining to beaching and hot spring-dipping.

7. Madeira, Portugal

Christmas in Madeira (Photo: Henrique Seruca via Visit Madeira)
Christmas in Madeira (Photo: Henrique Seruca via Visit Madeira)

When you think of Christmas vacations in Europe, you may not immediately picture sun-drenched volcanic islands sprinkled with colorful villages. But Madeira, Portugal, offers the best of both worlds for Christmas vacations: all the magical sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of a European Christmas plus warm weather.

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The city of Funchal‘s historic walking area, Avenida Arriaga, comes alive with Christmas carolers, illuminated botanical gardens, and tropical-themed Christmas markets selling handcrafted goods and mulled wine. Kids will revel in (snow-free) toboggan rides, the toy museum, and a storybook theme park for all ages.

8. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Indoor Christkindlmarkt (Photo: Discover Lehigh Valley)
Indoor Christkindlmarkt (Photo: Discover Lehigh Valley)

About an hour north of Philadelphia in the Lehigh Valley is a town straight out of a Hallmark movie: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. During the holiday season, the Christmas City makes kids’ wishes come true with a chance to read stories with Santa, get crafty with his elves, and participate in a gingerbread man decorating contest.

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Bethlehem’s Main Street is lined with traditional Christmas markets (with some also indoors), while choir singers serenade visitors. Parents can have fun sipping their way along the Holiday Cocktail Trail. Bethlehem is also less than 20 minutes from the Delaware River Railroad, one of only a handful of tracks offering Polar Express-themed train rides.

9. St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands

Christmas Boat Parade (Photo: Go to St. Croix)
Christmas Boat Parade (Photo: Go to St. Croix)

One of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix fills its holiday calendar with various events geared toward families. Popular Christmas vacation activities here include visits from Santa, face-painting, games, and arts and crafts.

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Noteworthy events include the St. Croix Christmas Boat Parade in Christiansted, Gallows Bay Holiday Festival, Frederiksted’s Holiday Fest, and Caribbean Christmas markets in the St. George Village Botanical Garden. The Crucian Christmas Festival is also celebrated across the island, while local organizations host fundraiser events in the island’s main towns, all within a short driving distance from one another.

10. Coastal New England

Christmas in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (Photo: Will Zimmermann)
Christmas in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (Photo: Will Zimmermann)

Experiencing Christmas in New England’s small coastal towns and villages is like stepping back in time. Using Boston as a stepping stone, you can get a taste of the region’s timeless traditions in three different states along the coast (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine) with festivities generally taking place from late November through December.

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Noteworthy holiday celebrations can be found in Salem, Massachusetts; Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and Kennebunkport, Maine. All easily accessible by car from Boston, these charming little cities bring the holiday magic to life with activities such as a holiday trolley ride with the Good Witch of Salem, a candlelight walk in Portsmouth, and a special visit from Santa in Kennebunkport, who arrives by lobster boat.

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Gina Kramer
Flip through Gina's passport, and you might be surprised to see that her extensive stamp collection excludes a lot of major cities. It's a reflection of her appetite for exploring more underrated destinations. From climbing the remote mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina to town-hopping in Tunisia, Gina is always on a mission to take the road less traveled . . . even if it's shared by Burmese pythons, rabid dogs, and other precarious creatures. Her solo-traveling days might be over, but the search for humbling moments and "Indiana Jones" adventures still serve as inspiration for future travels with her husband and son.

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