When it comes to the holidays, we tend to think in binaries. Either you’re a traditionalist, the kind who turns up Johnny Mathis when it comes on the radio and gets misty-eyed at the sight of flocked Christmas trees strung with homemade popcorn, or you’re a modernist, whose idea of “holiday sweater” is a fine cabled cashmere in a muted green and makes no secret of their disdain for eggnog.
But Christmas is not a two-party system. After all, Christmas is not even strictly American. Its origins reach deep into both sacred and pagan roots from way across the pond. Which, with all the turmoil our nation has been through recently, feels like a pretty good place to be.
If all you want for Christmas is an escape, you’re in luck. We’ve put together a shortlist of dreamy destinations where you can enjoy the holiday in mellow contemplation, Old World cultural traditions, and communion with nature. Oh, and did we mention they all involve waking up in a castle? Bottom line, these destinations are perfect for anyone who is dreaming of a white Christmas without any reference to Bing Crosby, cartoon TV specials, or that Coca-Cola Santa Claus.
Stockholm offers the perfect marriage of traditional and modern for the holiday vacationer. The Gamla Stan district is about as close to a fairytale as you can get, with its towering rows of jewel-toned buildings clustered around a cobblestone square. In the winter, this Old Town is packed with holiday cheer — the air teems with the smell of glögg, pepparkakor, and even smoked reindeer, and artisans turn out their best workmanship from the comfort of little red stalls placed all over the square.
Round about the same time, museum and cultural center Artipelag opens its restaurant doors for an all-day Christmas buffet. As much a feast for the eyes as the taste buds, this locavore smorgasbord offers Scandinavian holiday treats (think salmon gravlax, house-cured ham with “Christmas mustard” and barley malt bread, and saffron buns) paired with a curated selection of hometown microbrews, biodynamic wines, and liqueurs. Stuff your face by the roaring fire while taking in the panoramic views of the Baggensfjärden archipelago or visit at night to enjoy an accompanying performance from Cirkus Cirkör, a contemporary circus troupe specializing in acrobatics and vaudeville antics.
If you’re feeling ambitious, you can sign up to run through the central Stockholm with over 1,000 other athletes all costumed as Santa Claus. Or you can just take the opportunity to order room service and enjoy a sauna session at the Hotel Diplomat, a former Art Nouveau palace on Stockholm’s harborside Strandvägen that features a rotating collection of Scandinavian art both classic and modern.
Spend your holiday like a character in a BBC period drama at the Swinton Park Hotel, a former castle ensconced in the moody Yorkshire Dales. The ancestral seat of the Earl of Swinton offers a grand yet warm welcome to life within a traditional English country house. Perfect for celebrating in sumptuous but low-key style, the hotel offers just 32 rooms, each unique in style and structure, all featuring views of the Castle grounds and the county’s daleside. We’re partial to the Turret Suite, a three-level guest suite located in the hotel’s circular tower. In-house restaurant Samuel’s, known for standout seasonal British food, will serve a festive Christmas supper in the castle drawing room. Dishes like treacle-cured salmon, venison Wellington and woodland mushroom tart taste even better accompanied by the warmth of an open log fire, the flicker of candlelight, and the harmonies of a local choir singing ancient Christmas music.
New Year’s Eve brings a two-day showcase of the Swinton Estate’s best attractions. The holiday starts with a bracing dip in the outdoor natural pool (or, for the less-Spartan personalities, a visit to the thermal retreat), followed by a dinner at Samuel’s. The next day, you can commune with nature during a guided walk to Swinton Bivouac, take a cooking lesson at the Cookery School, or test your oenophiliac expertise in Swinton’s infamous Fizz Quiz, before suiting up for the estate’s black-tie party. Things kick off with Champagne and canapés in the drawing room, move to a seven-course feast in Samuel’s, and wind up with a masquerade ball and casino in the library.
In between holidays, enjoy the leisurely pleasures of an English gentleman on the neighboring moorland — from horseback riding to falconry, from shooting to fishing, you’ll revel in the moody quiet and sere, mist-draped beauty of this unforgettable landscape.
Rheinland-Pfalz Region, Germany
Germany’s Christmas markets are the pattern from which all American holiday festivals are cut, and those featured in the tiny half-timbered villages of the Rheinland-Pfalz are the best of them all. Exploring the countryside at Christmastime means discovering one central square after another festively lit and infused with the smell of Gluhwein, each with its own unique take on the holiday market tradition.
In Koblenz, the baroque Town Hall will be turned into a giant Advent Calendar. In Trier, the Mulled Wine Queen will pour a tasting of premium wines grown in the region’s surrounding vineyards. Some of the more unique markets include the one in Traben-Trarbach, which takes place underground in romantically lit wine cellars, or the one in Bad Kreuznach, held in an 850-year-old church. Depending on when and where you visit, you’ll discover choirs, music societies, even a singing Santa Claus, as well as towering Christmas trees.
Make sure to spend a morning or two wandering through the frosty mountain ranges that border the Rhine river valley, and you’ll see why UNESCO designated this region a World Heritage area. Enjoy a visit to the wellness center, Baderhaus, for an hour or two in the sauna or steam room, then end your day at Johann Lafers Stromburg, a romantic castle turned into a ten-room boutique hotel. Built in 1056, it is now under the care of one of Germany’s most famous chefs, who pulls out all the stops at Christmastime with a four-course dinner and wine pairing finished up with a display of iconic German holiday sweets.
Gröbminger Land, Austria
Located high in the Austrian Alps, the Hotel Schloss-Thannegg is a restored medieval castle that combines ancient historical charm with the comfort of a four-star hotel. Add in ecologically responsible updates, a quiet, nature-surrounded location, and an 850-year-old wine cellar, and we’re not sure why you’d want to spend Christmas anywhere else. Wake up to the winter panorama each morning from your sun-soaked guest suite featuring Swiss pine furniture, white-tiled bathrooms, separate dining areas and even underfloor heating.
During the day, you can alternate between sleigh rides and spa treatments, moonlight sledding, and visits to the sauna; medieval Styrian feasts in the Knights’ hall; and breakfast buffets sourced from local organic farms. Best of all, the hotel provides a free bus to nearby Ski-amadé, which offers 860 km of slopes, 270 lifts. and 360 different runs. You can also find a wealth of folky Christmas events, such as music performances, nativity plays, and holiday markets in the surrounding villages.
Who says castles only exist in the Old World? The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel rings in the holiday season with an abundance of events and special offerings that render its already palatial ambiance downright otherworldly. Set amid the magical snow-covered backdrop of Banff National Park, the hotel offers daily guided wilderness walks, classic Canadian winter sports like curling and ball hockey, backcountry snowshoe expeditions organized around themes such as local history and Hollywood backdrops (many scenes from The Revenant and The Bourne Legacy were filmed nearby), sleigh rides around Lake Louise, ice walks through a frozen canyon, and (of course) access to world-renowned powder runs.
Since Canadian holidays are stacked back to back, why not chase your decadent Christmas Day dinner with a follow-up Boxing Day brunch? Stick around another week, and you’ll get to enjoy an intimate, locally sourced wine-pairing dinner in the hotel wine cellar, followed by a posh-as-can-be black-tie New Year’s Eve Gala in the Van Horne Ballroom.
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