15 of the best places to spend Christmas

(CNN)Any old city can string up a few lights downtown and call it a holiday celebration.

From Mexico to Malta, northern lights to sunny skies, these places are doing Christmas better than the rest this year.

    Malta

    Visiting presepju, or nativity scenes, is an integral part of Christmas in Malta.
    Every year, residents proudly open their shutters, and sometimes even their garage doors, to display their holy crib confections to the public.
    On a grander scale, the Bethlehem f’Ghajnsielem is a life-size nativity experience spread over 20,0000 square meters of formerly abandoned fields.
    Inhabited and animated by more than 150 actors, including entire families, the village takes visitors back in time to Judea of 2,000 years ago, complete with oil lamps, turn mills, grazing animals, crafts areas teaching traditional skills and folklore, a tavern and, of course, a grotto housing baby Jesus.
    Downtown Valletta is also home to a lively Christmas spirit, with carolers singing outside the Baroque St. John’s Co-Cathedral during Advent, and a dizzying display of Christmas lights on Republic Street.
    The Manoel Theater is well known for its annual Christmas pantomime — this year it’s festive favorite “Puss in Boots.”
    A visit to the privately owned Malta Toy Museum, featuring dolls, soldiers, train sets, and clockwork tin trinkets dating as far back as the 1790s, is a heartwarming homage to childhood.

    New York

    Rockefeller Center lies at the core of the New York Christmas.
    Its famed ice rink has been around for 80 years; the decorated tree has been a holiday tradition since 1931.
    Across the street, Radio City hosts the annual Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes.
    On the southwest corner of Central Park, Columbus Circle hosts more than 100 vendors selling clothes, gifts, snacks and drinks at the Holiday Market.
    Central Park has two ponds for skating and horse-drawn carriage rides.
    Fashion’s biggest names join in the festivities, setting up impressive Christmas window displays.
    The most glamorous cases, at the Fifth Avenue flagships and department stores like Saks and Bergdorf, are impressive enough to melt the heart of Anna Wintour.

    Bath, England

    There are few cities in the world where you can celebrate the birth of Jesus and the birth of Jane Austen with the same amount of fanfare, but Bath happens to be one of them.
    2017 marks the 200th anniversary of the much-loved writer’s death, and while the main Austen love-in is during the festival in September, the Jane Austen Centre — and on-site Regency Tearoom — is the best place to learn about the city’s most famous resident.
    The Theatre Royal, which Austen mentions in “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion,” has a varied program of holiday drama, musicals, opera and concerts, including “Aladdin” and “Robin Hood.”
    A little earlier in the season (the 2016 dates were November 24 to December 11), the Bath Christmas Market has more than 170 wooden chalets selling distinctively British handmade crafts in a quaint Georgian setting.
    Straddled between the imposing Bath Abbey and the venerable Roman Baths, the market offers a festive way to discover the character of Bath, which is the only entire city in the UK to have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
    Bath on Ice (until January 3, 2017) is a great excuse to bundle up and lace up skates, while the Thermae Bath Spa is the perfect reason to strip down and savor the steam emanating from the thermal mineral-rich waters of an open-air rooftop pool with spectacular views over the city.

    Barcelona, Spain

    The

    Christmas is a year-round occasion in this town of fewer than 3,000 residents.
    Santa Claus, Indiana, receives thousands of letters a year from children trying to reach St. Nick himself.
    A group of volunteers called Santa’s Elves was set up in the mid-1930s to reply to each letter.
    The Land of Lights display is a 1.2-mile drive around the Lake Rudolph Campground & RV Resort.
    Among various Christmas-themed events, Santa hosts buffet dinners at Santa’s Lodge the first three weekends in December.

    Strasbourg, France

    Strasbourg‘s series of themed Christmas villages morph the city into a visual and gastronomic wonderland.
    300 stalls are spread out over 12 locations, with Luxembourg being honored this year with its own dedicated village.
    Visitors can feast on Luxembourg-style gromperekichelcher (potato cakes) and boxemannercher (brioche men), washed down with gluhwain (mulled wine).
    Alongside the traditional market, there’s the new OFF alternative Christmas fair, featuring live music and a street art trail.

    Queenstown, New Zealand

    The traditional Christmas colors of red, green and white take on an entirely new meaning in New Zealand, where red represents the “pohutukawa” (New Zealand’s ruby-red flowering Christmas tree), white represents the pristine sandy beaches, and green? The kiwi, of course!
    Sun-lovers who want to join Santa in his surf shorts should definitely head to Queenstown, where warm summer temperatures mean folks can jetboat, river surf, or paraglide on Lake Wakatipu, or simply set up camp along the lakefront and enjoy a hearty Christmas meal of lamb, seafood, and chicken on the barbie.

    Valkenburg, The Netherlands

    This small town is the Dutch center for Christmas festivities.
    Valkenburg’s Velvet Cave is transformed into a Christmas Market and the residence of Santa, where visitors can see his room of presents and reindeer sleigh.
    The cavern houses sculptures and an 18th-century chapel, as well as preserved mural drawings that date to Roman times.
    Gifts, luxuries, culinary treats and traditional crafts can be found at Valkenburg’s Christmas market.
    Best way to reach the Christmas town? A Christmas Express train that runs regularly between Simpelveld and Valkenburg.
    Originally published December 2013, updated December 2016.

    Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/06/travel/christmas-destinations-2015/index.html