Image: Quebec City Winter
Megapress / Alamy
Spending the holidays in Quebec City, Canada, offers travelers Old-World charm (the city is 402 years old) and European flair without having to actually go to Europe.
updated 12/10/2010 9:37:33 AM ET 2010-12-10T14:37:33

Come December, Heidelberg, Germany, turns into a winter wonderland any Scrooge would don a Santa hat to experience. The best part? Weihnachtsmarkt, a mile-long string of outdoor markets that twinkle in the evening chill. As snowflakes drift down, you can shop for handmade ornaments while drinking hot spiced wine and eating freshly fried potato pancakes.

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This year, why settle for lukewarm eggnog and guests you didn’t really want to see anyway? Sure, crowds and unpredictable weather mean that holiday travel can be stressful, but this time of year is also a great opportunity to get away and explore a new spot. So we asked Travel + Leisure writers for their top holiday travel picks, like Heidelberg, which is one of Aimee Lee Ball’s favorite places.

Slideshow: Best places for holiday travel

Another option: Charleston, S.C., home of America’s most attractive people, according to our America’s Favorite Cities survey. Yes, the Christmas cheesiness culminates in a “charmingly motley holiday parade,” as writers Matt and Ted Lee put it, but it’s also prime time for local bivalve harvesting. Ask for a waterside table at Fleet Landing Restaurant & Bar, and you can dine on fresh seafood while eyeing decorated boats cruising around the harbor.

Slideshow: Holiday lights (on this page)

Further afield, Reykjavík, Iceland, is an adventurer’s dream with an otherworldly landscape. “Daylight is a four-hour affair,” says writer Jennifer Coogan, “and the liquid-green aurora borealis illuminates the nighttime sky.” As far as annual holiday traditions go, theirs may take the cake: Rather than Santa Claus, here you’ll find statues of 12 rosy-cheeked Yule Lads.

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Ringing in the New Year is a whole other story. You can celebrate on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, where everybody dons revealing all-white outfits and underwear that reflects their wish for the coming year (red is for — you guessed it — romance). “Up to two million people join you on the beach,” says writer Peter J. Frank. “Learn a few samba moves — the music goes well past midnight.”

Grandma may be disappointed if you spend the holidays away, but hey, isn’t that what postcards — and presents — are for?

Copyright © 2012 American Express Publishing Corporation

Photos: Holiday lights

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  1. Shaanxi Province, China

    A Christmas tree installed with lanterns, measuring over 10 meters high, is illuminated beside sculptures of ancient people in the background of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda on Dec. 24, in Xian of Shaanxi Province, China. Christmas is becoming increasingly popular in Chinese consumer culture, along with the Valentine's Day in February and Halloween in October. (China Photos / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Russia

    Fireworks explode around a Christmas tree in the center of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia on Friday, Dec. 24. (Ilya Naymushin / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Beijing, China

    People take pictures on a stairway at a shopping mall in Beijing, China, on Wednesday, Dec. 22. (Diego Azubel / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Washington, D.C.

    The National Christmas Tree is seen in front of the White House on Dec. 9 after President Barack Obama and his family helped light it. (Molly Riley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Beirut

    Fireworks explode as a giant Christmas tree and an old building in Beirut are illuminated Dec. 9 during the "Beirut Celebrates 2010" Christmas parade. (Mohamed Azakir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. New York

    The 78th annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree is pictured between sculptures of angels after the Nov. 30 lighting ceremony in New York. (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Moscow

    A Christmas tree is installed Dec. 2 in Moscow's Red Square with St. Basil Cathedral in the background. (Mikhail Metzel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Winterberg, Germany

    The historic center of Winterberg, with the St. Jakobus church in the background, is festively illuminated Nov. 24 for Christmas. (Julian Stratenschulte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Hong Kong

    From left, a 30-meter pyramid made up of crystal blocks is lit up Nov. 29 in front of skyscrapers in Hong Kong's financial business district during the Christmas lighting ceremony. (Ym Yik / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Washington, D.C.

    People attend the Christmas tree lighting ceremony on the west front of the U.S. Capitol building Dec. 7 while the Washington monument glows in the distance in Washington, D.C. This year's tree, a 67-foot Engelmann spruce, came from Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest. Strands of energy-efficient LED lights and hand-made ornaments from Wyoming residents decorate the tree. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. London

    Buses drive under the Christmas lights on Oxford Street Nov. 23 in London. (Ian Gavan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tokyo

    A couple walks toward a Christmas tree at a shopping mall Nov. 24 in Tokyo. (Yuriko Nakao / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Beals Island, Maine

    Albert Carver looks at a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree made of lobster traps Dec. 2 on Beals Island, Maine. Some of the top lobster-fishing ports in New England are claiming bragging rights about who has the biggest and best Christmas tree created from lobster traps. The groups that put up the trees say they draw attention to the ports' maritime heritage, bring people together and raise money for good causes. The tree in Beals helps raises money for the Beals-Jonesport Fourth of July festivities and the one in Gloucester benefits a nonprofit devoted to the arts. (Robert F. Bukaty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Berlin

    A vendor for Christmas stars awaits customers Nov. 22 at the Christmas market on the Alexanderplatz in Berlin. (Markus Schreiber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Gelsenkirchen, Germany

    A couple walk with their dog toward an illuminated Christmas tree Dec. 1 in front of a manor house in Gelsenkirchen, western Germany. (Martin Meissner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dortmund, Germany

    Children play with their sled in front of the house of Lutz Pingel, which is decorated with Christmas lights, on Nov. 30 in Dortmund, Germany. Each year several owners set up fairy lights at their houses for Christmas. (Ina Fassbender / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Frankfurt, Germany

    Hundreds of people gather at the Christmas Market in Frankfurt, Germany, which officially opened Nov. 24 with the lighting of the tree. (Michael Probst / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Tbilisi, Georgia

    An illumination resembling a Christmas tree is displayed Dec. 2 at the monument to St. George at the Freedom Square in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. (Shakh Aivazov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Cali, Colombia

    People look at illuminated Christmas decorations Dec. 6 in Cali, Colombia. (Jaime Saldarriaga / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. London

    Choristers perform in front of Westminster Abbey's Christmas tree Dec. 6 in Westminster, London. (Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Warsaw, Poland

    Christmas illuminations decorate the Royal Route on Dec. 2. in Warsaw, Poland. (Radek Pietruszka / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Dortmund, Germany

    People stand at a Christmas market stall in front of Germany's biggest Christmas tree Nov. 25 in the city center of Dortmund. The 45-meter tree is made of 1,700 Norway spruces and illuminated by 48,000 lamps. Christmas markets have been a German tradition for about 600 years and are found in nearly every city in Germany during the advent season. (Martin Meissner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Palawan city, Philippines

    Fireworks light up the sky Dec. 1 near the 120 foot-tall Christmas tree display at the Baywalk in Palawan city, Philippines. The Philippines, the largest Roman Catholic state in Asia, observes one of the longest Christmas holidays in the world, beginning with dawn masses on Dec. 16 to the feast of Three Kings in January. (Romeo Ranoco / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Rio de Janeiro

    Fireworks explode from a Christmas tree Dec. 4 during the lighting ceremony at Rodrigo de Freitas Lake in Rio de Janeiro. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Berlin

    Trees illuminated by Christmas lights are reflected in a puddle Nov. 25 in Unter den Linden street in Berlin. (Thomas Peter / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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