SAN FRANCISCO, Dec 14 - Just like each family has their own holiday traditions, so does every city. Whether it's a special event or seasonal decorations, if you're traveling this month, you don't have to forgo the excitement of the holidays. For those planning to travel over the holidays who want to visit a place known for holiday excitement, the members and editors of VirtualTourist have compiled a list of the "Top Ten Spots for Holiday Lights and Decorations." Reuters has not endorsed this list:
1. Vienna, Austria
If you're considering visiting Europe this December, VirtualTourist members recommend spending time in Vienna. Advent, the period of preparation before Christmas, begins on the Sunday four weeks before Christmas Eve, so Viennese celebrations and decorations often begin in mid-November. On some of the city's busiest streets, garlands of lights and illuminated chandeliers glow above pedestrians. Rathausplatz, the square in front of the town hall, is home to Christkindlmarkt, a traditional Christmas market complete with vendors selling apfel strudel, gluhwein (mulled wine), and lebkuchen (gingerbread). There are many Christmas Markets throughout the city, but another member favorite is at Schonbrunn Palace, particularly because of the fantastic decorations outside the ochre building. VirtualTourist members said that perfectly dressed Christmas trees appear in most open spaces, and even some of the trams are decorated with large, golden bows.
2. Copenhagen, Denmark
Another European city with great architecture, Copenhagen is a perfect spot to get into the holiday spirit. One of Europe's longest pedestrian streets, Stroget is decorated with garlands, illuminated stars, and glowing red hearts hanging overhead. Tivoli Gardens is also located in the Inner City and is a must-see for visitors looking for unique decorations. The world's second oldest amusement park, Tivoli is always filled with rides, food stalls, and well-kept gardens, but come November, the entire park is sparkling with tiny lights and glass ornaments. From November 16 to December 30, the park has Russian Christmas and Nordic Christmas themes, side by side. With six additional rides open during the Christmas season, there is also a traditional Christmas market with over 50 stalls, selling pastries, gingerbread, pancakes, and Scandinavian crafts.
3. Hong Kong
The skyscrapers, reflective harbor, and mix of Western and Eastern traditions make Hong Kong a city uniquely built for holiday spectacle. This year's annual WinterFest is partnered with Tiffany & Co., so the brand will be taking over Statue Square in the Central district of Hong Kong Island with its signature Tiffany Blue hue, even including the 18-meter-tall (60 feet) Christmas tree. On Lantau Island, Hong Kong Disneyland has Christmas illuminations all along its Main Street, U.S.A. Further inland, New Town Plaza hosts the "Starlight Romance" illumination show, with more than 100,000 flashing bulbs synchronized to festive music. All three events, WinterFest, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Starlight Romance, are available for viewing now and run through January 1. In addition to visiting these spots, don't forget to take a harbor night cruise and experience all the additional lights with the already stunning Hong Kong skyline.
4. Gothenburg, Sweden
By December, the days in Sweden are very short (some cities only have five hours of daylight), so they have a great excuse for extensive holiday lighting. Almost directly north of Copenhagen, the city of Gothenburg on Sweden's western coast is known throughout the country for its seasonal spirit. Starting at the city's harbor, a three kilometer (1.86 mile) "Lane of Light" guides you through the city to Liseberg, the largest amusement park in the Nordic countries. From November 16 to December 23, Liseberg is lit by about five million Christmas lights, as well as host Sweden's largest traditional Christmas market. Visitors can also experience the Lucia celebrations, one of Sweden's most important cultural traditions. While historians may debate the tradition's origins, it centers around Lucia being a mythical figure who is the bearer of light in the dark Swedish winters, with the holiday traditionally falling on the longest night of the year. Dressed in white with an illuminated wreath on her head, the role of Lucia is a prized position in every town in Sweden, tasked with leading a progression through the town. Gothenburg claims to have the world's longest Lucia parade, which took place on December 12 this year.
5. Newport, Rhode Island
While much coverage of holiday decorations is focused on lights, there are many other kinds of decorations, and few buildings in the world are as ornately constructed and decorated without holiday embellishments as the Mansions of Newport, Rhode Island. Originally built for coal magnates and railroad barons, the Mansions are a symbol of post-Industrial Revolution wealth, but also an important moment in American history - seven of the eleven historic properties are National Historic Landmarks. The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House are filled with thousands of poinsettias, evergreens, and wreaths, as well as every window in each mansion lit with individual white candles, keeping with the colonial tradition. The Elms' ballroom features a 15 foot tall poinsettia "tree" made up of approximately 150 individual red poinsettia plants. All three houses are decorated and open daily for tours from Saturday, November 17 through Tuesday, January 1, 2013. For those wanting to share their Christmas wish list with Santa, each Sunday in December until Christmas, he makes a public appearance at once of the Mansions.
6. Medellin, Colombia
While many focus on the Christmas markets and decorations in Europe, multiple members mentioned the light displays in South America as being among the best they've seen. Medellín, Colombia is famous for los alumbrados (the luminaries) that it erects in early December. The lights are everywhere throughout the city, even decorative design on each streetlight, but there are two recommended spots to take in the spectacle. Many of the larger displays are positioned along the Rio Medellin, which is easily accessible to anyone visiting the city. One VirtualTourist member suggested visiting the Pueblito Paisa, a miniature replica of a traditional Antioquian town, which is situated atop Cerro Nutibara. In addition to seeing the colonial-style architecture illuminated, the pueblito has an adjacent platform which provides fantastic panoramic views of the city and alumbrados below. This year, los alumbrados will be running from December 3- January 8.
7. Canyon Lights at Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver, BC
If you'd prefer to see your sparkling lights in a more natural setting, few places offer opportunities like Vancouver, British Columbia. At Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, guests can explore the forest and treetops amidst Canyon Lights, the park's holiday light display. The suspension bridge is lined with thousands of twinkling lights, and the park's newest attraction, Cliffwalk, a series of cantilevered and suspended walkways jutting out from the granite cliff face above the Capilano River, provide ample viewing opportunities for visitors to watch a dancing light display on the cliff-face. In addition to the light display, the park also provides a scavenger hunt for children, gingerbread cookie decorating, glass blowing demonstrations, and sing-a-longs with a live band. Canyon Lights runs from December 1 to January 5 and is closed December 25.
8. Kobe, Japan
While many of the spots on this list are simply holiday decorations, the Kobe Luminarie in Kobe, Japan reminds us to be thankful during the holiday season. Instead of a holiday light spectacle, the Kobe Luminarie is actually a constructed light sculpture memorial dedicated to victims of the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995. An annual event since 1995, the Luminarie runs for approximately 12 days during the holiday season. Over 200,000 lights are used each year, with the aim of giving hope to survivors of the earthquake. Last year, the Luminarie also held a special exhibition for the Tohoku/East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. This year, drawings by children from the Tohoku region were used to make lanterns that will be put on display for Luminarie visitors. There are many street stalls at the event site, offering both Western-style food (e.g. hotdogs) and Japanese-style food (e.g. takoyaki, yakisoba, etc.). Nearby, Nankin-machi, the second largest Chinatown in Japan, is also within walking distance. This year, the memorial runs from December 6 - December 17.
9. St. Augustine, Florida
Commonly known as the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine's original claim to fame is being the first European city in North America. Now, the city is also very well known for its outstanding holiday light display, called the Nights of Lights. The celebration, which runs two months long, includes lighting three million white lights the Saturday before Thanksgiving, as well as a variety of tours and events that run through January 31. Tracing its origins to the Spanish tradition of displaying a lighted white candle during the Christmas holidays, the spectacular display reflects the city's 446-year history and highlights the city's colonial architecture. A unique opportunity is a candlelight tour of Villa Zorayda, a museum whose building is credited with beginning the revival of Moorish Spanish architecture seen throughout St. Augustine today. These tours run on Fridays and Saturdays throughout December. Strolling St. George Street, the pedestrian street in the heart of the historic preservation district offers abundant opportunities to pick up gifts for those left on your list, with art galleries, jewelry artisans, and sweet shops.
10. Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Picturesque Old Québec is already beautiful, but a dusting of snow and streets lined with Christmas trees make it a perfect place to celebrate the holidays. The city's varied neighborhoods are perfect for exploring on foot. At the Old Port Market, the Marche de Noel Christmas Market runs from November 22 through December 31, offering market-fresh foods and artisan products. A stroll around the Place Royale will provide much eye candy, with more than 20 art galleries and a range of artisans from glass-blowers to violin-makers who call the neighborhood home. Nearby, the Quartier Petit Champlain's neighborhood park will be adorned with holiday lighting, and the bistros lining the street will provide a chance to warm up. Christmas walking tours are offered every Saturday and Sunday of December, as well as every day from December 22 to January 2, with a licensed guide who educates visitors of the Christmas tradition in Old Quebec. The last two weeks of the year, the city hosts "QuebecAdabra!" a light show inspired by the "light events" held in Lyon, France, among other cities, but running during the prime holiday season.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)