People & Places
Bucket List Trips: 21 Must Visit Holiday Festivals From Around the World
December 04, 2018
All around the world, it's holiday season...
In Europe, holiday revelers embrace the cold weather with lavish night markets and kitschy winter carnivals. In Asia, you’ll find a wide variety of festivals both ancient and modern, highlighting the continent’s great diversity. In Africa, you might find a mix of traditional Christian Christmas activities, early Carnival parties and festivals celebrating the great Sahara desert. And then there’s the Southern hemisphere, which enjoys a summer season in December, with festivals to reflect the warm vibes.
And so, to celebrate the holiday season we’ve compiled a list of what we think are the 21 must-see holiday festivals.
So if you’re tired of the same old holiday traditions, grab our collection of merino wool clothing and pack your bags for one of these awesome festivals.
1. Austria: Krampusnacht
Remember that Christmas horror movie that came out back in 2015 called Krampus? Well, that was based on real folklore. Krampus, a half-goat, half-demon (let that image sink in for a second) who punishes ill-behaved children somehow got his own festival: “Krampusnacht”, or Krampus Night.
While the demon holiday is celebrated all around the Alpine region, it is perhaps best experienced in Austria’s Tyrol region, in cities like Innsbruck or Lienz, where roving hordes of Krampus demons can be found parading at night. Buy yourself a mask and partake in the festivities, or simply watch from afar with a glass of Krampus Schnapps (fruit brandy).
When: December 5th or 6th.
Where: Innsbruck, Lienz, Graz
2. Switzerland: L’Escalade
In 1602, when the Duke of Savoy tried to surprise attack the city of Geneva by scaling the city walls in the night, the Geneva army successfully fought him off with the help of other Swiss cities. To this day, this victory and act of Swiss solidarity is celebrated in Geneva.
In true Swiss fashion, the festivities involve a lot of chocolate. Festivalgoers break open large cauldrons of chocolate and marzipan meant to represent the cauldrons of hot liquid poured on the enemy Savoy as they scaled (Escalade) the city walls. Sure, it has a bit of a barbaric backstory, but it’s really just an excuse to eat a lot of chocolate, drink some mulled wine and watch a costumed parade.
A word on clothing, though: Geneva in the winter can be pretty biting, so check out our compact travel hoodie as a way to layer in style.
When: December 11th
3. The Netherlands: Amsterdam Light Festival
The Netherlands cements its reputation as a hip, artistic hub every single year with the Amsterdam Light Festival, a series of light installations around the city done by renowned international artists. You can see the installation on foot, or by bike, but probably the best – and most uniquely Amsterdam – way of seeing it is to do a canal boat tour.
The canal boat isn’t as touristy as it sounds; in fact, many locals choose to see it this way. But regardless of how you see it, the Light Festival is a marvel, illuminating (literally) an already vibrant city. Of course, as with many other Dutch festivals, it’s often used as an excuse to get outside and party, so make sure to grab a Dutch beer while you’re at it.
When: Late November to late January
4. Turkey: The Rumi Whirling Dervishes Festival
“Travel brings power and love back into your life”. That’s a quote from the 13th Century mystic poet Rumi, for whom the Whirling Dervish festival is named. Whirling Dervishes, if you’re unfamiliar, are members of a Muslim Sufi order known for their exuberant, whirling, religious dance.
Based in the city of Konya, in the central Anatolian region of Turkey, the Whirling Dervishes have their Rumi festival every December. A spectacle of masterful dancing and artistic expression, the festival draws thousands of people in from both Turkey and abroad.
While other entries in this list are more geared toward the gustatory or party-centric side of the holiday season, this one is a profound, powerful visual experience, unlike any other in the world.
When: December 10th to December 18th
5. Guatemala: Fiesta de Santo Tomas & La Quema del Diablo
There’s a two-for-one special every December in Guatemala: the Fiesta de Santo Tomas (Feast of Saint Thomas) and La Quema del Diablo (The Burning of the Devil). The former is one of the most hotly anticipated festivals in Central America, complete with a week of costumed parades, fireworks, dances and death-defying pole climbing.
The latter – La Quema del Diablo – is exactly how it sounds. To cleanse their home of any evil that might be lingering around at the closing of the calendar year, Guatemalans take to the streets to burn a large effigy of the devil. Sure, sometimes the effigy is made of trash, and you might get a bit of a smoky trash smell on your clothes, but at least with our travel clothes for men and women washing and drying is a breeze!
When: The Quema del Diablo takes place December 7th. The Fiesta de Santo Tomas takes place December 13th to the 21st.
Where: You can catch the Quema del Diablo all over Guatemala, but it is particularly fun in Antigua. You can catch the Fiesta de Santo Tomas in Chichicastenango.
6. The Bahamas: Junkanoo
Leave it to the Caribbean to throw one of the most extravagant, fun and unabashedly colorful parties in the world. Busy with dance troupes, music, costumes and food, the Junkanoo is a party that’s months in the making, and just experiencing one minute of it, you’ll realize the appeal.
It’s a full-on, pleasure-driven assault of the senses, and one of the best excuses to escape the cold countries during the holiday season and head south. While there are Junkanoo festivals all over the Bahamas, the biggest and most famous one takes place in the capital city of Nassau. You can, of course, catch Junkanoo festivals in South Florida spots like Key West and Miami, where there’s a sizeable Bahamian population.
When: December 26th and January 1st
Where: Nassau, Freeport, Miami
7. New York City: Christmas
You’ve seen it in countless movies and TV shows: the iconic big city Christmas, complete with bags of gifts from Saks Fifth Avenue, ice skating at the Wollman rink in Central Park and, of course, gazing at the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. New York is pretty buzzing any time of year, but it becomes especially great around Christmas.
It’s not the cheapest trip to take, but if you stay in one of the outer boroughs, like Queens or Brooklyn, you can at least cut down on accommodation (a bit). You can easily subway wherever you want to go, visiting lesser known holiday attractions, like the Winter Village at Bryant Park, WinterFest at the Brooklyn Museum, or – for more of a Hebrew hook-up – the MatzoBall mingle in Bowery.
We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg on things to do in the quintessential bucket-list destination. You’re going to want to be outdoors for much of your trip, taking in the sights, so pack our merino crew long sleeve travel shirt as a base layer to stay insulated and comfortable.
When: Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day
Where: New York City
8. Colombia: Ferias de Cali
Book your accommodations in Cali early, because this festival gets very popular with Colombians. Cali, which is a little Southwest of the capital city Bogota, is known as the “Salsa capital”, and during the Ferias de Cali, you can find marathons of salsa all throughout the streets. That’s right: marathons of salsa.
There are also bullfights, parades, concerts, competitions, horse riding and plenty of beverages (although the last two shouldn’t be mixed!). Whether you’re into salsa music, or you’re just into having a good time, this Colombian festival should be on your holiday bucket list. Make sure to also visit nearby Bogota while you’re there, the hub of Colombian culture.
When: December 25th to December 30th
9. Iran: Yalda Night
In celebration of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, Iranian families get together to eat, drink, play music and recite poetry. Steeped in tradition, the average Yalda table might have foods like fish and rice, as well as fruits like watermelon and pomegranate, among other dishes.
While normally a family affair, Iranians are very welcoming by nature so you might be able to celebrate with a stranger if you play your cards right. Otherwise, all over the capital of Tehran and surrounding city there will at least be a publically festive atmosphere to enjoy.
Lump in a trip to the historic city of Esfahan, a marvel of Persian and Islamic architecture, as well as to the ancient city of Persepolis. Just be sure to check your country’s travel warnings before jetting off.
When: December 20th, 21st or 22nd
Where: Tehran, Esfahan, Yazd
10. India: Sunburn Festival
Not all holiday festivals are traditional: some are just about getting together in the heat of India with a bunch of strangers and listening to thumping EDM. India might not be the first country that comes to mind when you think of electronic music, but the Sunburn festival isn’t just a small-time event – each year, the festival attracts around 350,000 people and some star DJ acts.
Go for the tunes, stay for the pyrotechnics, light shows and carnival-like atmosphere. Of course, it’s still in India, so there’s still a ton of delicious food at the festival too. And if you’re looking to keep the sweat off yourself as you dance in the hot sun, check out these travel packs Unbound Merino offers, which can include socks, shirts, underwear and travel hoodies, each made with sweat-wicking, breathable Merino wool.
And, as per the festival name, you might want to pack some sunscreen too.
When: December 29th to 31st
Where: Oxford Golf Resort, Pune
11. Israel: Hanukkah
While you can find Hanukkah celebrations around the world, nowhere is the eight-day festival more significant or prevalent than in Israel. Take in the many different menorah designs on display in the Old City of Jerusalem (it’s called the “Festival of Lights for good reason), and watch the annual torch relay that runs from the city of Modi’in to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, where the torch is used to light a large, public menorah.
And the food – definitely don’t skip the festive food! Traditionally, you’ll find what are called Sufganiyah, Jewish jelly donuts topped with powdered sugar. Other fried foods, like potato latkes, are common as well. Most businesses stay open over Hanukkah, so you should have no trouble finding basic necessities.
When: Eight days in December (its Gregorian calendar dates change each year)
Where: All over Israel, but Jerusalem in particular.
12. China: Dongzhi Festival
Here’s another festival commemorating the winter solstice, one that’s actually practiced all over East Asia, in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and mainland China. For the purposes of this list – and your bucket list – however, we’ve decided to narrow it down to China. The north of China in particular.
Northern China can get bitingly cold in the winter, and to offset the chill, people traditionally eat a lot of fatty dumplings and warming soups for the Dongzhi festival. A city like the capital, Beijing, is your best bet for being immersed in the festival action, but you could also head to a Northern-ish coastal city like Qingdao (famous for its beer and German architecture), or a very Northern city like Harbin (famous for its winter ice castles).
If you don’t want to go to the mainland, try Taiwan. They take the Dongzhi festival very seriously, ceremonially worshipping ancestors and eating a sweet soup of glutinous rice (almost like a mochi soup).
When: December 22nd
Where: Beijing, Qingdao, Harbin, Taipei
13. Thailand: The Three New Years
Close to the heart of Thai culture is the concept of Sanuk – which, to generalize, means fun. So, naturally, when the opportunity for a party arises, as is the case with New Year’s, Thais don’t just celebrate once. They celebrate three times.
You’ve probably heard of the many full moon festivals in Thailand: those beach festivals full of North American college students, glow sticks and buckets of Red Bull and Vodka. But the New Years parties are more important to Thais. They celebrate the first New Year on January 1st, followed by the Chinese New Year a few weeks later, and finally the Songkran, the Thai New Year in April.
The last one, while it doesn’t really fit among this list of mostly December holiday festivals, is nonetheless the most popular of the three New Year’s. It is essentially one big, national water fight, with people taking to the streets with Super Soakers and water balloons. It’s incredibly good fun, and should be near the top of anyone’s bucket list.
When: January 1st, January/February and April 13th to the 15th
Where: All over Thailand, but Bangkok in particular.
14. Japan: Chichibu Night Festival
Head just 90 minutes outside Tokyo and you’ll find the small, quaint town of Chichibu, famous for its temples and shrines. Every year, at the beginning of December, the town holds the Chichibu Night Festival, which features ornately designed floats hoisted and processioned through the town.
Owing to its proximity to Tokyo – the world’s largest metro area at an unreal 38 million people – the Chichibu festival is packed. And not only for the procession. The festival is also a party of fireworks, countless food stalls and plenty of amazake (sweet rice wine) to fortify you against the winter cold.
Its cultural significance and 300-year history has landed the Chichibu festival of UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. For a dynamic mix of old Japanese culture with a modern Japanese party atmosphere, you can’t beat the Chichibu Night Festival. Plan a winter trip to Tokyo (a joy in its own right) and leave room in your calendar to visit Chichibu.
When: December 1st to December 6th
15. Laos: Hmong New Year
The Hmong New Year is celebrated pretty much wherever you find significant Hmong populations, which means that you can just as easily celebrate this important holiday in Minnesota, for instance. But where’s the fun in that?
For a true Hmong New Year experience, head to Laos, which is home to a large number of Hmong people. The New Year, which takes place at the beginning of December, historically a period of abundant crops, is all about eating delicious food, celebrating the unique Hmong culture, and speed dating.
You won’t get to partake in that last part, though. It’s for young, eligible Hmong men and women to face one another and mingle. They wear traditional dress and toss a ball back and forth as a kind of icebreaker.
You will get to experience the food, however. If you like Southeast Asian food, you’re going to go nuts for Hmong food, which uses the same sort of flavor profile you find throughout the region (think lemongrass, garlic, face-melting chilies) but with some uniquely Hmong twists.
When: Early December
Where: Luang Prabang
16. Tunisia: International Festival of the Sahara
Originally called the Camel Festival when it started a little over a hundred years ago, the International Festival of the Sahara is no longer just about camels. Yes, there are still camel marathons and camel fights (which you’re not obliged to watch if you don’t want), but there are also numerous other activities, like sand skiing, balloon riding and go karting.
There are also art exhibitions, folk poetry classes and concerts on offer, all celebrating the Bedouin cultures of the African Sahara. And, as is the case with many of these holiday festivals, you will be spoiled for food choices, with many traditional North African dishes on display. In particular, you have to try the “Berber Pizza”, a flatbread stuffed with meat and spices.
Fly into the capital city of Tunis, taking in sights and sounds, before heading to Douz, the town where the festival takes place. It’s a sleepy town for most of the year, but it becomes incredibly busy during the festival, so book accommodation and tickets early.
When: December 28th to 31st
17. South Africa: Cape Town Christmas
If New York is our pick for where to celebrate Christmas in North America, Cape Town is our pick for Africa. While there are Christian enclaves all over the continent who celebrate Christmas, Cape Town is arguably the most festive, with Christmas markets, bright festive light displays, craft fairs, concerts and food festivals fill the city.
It might take some getting used to the fact that you’re celebrating Christmas in the heat, but as soon as you relax by the white sand beaches with a drink in hand, you’ll realize that this is a kind of white Christmas you can get into.
Cape Town is such a famous destination for Christmas, in fact, that Randy Newman (who, for those of you who don’t know, famously wrote “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story) even wrote a song about Christmas in Cape Town. And if it’s good enough for Randy Newman, it’s good enough for our bucket list.
To combat the heat, give your loved one the gift of one of our Merino wool clothing items for Christmas. Not only is something like our womens v neck t shirt a great gift, but it can also help your loved one stay cool and clean in the hot December heat of South Africa.
When: The entire month of December is pretty festive
Where: Cape Town
18. Zimbabwe: Vic Falls Carnival
Hosted by Zimbabwe’s own Zambezi Lager, the Vic Falls Carnival is one of Africa’s premier parties, complete with everything from huge African music acts, to white water rafting, bungee jumping, helicopter flights and something called the “Steam Train and Secret Bush Party”.
If that last part intrigued you, you’re not alone. Looking into it further, the Steam Train and Secret Bush Party is pretty much exactly how it sounds. You board a steam train, which has DJs spinning onboard, and speed through the Zimbabwean Bushveld, past elephants and lions, before being transplanted at the main party grounds at a secret location near Vic Falls, where a massive concert of electro-pop, African dance music and indie awaits.
Essentially, the Vic Falls Carnival is the best of both worlds – it lets you see the gorgeous natural scenery of Southern Africa, and then party yourself silly by one of the world’s largest waterfalls. It may be a very far cry from what you think a December Holiday ought to be, but you have to admit it sounds pretty awesome.
When: December 29th to December 21st
Where: A Mysterious Location Near Victoria Falls
19. Australia: New Year’s Celebrations
Of all the places in the world to celebrate New Year’s, Sydney, Australia might be the coolest. Why’s that, you might ask? It’s because Sydney is the first major city to strike midnight, so you get the unique experience of being one of the first people in the world to celebrate the New Year.
Sydney understands its geographical/temporal advantage, and has made the most of it, touting itself as the world’s best New Year’s Celebration. You’ll find massive fireworks displays shooting from the famous Sydney Opera House, as well as countless events around town.
For a more marine New Year’s Experience, try one of the many Harbour Cruises, which often come with drinks and a meal, and always come with a clear, stunning view of the fireworks.
And while you’re in Australia, you might as well check out one of the many music festivals happening (December is their summer, after all), like Stereosonic, Subsonic, Falls Festival, The Plot, and Southbound Festival.
When: December 31st
20. New Zealand: Rhythm and Vines/Rhythm and Alps Festival
As you might know, New Zealand is mainly comprised of two islands: the North Island and the South Island. And apart from the two islands having their unique landscapes and biodiversity, they also each have their own December music festival.
The North Island hosts Rhythm and Vines, which, this year is playing host to acts like Vince Staples and Juice Wrld. Rhythm and Alps, meanwhile, takes place on the South Island at the exact same time and features acts like Action Bronson and (again) Vince Staples (because, why not, he’s already in New Zealand).
Rhythm and Vines takes place in Gisborne, at the lush, green Waiohika Estate, while Rhythm and Alps takes place in Cardrona Valley, buttressed by dramatic mountains. They both sound pretty spectacular, so at the end of the day you might just have to decide based on which acts are in attendance.
When: December 28th to December 31st
Where: Gisborne and Cardrona Valley
21. French Polynesia: Chinese New Year
Come for the astounding, pristine white sand beaches and emerald waters, but stay for the Chinese New Year Festival. You might be asking yourself, isn’t it odd celebrating an East Asian holiday on a South Pacific island owned by a European country? Yeah, sure, it’s a little odd, but once you learn the history it makes perfect sense.
In 1865, the first of many Chinese settlers (mostly Hakka and Punti) arrived in French Polynesia, working on farms and later setting up restaurants and businesses. Today, the Chinese community is an integral part of the islands’ culture, and every year the islands’ residents join together to celebrate Chinese New Year.
The celebrations feature parades, martial arts shows, dancing and food. It may seem strange to fly to French Polynesia for Chinese New Year, but remember that once you’re there you’ll also be able to enjoy the warm weather and amazing beaches.
When: It changes every year, but sometime between January and March
What To Pack for Your Holiday Trip
Wherever you go, it pays to pack light. Not only will you avoid those high baggage fees, but being unencumbered by a large suitcase also allows you to move around more freely (unbound, you might say). To that end, merino wool is the perfect light-pack clothing. It can help keep you warm in the cold, with its natural insulating properties. And it’s breathability keeps you cool in warm weather.
Not only is it versatile, but merino wool is also anti-microbial, meaning that it takes a long time, and a lot of wear, before it starts smelling. Because of this, you can get away with packing fewer items. Honestly, as an experiment, try our merino wool socks out for a few days in a row, and marvel at the fact that they stay remarkably fresh.
In addition to merino wool, check out this blog for more packing guides. We have packing guides for a range of different climates, timespans and locations, as well as unique tips for how to make the most out of your bag space.
While you might think of the holidays as a time for candy canes and colored lights, the world begs to differ. The holiday season contains an incredibly diverse array of festivals, parades, events and traditions, from hot music festivals to cold night parades and everything in between. Do yourself a favor and make your own personal bucket list for holiday destinations, and see what kind of celebrations the world has to offer.