A Holiday Away

Ready for a Christmas shake-up? I hit the road, rails and sky for a tour through three exquisite destinations that are even more magical during the holidays. And I started the journey in 417-land.

by Colin Shea Denniston

Dec 22 2023 at 8 a.m.

New York City at Christmas
Photo courtesy Shutterstock

The best way to describe Paris is simply “charming.” It’s the most charming place I’ve ever been. On my first visit to Paris in 2018, my two travel companions—both fellow Francophiles—told me that the only thing more charming than Paris was London during Christmastime. More charming than Paris? Mon Dieu! This I had to see for myself.

A few years and a global pandemic later, my friends and I decided to finally treat ourselves to a holiday in London. And—as things often do with my adventure-loving friends—our little getaway quickly escalated. It started innocently enough: “If we’re going to London, let’s meet in New York for a few days and fly out together?” And then it snowballed: “If we’re in London, we might as well go to Paris, right? I mean they are basically neighbors.”

It’s ridiculous, I know, but it’s more doable than you may think. If you love the holidays and the energy of a big city—all wrapped up with a bit of Dickens charm—you too should consider my three-city holiday tour. And I’m going to show you how to do it.

Give It Time

Our first serious trip discussion was in January of 2022—a full 11 months prior to takeoff. I wouldn’t suggest booking flights or securing hotel rooms that far in advance, but having it on your radar will set you up for success. Saving vacation days, bookmarking articles and Instagram posts and keeping an eye on theatrical openings and gallery exhibits—this type of casual pre-planning makes the four-to-six weeks before the trip a whole lot more enjoyable. And let’s be honest, the excitement leading up to a trip is almost as good as the trip itself. What can I say, I love anticipatory pleasure.

Photo courtesy Colin Shea Denniston

Plan Ahead— But Not Too Much

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but I’d suggest going into your trip with 75% of your dinner reservations made. Ask friends, read articles, even scroll TikTok. Having set dinner reservations gives structure to your days (“We have to leave the museum by 5:00 to get back to the hotel by 5:45 and make it to dinner at 7:00. So, we need to get to the museum by 2:00 at the latest.”). But even an obsessive planner like me enjoys leaving some things to chance. Pro tip: Ask your hotel concierge for recommendations on places to eat nearby. Pro tip No. 2: Tell them (respectfully) that you’d prefer a spot patronized by locals—not somewhere they recommend to all the American tourists. We forgot this second part on our first night in Paris, which happened to be the night of the World Cup finals when France played Argentina (I do not recommend this, but that’s for another article). The restaurant where we ended up, though perfectly lovely, was a sea of English-speaking tables. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the vibe I’m going for overseas.

Travel Left to Right

There’s enough to do in any one of these cities to fill five days of vacation—especially around the holidays. But if you do decide to embark on a three-city tour, the New York to London to Paris approach really is the best option. It all depends on your calendar, but I suggest giving yourself 2 – 3 days in New York followed by 3 – 4 in London and Paris respectively.

New York is magical during the holidays, and for those of us that live in or around 417-land, a few nights in New York can make a significant dent in your flight across the pond.

Take a super early flight from JFK to Heathrow—wheels up to wheels down in around seven hours. By the time you arrive, get your bags and make it to your hotel, just order some room service and get to bed early. You’ll wake up the next day saying “top of the morning!” feeling (almost) jet lag-free.

Even post-Brexit, traveling from London to Paris by train is extremely simple. Book your tickets ahead of time and just be prepared to show your passport and scan your luggage. Once seated, it’s a relaxing, easy two-hours-and-some-change trip. The countryside views are beautiful, and something about the train ride feels oh-so-European.

Do Your Homework

There’s nothing wrong with a walk through Times Square, a spin around the London Eye or a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but all three of these cities have so much more to offer than their respective tourist traps. If you like theatre or concerts, explore recently opened shows or limited engagements. For art lovers, check out some of the smaller museums and their ever-rotating exhibit schedule. And for all you foodies, brush up on the local food scene to learn about the new hot chefs and their latest openings. A little research goes a long way, and I promise you, the “off the beaten path” experiences often become the most memorable parts of the trip. Pro tip No. 3: For theatre, museums and even attractions, save yourself the stress and buy your tickets ahead of time.

Luxury for Less

Another benefit of planning your trip in advance: You’ve got months to save money for some serious travel shopping. Full disclosure: I brought with me a virtually empty second suitcase—it was certainly not empty when I returned. This is a bit extreme, but there are benefits of shopping in Paris. If you’ve had your eye on something from Chanel, Louis Vuitton or any other French-based Luxury brand, you’ll likely save money by buying in France vs. the U.S. Non-EU citizens can get the VAT (value added tax) back on items purchased in France—just save all of your documents and prepare to present them at the airport upon departure. The VAT (which averages around 12%) combined with an often slightly lower price point on French items sold in France and a good exchange rate can save you a few hundred dollars. Plus, your new bag or watch will make you smile every time you look at it—a little memento of your time in the City of Lights. Pro Tip No. 4: Arrive early. Most of these stores have lines forming before the doors even open. If you’re lucky enough to stay at one of the higher end hotels, the concierges can often help you skip the line. If not, just grab a croissant, bundle up and enjoy the people—and dog—watching while you wait. I kid you not, the pups in Paris actually seem French. They are literally jaunty.

Building in London, UK
Photo courtesy Shutterstock

The Hot List

New York

Where to Eat
La Mercerie:
A charming French eatery in Instaworthy SoHo. With dusty blue banquettes and a simple menu of French favorites, it’s the perfect brunch spot to get pumped for your adventures.

Gramercy Tavern: A beloved New York haunt serving delicious food with unparalleled service. The décor changes with the seasons and the space is surprisingly large (for New York City standards).

44 and X: Better food, ambiance and prices than most pre-theatre restaurants. You’ll feel like a New Yorker here and make it to your show on time.

What to Do
View the Department Store Holiday Windows: Bergdorf Goodman’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales are my favorites. They all have their own themes and the artistry is out of this world. Then, pop by Rockefeller Center to see the tree.

See a Broadway Show: What’s New York without Broadway? Current top picks: Merrily We Roll Along, Kimberly Akimbo, Spamalot.

Travel Tip
Stay to the right. On an escalator, stairs, moving sidewalk or really anywhere for that matter. If you want to blend in with the locals stick to the right when standing; walk or pass on the left.


Where to Eat
NoMad Restaurant:
In the middle of the NoMad Hotel—in a multi-story, glass conservatory—the NoMad Restaurant is hip, modern and eclectic.

Bentley’s Oyster Bar & Grill: A 100-plus-year-old spot specializing in seafood and British dishes. Think you don’t like mushy peas? Try them here.

Dukes Bar: Classic martinis shaken (not stirred) tableside. The interior is old-school luxe, and the drinks are top-notch. Boozer beware: These babies are strong. Do not drink on an empty stomach.

What to Do
Explore the Decorated City:
London during the holidays is utterly charming. It’s as if all of London gets together in November to map out their holiday decorating plan.

Hop on a Double Decker Bus: Is it cliché? Yes. Is it still fun and worth it? Yes. Skip the tube for one commute and take in the sights of the city from two (mobile) stories up.

Travel Tip
Avoid the jam-packed, tourist-filled Harrod’s. For better (and more British) department store shopping experiences, visit Liberty London and Fortnum & Mason. Beautiful stores and great places to buy gifts for people back home.


Where to Eat
Les 110 de Taillevent:
A more casual offspring of the iconic Michelin-starred Taillevent, serving (you guessed it) 110 wines by the glass.

Le Cinq: The best meal of my life. Also the most expensive.

Any street-side brasserie or bistro: Sip an espresso, munch on a baguette—you’re in Paris!

What to Do
Visit the Centre Pompidou:
Skip the overcrowded Louvre and enjoy a quirky and eclectic tour through one of the best collections of contemporary and modern art outside of New York City.

Explore the Saint-Germain: A cultural gem in the 7th arrondissement, the Saint-Germain neighborhood is the ideal spot for sipping, shopping and strolling. Stop by Le Bon Marche and be sure to check out a truly one-of-a-kind Hermes store, located in the converted pool of the  Hotel Lutetia.

Travel Tip
Try to speak French, even if you’re terrible. A simple “bonjour” or “merci beaucoup” goes a long way. Chances are whomever you’re addressing speaks excellent English and will quickly save you from your butchered-French misery, but just try—you’re in France after all.