Where to go for the world's biggest celebrations

I spent the first 25 years of my life in mid-size cities and always thought New Year's Eve was a dull affair limited to party poppers and dreadful renditions of Auld Lang Syne.

Eventually, Sydney put me right. You can't beat celebrations that involve 1.5 million people and a multimillion-dollar fireworks display, set against a scintillating harbour setting.

The travel lesson I learned is that special days can be a lot more special if you're in the right place. True, for most people the year's special days are usually reserved for family and centred on the household. Abandon home and you're in for quite a treat, however.

You can escape the uncles, games of Twister and Sound of Music reruns, and bring those Christmas carols to life by heading to Europe, where you really will find sleigh bells, chestnuts roasting at street stalls and Jack Frost nipping at your toes.

Similarly, you'll appreciate something of the passion and anguish of Easter for Catholics only in Spain, and the real meaning of Halloween by experiencing Mexico's rather moving and emotional Day of the Dead. And, while Melbourne and Sydney both have great Chinese New Year festivities, they're even better when enjoyed in predominantly Chinese cities such as Singapore or Hong Kong.

To travel is to be interested in other people's special days too, not just those with meaning to us. Hundreds of millions celebrate Holi (Hindus), Eid al-Fatr (Muslims) and the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts (Chinese). Individual nations mark Thanksgiving, which is not just American but Canadian and Caribbean as well, or Guy Fawkes Night (England) or their own national days, providing congenial insights into local culture, history and customs.

Special days that are obscure on the world stage have provided me with some of my best travel memories and spectacles, whether it's Delhi's exotic and colourful Republic Day parade or Zurich's Sechselauten ("six o'clock bells") day, in which a giant snowman is burned on a bonfire until its fireworks-packed head explodes. Here are some other special days and the best places in which to appreciate them.

CHRISTMAS EVE

PLACE TO BE Salzburg, Austria

WHY? If you're lucky you'll get snow, otherwise you'll still find Jack Frost, cosy restaurants and an old town a-twinkle in lights and stars. Christmas markets dish up cheer and mulled wine and Mozartplatz has an outdoor ice rink.

HIGHLIGHT A Christmas Eve procession winds through Oberndorf village (stillenacht-oberndorf.com) near Salzburg where church organist Franz Gruber wrote Silent Night; Salzburg resident Joseph Mohr penned the lyrics. Residents and visitors sing outside the Silent Night Chapel.

WHAT ELSE? Head into churches for elaborate nativity scenes and recitals, and the old town for Christmas markets. Salzburger Adventsingen concerts (salzburgeradventsingen.at) are held from December 1 to December 17.

MORE Christmas markets and music concerts run throughout the month until 24 December. See www.salzburg.info

CHRISTMAS DAY

PLACE TO BE Tokyo, Japan

WHY? It's almost impossible to find something to do on Christmas Day, when most attractions and restaurants close and locals are at home with family. Not so in Tokyo, where it's business as usual with the addition of oodles of Christmas decorations.

HIGHLIGHT Christmas lighting and building projections are fabulous, particularly in Marunouchi, Shiodome, Odaiba and Roppongi Hills districts and along Omotesando Avenue. Don't miss the light shows at Tokyo Midtown and Caretta Shiodome malls.

WHAT ELSE? Department-store sales have already kicked in; Santas and choirs wander. Try the Japanese version of Christmas cake: strawberry, cream-covered shortcake topped by Santa. Tokyo Disney Resort remains open.

MORE Christmas illuminations run through December. See www.gotokyo.org

NEW YEAR'S EVE

PLACE TO BE Hong Kong, China

WHY? Hong Kong rivals Sydney as the best harbour destination for New Year's Eve fireworks, with light-twinkled skyscrapers and laser beams adding to the effect. Restaurants burst at the seams, with good-luck dumplings and seafood the dishes of choice.

HIGHLIGHT Best fireworks spots are Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade or West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade in Kowloon, and Golden Bauhinia Square and Central Ferry Pier on Hong Kong Island. You can avoid the crowds by booking a cruise, a spot in a rooftop bar or a harbour-view hotel room.

WHAT ELSE? New Year's Day sees the Dragon and Lion Dance Extravaganza (dragonlion.hk). Incense-smoky Man Mo Temple is always busy at this time of year.

MORE See www.discoverhongkong.com

VALENTINE'S DAY

PLACE TO BE St-Valentin, France

WHY? The only French village named after the martyred Roman saint hosts a rather sweet Valentine's festival in which most of the 285-strong population participate by decking their homes with red hearts and flowers. Expect themed dinners, cabaret, dance, bridal-gown show and fireworks.

HIGHLIGHT Stroll the Lover's Gardens, which has a metal sculpture Tree of Eternal Hearts and a gazebo, which will likely be hosting a Japanese wedding on the big day.

WHAT ELSE? St-Valentin is close to the romantic Loire Valley, which is studded with chateaus and vineyards, and 280 kilometres south of Paris, for a perfect love-holiday combination.

MORE The festival is celebrated on the weekend closest to St Valentine's day (February 14). See www.village-saint-valentin.com

EASTER

PLACE TO BE Seville, Spain

WHY? Easter is a sombre, religiously charged affair in Spain, but tempered with confetti-throwing, flamenco singing from balconies and seasonal pastries. It's followed by the April Fair, a showcase for Andalusian horsemanship, flamenco, food, music and beautiful traditional attire.

HIGHLIGHT About 60 atmospheric, candlelit processions of drummers, trumpeters and penitents wander through town all through Easter week evenings, culminating on the eve of Good Friday in an extraordinary midnight cavalcade of hooded figures and palanquins bearing saints' statues. Onlookers can get highly emotional.

WHAT ELSE? The city bursts with monuments, palaces and a staggering cathedral. Easter marks the opening of the bullfighting season in Seville's historic bullring.

MORE Easter Week is March 25-March 31 in 2018. See www.visitasevilla.es

MARDI GRAS

PLACE TO BE New Orleans, US

WHY? The city shuts down for its annual party, notorious for drunkenness and flashing but also supplying masked balls, music and food festivals, and family-friendly events.

HIGHLIGHT Parades have been held here since 1856, featuring the spectacular floats of "krewes" or business societies. They appear around the city, the largest including marching bands, motorcycle squads and baton-twirling dancers. Strings of beads and doubloons are scattered over the crowds.

WHAT ELSE? You can party year-round in this hedonistic city, also notable for jazz and blues music and the historic French Quarter and Garden District.

MORE Next Mardi Gras is February 13, 2018, but events run through the first two weeks of the month. See www.mardigrasneworleans.com

HOLI

PLACE TO BE Jaipur, India

WHY? This major festival and Indian national holiday marks the end of winter and the triumph of good over evil in the form of the god Vishnu. It's a day for Hindus to light bonfires and forgive, forget and start anew.

HIGHLIGHT Northern India has more frivolous celebrations than devout southern India. With religious prayers completed in Jaipur, the city erupts in good-humoured fights with water and coloured powders. The result gives Holi its "Festival of Colours" nickname. Drummers and dancers take to the streets.

WHAT ELSE? Jaipur is one of India's most popular destinations for its palaces and temples, pink-hued old town and distinctive Rajasthan culture.

MORE Holi next runs from March 1-March 2, 2018. See www.tourism.rajasthan.gov.in

SONGKRAN

PLACE TO BE Chiang Mai, Thailand

WHY? Thailand's New Year signals the arrival of the wet season. Buddha statues are washed in scented water, orange-robed monks chant, and market-bought songbirds are released. Sand is carried to temples and planted with flags. Important Buddha images from temples are paraded through the city.

HIGHLIGHT Locals and tourists fling buckets of water and pink powder over one another. Streets have a party atmosphere, with cars honking and crowds surging and giggling. In the evenings, there are Miss Songkran beauty pageants and nightclub parties.

WHAT ELSE? This former capital of a powerful northern Thai kingdom is rich in Buddhist masterpieces, including Chiang Man, Phra Singh and Chedi Luang temples.

MORE Songkran runs April 13- April 15 in 2018. See www.tourismchiangmai.org

EID AL-FATR

PLACE TO BE Istanbul, Turkey

WHY? Thirty days of daytime fasting for Ramadan (don't worry, non-Muslims are fed) ends with a public holiday. Locals in their best clothes visit relatives and mosques and lay flowers in cemeteries. Children door knock for sweets and baklava.

HIGHLIGHT Trees and minarets are draped in fairy lights and streets erupt with market stalls selling clothes and snacks. Restaurants put on sumptuous evening banquets and neighbourhood picnics run the full length of some streets.

WHAT ELSE? Istanbul is home to some of the world's great Islamic buildings, including Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, Sultan Ahmed "Blue" Mosque and several historic bathhouses.

MORE Eid al-Fatr next falls on June 14-June 15, 2018. See www.howtoistanbul.com

HALLOWEEN

PLACE TO BE Oaxaca, Mexico

WHY? The Day of the Dead sees bonfires lit and firecrackers let off to scare away evil spirits, while lanterns are hung in trees to guide souls to their homes. Special skull-shaped bread is eaten (and much tequila consumed) at the gravesides of relatives. The graves are decorated with flowers and candles.

HIGHLIGHT Despite the religious elements of this solemn commemoration, you'll also find parades, mariachi bands and locals partying in zombie costumes with faces painted to resemble skeletons.

WHAT ELSE? Superb colonial architecture and the surrounding ruins of Olmec cities make Oaxaca a cultural destination for any time of year.

MORE Day of the Dead celebrations run from November 1-November 2 with a week's lead-up. See www.oaxaca.travel

THANKSGIVING

PLACE TO BE New York, US

WHY? Thanksgiving falls on a Thursday, with most Americans taking a long weekend for what is primarily a family affair. In New York, though, you can enjoy a Pilgrim Pedal bike ride (www.bikenyc.org), American football games, weekend nightclub parties and a city with far fewer crowds.

HIGHLIGHT America's best known Thanksgiving parade is organised by department store Macy's and features marching bands, waving celebrities and floats portraying characters from Broadway shows and cartoons. The pre-parade giant balloon inflation is fun for kids.

WHAT ELSE? The Christmas shopping season starts after Thanksgiving, with the next day (Friday) seeing more customer traffic in stores than on any other day of the year.

MORE Thanksgiving next falls on November 22, 2018. See www.nycgo.com

BEING THERE:

FIVE SPECIAL LOCAL DAYS

ESCALADE, GENEVA

One of Europe's most authentic and least touristy festivals is celebrated over the weekend nearest December 11 in Geneva. Escalade celebrates the city's 1602 battle victory over neighbouring Savoy and features a lamp-lit old town, food stalls, marching bands in historic costumes and a splendid horseback parade. See www.1602.ch

ST LUCIA'S DAY, STOCKHOLM

This festival on December 13 celebrates the year's shortest day. White-robed girls with headdresses of lighted candles and boys in wizard hats walk in procession and sing carols. Christmas trees are decorated, Christmas baking begins and glogg flows freely. Take in the tradition, often confined to schools and churches, at Skansen open-air museum. See www.skansen.se

REPUBLIC DAY, DELHI

A major parade along Delhi's ceremonial Rajpath on January 26 features the scarlet-clad Cavalry of the President's Bodyguard and various Indian regiments including the always popular Border Security Force riding camels hung with multicoloured ornaments. Air force helicopters fly above the crowds scattering marigolds and rose petals. See www.delhitourism.gov.in

VICTORY DAY, MOSCOW

Celebrating the Allied victory on World War II's Eastern Front, this May 9 event features one of the world's most impressive military parades in Red Square, under the eye of the Russian president. It includes impeccable synchronised marching, military bands, rumbling tanks and missile carriages, and an air force flyover before finishing with fireworks. See www.mos.ru/en

EMPEROR'S BIRTHDAY, BAD ISCHL

Austrian emperor Franz Josef might be long gone, but his August 18 birthday is still celebrated in this former imperial summer retreat and spa town. Regimental bands accompany members of the Hapsburg family from church to emperor's villa, and many locals wear traditional lederhosen or dirndl. See www.kaiservilla.at

WHERE TO TRIP THE LIGHTS FANTASTIC

PARIS

Extravagant displays of lights give chilly Paris in December a truly cheerful glow, particularly along the Champs-Elysees and Rue Saint-Honore and around elegant Place Vendome. The Hotel de Ville features a magnificent Christmas tree with 30,000 lights. But the sparkle also comes from the windows of Paris' many famous department stores, such as Galeries Lafayette and Printemps. Competing with it all is the Eiffel Tower, usually spot-lit and decorated to great effect. See www.parisinfo.com

SINGAPORE

There are Christmas lights everywhere in Singapore. Marina Bay is brilliant, but nowhere are the decorations better than along the main shopping drag of Orchard Road, where strings of lights float above the traffic, and Christmas trees and seasonal characters brighten up street corners. Businesses along the strip vie for the title of "best dressed building", department stores try to outdo each other with extravagant light shows, and choirs and decorated floats make periodic appearances. See www.visitsingapore.com

NEW YORK

New York has a superb display of Christmas lights, the most magical dangling on the Christmas trees along Park Avenue. Fifth Avenue is also impressive, culminating in a gigantic illuminated snowflake at West 57th Street while Grand Central railway terminal has a laser show synchronised with seasonal music. The festive season kicks off with the ceremonial lighting of a giant Christmas tree at the Rockefeller Centre, where you can ice skate under twinkling lights and golden angels blowing trumpets. See www.nycgo.com

HONG KONG

Hong Kong's annual WinterFest brings spectacular lighting to the streets of Central and harbour-front buildings while shopping malls vie for the glitziest decorations. The most vivid displays might be Harbour City, IFC and Elements malls. Statue Square in Central has the most impressive Christmas tree, a 30-metre structure in glass decorated by upmarket jewellery brands. The year-round and newly upgraded Symphony of Lights display around the harbour is specially themed for Christmas. See www.discoverhongkong.com

MEDELLIN

Los Alumbrados festival in this Colombian city supplies surely the world's most impressive display of animated Christmas lights, especially along the river that runs through the city centre, which is also lined with food stalls. Giant cartoon sculptures and ornaments, vignettes from local history and splashing water features spot-lit in blue and red are among the attractions. On Christmas and New Year's eves fireworks add to the razzle-dazzle. You get a superb view over the lights from Cerro Nutibara hill. See www.colombia.travel