Stressful as holiday-time travel can be, at least you’re not having to stop at literally every house in the world on a sled pulled by reindeer. So when put in perspective to the kind of trip poor Santa Claus has to make, flying in December should seem downright painless. Which means the only barrier between you and a glorious winter vacation is choosing where to go.
While “my in-laws’ house” always seems to top the December travel itinerary, other places around the world are also pretty inviting this time of year. So if you’ve got the time and the budget to go elsewhere, here’s a dozen places ideal to travel this December.
1. Breckenridge, Colorado
Narrowing down which world-class Colorado ski town to make your December destination can be tricky, and it’s hard to go wrong anywhere that’s inside your budget. But this year Breckenridge might be the most intriguing with the opening of the sparkling new Gravity Haus hotel, a boutique ski resort with a super trampoline and four-lane bowling alley.
Breckenridge also throws the best small-town winter fest in the state when the Lighting of Breckenridge kicks off December 7, with the annual Race of the Santas and Moose March. From the 11th to the 15th, you’ll get a second festival at Ullr Fest, paying homage to the Norse god of snow with a city-wide snow dance and colorful Main Street parade. Plus a polar plunge, if you’re feeling strong.
2. Southwest Germany
Central Europe is one of the world’s top holiday destinations for its abundance of Christmas markets. And while there’s no shortage of fantastic tours to take you through them, few seem to include Southwest Germany, which has some of the most unique holiday experiences on the planet. Start at Lake Constance, where you’ll find a full-on Christmas ship, complete with a 360-degree Christmas bar, as well as a two-story Christmas tavern and a 170-stall Christmas market.
Continue on to the Black Forest Highlands, where storybook villages like St. Blasien and Breitnau sit right beside each other, each offering smaller, more intimate Christmas markets. You can also hit the market at Ravenna Gorge, tucked under a 120-foot-tall train overpass. Or spend some time in Stuttgart and its Christmas market, which dates all the way back to 1692.
Right about December is when you start seeing your friends who moved to Florida posting pictures from the beach, which if nothing else should inspire you to look into a vacation somewhere south. Miami kicks off December with the annual Art Basel Miami Beach, one of the largest art shows in the world. It also draws thousands of people who have absolutely zero interest in art and just came for the parties, which is exactly why you should go.
The brutal humidity of summer has ended by December, and you’ll usually be treated to temps in the high 70s with perfect beach weather all month. Head down after Christmas, and you’ll be in one of the best New Year’s destinations in the US, where if you’re not into seeing the world’s best DJs in fancy clubs, you can always catch Pitbull’s free party in Bayfront Park.
4. Israel and Palestinian Territories
Where better to celebrate the reason for the season than the spot where Christmas got its theoretical start? The town of Bethlehem may not look much like a nativity scene, but it does celebrate Christmas better than anywhere in the region, with processions from Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Catholic, and Protestant denominations running through Manger Square all month.
Christmas isn’t quite as huge in Israel as it is in the US, but you can still find midnight masses in Jerusalem among the walls of the historic old city. You’ll get a seamless blend of Christmas history and the modern country with Intrepid Travel’s eight-day tour Discover Israel and the Palestinian Territories tour, which gives you four days in Jerusalem before visiting Jesus’s homeland in Nazareth and finishing with a couple days in Tel Aviv.
For a low-cost, warm-weather December destination, look no further than Guatemala, which’ll have temperatures in the mid-70s and a minimal chance of rain. It’ll give you a chance to check out Central America’s next great surfing destination and the breaks near El Paredon National Park before the traveling masses catch on. Of course, not everyone is looking to be a surfing Santa, so you might also want to check out the colonial masterpiece of a city that is Antigua, the Mayan ruins at Tikal, or the shores of Lake Atitlan.
Guatemala is also notable during December for its Quema del Diablo festival, which translates to “Burning of the Devil.” As local lore has it, the devil hides in household garbage, which absolutely sounds like something your mom would tell you. On December 7, they pile all their garbage in the street with a satanic effigy on top, light it on fire, and commence the singing, dancing celebration. Once the party is over, the devil is gone from the Christmas season, and the city is clean.
New York City may be the iconic December travel darling, what with its giant Christmas tree and skating rink and ball-dropping. But if you’re ok with an even colder time, Boston is a much better pick. The city is decked out in holiday glee and has a much larger (and less crowded) skating rink on the frog pond in Boston Common. And you’ll be skating by trees and plants instead of skyscrapers, making winter here feel almost like an escape to nature.
But it’s not ALL about Christmas in Boston, which on December 16 reenacts the Boston Tea Party, where disgruntled colonists dump a whole ship’s worth of tea into Boston Harbor. The fun begins at the Old South Meeting House, where a lively debate on tea taxation takes place, followed by the ceremonial dumping of the tea in the harbor. If tax debates leave you longing for a little more action, both the NHL’s Bruins and NBA’s Celtics are in full swing in December and boast some of the more… eccentric fans in sports.
7. Kyoto, Japan
Japan might not be as big on Christmas as some other places, but head to Kyoto and you’ll still get a month full of lively markets leading up to the big holiday of Oshogatsu. They may not look much like the markets in Central Europe, but Kyoto’s markets are choc full of Japanese antiques, clothing, and fragrant food, with the ones at Kobo-san and Tenjin-san highlighting the holiday season.
You’ll also find a lantern festival lighting up the famous bamboo forest in Arashiyama. And the main event in December comes at the end, with the literal ringing in of the new year during Oshogatsu. If you’re down to get up at an ungodly hour, you can hit one of the local shrines and see the monks performing the traditional bell-ringing ritual to signify the arrival of 2020.
December is approaching prime northern lights viewing time, and though sightings are never guaranteed, Whitehorse offers some great alternatives if you don’t. The far-flung Yukon might not seem especially inviting this time of year, what with its four hours of daylight and sub-freezing temperatures. But aside from a chance at seeing the aurora borealis, it’s also teeming with outdoor adventures.
The mountains of Kluane National Park are glistening white, and a flightseeing trip through the park gives you views of 16 of Canada’s 20 tallest mountains. You can also take a snowmobile across frozen Lake Laberge, or try your hand at dog sledding along the same course as the treacherous Yukon Quest race. When the cold gets too much, warm up at the Takhini Hot Pools, a 100-year-old hot springs ideal for relaxing after a long day in the snow.
Albuquerque is full of cool stuff nobody seems to know about, chief among them is the barrage of Christmas lights the city has during December. Not only do Country Club and other tiny neighborhoods compete with light displays worthy of a Christmas theme park, but you can also walk through the ABQ BioPark’s River of Lights, which lights up the botanic garden like a desert-scape North Pole.
On Christmas Eve, the city streets fill with luminaries — paper bags with sand and candles in them — placed on the sidewalk. The rest of the month you’ll find cool, clear blue skies with an occasional dusting of snow adding a stark white to the already colorful landscape. And a solid base to go skiing at Sandia Peak.
It’s always nice to visit summer during the dead of winter, and the Argentine capital does summer like nowhere else in South America. The festive highlight of the month comes on the 15th when Feria de Mataderos brings the countryside to the city with a day of traditional dancing, gaucho horse riding contests, and plenty of pato, Argentina’s national sport.
BA is also getting a sprawling new gourmet food market in December, so if gorging yourself on steak gets old, you’ll have 36 new options as Mercado de los Carruajes. It’s set in a two story building that once housed presidential carriages and now offers two terraces and vertical gardens. Once you’re done eating your way through, it’s on to New Year’s, where the city offers one of the best parties on the continent. You’ll find an epic fireworks display over Puerto Madero and parties in the city’s nightclubs that last well past sunrise.
11. Hobart, Tasmania
Tempting as it might be to head to Sydney and be the first among your friends to experience 2020, opt instead for this quirky island with far fewer crowds in the exact same time zone. The best place to celebrate will be the Taste of Tasmania festival that runs from December 28-January 3, whose NYE celebration goes for seven hours with 65 artists playing on five different stages.
The festival itself is the oldest food and wine festival in Australia, set right along the waterfront in Hobart and full of the bounty summer produces down under. You’ll have a chance to sample Tasmania’s famous sparkling wine, as well as produce from the island and fresh-caught seafood. It’s an area of Australia few think to visit first, but if you’re looking to get a jump on New Year’s, there’s nowhere tastier to do it.
12. St. Kitts and Nevis
December is a two-for-one in so many ways in St. Kitts and Nevis. Not only do you get to visit two islands with only one wait in a Caribbean customs line, but you also get this country’s annual carnival during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. That usually slow time fills with parades, dancing, music, and night-long parties, culminating with the grand parade on New Year’s Day. Eat your heart out, Pasadena.
Carnival technically starts in November here, so you’ll find smaller events scattered throughout the month. And aside from that, you’ll still be visiting a destination with pristine beaches, jungle hiking, and ideal weather. So you’ll get a Caribbean jaunt and experience both carnival and a palm-tree Christmas.