Where to travel in December: five of the best destinations
December is an interesting time to travel. Whether you go for an all-out winter wonderland experience or head off in search of seasonal sun, there are plenty of incredible adventures to entice you to explore.
As nights linger and the cold closes in on the northern hemisphere, the itchy footed can either escape south to sun-lathered landscapes or wrap up warm for winter fun. Frosty Christmas festivities spread their cheer across Europe in December, from German-style markets pouring steamy mugs of mulled wine to carol singers on cathedral steps. Cities such as New York also celebrate the season with fervour: the Big Apple’s offerings include ice skating, The Nutcracker on Broadway and the Rockefeller Center’s twinkling, towering spruce tree.
The month is ideal for polar play. The midnight sun illuminates warmer and longer days for wildlife spotting in Antarctica, while the Northern Lights dance across clear skies around the Arctic Circle. Meanwhile, in resorts across the USA, Canada and Europe, fresh powder heralds the opening of the slopes for winter sports enthusiasts.
Shivering already? Eschew the chilly temperatures and try Southeast Asia, where countries including Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia are stepping out of the wellies and into their dry season. Argentina, Chile and the Caribbean are all warm and dry, while the sunnies are out down under as Australia and New Zealand bask in their balmy summer.
December goes out with a bang as countries across the globe celebrate New Year’s Eve. Choose from a sky of fireworks in Sydney, beach fun in Rio de Janeiro, the multiday Hogmanay festivities across Scotland, the ball drop in Times Square, New York, or Miami for bottle-popping parties.
1. Edinburgh, Scotland
Paint the town red this month. The Scottish capital is riotously cheerful in the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Days may be darker, but Edinburgh is alight with a sprinkling of fairy lights and a series of eye-widening displays throughout its honeyed streets. Crowning an extinct volcano in the city centre, Edinburgh Castle rings in the season with Castle of Light, an after-dark trail of stunning projections on its stone walls. Meanwhile, at the Royal Botanic Garden, you’ll find illuminated canopies, a laser garden, a one-mile path shimmering with more than a million ethereal lights — and plenty more themed spectacles. The German-style Christmas Market in East Princes Street Gardens is lined with stalls selling mulled Irn Bru and festive kitsch, plus free-wheeling rides in Santa Land. Come for Christmas, but stay for New Year’s Eve. Hogmanay’s three days of revelry include a torchlight procession, street parties with performances, a firework display over the castle and a frigid dip in the Firth of Forth.
Sustainable tip: Scotland birthed the Green Tourism awards, which grants classification to hotels, attractions, tour operators and restaurants that champion sustainable practices. Browse the website to discover Edinburgh’s environmentally friendly museums, city tours and even whisky distilleries if you fancy a wee dram.
Banana yellow, gentle jade, cobalt blue, sandy pink. Cuba’s patchwork pastel hues and palm-fringed streets are the stuff of dreams in dark December. The month marks the beginning of the dry season, meaning reliably warm days and scant rain, ideal for sun-soaked south coast beaches; hiking the hills across western Viñales and Pinares de Mayarí; watching seasonal birds in spots like Parque Nacional Ciénga de Zapata as they head to Cuba’s wetlands and forests; and sightseeing in musical Havana or Trinidad, where the Spanish colonial architecture is pristinely preserved.
Cuba also celebrates with a slew of festivals in December. The Havana Film Festival showcases pictures from Spanish-language filmmakers, while the art-laden Havana Biennial often runs this month. Things get a little wilder at Las Parrandas firework competition in Remedios (and smaller villages across Villa Clara), which also features parade float processions and street parties with rumba percussion ensembles. Snag a ticket to the New Year’s Eve al fresco cabaret show and dinner at Cathedral Plaza in atmospheric Old Havana for a classy celebration.
Sustainable tip: Contribute to the local economy by staying at casas particulares, eating at informal paladares restaurants and supporting fair-wage employers such as social enterprise Cuba Libro — Havana’s English-language bookshop — and tour operator Cuba Candela. Every one of Cuba Candela’s trips directly support 30 Cuban entrepreneurs, from emerging artists and chefs to hoteliers.
3. Finnish Lapland
Finland’s frosty weather facilitates multiple seasonal activities. Stay cool in an ice hotel, such as the forest-ringed Arctic SnowHotel, which is rebuilt by hand every winter. Adrenaline levels can be raised by snowmobiling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, Arctic swimming or skating on frozen lakes. And when you start to shiver, slip into a steamy sauna as is Nordic tradition. December is also a prime month for the Northern Lights, which dance across clear Arctic Circle skies, where the frequency and intensity of the Aurora Borealis is at its peak.
More twinkling lights can be seen at Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, where the man in red apparently lives. Head here with tiny tots in the run up to Christmas for a magical meeting with Father Christmas in his hometown. Visitors can also send a card with an Arctic Circle stamp from Santa’s post office and head to artisan workshops for handcrafted knives and souvenirs made from northern materials, including birch, reindeer leather and juniper.
Sustainable tip: The semi-nomadic Sámi people have called the upper reaches of Lapland home since the last Ice Age and remain the only Indigenous people in the EU. But now, economic development in their homeland, such as logging and mining, is threatening their livelihoods. Support them by visiting communities, hiring Sámi guides and purchasing goods (the Duodji label indicates traditional Sámi handicrafts). The Siida Visitor Centre in Inari provides information on the Sámis’ traditional lifestyle, ancient customs and the challenges facing them today.
This world of white comprises mountains, valleys and plains blanketed beneath a thick sheet of ice. At its fragile edges are thousands of glaciers extending towards an iceberg-peppered sea. For most of the year, this frozen continent is inaccessible to travellers, but sea ice has retreated enough by December to welcome back expedition ships, which traverse these waters until March. Travel earlier in the month for peak benefits with shoulder season prices.
In December, temperatures increase to a balmy 0C and the sun never sets — Antarctica is the only southern spot that witnesses this phenomenon. These longer, warmer days result in more wildlife encounters. The rookeries clustered along the coast are bursting with the first hatching penguin chicks, while hungry humpbacks are returning home from tropical waters. Seals of the weddell, crabeater and leopard variety steal away for downtime on ice floes, while pups parade the beaches of South Georgia island. The breeding season for seabirds, such as albatross, cormorants and petrels, is also in full swing as chicks emerge and learn how to live in this remote wilderness.
Sustainable tip: The White Continent is registering record temperatures that are increasing three times faster than the global average. If you go polar, book with one of the pioneering companies that are focusing on reducing carbon emissions. Some of the world’s first hybrid-electric cruise ships have recently set sail south: board Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen or Fridtjof Nansen vessels or Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot. Ensure your operator is registered with the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which advocates responsible travel to the area.
Seek out the slopes before the snow-crazed crowds. Early December is the start of Europe’s ski season, but the masses won’t arrive on the mountains until the middle of the month. Austria is snow-sure compared to surrounding countries, and you can be sure of fresh powder at loftier peaks, including glacial Hintertux, Obergurgl or Ischgl, which have reliable snow records due to their elevation. Family-friendly Kitzbühel, St Anton am Arlberg and Lech Zürs are also reliable, with dreamy mountain towns that serve steamy pots of feelgood fondue.
And if snowy peaks aren’t scenic enough, a dusting of lights and seasonal Christmas markets give Austria that festive feeling. Head to baroque Salzburg, where Silent Night was written, for carols on chapel steps; Vienna for sprawling markets that date to the 13th century; Tyrolean towns such as Ischgl for the procession of St Nicholas and the horned Krampus; and Innsbruck, where trumpeters play carols on the 500-year-old Golden Roof at dusk. Market booths across the country groan under the weight of wooden toys, hand-blown glass ornaments, gingerbread biscuits and vats of warming glühwein.
Sustainable tip: There’s been a night-train resurgence in Europe, spurred in part by Austrian sleeper ÖBB NightJet. New routes have made it a cinch to travel to Austria from the UK, by linking the Eurostar to Nightjet services in Paris, Brussels or Amsterdam. An exciting new fleet of Nightjet sleepers will hit the tracks in 2023, with en suite mini-cabins for solo travellers. The new-for-2022 TUI Ski Express sleeper, meanwhile, travels from Amsterdam to Austria as part of a package ski holiday. And if going by rail isn’t eco-friendly enough, ÖBB uses 100% renewable energy to power its lines within Austria.
Subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Follow us on social media