10 Best Places to Travel in December

From powdery snow to colorful light shows, December is full of memorable scenes.

If you feel like you deserve a gift or two after powering through your family’s list, we don’t blame you (us, too). So why not plan a trip as a reward? Tack on some R&R time to a family visit, perhaps, or burn through some of the excess PTO that you’ve involuntarily accrued.

There are plenty of options for those deciding on where to travel this December. For long-haul trips, consider the Southern Hemisphere for a jolt of vitamin D on a new nonstop, direct flight, or make a pilgrimage to ski some of the best champagne powder in the world. Then again, why not visit Europe’s foremost festival of lights?

Here are the 10 best places to travel this December.

Penguins on a block of ice in the water.

This December, take the chance to check off Antarctica—with a cruise line or tour operator committed to sustainability and wildlife conservation, of course.

Photo by Bailey Berg

1. Antarctica

December is great for: conversation, conservation, and consternation

The South Pole is a destination that’s heating up, in every sense. Though only accessible for three to four months per year, starting each November, it’s increasingly on travelers’ radars. More worrisomely, of course, the icy landscape here is under siege from climate change, with average midwinter temperatures climbing 10 degrees over the past 60 years.

This has already impacted species like the Adélie penguins, sea-ice dependent birds whose populations have plummeted. Consider, then, a boat trip here that’s focused on conservation, a chance to both learn from onboard experts how to protect this landscape and fund those efforts. Book a voyage with luxe operator Abercrombie & Kent, and it will make a donation on your behalf to help underwrite the work of researchers at the U.S. Palmer Station there.

Where to stay

Since no one has opened a hotel here, the best option is one of the ultra-luxury expedition ships now piercing the ice floes, like Ponant’s 244-person Le Lyrial.

How to get there

Most Antarctic itineraries depart from Argentina’s southernmost tip, Ushuaia, a 3.5-hour flight down from Buenos Aires, which is connected to JFK on Aerolineas Argentinas among others.

Exterior of the Santa Claus Office in Rovaniemi

Get a head start on the winter holiday season in Finland.

Photo by Roman Babakin/Shutterstock

2. Rovaniemi, Finland

December is great for: an immersive festive indulgence

Think of a trip to the Arctic Circle settlement of Rovaniemi as stepping into a real-life snow globe, and relish the avalanche of festive clichés that it offers—after all, it’s the official home of Santa Claus. There’s a supersized Christmas market here, overloaded with stalls selling souvenirs, and an Elf Academy where would-be helpers can take courses in how to keep Santa’s workshop humming year-round (and leave with an official degree certificate for their efforts).

Remember, too, that this is the ideal place to see the Northern Lights: that otherworldly phenomenon, caused by a combination of electricity, magnetic forces and space dust, is visible here for almost 200 nights per year, maximizing your chances of viewing an elusive spectacle.

Architecture is another reason to visit this settlement, since it was almost entirely rebuilt in the wake of World War II—thankfully, under the auspices of a world-class talent, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. He was allowed to reimagine the master plan and waggishly mapped out a city that resembled a reindeer’s head from the sky—the roads are antlers and the sports stadium is its eye.

Where to stay

The ultimate perch for viewing the Northern Lights is any bed at this hotel: The north-facing wall of each of its stand-alone, cabin-like suites is made of glass, so lucky visitors can watch this phenomenon in comfort. Even better, the buildings are constructed entirely of renewable Finnish wood and the hotel oversees the planting of up to 10,000 new seedlings each year in the nearby woodlands.

How to get there

Finland’s national carrier Finnair is a stealth international player, offering superb service to the capital, Helsinki, from Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle, and NYC. Connect from there to Rovaniemi, a 90-minute flight north.

Night view of St. Louis's gateway arch, with white Christmas lights in a plaza

Where else to have yourself a merry little Christmas, than the city where Judy Garland’s character first crooned that classic in the 1945 movie?

Photo by Jon Rehg/Shutterstock

3. St. Louis, Missouri

December is great for: a retro trip to an all-American Christmas

The Gateway Arch of St. Louis, that soaring, sleek monument to American optimism dating back to the 1960s, is the centerpiece of this month’s Winterfest, which runs through the end of the month on Kiener Plaza. Expect a rink for skating, s’mores stations, and even rentable igloos where you can hole up if the weather proves too brutal.

Come here too for festive productions like Twas The Night Before, inspired by the Clement Clarke Moore poem but remixed by the Cirque du Soleil team into a multi-disciplinary show, and a Nutcracker ballet, plus a Polar Express train simulation at the city’s historic Union Station. Visitors can also catch the two-day Unleash the Beast tour, when 30 of the world’s best pro bull riders pit stop here on their annual circuit, the animal answer to F1.

Where to stay

The latest iteration of the art-obsessed boutique chainlet, founded by a pair of collectors 17 years ago in Louisville, opened in downtown St. Louis this summer, a 173-room conversion of a renovated former YMCA building that’s now festooned with edgy contemporary pieces throughout.

How to get there

STL, the original home of now defunct carrier TWA, retains an impressive network of flights even today—hop there directly from Oklahoma City, Des Moines, and Phoenix, among others, this month. Southwest’s service is particularly plentiful.

 Aerial view of colorful houses near waterfront

Boxing Day occurs in the Bahamas on December 26.

Photo by alarico/Shutterstock

4. Nassau, Bahamas

December is great for: a newly quick getaway to the Caribbean

The main island of this scattered archipelago has long been a quick getaway for the East Coast—just 45 minutes’ flight from South Florida, for example. This winter, easy access to it has been unlocked for the West Coast for the first time. Alaska has announced nonstop flights from both Los Angeles and Seattle, running up to four times weekly, while JetBlue will shadow it on the L.A. route, running an aircraft equipped with its better-than-business Mint class.

It’s well-timed: The country has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of its independence from the British all year, adding an extra frisson of energy to the year-round Junkanoo tradition that’s one of the country’s longest-running. We told you to visit for the summertime bash, but if you missed that window, come for the bigger, blowout bash in winter, centering on what the British (and Bahamians) call Boxing Day. The precise origins remain murky of this fusion fest, but go to the Educulture Junkanoo Museum to learn more. The most widely accepted theory involves a slave owner giving his enslaved people the day off and deeding a version of his name, John Canoe, to the festivities.

Where to stay

Baha Mar encompasses the Rosewood, SLS, and a Grand Hyatt. There are plenty of activities offered among the three of them, whether that be spending time in the casino or feeding turtles and nurse sharks in the sanctuary. Plus, the property offers more than 40 dining and nightlife options.

How to get there

In addition to the new West Coast routes, there are nonstop flights to NAS from Charlotte, Dallas, Chicago, and Philadelphia, all on American Airlines.

Distant dusk view of Hokkaido from the top of a ski jump

Hokkaido is a popular ski destination, but there are other ways to enjoy the snow.

Photo by Kanuman/Shutterstock

5. Hokkaido, Japan

December is great for: powder-chasing in the northern reaches of Japan

Japan’s prime powder region, Hokkaido, is one of the most reliable places to plan a ski trip worldwide. Come in December and the pistes are at their peak with some of the deepest champagne powder in the world, but don’t stick to the popular runs. Head to Iwanai on the coast, a village where a ski resort was built in the 1980s only to fall into disrepair in the financial turmoil of the 1990s; here you can take a cat-skiing adventure on the now-untouched slopes. (Since this is where ramen originates, make sure to try a bowl or two before you leave. Rakuichi Soba is one standout.)

Don’t forget, too, that you can celebrate Christmas in the uniquely Japanese way this month—with fried chicken, a legacy of an exceptionally successful marketing gimmick by KFC 50 years ago that embedded the idea in the national psyche. There’s also the White Illumination event in Sapporo Odori Park, a four-decade tradition that brings 800,000 or more twinkling lights to the city intended to evoke a Mittel European Christmas.

Where to stay

The ski-in, ski-out resort is a whimsical delight. Book one of the Insta-ready Cloud Suites, with cumulus-shaped decorative touches, from cushions to mirrors, and enjoy being handily located in central Hokkaido.

How to get there

Head to HND on United from SFO and ORD, or JFK on JAL. Then it’s about a 90-minute connection to CTS, the anchor airport for Hokkaido.

Row of narrow, multistory houses along a canal

Amsterdam’s canals and alleyways become a picturesque backdrop for an installation of lightworks devised by local and international artists in December.

Photo by Tiana Attride

6. Amsterdam, The Netherlands

December is great for: an illuminating stroll around the canals

The 12th edition of the Amsterdam Light Festival runs from December 1 through late January: It was the canny brainchild of Felix Guttmann, an entrepreneur who built his fortune with canal sightseeing boats, and is a sister event to the likes of Vivid Sydney in Australia.

Creatives from around the world are invited to submit designs, and 20 or so will be selected for temporary installation in the city center. A few will then earn the ultimate accolade: a permanent berth in Amsterdam, like the work by Massimo Uberti and Marco Pollice, “Today I Love You,” from the fourth edition, now on the facade of a local hospital, or “178 Bottles, 1 Message” from the third edition, a piece designed by Tijdmakers (Saskia Hoogendoorn and Lieuwe Martijn Wijnands) in the square in front of Amsterdam Sloterdijk.

There’s no sense yet which, if any, of this year’s entries will graduate to become a fixture of the cityscape, but expect them to be particularly outlandish. The theme for 2023 is “Loading . . . Revealing Art, AI, and Tech” so trippy AI-forms will likely be the default.

Where to stay

One of Europe’s true landmark hotels, the 1890s wedding cake–like building just emerged from a three-year renovation of all private and public areas. Don’t miss the chance to have a nightcap in Freddy’s, the clubby bar named after its former owner, a scion of the Heineken brewing dynasty.

How to get there

There are countless direct flights from the USA to Amsterdam. If you can splurge on business, opt for KLM to collect one of its charming genever houses offered as keepsakes for all travelers up front, or try the newly installed JetBlue service from JFK for a more affordable alternative.

Holiday lights decorate the building facades of Montepulciano, near a Christmas market and tree at night

Visitors can try some of the local wines under a sparkly canopy of lights at the Christmas Terrace, a lounge area created as part of the program.

Photo by Buffy1982/Shutterstock

7. Montepulciano, Italy

December is great for: wine and Wenceslas

Montepulciano is world famous thanks to the namesake grape that forms the building block of many red table wines. Most visitors come to this little Tuscan enclave in summer to sample a bottle or two at vineyards like Bindella and Fattoria Svetoni, but it’s worth a trip in winter for a very different reason: the largest Christmas market in the central region of Italy. It runs on weekends in December, then every day from December 22 through Epiphany.

The festivities are based around Piazza Grande, with stalls and stands selling souvenirs and treats, and the local fortress is transformed into Santa’s Grotto (or Babbo Natale, as the Italians call him).

Where to stay

The 21-room, year-old boutique property sits in a reimagined 18th-century village amid some of Italy’s most storied vineyards. The hotel’s sommelier offers regular guided tastings of local wines.

How to get there

There are bargain-priced flights on Emirates, which runs a fifth freedom flight, as well as Italy-based budget carrier Neos Air, on the route to Milan from JFK. From there, it’s a short hop to Perugia airport, an hour’s drive away.

Field of long, purple, vertical flowers known as lupins around Lake Tekapo

Originally an invasive species native to the Americas, lupins have thrived in the local climate and are embraced as a symbol of the country.

Photo by Martin Vlnas/Shutterstock

8. Lake Tekapo & Lake Pukaki, New Zealand

December is great for: road-tripping through a carpet of blooms

From December 1, United Airlines will offer a groundbreaking new way to reach New Zealand, with direct, nonstop service from SFO to Christchurch. It’s the first time in almost 20 years that U.S. travelers can bypass transiting in the north island at Auckland, and instead arrive immediately in the wilds of the south island, the ideal base for a road trip round the rugged, CGI-like landscapes that are synonymous with the country.

It’s peak summer season this month, and the landscape of the interior hills will be carpeted in lupins, pink and purple spear-like flowers. Take a drive around the area to snap a few shots and to enjoy the adrenalin-powered hobbies that have mushroomed with lupin-like ferocity in the country, and especially the south island—think a via ferrata like Wildwire Wanaka or bungy jumping, which originated here. To maximize your time en route, consider booking with an operator like Extraordinary Journeys to help navigate the plethora of options.

Where to stay

Try the six-room family-run lodge right on the southern end of Lake Pukaki, with super views of Mount Cook or Aoraki, and a resource-sensitive approach to hospitality in the wilderness, relying on solar power and local ingredients both.

How to get there

Take the nonstop flight if you can—the weather in New Zealand can be notoriously finicky year-round, and it’s best to minimize your puddle jumping so you don’t run into delays and reroutings.

A few people strolling around sculptures and paintings indoors

Art Basel is not the only draw to Miami this month: Everyone’s here to score a VIP invite to a party or two (even if they won’t admit it).

Photo by Mia2you/Shutterstock

9. Miami, Florida

December is great for: skipping the velvet rope

From December 8 to 10, the world’s arterati will descend once more for that OTT culturefest known as Art Basel. Unlike the OG mothership in Switzerland that’s squarely for po-faced pros, this fiesta was deliberately founded to offer an irresistibly frothy combo of work and play for even the heaviest-weight collector. There’s a chance to snap up masterpieces at the main show, which has just seen a new leader take over from longtime czar Marc Spiegler, plus satellite fairs like Untitled, NADA, or the furniturefest DesignMiami.

Last year’s high-society highlights included Prada’s DJ-powered makeover of the Faena Forum, a 30th-anniversary celebration of Madonna’s Sex book showcasing its raunchy prints that was underwritten by Yves Saint Laurent, and a VIP room that featured two full-size replicas of work by reclusive pop artist Yayoi Kusama. Buy a ticket to the fairs and sweet talk a few gallerinas into adding your name to a list or two.

Where to stay

Book now: Loews Hotel

Ask any gallerist where the serious collectors stay and they’ll stage-whisper it—not at one of the funky boutique hotels, but instead at the ultra-reliable deliver-your-dry-cleaning-on-time spot right next to the Convention Center, Loews.

How to get there

What, you mean you’re not scooting down on a friend’s private jet? If you must use a commercial carrier, Miami’s connected to almost every major hub via an assortment of airlines.

Front porch of a white house with snow-covered garlands and wreaths

Just hope for snow to maximize the charm of any souvenir snaps: Last year, flurries started in earnest on December 1.

Photo by Nicole Wolf

10. Kennebunkport, Maine

December is great for: off-season adventures in New England

Don’t assume that this breezy coastal town in Maine is a summertime-only spot. (Though biking back from Goose Rocks beach for a fresh cooked lobster roll from Nunan’s every evening on a warm day here is a dreamy all-American vacation.) The surge of visits in peak season has helped drive greater interest in visiting when the weather might be a little chillier, but the crowds will have significantly thinned.

In December, there’s the added allure of the 11-day Christmas Prelude, which runs through December 10. It’s a kitschy, delightful celebration of all things festive and New England, featuring everything from candlelit caroling to a dog costume parade; Kennebunkport’s Santa swaps out a sleigh for a more venue-appropriate vehicle—he always arrives for the celebrations via lobster boat. Don’t miss the tree, either, which is constructed entirely of vintage lobster traps.

Where to stay

Many hotels here have winterized their offerings to better cater to off-season visitors, like the cabins of Hidden Pond, set in a 60-acre forest of balsam and fir. The stand-alone room decor is heavy on wood and wool, and the hotel offers activities like stargazing on crisp, clear winter nights.

How to get there

For those arriving from outside New England, the best route is to fly into Boston—connected by the major airlines to countless hubs across the country—and drive 90 minutes or so up the coast.

British-born, New York–based Mark Ellwood has lived out of a suitcase for most of his life. He is editor-at-large for luxury bible Robb Report and columnist for Bloomberg Luxury. Recent stories have led him to hang out with China’s trendsetters in Chengdu and learn fireside raps from cowboy poets in Wyoming.
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