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10 Best Places to Go in December

By AFAR Editors

10.04.19

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Vienna is a must-visit in December for its Christmas markets. There are more than 20 to choose from.

Photo by Alex Poison/Shutterstock

Vienna is a must-visit in December for its Christmas markets. There are more than 20 to choose from.

Whether you want to shop in Viennese Christmas markets or catch a show in Las Vegas, these are the ultimate stops for December travel.

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The last month of the year brings with it plenty of travel opportunities, be they to visit family for the holiday season or eke out those last days of PTO. Plus, the ultimate travel consideration: Where will you ring in the New Year? On the shores of a far-flung beach in the Southern Hemisphere, where you’ll be able to catch some winter sun? Bundled up next to your sweetheart and a crackling fire in Japan? No matter what kind of travels you’re looking for, one of these picks is sure to hit the spot.

Skiers ride the slopes in Nagano, Japan.

Honshu, Japan

December is great for: powder hounds

Japan’s ski season starts around mid-December, and the country’s famous snow refills many slopes almost every night. When it comes to skiing, Hokkaido gets a lot of attention—and tourists. But it’s Honshu, the country’s mainland, where most Japanese snow lovers spend their weekends. By day, they ski down slopes surrounded by ancient temples, and by night, they soak in some of Japan’s historic onsen (some of the hot springs in Nagano date back 1,300 years). There are more than 330 ski areas on Honshu, and those in the mountainous northwest get the same famously soft, dry powder that falls on Hokkaido. In recent years, some of Honshu’s resorts, including two in sight of Mount Fuji, have begun to attract international tourists. Snowtown Yeti is increasing its night-skiing dates in 2019, and Fujiten Snow Resort, 32 miles north, will offer snowplow safaris, fireworks displays, family ski days, and beginners’ camps. Hotels are also getting a refresh. The design-minded Hoshino Resorts recently overhauled Kai Sengokuhara in the mountainous town of Hakone, where cypress soaking tubs fed by mineral-rich spring water afford après-ski enjoyment, and Kai Alps in Nagano, the gateway to the northern Japanese Alps. In the past couple of years, the Karuizawa Prince Hotel group has refurbished three of its resorts, including the Prince Grand Resort Karuizawa, a ski-in/ski-out resort with modern rooms and wood-clad cottages. Farther afield in Hyogo Prefecture, Mineyama Kogen Resort recently launched White Peak, Japan’s first new ski hill in 14 years, with three trails and two lifts.

Remote Lands, a tour operator specializing in Asia, has created new Japan ski itineraries for 2019, including one to Tohoku in northern Honshu. —Adam H. Graham, as seen in the January/February 2019 issue

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Shopping is so big in Dubai that it warrants two annual festivals, with sales and raffles.

Dubai

December is great for: shopping fiends

The splashiest of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has awesome food, world-class nightlife, and unparalleled shopping. December is the perfect time of year to go: The weather is warm but not scorching (more in the 80-degree ballpark), and on December 2, the country celebrates National Day with fireworks and dance shows.

Perhaps more exciting, though, is the biannual shopping festival, which kicks off on December 26 and features huge sales, fashion shows, and raffles around the city. With its labyrinth of 1,200 stores, the Dubai Mall is the Smithsonian of shopping, and it also counts a three-story aquarium with sharks and rays, a genuine dinosaur skeleton, and an Olympic-size ice rink among its attractions. 

For a more unique shopping experience, head to the Ibn Battuta Mall, the world’s largest themed shopping emporium, and travel in the footsteps of its namesake 14th-century Arab explorer who traveled for 24 years in six different areas of the world. The mall represents each of the six regions, with lavishly decorated courts inspired by Egypt, Tunisia, China, India, Persia, and Andalusia.

And when you’ve gotten your fill of retail, indulge in some me-time at a day spa. The One&Only Spa at the Royal Mirage is justly famous for its traditional Oriental Hammam, and Six Senses Spa at the Renaissance Downtown Hotel is an intimate retreat with half a dozen treatment suites, each decorated and equipped with a particular sense in mind. —AFAR Editors

Kep National Park is about 100 miles away from Shinta Mani Wild.

Cambodia

December is great for: wilderness seekers

December is among the warmest and driest months for exploring Cambodia, including the country’s rain forest corridor, which connects the Bokor and Kirirom National Parks in the southwest region of the country. And the country’s newest tented camp is on a mission to mix luxury and conservation.

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To the south of Cambodia’s fabled temples of Angkor, a remote river valley in the largely unexplored Cardamom Mountains is now on the radar of intrepid travelers. That’s because of Shinta Mani Wild a recently opened luxury camp that embraces both conservation and design. By partnering with Wildlife Alliance and the Cambodian government, the project aims to protect 400 acres along the Tmor Rung River from mining, logging, and the poaching of endangered animals. The camp also employs locals and supports farming and fishing in the area. The four-acre camp, created by Bangkok-based designer Bill Bensley, features 15 sprawling tents that sit along a riverbank. One of the camp’s two zip lines traverses rushing rivers and waterfalls before depositing guests directly in the camp’s Landing Zone Bar, where a muddled lemongrass cocktail might await. Guests who want a glimpse of conservation efforts can visit the on-site naturalist research center, take walks with expert botanists to spot rare orchids, or join rangers on motorbikes as they patrol for trespassers and clear the forest of snares set for wildlife. 

To get there, head from New York City to Cambodia’s Phnom Penh International Airport, the best itineraries are on EVA Air, Cathay Pacific, and China Southern Airlines. From LAX to Phnom Penh, the quickest trips with one connection are via Asiana Airlines and EVA Air. Three-hour land transfers to Shinta Mani Wild from the airport are included in each booking. Lodging starts at $1,900 per night, all-inclusive; helicopter transfers are available for an additional fee of $2,900. —Nora Walsh, as seen in the January/February 2019 issue

Vienna in December is home to plenty of Christmas markets to bring home unique souvenirs.

Vienna

December is great for: Christmas market mavens

Vienna is a city for time travelers—marvel at a palace from the Hapsburg Empire, explore Roman ruins, or walk out of a medieval church tucked in a back alley, and throughout December, Vienna’s famous Christmas markets populate the city’s streets.

Spittelberg has a Christmas market, but there are numerous other holiday markets in Vienna, including the Christmas Village on the grounds of the old hospital; Christkindlmarkt Rathausplatz, Vienna’s most popular holiday market; and the Christmas market at Schloss Schönbrunn, with the palace as its backdrop. All have decorations, caroling, roasted chestnuts, and stands selling warm mugs of mulled wine. 

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A fun shopping quest is to pick up a snow globe, which was invented in Austria. You can purchase one of more than 350 designs at the Snow Globe Museum (and learn about their history at the same time). 

For travelers who want to get the ultimate Christmas market experience in Vienna (and beyond), consider booking a spot on market-driven itineraries that stop there, including Intrepid’s Christmas Markets of Central Europe tour or one of the holiday river cruises down the Danube with 2019 Travelers’ Choice Award winner Viking. —AFAR Editors

Travelers flock to Sydney in December to escape the cold of the Northern Hemisphere and lounge on sunny beaches.

Sydney

December is great for: sand and city fans

December may be high season Down Under, but a trip to Sydney is worth the cost for two reasons: to see New Year’s Eve fireworks above the harbor and to soak up winter sunshine.

For Sydney beachgoers, to say you are spoiled for choice is an understatement. The city boasts more than 100 beaches within easy reach of the Central Business District (CBD), ranging from picturesque coves to pounding surf spots. Iconic Bondi Beach is one of the world’s best strands. Sure, it can get crowded, but its laid-back vibe and sapphire ocean are always appealing. There are family-friendly ocean pools at either end, or stay between the flags for the safest swimming.

The 10-mile clifftop Bondi to Coogee coastal walk will take you to some of Sydney’s other beaches. Starting at Bondi, you’ll pass beautiful Tamarama Beach, quiet and unpretentious Bronte Beach, tranquil Clovelly Beach, secluded Gordon’s Bay (great for snorkeling when the sea is calm), and, finally, Coogee Beach. —AFAR Editors

Trees aren’t the only things that get lit up in Boston during the winter holidays.

Boston

December is great for: families

For a dose of wintery weather, far fewer crowds, and low-season lodging and flight prices, head to Boston, where the city comes alive for the winter holidays. Bundle up for a walking tour of the North End with Context Travel, and finish your holiday shopping at the shops and boutiques along Newbury Street. Catch the brightly lit Christmas trees in historic spots like Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Boston Common, where you can lace up your ice skates and have a whirl around the Frog Pond. 

There are plenty of celebratory ways to stay warm inside. On December 18, a free community celebration of Hanukkah takes place at the Museum of Fine Arts that includes a lighting of a menorah, music, and a tour of the museum’s Judaica collection. Travelers with a sweet tooth can indulge in an afternoon treat at the Omni Parker House, where the Boston cream pie was invented. And throughout the month, tickets are available for Boston Pops performances featuring musical holiday staples, a sing-along, and appearances by Santa. This year for the first time, Boston Pops is also offering a sensory friendly holiday concert. —Sara Button

Views of the Pitons in St. Lucia aren’t the only reason to visit the Caribbean island this winter.

St. Lucia

December is great for: sailing enthusiasts, nature lovers

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St. Lucia is best known for its natural beauty—most notably, the verdant Piton mountains that rise from the Caribbean Sea like two canine teeth. But now, the island’s rich cultural traditions finally take a spot in the limelight. Throughout 2019, visitors can get glimpses into local life on several tours. Among the first to launch was the Bon Nouvel Experience from Heritage Tours of St. Lucia. The tour takes travelers into Esperance, one of the last working agricultural estates in Choiseul on the southwestern coast. Guests can help harvest cacao, hike on one of the estate’s four trails, and watch the long process of extracting coconut oil from copra, or dried coconut meat. A 90-minute drive north, the tour at Lushan Country Life Nature Park offers insight into the way people lived centuries ago—complete with recountings of folk stories and tastes of fish cakes and cocoa tea. Not far from Lushan, artisans at the organic chocolate factory at Howelton Estate 1886 teach newbies how to make their own chocolate bars. In late 2019, the villages of Gros Islet, Soufrière, and Anse La Raye will offer travelers the chance to explore rum making and island art, as well as visit renovated chattel houses. Also in December: the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers—the largest transoceanic sailing event in the world—ends in Rodney Bay, over 3,000 miles from its starting point in Spain’s Canary Islands, and St. Lucia celebrates its National Day on December 13.

American Airlines recently launched nonstop service to St. Lucia from Miami, Philadelphia, and Charlotte, North Carolina. —Jill K. Robinson, as seen in the January/February 2019 issue

Lights go up for the holidays in London, giving the city a romantic feel.

London

December is great for: theater buffs, Santa’s helpers

December in London has a certain kind of magic—twinkle lights hang in the streets, a giant menorah and Christmas tree stand in Trafalgar Square, and carol singing wafts in the air. For theater lovers, a night out is a special way to spend a long winter evening. The West End is home to more than 40 theaters alone, and this season patrons can see the landmark A Christmas Carol, American drama Death of a Salesman starring Wendell Pierce, and a new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac headlined by James McAvoy.

The English capital is a stellar place to finish holiday shopping. For luxury, you can’t go wrong on posh Bond Street, renowned for exclusive brands and designer luxury labels, including the U.K.’s own Alexander McQueen. Meanwhile, Mayfair is chock-full of high-end shops: Vivienne Westwood’s Flagship Store is a top destination for her rebellious statement pieces.

London hotels put on extra festive stays, too. At Claridge’s, for example, travelers can marvel at its legendary Christmas tree (which has been designed in the past by icons like Diane von Furstenberg, Karl Lagerfeld, and John Galliano). Across the street from Kensington Gardens at the Milestone Hotel & Residences, guests receive Christmas Eve stockings, a champagne afternoon tea, or may add a fully decorated Christmas tree to their rooms. —AFAR Editors

On New Year’s Eve in Vegas, the Strip closes to traffic and a choreographed fireworks display launches at midnight.

Las Vegas

December is great for: foodies, the life of the party

In December, Sin City welcomes tons of travelers looking to start the New Year in style. Because after all, Vegas has almost anything you can dream of to usher out the last month of the year: world-renowned food, global superstar performers, and a dazzling fireworks spectacular on New Year’s Eve.

The famous neon lights of Las Vegas have drawn many of the world’s top chefs and bartenders to open outposts in major casinos and other hot spots around town. Last December at the Park MGM, a 40,000-square-foot Eataly opened its doors, as did a Vegas outpost of the NoMad hotel, with its lauded restaurant and bar. In November, David Chang’s Majordomo Meat & Fish opens at the Palazzo. 

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As for entertainment options, Las Vegas has an array of unique shows and musical residencies you can’t see anywhere else. Yes, there are six permanent Cirque du Soleil shows to choose from, including O (in which the stage is partly a pool of water), Zumanity (Cirque’s adults-only show), and the Beatles tribute show, Love. Concerts starring global sensations abound to ring in 2020 (case in point: Visitors can spend New Year’s Eve with Journey, Paula Abdul, or Christina Aguilera, among others). —AFAR Editors

Careyes, a private estate resort, is located on the Pacific coast in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Careyes, Mexico

December is great for: artsy beach bums

It all started in July 1968, when Italian banker Gian Franco Brignone spotted a large plot of rugged jungle on a flight along Mexico’s western coast and decided to buy it. Over the last 50 years, more than $350 million has been invested to preserve the 20,000-plus-acre nature reserve—and to create the exclusive Costa Careyes development three hours south of Puerto Vallarta. What began as a Mediterranean-inspired getaway for Europeans jet-setters is more accessible than ever, thanks in part to the recent opening of El Careyes Club & Residences. Previously, travelers had only three rental options: a staffed villa, one of the resort’s casitas, or a thatch-roofed beach bungalow. Now, El Careyes is the closest thing to a hotel in the area, with 36 apartment-style accommodations—each with a fully equipped kitchen and ocean-facing terrace—and five infinity pools. The town exudes both luxury and a bohemian spirit that springs from the owners’ dedication to the arts. Visitors can attend weekly film screenings, explore works created by artists in residence, and tour a contemporary gallery in the Plaza de los Caballeros del Sol, the petite downtown. Guests can also take advantage of a complimentary concierge service to arrange activities such as ocean kayaking, horseback riding, and even trips to release baby sea turtles at Teopa beach with the nonprofit Careyes Foundation. In the winter months, the skies are clear and the temperature hovers in the upper 70s; it’s also the prime time to spot migrating gray and humpback whales—and to catch a polo match at the Careyes Polo Club.

To get there, most travelers fly to Manzanillo’s Playa de Oro International Airport (via Mexico City, if coming from anywhere but Los Angeles) and rent a car for the 90-minute drive north to Careyes.  —Brooke Porter Katz, as seen in the January/February 2019 issue

This article originally appeared online on November 11, 2018; it was updated on October 3, 2019, to include current information.

>>Next: The 10 Best Places to Travel This Winter

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