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10 Best Places to Go in December

By Mark Ellwood

Oct 25, 2021

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Make those last PTO days count this December.

Photo by Tinapat B/Shutterstock

Make those last PTO days count this December.

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

For long-haul trips, consider the Southern Hemisphere for a jolt of midsummer, or just a chance to recharge on a beach; in the Northern Hemisphere, how about a skiing spot? Or you could journey halfway around the world to see one of the oldest continually operated horse racing stadiums host its most important, and energetic, annual race.

Whatever you need to maximize the festive feel, we’ve got you covered. Here are the 10 best places to travel in December 2021.

Arles is Europe's latest art hub.

Arles, France

December is great for: beating your friends to the newest contemporary art hub in Europe.

How to get there: It’s just a one-connection flight to here from major cities like Atlanta and Chicago on carriers like Swiss, TAP, and Air France.

Arles long been associated with culture: van Gogh lived here during an especially productive time, and its prominent role during the Roman Empire has left impressive ruins in the surrounding area. But this year, Swiss mega-collector Maja Hoffmann unveiled another addition to the cultural landscape: Luma, a new permanent home for the foundation she’s long supported. This contemporary art hub sits on a 25-acre campus studded with noteworthy projects like a brand-new tower by Frank Gehry that looks like a shimmering silver fire and acts as an exhibition space for work from the likes of Annie Leibowitz and Olafur Eliasson. One room is dedicated to a rotating display from Hoffmann’s own collection, and there are houses for artists like Jakob Kudsk Steensen to create and collaborate on residencies.

Where to stay: Maison Fragonard, the first guesthouse run by the Provençal perfume house, which opened earlier this year.

Book Now: From $116/night; fragonard.com

Enjoy the BVIs without the cruise crowds this winter.

The British Virgin Islands  

December is great for: helping a hurricane-ravaged economy finally rebuild four years later.

How to get there: There are no direct flights from the United States, but frequent connections are available via Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, and other Caribbean hubs.

This island cluster was devastated by Hurricane Irma four years ago, with 85 percent of its buildings destroyed; then the pandemic spiked its reopening plans. Now, with infrastructure restored and the global health crisis seeming to recede in parts of the world, tourism has kickstarted, and many of its resorts have been rebuilt from the ground up—like former dive shop and rum joint Saba Rock, the Bitter End Yacht Club, and Guana, a private island that runs a marine science program to protect three nearby reefs. Spend some time at the Baths National Park, where rock pools lurk between enormous granite boulders on Virgin Gorda’s southwestern tip. It’s a hugely popular tourist site, but the ongoing dearth of cruise ships in the Caribbean will offer a rare chance to enjoy them in semi-isolation.

Where to stay: Every one of the 81 rooms at Rosewood Little Dix Bay has direct views of, and access to, the beach on its 500-acre waterfront site on the northwest coast.

Book Now: From $1,540/night; expedia.com

Horse racing fans flock to Mauritius in December.

Mauritius

December is great for: horse-mad travelers keen to check off a bucket-list destination.

How to get there: Most visitors opt for Gulf-based carriers like Emirates or Qatar, which will take a while—around 22 hours or so—but will be very comfy even in economy.

December is the peak of the horse racing calendar in Mauritius, a time when the unofficial national sport hosts a huge influx of riders, horses, and flutter-prone tourists from around the world for the final races of the season over the first weekend of the month. The Champs de Mars is the oldest racecourse in the Southern Hemisphere, inaugurated in 1812 and in constant use ever since. While horse racing in many cultures is an elite pursuit, for the Mauritians it’s an everyday pleasure, and the chance to feel the country’s palpable excitement over the results of this final weekend is both thrilling and unexpected. Even better, when you’re taking a break on the beach, the weather this month during Mauritian summer is warm, dry, and sunny.

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Where to stay The One & Only Le Saint Géran is splurge-worthy—not only because it’s located on its own private peninsula but also because even the 700-square-foot entry-level rooms have lagoon views.

Book Now: From $1,003/night; expedia.com

Prime skiing awaits three hours outside Tokyo.

Ishikawa, Japan

December is great for: an alpine-style adventure almost 5,900 miles from the actual Alps.

How to get there: United operates direct flights to Tokyo from Newark-EWR, with an ANA-operated service from Houston, too. Delta flies directly to Tokyo from Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

Just a three-hour train ride from Tokyo, this prefecture on Honshu’s western coast becomes a winter sports magnet as soon as the snows arrive in early December. Ski or snowboard at one of the 10 different resorts and then ease any end-of-day aching muscles with an après-ski onsen session—Yamanaka Hot Springs is handily located in the mountains. Kanazawa, the largest city of the region and its capital, was largely spared the devastation of air raids during World War II, so it retains a superb assortment of imperial-era buildings, including the local castle, which dates back to the late 16th century, as well as a teahouse culture that rivals that in better known Kyoto.

Where to stay: Hakusan Ichirino Onsen Ski Resort is located on the largest ski slope here. There are several hotels in the region.

Cape Town is reachable without a stopover again.

Cape Town, South Africa 

December is great for: a direct flight to South Africa’s prettiest city.

How to get there: United’s seasonal direct from Newark to Cape Town restarts this month.

With a direct flight from the U.S. Northeast restarting this month, now is the perfect time to head to the Cape in midsummer when it’s regularly in the low 80s and free of humidity. Come explore the new African landmark, the Zeitz MOCAA, the four-year-old custom-converted home for the contemporary collection of Jochen Zeitz. This month, its newest exhibition, Shooting Down Babylon, is a more than two-decade retrospective of the work of performance and installation art specialist Tracey Rose. Spend a day, too, exploring the winelands here; the best option is to book a ticket on the tram, which allows you to savor rather than spit any vintages that are too good not to enjoy. There are eight different itineraries, each of which stops at different producers.

Where to stay: Skip the overrun waterfront hotels and hide away in a villa in one of Cape Town’s leafier residential districts to live like a wealthy local for a while.

Head to Thailand's beaches for that winter sun.

Hua Hin, Thailand 

December is great for: returning safely to a country to help relaunch its tourism industry.

How to get there: Both Qatar and Korean Air offer one-stop flights to Bangkok, via Doha and Seoul respectively.

Thailand’s border closures have been among the longest in the world, but this fall and winter a small cluster of destinations will be part of a new bubble-style reopening program—including Hua Hin (check updated details on the program here). Think of Hua Hin as a Thai answer to the Hamptons, just under three hours’ drive from Bangkok: This destination has a tony history, endorsed by the then-king Rama VI in the 1920s when it was mostly a fishing village. It has now become a full-scale resort destination with a three-mile beach at its heart. The mansion complex that the king built as a holiday home—sadly, he only spent two seasons in it before dying—is now open to visitors, its 16 different buildings made from golden teakwood.

Where to stay: The 199-room Standard Hua Hin opens this month—the first Thai hotel for the slick, midcentury-inspired boutique hotel chain.

Book Now: From $181/night; expedia.com

Why wait for Mardi Gras?

New Orleans, LA

December is great for: any excuse to party, Christmas included.

How to get there: There are direct flights to New Orleans from almost every major city, via all the major carriers.

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If any city never needed a reminder to make the most of a chance to celebrate, it’s Nawlins. Christmas and New Year are no exception with a slew of Mardi Gras–inflected celebrations unspooling over the month, from the Krewe of Jingle Parade in early December—check for updates on this year’s date here—to the Running of the Santas race where participants dress up in their own, creative riff on a classic Christmas character. On Christmas Eve, expect the horizon to be lit up by the 100 or more bonfires in St. James Parish nearby, a nod to a tradition established by early Cajun settlers, and make sure to try one of the Reveillon prix fixe meals at a local restaurant; originally a feast served on Christmas Eve, it’s become a season-long fixture over the holidays.

Where to stay: The 14-room Chloe, uptown in the Garden District, has a gorgeous discreet pool for lazy afternoons; even better, it’s close enough to the frenzy of the French Quarter to be convenient, but distant enough to be a hideaway.

Book Now: From $303/night; thechloenola.com

Skiing was introduced to Breckenridge 60 years ago.

Breckenridge, CO

December is great for: celebrating the jubilee of one of the United States’ pioneering custom-built ski destinations. 

How to get there: There are airport shuttles from both Denver and Colorado Springs airports; the former has connections to almost every hub, while the latter has nonstops from Chicago, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, among others.

Breckenridge (call it Breck, like regulars do) was an overlooked prospectors’ town from the 19th century until skiing was deliberately introduced here exactly 60 years ago. Several trails were cut out of the lower part of Peak 8, aiming to help boost winter sports tourism to the state; it worked so well that Vail, another purpose-built ski destination, followed five years later. Breck’s facilities now spread across five peaks and 3,000 acres, and it’s one of the foremost U.S. ski destinations. Come celebrate the resort’s diamond jubilee this winter, when it will also debut a new chair on the north side of Peak 7, Freedom, to ease congestion on the existing chair, Independence, for those trying to summit this mountain. 

Where to stay: The ski-in, ski-out hotel Gravity Haus has 61 rooms right at the base of Peak 9.

Book Now: From $175/night; expedia.com

Christmas markets are back.

Vienna, Austria

December is great for: shamelessly embracing every festive cliché and glugging down gluhwein.

How to get there: Take a direct flight on Austrian from New York City area airports or Chicago; otherwise it’s a one-connection journey via most carriers that serve Europe.

Holiday cheer has rarely been more in demand than now, so head to Vienna where you can gorge on every festive cliché unabashed. Enjoy almost two dozen Christmas markets, which dot the streets of the city throughout this month. The largest, in the square between the Rathaus and Burgtheatre, is anchored by an enormous Christmas tree; the streets in the pedestrianized heart of the city are festooned with twinkly lights like a rain shower of shooting stars. Fittingly, the snow globe was invented in Austria, by a local trying to improve on the brightness of Thomas Edison’s then-novel light bulbs: they flatlined as illumination but he saw the potential in the flake-flecked globes as ornaments—and promptly patented the idea. Learn more of the history and pick up a souvenir among the hundreds on sale at Vienna’s Snow Globe museum.

Where to stay: Bernd Schlacher has long run one of the city’s most charming restaurants: Motto am Fluss, a converted boat on the Danube. He’s just opened a namesake sister hotel nearby with a similarly funky, high-design vibe.

Book Now: From $127/night; expedia.com

Vegas is even more lively than usual at the end of the year.

Las Vegas, NV 

December is great for: experiencing Las Vegas at its showiest, shameless best. 

How to get there: There’s a direct flight to Las Vegas from most major U.S. cities.

New Year’s Eve is the highlight of the calendar in Las Vegas, and the city’s showmanship is on full display. It most enthusiastically bares its sequin-studded soul, teeing up the biggest names to perform. Katy Perry’s Play residency kicks off at Resorts World offering a chance to relive Teenage Dreams, while Kiss will still be baring their tongues via a residency at Planet Hollywood. Usher’s ushering in the new year at Caesar’s Palace, and those brave enough can chance the risk that the hologram of Whitney Houston singing at Harrah’s for An Evening with Whitney might only make them miss her more. Anyone more interested in life-or-death touchdowns than resurrected divas could catch the NFL game a few days earlier, when the Raiders clash with the Chargers on the day after Christmas.

Where to stay: Resorts World is the first new hotel to open on the Strip in more than a decade, with a 5.5-acre complex that incorporates three different Hilton-operated hotels. Crockfords is the swankiest, with its own VIP pool.

Book Now: From $259/night; expedia.com

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