The roast in the oven, presents under the tree and lashings of mulled wine — we all have an idea of what Christmas is like. But the reality is, you’re more likely to encounter drizzle for much of December in the UK, and argue over who’s going to do the washing up after Christmas lunch. Better, then, to make a break for it and head somewhere else for the festive season. Whether you’re keen to meet Santa Claus in Lapland, visit an authentic German market, or even treat yourself to some much needed winter sun, here are the best Christmas holiday destinations.
Main photo: your reindeer carriage awaits in Finnish Lapland (Getty Images)
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Iceland is the perfect holiday destination for travellers in search of Christmas spirit. Here, the festive season pulsates with lively Christmas markets, where wooden booths brimming with food, drink and gifts glitter as imposing Christmas trees stand guard. Expect a true winter wonderland made up of wild lava fields and craggy mountains topped with snow for added sparkle. And, if things start to feel a bit chilly, there’s no better time to take a warm dip in the Blue Lagoon’s geothermal waters than when temperatures hit sub-zero. Take a self-drive into the mountains and catch the northern lights glimmering in the dark sky and don’t forget other seasonal sojourns such as trekking near the Snaefellsjokull glacier.
2. The Rhine
Spend the Christmas season afloat on the Rhine, accompanied by a glass of local wine as steep vineyards and historic castles slip by. You’ll find a Rhine cruise a soothing way to celebrate the festive season, as most journeys stop at Rhineland cities such as Cologne, Koblenz and Bonn. Here, amid the twinkling lights, yuletide lovers mingle in charming Christmas markets, while the swish of skates on an ice rink, shoppers’ voices and Christmas carols provide a lively soundtrack.
Christmas holidays are celebrated with gusto in Germany as its famous Christmas markets overflow with copious helpings of mulled wine and shining Christmas lights. Hip Berlin offers up a huge funfair and you can get straight into the Christmas spirit with a ticket to the Alexanderplatz show. There’s a high chance of snow: temperatures can slip well into minus figures in December and the average low is -1C.
The Caribbean is made for Christmas. Barbados, the go-to Caribbean favourite, is at its most relaxed between mid-September and mid-December, when hotel prices drop by up to a third and the air-kissing, winter-sun-seeking regulars haven’t yet jetted in. There’s a risk of rain, but it never lasts long and the temperature’s still a balmy 27C. Explore the wild east. The island’s Atlantic side is an exhilarating whirl of dramatic shores (particularly around the little town of Bathsheba), rolling surf, flapping coconut palms and topsy-turvy hills that seem a world away from the busy beach resorts lining the west and south coasts. Drive over to bask in the peace and fresh air; Bay Tavern in Martin’s Bay is a mellow spot where Bajans take a break on Thursday afternoons, shooting (and feeling) the breeze at a “lime” (informal hangout).
5. Courchevel, France
Courchevel is still a gathering ground for the world’s superrich. Broad, easy-skiing pistes combine with Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels to create the most luxurious of all ski resorts. Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve has the biggest social buzz: think champagne bars and perfect teeth, set against a razor-sharp mountain ridge. New Year in Courchevel isn’t cheap, so save where you can by booking a central self-catering apartment in the Forum. Brush up your skiing with New Generation Ski School, so you don’t take a tumble outside the key slopeside bars. And don’t wait until December 31 to start the celebrations.
6. Muscat, Oman
Hop on an overnight flight, and wake up seven hours later in Muscat, then get straight to the beach — it’s only 15 minutes from the airport. For the rest of your stay, take a traditional dhow boat trip from Marina Bandar al Rowhda so the little ones can enjoy goggling at rare marine life, or absorb the Bedouin vibes of the Arabian desert with teens. Try stargazing and camel-riding at Wahiba Sands, or head to turquoise-hued Wadi Bani Khalid oasis. Alternatively hire a local driver through your hotel and day-trip around Muscat to explore its frankincense-scented Mutrah Souq. Nearby, the call to prayer echoes around the minarets at the opulent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, open most days for visits.
7. Edinburgh, Scotland
It’s not just gingerbread-scented markets and riotous Hogmanay parties that make wintry Edinburgh so appealing. Even under grey skies, you’ve got warm, world-class museums and restaurants and the icy North Sea winds are your excuse to duck into a snug watering hole for a soul-warming Scotch.
For bargains, go in early December when the Christmas markets are open, but the city is still relatively peaceful. Take a spin on the panoramic big wheel above Princes Street, bar crawl under the fairy lights of George Street and pop into the Scottish National Gallery to contemplate winter scenes. After dark, head to the Royal Botanic Garden to sip spiced cider and marvel at its Christmas illuminations.
8. Salzburg, Austria
Revel in the unabashed schmaltz — this is the fantasy festive break. Dressed to the nines in baroque finery and surrounded by snowcapped peaks, Salzburg is the staunchly traditional, chocolate-box city of Mozart and The Sound of Music, and will cocoon you in comfort. Walk around the Old Town streets, dive into vaulted beer cellars and shop for lederhosen. To warm up? Climb every mountain, of course.
Make your first wander an atmospheric browse along the narrow Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s glitzy shopping alley, where five-storey Renaissance houses provide a bulwark against winter weather. Explore its dimly lit arched passages and within a few paces, you might stumble upon Balkan Grill Walter, a kiosk selling Balkan beef sausages since 1950. After, make a prosecco pitstop at Seppo’s intimate wine bar, or cosy up with the crowds in the hidden Sternbräu beer garden.
9. Finnish Lapland
For the real deal and endless other wintry activities, such as snowmobiling, skiing and reindeer rides, head north to the smaller resorts of Levi, Yllas or Saariselka. Levi is just 20 minutes from the airport, making transfers with weary tots super speedy. Here, Santa’s village is way out in the wilderness: a huddle of twinkly log cabins hidden among snow-laden pines. Kids can decorate gingerbread cookies with Mother Claus, make decorations and visit Elf school to learn Finnish words such as “Hyvaa Joulua” (Happy Christmas), as well as having a private tête-à-tête with Santa himself. The focus is firmly on wholesome festive fun and, refreshingly, souvenir stops are sparse.
But don’t go too early — travel from the second or third weekend in December for a guaranteed snowscape. Ample time is crucial: do not book one of those 24-hour round-trips, your child will be so tired and cranky you’ll wonder why you bothered. Four nights is better, and even then you’ll wish you had more. Darkness reigns here: daylight falls between 10am and 2pm, when an eerie green and pink glow illuminates the sky.
10. New York, US
This city is the face of Christmas, especially in films. Don’t miss the magical displays at Macy’s (Miracle on 34th Street); the steps of the Plaza Hotel (Home Alone 2); and the Rockefeller tree (Elf). The chance of snow isn’t as high as in the perma-dusted movies, but it’s always possible as temperatures can dip to a bracing -10C. New York’s stores turn charitable at Christmastime, with epic window displays resembling free galleries. Start with the glittering scene at Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue, then pass Tiffany’s before nipping over to Saks. Next head to the Rockefeller Center for a mulled wine and a gawp at the tree. For Christmas shopping, Bryant Park is transformed into a Winter Village, with stalls selling affordable gifts such as handmade scarves and soaps. It’s free to hit the ice rink here, too.
11. Tenerife, Spain
If you’re hoping to add some winter sun to your Christmas this is the place to be. Yes, tourism has made its mark on Tenerife, but the resorts in the south coast destinations of Costa Adeje and Playa de las Americas take up only a fraction of the island. Beyond, unspoilt beauty awaits: seaside villages and picturesque coves, gracious colonial towns, a rainforest dripping with lichen, and ravishing ravines. And all beneath the awesome gaze of a 200,000-year-old volcano, Spain’s highest, Mount Teide.
12. Cities along the Danube
Here is one of Europe’s great rivers, perfect for a Christmas cruise taking in cities along the Danube such as Budapest, Bratislava and Regensburg. Passing through the heart of central Europe, revellers can celebrate the festive season at bustling Christmas markets garlanded with Christmas lights and spirit. A mulled wine here, a juicy, grilled sausage there — which Christmas market will be your favourite?
13. The Ganges, India
Spend Christmas on a luxurious cruise along India’s holiest river where the warmth of the winter sun mixes well with the Christmas spirit. On these cruises, you’ll find a journey whose stand-outs include misty early mornings revealing ancient temples and small boats bumping along in the water, devotees by the edge, followed by the wake-up call of bustling bazaars and the solemn fortresses of Jaipur and Varanasi.
14. Marrakesh, Morocco
There’s a local saying that Morocco is “a cold country with a hot sun”, and while snow on the Atlas Mountains from mid-November to April shows you how bitterly cold it can be at night, there are also piercing blue skies and sunshine warm enough for you to hit the pool. This is the time to snag a bargain to Marrakesh, but pack layers and stay somewhere with heating. Only July and August are cheaper, but only worth it if you can handle temperatures in the high 40Cs.
It’s the blossoming of flame trees rather than the dressing of firs that marks the start of the festive season in Mauritius. These trees, red as Santa’s suit, bloom between late November and early December. Shortly after, hotel lobby decorations and seasonal shop window displays appear across the island. Food is central to a Mauritian Christmas and hotels in beach resorts like Grand Baie and Flic-en-Flac offer gala dinners and festive brunches so you can tuck in with a cocktail or two.
16. The Maldives
Trade in the traditional festive colour palette of red and green for a landscape that’s a centillion shades of blue. Fly to the capital, Male, then take a seaplane to a private island resort such as Medhufushi. Sleep in a villa suspended on stilts above the Jacuzzi-warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and snorkel and day-sail your way through the season. Many hotels in the Maldives offer traditional menus on Christmas day. However, if you boycott the sprouts, you’ll be rewarded with platters of fresh lobster, oysters and grouper — all washed down with a bottle of something sparkling.
Singapore soups up the Christmas experience. Festivities start in mid-November when almost four kilometres of Christmas lights are switched on in the Orchard Road shopping area. Shortly after, restaurants debut their festive menus and Christmas Wonderland opens at Gardens by the Bay. The season’s crescendo is the extravagant countdown and fireworks party at Marina Bay. If you’re worried about it all feeling a little too merry and bright, stay at a beach hotel like Capella Singapore on Sentosa Island. With its infinity pools, 30-acre gardens and views of the South China Sea, it’s a sanctuary amid the festive flamboyance.
18. Antalya, Turkey
No jokes about eating turkey in Turkey please — here in Antalya, you can be as festive or not as you want. Many of the resorts in the region will have stonking good deals on all-inclusive breaks, with gala dinners put on for Christmas day. Even if you’re not set on a fly-and-flop, the fact that Christmas Day isn’t a public holiday here means you can shop, go to restaurants and visit attractions as normal. There’s a good chance of sun, but it’ll probably be too cold to hit the beaches. Instead, why not visit one of the ancient ruins for some light culture without the crowds? Termessos and Perge are particularly impressive.
19. Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo goes all in on the Christmas spirit, but with its own twist. Around the city are illuminations, where lights are strung up around buildings, trees and just about everything else from around mid-November. Look out, too, for festive fairs and Christmas markets where you can pick up kawaii (cute) handmade gifts. If you have kids, a visit to Tokyo Disneyland is essential. And no, you don’t have to adopt the tradition of eating KFC instead of a roast on Christmas Day — plenty of hotels will offer a more traditional festive meal.
Additional reporting by Qin Xie
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