10 festive destinations for the holiday season


Like it or not, the holiday season is approaching. Soon, the TV screen will be swamped with festive ads, the radio will be jingling with holiday tunes and presents will be wrapped.

Time waits for no one, so if you want to travel during the peak season, it’s wise to sort out your plans now. Or, you can even plan ahead for your 2023 holiday adventure.

Whether you want to make the season extra special or you’re just trying to use up your vacation days, here are a few festive getaway ideas to get you started.

Cologne, Germany

Christmas market in Cologne, Germany. MEDIA PRODUCTION/GETTY IMAGES

If your celebrations aren’t complete without a postcard-perfect festive market — complete with glowing lights, a (potential) sprinkle of snow and overpriced cups of mulled wine — then Cologne is a prime getaway.

The German city sparkles to life in the last month of the year thanks to its myriad Christmas markets. There are three major, themed markets that run until Dec. 23 (as well as plenty of other, smaller ones) and elicit that warm, fuzzy festive feeling. Perhaps the best known is Weihnachtsmarkt am Kolner Dom, named for the 774-year-old Gothic cathedral overlooking it.

Those traveling from the U.S. will unfortunately have to take a connecting flight to reach Cologne. Ryanair, EasyJet, Jet2, TUI and Eurowings fly directly from the United Kingdom in just more than an hour.

Costa Rica

The National Theater of Costa Rica in San Jose. GETTY IMAGES

Sunseekers hoping to spend the holidays in a balmy climate will enjoy Costa Rica. As the rainy season fades away, December temperatures hover around 80 degrees. Best of all, you won’t struggle to find beautiful (albeit busy) beaches to soak up the pleasant weather.

As a largely Catholic country, festive Christmas traditions are widely celebrated and often include caroling, decorating with local flowers and displaying nativity scenes. Celebrations culminate with La Misa del Gallo (midnight Mass of the Rooster) on Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) — followed by a family meal of tamales, pork legs, traditional Christmas cake and rompope (an often-rum-infused eggnog) and gifts.

San Jose, the capital city, is a good place to be in December, as its inhabitants celebrate Festival de la Luz with parades, concerts and a Dec. 27 carnival. San Jose is also the best bet for travel from the U.S. as there are plenty of direct flights from Los Angeles, Charlotte, New York, Miami and many other cities.

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New York City

Central Park ice skating in New York City. TOM WILDE/GETTY IMAGES

New York City during the holidays can be just as magical as you’ve seen in the movies — that is, if the points and miles collector in you can look past the (possible) uptick in hotel prices just this once.

Your to-do list will be never-ending, but some of the classic must-dos include a stop by Fifth Avenue for some last-minute shopping, a glimpse of Rockefeller Center’s glittering tree, an icy spin on the Wollman Rink after a festive stroll through Central Park, a performance of “Christmas Spectacular Starring The Radio City Rockettes,” holiday markets and a visit to Brooklyn neighborhood Dyker Heights for a look at the local residents’ truly jaw-dropping festive decorations.

Switzerland

Zurich’s Wienachtsdorf at night with Christmas lights. SANDRO BISARO/GETTY IMAGES

Switzerland’s largest city, Zurich, turns into a wintry wonderland with multiple Christmas markets running until either Dec. 23 or 24; there are also lights decorating the streets of the city center, a singing Christmas tree (yep, really) and the opportunity to try traditional candle making.

Basel is another festive destination, with plenty more markets, a gospel night at the cathedral, and plenty of theater and variety performances happening throughout the month. However, if you’re looking for snowy skies, ski slopes and ice skating, then a trip to the village of Zermatt, beneath the peak of the snow-covered Matterhorn, might be for you. Thanks to its quaint traditional houses, Zermatt looks enchanting all year round.

Gothenburg, Sweden

Christmas celebrations in Gothenburg, Sweden. IKOIMAGES/GETTY IMAGES

The largest Christmas market in Sweden is held in Gothenburg (which is sometimes dubbed the country’s “Christmas city”) at its famous, almost 100-year-old Liseberg amusement park. According to Visit Sweden, there are more than 1,000 Christmas trees on the site and a chance for visitors to sample julbord — a buffet of traditional hot dishes, cold dishes and drinks (including mulled wine and seasonal beer).

Like most major European cities, there’s more than one market; one of the best markets is in the Kronhuset district (parts of which date back to the 1700s). There’s also a notable one that’s a 35-minute drive away at the unusual country manor Tjoloholm Castle. Add the usual joys of exploring the islands of the Gothenburg archipelago, eating at the large Feskekorka seafood market and seeing the Volvo museum, and it proves to be an excellent choice for a festive vacation.

If your holiday season kicks off in the U.K., there are frequent direct flights from London via British Airways, Finnair and budget carrier Ryanair, which take a little less than two hours. There are flights from many other European hubs as well.

Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca, Mexico. ABALCAZAR/GETTY IMAGES

For travelers who shudder at the thought of a subzero holiday season, Mexico is a great option. Resorts in Playa del Carmen and Cancun are sure to be packed (and at peak prices) because December through New Year’s is prime time to travel — and the average temperature comes in at a blissful 75 degrees.

A culture-packed vacation awaits in the city of Oaxaca in the country’s southwest region. Las Posadas (reenactments of Mary and Joseph searching for an inn) take place from Dec. 16-24; these events are followed by midnight mass and a family meal. A unique event on Dec. 23, called Noches de los Robanos (Night of the Radishes), brings locals and visitors alike to the city’s main square to admire expertly carved radishes, turned into elaborate creations resembling people, religious figures, animals and more.

You can fly directly to Oaxaca from a few U.S. cities including Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas. If those aren’t convenient for you, opt for a connecting flight to Oaxaca or fly directly to Mexico City then drive to Oaxaca.

Related: These are the best times to visit Mexico

Rovaniemi, Finland

Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland. YOSHIO-TOMII/GETTY IMAGES

Deep in northern Finland, at the entrance to the Arctic Circle, sits the city of Rovaniemi. It’s the official home of Santa Claus, so the Christmas appeal is blindingly obvious. Not to mention, there is a Santa Claus Village just north of the city, as well as a similarly themed park, which is particularly ideal for families with young children.

Of course, as you might expect, December in Rovaniemi is very snowy, icy and cold. Temperatures hover between 12 and 19 degrees, so thermals, thick coats and warm gloves are a must. Without them, you’d struggle to enjoy the other activities in Rovaniemi and Finnish Lapland around holiday time. Such activities include meeting reindeer and huskies, snowmobiling, ice fishing and going to a traditional-themed Christmas market. Also, while it may not be possible in the very center of the city, those staying outside the city have a solid chance of seeing the northern lights.

As you may also expect, a trip to Finnish Lapland probably won’t come cheap — though you can make it worth your while, with a stay in a cozy cabin, woodland lodge or an unusual glass igloo. If you book early, there are cheap, direct flights from many European hub cities with budget airlines easyJet and Ryanair.

Boston

Faneuil Hall in Boston in December. DENISTANGNEYJR/GETTY IMAGES

If you rolled your eyes hard at the thought of New York City during the holidays just a few paragraphs ago, consider visiting its smaller but very festive neighbor. Boston provides plenty of activities and will feel slightly less like you’re trodding along a very well-beaten path.

Expect major holiday lights across the city, including more than 50,000 blue and white bulbs illuminating all 260 feet of Columbus Park’s trellis, plus several trees dotted around, including at the Boston Common. Ice rinks, Christmas markets and even a range of restaurants open on Dec. 25 may also entice you. Perhaps the most festive offering of all takes place at the Citizens Bank Opera House, where you can watch a classic performance of “The Nutcracker” by the Boston Ballet.

Related: An insider’s guide to Boston’s top 16 attractions

Dominican Republic

BEN SMITHSON/THE POINTS GUY

The Dominican Republic’s dry season kicks off in December with plenty of sunshine and heat (averaging 86 degrees), making it a popular time to go. Stay in a resort hotel in Punta Cana, La Romana or Puerto Plata if you want to lounge by the pool or the beach for your vacation. If you want more activity, head to the historic capital of Santo Domingo to see its UNESCO-listed Colonial City or venture farther afield to explore rich rainforests.

Wondering what a Caribbean holiday season might look like? As you explore, you may spot charamicos — the Dominican version of a Christmas tree, essentially, made with wood and branches and sometimes painted in bright colors. Here, locals may also adhere to the tradition of La Misa del Gallo (midnight mass) and a family feast on Christmas Eve — though how you celebrate and share your own holiday traditions is up to you.

You can fly directly to the Dominican Republic from many U.S. cities. Many choose to fly into Punta Cana International Airport (PUJ) but there are other airports sprinkled around the island as well.

Canary Islands, Spain

People kiteboarding off Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands, Spain. ROBERT MOIOLA/GETTY IMAGES

Consider a trip to one of the Canary Islands, which are around seven hours from the U.S. East Coast.

Part of Spain, the archipelago actually lies off the coast of northern Africa, affording pleasant December temperatures averaging between 68 and 79 degrees. The warmer islands are typically Lanzarote, Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura, though you won’t freeze on Tenerife and La Palma. Whichever island you choose, you’ll struggle to find yourself bored. Fly-and-flop vacations are certainly possible — with a wide range of hotels to pick from and golden beaches to roam — but there are also plenty of adventurous activities such as visiting volcanos, traversing national parks and trying watersports.

In Gran Canaria, you can visit Las Canteras Beach to see an incredible, 16-foot nativity sculpture crafted from sand by local artists. On Jan. 5, all of the Canary Islands welcome the Three Kings parade — celebrating the return of the three wise men — before an islandwide holiday on Jan. 6.

Related: 10 all-inclusive resorts in Europe for winter sun and snow



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