Whether you want to get festive, hit the shops or escape to the sun, Annabelle Thorpe, Editor of 101 Short Breaks, picks 12 of the best places to take a pre-Christmas break.
Romantic, historic and wonderfully atmospheric, Prague sparkles under a carpet of snow in the winter months, and in December the Christmas market gives the city a truly festive feel. Stock up on lebkuchen (spiced gingerbread), sip mulled wine and browse for Christmas gifts, then take a stroll over the iconic Charles Bridge and visit Prague’s vast 12th century castle, which gives stunning views across the city.
Easy to reach by rail or air, Belgium’s most beautiful city makes a lovely pre-Christmas break. Tick the awkward male relatives off the gift list by choosing from hundreds of unusual beers sold in the city, and stock up on handmade chocolates – guaranteed to please just about anyone. On a cold winter day the canals and cobbled streets in Bruges can be wonderfully tranquil, with plenty of cosy cafes and restaurants to warm up in after a walk.
Christmas markets began in Germany and for a really traditional Christkindlemarkt, there’s nowhere better. Berlin has an astonishing 60 different markets dotted around the streets, but if that sounds a little overwhelming, cities such as Nuremberg and Dresden also have wonderful markets, with spectacular architecture making a beautiful backdrop to stalls selling wurst, gluhwein and all manner of Christmas gifts.
The perfect choice if you need a hit of sunshine before winter really sets in, and fancy escaping the pressures of Christmas for a few days. December in Dubai means guaranteed heat, cocktails on the beach and all the shopping opportunities you can take – in blissfully air-conditioned malls. Pair all that with a trip into the desert, or a white-knuckle sky-dive over the Palm Jumeirah for an unforgettable break.
5. Lake District
If actually what you long for more than anything is to escape the pre-Christmas frenzy, there’s no better place to head for than the Lake District. Practically tourist-free in the winter months, it’s possible to walk for miles without seeing another soul, and the spectacular mountain landscapes look wonderful cloaked in frost or snow.
It might sound surprising, but December is one of the best times to visit Venice. The streets are free of the hordes of tourists that descend in the summer, shop windows are decorated with fairylights and Christmas decorations and on a cold, blue-skied winter’s day, the city looks at its most beautiful.
Stock up the Christmas cellar with a weekend jaunt to Rheims, capital of the champagne region and home to some of the most famous champagne houses in the world, including Mumm, Veuve Cliquot and Perrier Jouet. Take a tour of the tunnels that lie below the city, home to thousands of bottles, and indulge in a tasting or two to make sure you bring the best bottles home.
Bath is one of Britain’s most beautiful cities. The iconic Georgian terraces sparkle under fairy lights and lavish Christmas decorations, while the city centre comes alive with a sizeable Christmas market. Be warned though, Bath becomes incredibly busy during Christmas shopping season, so make sure you have a tranquil bolthole to retire to.
The rose city of Marrakech might just be the perfect Christmas shopping destination – the souks offer a bewildering array of ceramics, jewellery, slippers, cedar wood boxes and beautiful throws and scarves. Be prepared to barter, and never pay the first price for anything. Stay in one of the city’s gorgeous riads – boutique town-house hotels in the heart of the medina – and you have your own private oasis in amongst the chaos.
10. New York
New York is at its most atmospheric in the run up to Christmas; fairylights up Fifth Avenue, skating at the Rockefeller Centre, Bloomingdales and Saks decked out like giant, gift-laden trees. For unusual presents head to the West Village; stroll down Bleeker Street into Soho to find one-off boutiques, gift shops and plenty of cafes for restorative coffee and cake. Skaters should head to Bryant Park – less crowded than the other rinks and right in the heart of Manhattan.
The perfect antidote to the man-made, commercialism of Christmas, the Northern Lights are a breath taking natural phenomena, with bands of bright colour swirling across the night sky. Head to Tromso in north Norway – around 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle and one of the best places to see the lights in the world – for a truly unforgettable break.
12. The Cotswolds
The pretty villages of the Cotswolds – Chipping Campden, Moreton in the Marsh and Bourton on the Water – are all home to quirky shops, art galleries and boutiques that offer a great range of unusual Christmas presents. On sunny days there are lovely walks across the hills; on cloudy, cold days there are plenty of cosy pubs to visit, and best of all there are hardly any other tourists to share them with.