1. Cape Verde
With average December temperatures of 25°C, Cape Verde is an ideal place to escape Britain’s grey skies at Christmas. It’s not too far away, either: this archipelago of 10 islands lies just off the coast of West Africa, around 6 hours’ flying time from the UK. Cape Verde is becoming increasingly popular with British travellers thanks to its stunning beaches, and the island of Sal has some of the best. The white sands of Santa Maria beach remain relatively unspoilt despite its increasing popularity, and the aptly named Kite Beach is packed with kite surfers between November and June, all hoping to catch some powerful Atlantic gusts. Grab a board from Surf Zone Cabo Verde and join in the wave-leaping fun. But away from the beach, Sal has an awe-inspiring Martian interior and some pretty crazy salt lakes – check out our guide for more.
2. New York, United States
New York is a city that’s known for its excess, and it goes all out at Christmas. Go ice skating on the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park, a snip at $3, and marvel at the skyscrapers looming behind you, or gawp at the astonishing Christmas window displays in stores like Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s. Make sure to take a look at the enormous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Square, which last year was nearly 29 metres tall and lit with around 50,000 lights. And if you can get tickets, check out the glitzy Radio City Christmas Spectacular, featuring the dancing Rockettes and a flying Santa. If you’re planning to visit at New Year, it may be tempting to head to Times Square to join around 1 million revellers watching the famous ball descend to signal the New Year. But you’ll have to get there in the afternoon to bag a good spot, and you’ll have to cross your legs, too – there are no toilets. Perhaps it’s just as well that public drinking is banned as well. A far better bet is to head to Prospect Park in Brooklyn to watch the spectacular New Year fireworks – and it’s free, to boot. Speaking of free things, here’s a handy guide on the best things to do in NYC for free.
3. Bangkok, Thailand
Despite December being the coolest month of the year in Bangkok, the city still sees an average temperature of 26°C – more than hot enough to break out the crop tops and surf shorts on Christmas Day. It’s the perfect destination if you really want to get away from all things Christmassy – 95% of the population is Buddhist, and Christmas is not widely celebrated, although you might see the odd Christmas tree in the commercial districts. If you’re looking for a luxury festive treat, try heading for a fancy cocktail in the Moon Bar atop one of Bangkok’s tallest buildings (cocktails start at around £13*). And if you’re visiting Bangkok for New Year, you’re in for a great time – Bangkok is famed for its nightlife, and hotspots like GLOW and Maggie Choo’s hold legendary NYE parties. Or you could join the thousands of Thais who flock to see the fireworks at Central World Square – and last year, the crowds were treated to specially arranged bouts of Muay Thai (Thai boxing) as well, which is certainly a memorable way to ring in the New Year. Head this way to see our guide to the ten best things to do in Bangkok.
4. Berlin, Germany
Berlin has some of the best Christmas markets in Europe, so it’s an ideal place to go to soak up the season. The Berliner Weinachtszeit behind Alexanderplatz is one of the biggest, and it runs right through the festivities, starting on 27th November and ending on 29th December – in fact, it’s even open on Christmas Day. Set against the backdrop of Berlin’s 50-metre-high ferris wheel, the market boasts its own (free) ice rink – you can hire skates for €4 – and it’s packed with stalls selling traditional arts and crafts and mulled wine, all to the soundtrack of barrel organ music. But if you’re planning to stay over New Year, know that Berlin is one of Europe’s greatest party destinations. Around 1 million people descend on the ‘Party Mile’ between the Brandenburg Gate and the Victory Column for a free pop-up street party packed with bars, stages and party tents. At midnight, the fireworks ignite, but the party doesn’t stop there – in fact, it’s just getting started. As the event’s website so succinctly puts it: “There is no official closing time.” To find out more about Berlin from the perspective of a long-time resident, check out our local’s guide.
If you’re looking for a Christmas beach holiday, the Canary Islands boast plenty of beautiful coastline along with average December temperatures of around 19°C. Christmas is widely celebrated throughout these Spanish islands, although with the odd tropical twist – head to Las Canteras beach in the city of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria to see the annual display of Christmas-themed sand sculptures. While we’re on the subject of beaches, the tall cliffs and black sands of nearby Playa de Puerto Naos make it an ideal sun trap for some winter sunbathing. But if you really want to get some peace, head to Playa de Guigui, a remote beach that’s only reachable by water taxi or by a two-hour walk from the nearest road. Meanwhile, Playa de las Teresitas in Santa Cruz on Tenerife offers golden sands courtesy of the Sahara Desert: the entirety of this man-made beach was imported from the African mainland. On New Year’s Eve, towns across the islands hold street parties, such as the annual gathering in Corralejo town square on Fuerteventura. If you’re planning to attend, make sure to bring a bottle of cava and 12 green grapes to eat on the stroke of midnight. And speaking of Spanish traditions, don’t forget to wear red underwear on NYE to make sure you’re lucky in love for the year to come. To see some of the Canary Islands’ best beaches, take a look at this guide.
6. Vienna, Austria
Vienna is the place to come if you’re after a postcard-perfect Christmas. And at New Year, everyone gets down and waltzes like its 1899. There are more than 20 Christmas markets in Vienna, many of which run right through Christmas and out the other side. For example, the market held in front of the stunningly lit city hall runs until 30th December, and it offers a warren of wooden stalls selling traditional handicrafts and a smorgasbord of winter food, from gluhwein to sausages topped with grated horseradish. But New Year is when Vienna gets its glad rags on and shows its true colours – more than 300 balls take place in January, and the highlight of the social calendar is undoubtedly the New Year Concert at the Vienna State Opera on New Year’s Day. The concert has been held since 1939 and is broadcast to more than 50 million people. Getting a ticket is notoriously tricky, but don’t worry if you can’t get in to the opera house itself – you can join thousands of locals in front of City Hall to watch the concert on a giant screen, while enjoying a warm mulled wine or two. For more on what to do in Vienna, from tram rides to watching horses frolic beneath chandeliers, take a look at our guide.
7. Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The Amsterdam Light Festival runs from 1st December to 22nd January, and transforms the Dutch city into a glittering mass of Christmas lights and displays. The famous canals are lit up by stunning light displays from 5pm to 11pm – they’re best viewed on a canal cruise, and boat trips can be booked through the Light Festival website. Alternatively, there’s the Illuminade walking route (15th December until 8th January, 5pm to 10pm), which you can explore yourself on foot – or you can hire a ‘Guide of Light’, complete with lit-up costume, to take you through the exhibits. At New Year, you’ll find street parties in public places right across the city, with fireworks popping up from every direction at midnight – the Oosterdock has some of the best displays. Then it’s time to hit Amsterdam’s famous club scene and dance ‘til dawn – Awakenings at the Gashouder boasts one of the biggest parties around. To see more things to do in Amsterdam, from visiting Van Gogh to ranging through the red light district, check out our guide.
8. Sydney, Australia
If you want to get away from dreary winter weather, you can’t get much further than Sydney. The city sees average December temperatures of 22°C, and the sea is a balmy 21°C – head to Bondi Beach, hire a surfboard (AU$30 for a board and wetsuit for two hours from Let’s Go Surfing) and enjoy some Yuletide breakers. There’s all the Christmas markets you’d expect of a big city, too: the Very Merry Christmas Rocks Market runs from 2nd December, providing hand-made gifts and delicious food, from barbecued salmon to lamb kebabs. And Sydney is one of the most exciting places to be for New Year – for a start, it’s the first big city in the world to see the clocks strike midnight, being 10 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, so you can be ringing in the New Year in your shorts and T-shirt whilst your friends back home are still deliberating on which winter gear to don for the cold night ahead. The city also has one of the biggest firework displays in the world to celebrate New Year. In fact, there are two displays – one at 9pm and one at midnight – which light up the iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House. Take a look at this guide to see the best attractions Sydney has to offer, from koalas to kayaking.
9. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Be prepared for a hot and humid Christmas in Rio. Average December temperatures are 25°C, with highs of around 29°C, and humidity ranges between 58% and 97% – get ready for some sweaty nights as you wait for Santa. The traditional Christmas dinner in Brazil is chicken, rice, salad, fruit and farofa (toasted cassava flour), but if you’ve got a hankering for turkey, the Gringo Café has got you covered, with all the roast potatoes and gravy you could desire. Try the Hippie Market in Ipanema if you’re hunting for gifts – it offers plenty of hand-made jewellery, clothing and shoes, as well as a range of artwork. Christmas Day tends to be quiet in Rio, as most people spend time with their families, but the city goes wild at New Year. Copacabana Beach is undoubtedly the place to be: 2 million people crowd onto the sands to enjoy live music and fireworks displays. Dress in white to bring good luck, and look out for locals tossing flowers into the sea as a gift to the water goddess Yemanjá. To get the best out of the city, take a look at these tips from a local guide.
10. Reykjavik, Iceland
When it comes to Christmas lights, they don’t come much more spectacular than the Aurora Borealis. Reykjavik Excursions offers daily, three-hour guided tours in search of the famous Northern Lights – and if you don’t spot them, you can go again, free of charge. The tour will set you back 6,900 Icelandic kroner, or about £51. Make sure to try smoked lamb while you’re in Reykjavik – it’s a popular choice for Christmas dinner, and a deservedly famous Icelandic dish. The animals are left free to roam all summer, grazing on various herbs and plants that give their meat a complex flavour. Dill Restaurant is an excellent place to try traditional Icelandic lamb, along with various other local dishes, such as Skyr – a type of soft cheese made with sugar and blueberries. At New Year, expect to see locals gathered around bonfires, singing, playing music and dancing, while fireworks whoosh into the sky at regular intervals. And as the hangover kicks in on New Year’s Day, you could always soothe your aching body with a trip to a natural hot spring – the famous Blue Lagoon is just by Reykjavik on the Reykjanes peninsula. For more things to do in Iceland, from watching Geysir to sinking Gulls, take a look at our guide.
Here are a few more ideas for wonderful winter breaks:
Looking for the cheapest places to ski in Europe? There are plenty of bargain basement ski slopes in the French Alps, Italy and the USA, as well as a few hidden gems across Europe.
Winter is one of the most beautiful seasons in Barcelona. It is when the people of the Catalan capital reclaim their city. Moving away from big crowds of tourists and with much less noise, it is a time of relaxation, great weather, family moments and good food.
Winter getting you down? If you can’t stand the cold, why not jet off somewhere the sun is currently shining? Fly south to one of our top picks for winter sun and you’ll be topping up that tan before you know it.
*Published September 2017. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.