Whether you’re craving picture-perfect sleigh bells and snow, warming glühwein and gingerbread, close-at-hand culture or sun, sea and sandy toes, we take a look at some of the very best festive destinations to help you to max out on the most wonderful time of the year.
Somewhere Warm: Australia and New Zealand
Forget the big red coat and reindeer; a Christmas spent soaking up the summer Down Under will see you happily ditching turkey and the trimmings for a barbie on the beach. A vast country with a varied climate, Australia offers an almost overwhelming diversity of awe-inspiring experiences – from sampling local wines in Margaret River’s lush vineyards, to diving the world’s richest marine life on The Great Barrier Reef; kayaking the breath-taking Katherine Gorge to surfing The Pass in laid-back Byron Bay.
The sophisticated contemporary cities of Sydney, Perth and Melbourne have plenty to keep committed urbanites busy, while outdoorsy Brisbane, artsy Adelaide and tropical Darwin will appeal to those looking to kick down a gear. Whatever your perfect Christmas entails, Australia has something wrapped up under the tree for you.
Further south lies the land of the long white cloud – New Zealand. Known in Māori as Aotearoa, it’s easy to see why this relatively small nation is often described as God’s own country, as it’s been blessed with a wealth of native flora and fauna, some of the most extraordinarily beautiful and rugged landscapes anywhere on earth, and, increasingly, a burgeoning food scene showcasing the country’s excellent native produce.
From chilled-out Auckland, head north to explore the Bay of Islands’ undeveloped beaches, then venture inland to the thermal town of Rotorua to soak in its famed hot springs. The South Island offers an embarrassment of riches for travellers – linger over world-class coffee in capital city Wellington, then venture south to Christchurch and the Akaroa peninsula for whale watching in beautiful surroundings. Heli-hike the crystalline Franz Josef Glacier, then try climbing, white-water rafting or bungee jumping in adrenaline-fuelled Queenstown. Don’t forget to enjoy a tipple in the famous wine-producing region of Marlborough – the perfect place to raise a festive glass.
Somewhere Near: Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam
If you prefer to minimise your travel time while stuffing your stocking with culture, then a Christmas break spent in South-East Asia is the just gift you’re searching for. An affordable option that delivers great weather, delectable cuisine, and a friendly welcome, Vietnam is packed with fascinating destinations to explore – including the laidback beaches of Da Nang, Hoi An’s charming heritage buildings, Ho Chi Minh City’s sobering wartime history and Hanoi’s scooter-crammed bustle. Whether you prefer your holidays action-packed or nice and easy, Vietnam will welcome you with open arms.
Crossing the border, the heritage-rich country of Cambodia offers a culturally enriching break that won’t break the bank. Built at the convergence of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers, capital Phnom Penh is packed with French colonial charm. While away a day wandering the famous art deco Central Market, before learning more about the country’s darker history at the Tuol Sleng Genoice Museum. Of course, Cambodia’s most significant landmark is the spectacular Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre on the outskirts of Siem Reap. Plan an early start to catch the sunrise over the temples, for a truly unforgettable experience.
Often overlooked, Laos is an up-and-coming destination that’s retained its distinct character and culture, while remaining a little off the beaten path for most travellers. Capital city Vientiane offers a great introduction to Laotian culture; start your day at Talat Sao, also known as the morning market, to breakfast like a local. That Luang is a vast golden stupa, reported to contain some of Buddha’s remains, and is held in such high regard that it has become the de facto symbol of Laos, making it a must for any itinerary. Kick back with a locally brewed Beer Lao as the sun sets over this serene city.
Somewhere Christmas-sy: Germany
If you’re having trouble getting into the festive spirit, a trip to Germany’s famed Christmas markets should soon do the trick! Typically running from late November until 24 December, these traditional open-aired festivals offer the chance to eat, drink and be merry on a grand scale… with plenty of glühwein, of course.
Known as Weihnachtsmarkts (Christmas or Holy Night markets) or Christkindlmarkts (Christmas child markets), these jolly affairs date back to as early as the 13th century and feature hundreds of vendors selling everything from currywurst to Christmas decorations – with seemingly every city in Germany boasting its own variation. Nuremburg’s is one of the most famous, and features the traditional ceremonial crowning of a local girl as the “Christ child”, who opens the market. In addition to the 180 red-and-white stalls selling speciality grilled sausages and handcrafted wares like the slightly-bizarre zwetschgenmännle (intricately-detailed figures made from dried prunes), there’s also a special children’s Christmas market on the nearby Hans-Sachs-Platz featuring a mini fairground and other fun activities. Mass-produced goods are strictly prohibited here, making it the perfect place to shop for one-of-a-kind gifts.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth that needs sating, be sure to check out Dresden’s Christmas market – the ancient Striezelmarkt, which is named after its famous stollen marzipan fruitcake; there’s also a giant Christmas pyramid nativity scene, puppet theatre and merry-go-round. Another option is Cologne, with its breathtaking Gothic cathedral backdrop; whilst the market in the square in front of the cathedral may be the most well known, the city also plays host to a number of smaller fairs, including a charming gnome-themed one in the Old Town, glitter-sprinkling angels at Neumarkt, and a gay and lesbian “Christmas Avenue”. Wherever you end up, look out for each market’s customised glühwein mug, a fantastic souvenir that makes mulled wine refills all too easy. Bottoms up!
Somewhere in the Arctic for the Northern Lights: Iceland
Experiences don’t come much more magical than seeing the spectacular Northern Lights – so why not time a trip to hunt down the aurora borealis during what is, after all, the most magical time of the year? Whilst a sighting can never be guaranteed, Iceland’s long dark December nights offer the optimum conditions for catching a glimpse of nature’s light show in-person; check online aurora and cloud cover forecasts nearer the day to get a better idea of your chances.
Book a superjeep safari tour to drive you to the best places to set up camp for a sighting, but before then make sure you take in some of Reykjavik’s most majestic scenery, including breathtaking waterfalls, black sand beaches and mysterious glaciers; highlights include the incredible Eyjafalljajökull volcano and the famed Golden Circle route around Geysir geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall and UNESCO site Þingvellir National Park. Other must-dos in the Land of the Midnight Sun include taking a dip in the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa and soaking up its reported health benefits, and discovering some of the country’s more eccentric festive traditions – like the 13 “Yule Lads” who visit children in the nights leading up to Christmas, bestowing gifts depending on quite how naughty or nice they’ve been throughout the year.
By Rachel Read & Kate Farr