December may mean the year is coming to an end – but that doesn’t mean your travel plans have to. If you’re looking for the best place to visit in December, here are some of Lonely Planet’s top picks, whether you want stunning northern lights, epic beach adventures or cozy Christmas markets.
Where are the best places to travel to in December for relaxation?
Why now? Dry skies for wet adventures.
Dubbed “the Philippines’ last ecological frontier,” pristine Palawan – the country’s westernmost province – is a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and a haven of biodiversity above and below the water line. There are over 1700 islands here, covered by virgin forest, edged by limestone cliffs and fringed by coral reefs. The diving is varied and spectacular. At El Nido, in the north, there are 20-plus dive sites where exciting sightings range from nudibranchs and seahorses to turtles and huge shoals of snapper. Around Coron Island, there’s thrilling wreck diving, with numerous WWII remnants to explore. There’s also decent diving in easy reach of the capital, Puerto Princesa – sites include walls and pinnacles, a variety of corals, plenty of unusual macro species, colorful reef fish, crustaceans, schooling barracuda and jacks, rays and reef sharks. Puerto Princesa is also the gateway to the Subterranean River National Park, a navigable underground waterway through incredible karst formations.
San Diego, California
Why now? For city life, winter sun, Santa and cetaceans.
Winter is relative in southern California. In San Diego rain is more likely but days remain mild (average highs: 66°F/19°C). It’s certainly still warm enough to wander the city’s village-like neighborhoods – fancy La Jolla, surfy Encinitas, alternative Ocean Beach, foodie Little Italy, the lively, bar-packed Gaslamp Quarter – and to lose yourself in enormous Balboa Park, with its museums (Air & Space, Art, Natural History) and world-famous zoo. For further wildlife encounters, book a boat tour or head to the cliff-top trails of Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve in the hope of spotting dolphins and migrating gray whales, which pass along the coast here between December and March.
Where are the best places to travel to in December for wildlife and nature?
Central Kalahari, Botswana
Why now? For cheaper prices and greater game.
In this immense wildlife reserve, covering 50,000 sq km (19,305 sq miles) and one of the largest in the world, rain does not stop play. Indeed, it positively encourages it. While December marks the start of the rainy season in Botswana, it’s the best time to visit the semi-arid Central Kalahari. In the northernmost areas, around Northern Deception Valley in particular, the flush of wildflowers and grasses attracts great gatherings of grazers, which in turn attract predators – large numbers of hyena, leopard and the reserve’s famed black-maned lions are all found here. This is also the best time for birding, as many species are wearing their breeding plumage and migrants are around. Roads may become trickier to navigate but the payoff is excellent wildlife viewing and, at times, soul-stirringly stormy skies. There are opportunities to engage with the San people too.
Why now? Sleep on ice beneath the Northern Lights.
At the Swedish village of Jukkasjärvi, one degree of latitude north of the Arctic Circle, the sun never rises in the last three weeks of the year. In December, darkness is the dominant state – perfect for watching the Aurora Borealis. Jukkasjärvi is the home of the original Icehotel, where you can spend a night in a bed made of ice. The area is also a base for cross-country skiing, husky sledding, snowmobiling, sleigh rides, meeting reindeer and learning about traditional Sámi culture – magical for kids and grown-ups alike. Some 100km (62 miles) to the northwest, Abisko National Park is even further removed from the light, an otherworldly landscape offering arguably the world’s best aurora-watching.
Where are the best places to travel to in December for culture?
Why now? To sing carols with a Creole twist.
December doesn’t just mean Christmas in the French Caribbean. It means Chanté-Nwel. One of Martinique’s biggest annual festivities, held across the island from November to Christmas Day, it sees people gather to sing carols to Creole rhythms (a practice dating back to the days of slavery) and feast on local favorites including yams, pâtés, boudin créole (blood sausage), yule logs and potent shrubb – a Christmas cocktail crafted from dried orange peel, sugarcane syrup and white rum. Very festive. All that’s missing is the snow: with sunny skies and average highs of 82.4°F (28°C), this is perfect beach weather; chill out on the vast sweep of white sand at Les Salines or the black sand of Anse Noire.
Chhattisgarh & Odisha, India
Why now? For cultural encounters in milder weather.
The neighboring states of Odisha (Orissa) and Chhattisgarh (a breakaway chunk of Madhya Pradesh) offer perhaps the most authentic insight into rural India. These regions are largely neglected by tourists, perhaps due to their lack of “big” sights. But the appeal here is in getting away from the cities and meeting the people, such as the majority Gond (famed for their vibrant art), the tattooed Kutia Kondh, the Indigenous groups of the jungles around Jeypore, the bead-wearing Bonda or the cultural melee of a haat bazaar (weekly market), where many tribal groups gather to haggle over everything from butter and salt to clothes and jewelry. The Bastar region of Chhattisgarh is a good place to start – visit markets, hike between village homestays and witness tribal festivals: the Madai Festival, which moves around the communities of Bastar, Kanker and Dantewada, is celebrated from December to March (when temperatures are mild, too).
Where are the best places to travel to in December for food and drink?
Black Forest, Germany
Why now? For a touch of Teutonic magic.
The Black Forest is Germany’s most romantic, fairy-tale-laced region. And never more so than in December, when its rolling hills and dense-packed evergreens might be sprinkled with snow and when everywhere is sprinkled with Christmas. The lively university town of Freiburg is a fine festive choice.
Its medieval center of cobbled lanes and gabled houses is lovely to wander at any time, but now smells of Glühwein (mulled wine) and gingerbread; browse the Christmas market, where you can make your own candles and cookies, ride the Ferris wheel and feast on raclette and wurst. Further afield, take the train or bus to nearby Hinterzarten for the striking Ravennaschlucht market, where traditional stalls cluster in a gorge beneath the Devil’s Valley Railway viaduct.
Why now? For a never-ending Noel.
Twelve days of Christmas? Pah! Sunny and spirited Puerto Rico stretches it to 60 days, starting with Thanksgiving (this is a US “unincorporated territory,” after all) and not finishing until mid-January. Visit in December and you’ll likely come across shops stacked with festive trinkets, late-night parrandas (carol singing in the streets), church Masses filled with aguinaldos (Christmas songs) and the hearty consumption of festive feasts: lechón (suckling pig), arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas), pork-and-potato pasteles (steamed plantain tamales) and coquet (sweet spiced coconut drink). The Día de los Inocentes (28 December) is particularly fun, akin to April Fool’s Day, when people play tricks on each other – head to Hatillo for the best high-jinks.
Season’s greetings aside, the weather is wonderful right now for exploring this proudly Latino Caribbean idyll. Wander the bright alleys of Old San Juan (founded 1521) and lively second-city Ponce; venture into El Yunque for rainforest hikes; check out the surf at Rincón; and consider sailing over to the islands of Vieques and Culebra for quieter sands and dazzling after-dark kayaking in Bioluminescent Bay.
Where are the best places to travel to in December for adventure?
Why now? Crowd-lite, multi-sport, fairytale snow fun.
While snug-sized Slovenia can’t compete with Europe’s winter-sports big boys, the country is still splendid when the snow starts to fall. There is good skiing, albeit on a smaller scale.
Resorts such as lively Kranjska Gora, reliable Krvavec and family-friendly Vogel aren’t huge but also aren’t as busy as other Alpine hubs. But where the country really excels is in multi-activity winter breaks, combining downhilling and snowboarding with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snow-hiking, ice-climbing or even igloo-building and night tobogganing. The landscapes are thrilling, too, with most resorts located in and around handsome Triglav National Park. Photographers will love the high peaks, frozen waterfalls, snowy forests, beautiful Lake Bohinj and magical Lake Bled, with its lake isle and castle shimmering in the frost.
Vancouver Island, Canada
Why now? For really wild times.
As winter arrives, the restive region where Arctic and subtropical air collides shifts south, and low-pressure systems build in the Gulf of Alaska. This equals stupendous storms, which thwack the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, stirring up gigantic swells, roaring winds and epic skies. It’s Mother Nature at her most marvelously unhinged and cinematic – and it’s worth braving a bit of weather for front-row seats. On the edge of Pacific Rim National Park, the little town of Ucluelet (meaning “people of the safe harbor”) is a great place to watch the action unfold.
Want more expert recommendations for every month of the year? Check out the brand-new edition of Where to Go When.