Another year of travel is nearly over… but not quite. There’s still time to squeeze in a stint of last-minute shopping at Europe’s Christmas markets, or make arrangements to see in the new year in style.
Do December travel the traditional way – with fireworks, comfort food and snow – or get away from it all with a pair of flippers and a snorkel with these tips courtesy of Lonely Planet’s destination experts.
See Sydney’s New Year’s fireworks display, Australia
If you haven’t done Sydney for New Year’s Eve before, it’s time to do something about that. Sydney always puts on a good show with its stunning harbour and iconic architecture, but on New Year’s Eve the city is at its most spectacular. Firework displays colour the sky with light that reflects across the harbour. No matter where you’re camped you should be able to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Sydney Opera House and the harbour alight.
It’s probably too late to nab a hotel room with a view, but that’s OK: head down to the harbourside early in the evening to stake out a patch of grass for a picnic. Then settle in for the night to watch yachts jockey for the best vantage point as the sun sets. When the summer skies darken around 9pm the first round of spectacular pyrotechnics are shot off, early enough for Sydney’s families to celebrate before tucking their little ones up in bed. The main show at midnight is worth the wait – join Sydney’s masses in cheering, clapping and raising a toast to the year ahead.
Tasmin Waby - Destination Editor for Australia, New Zealand & the Pacific. Follow her on Twitter @tasminwaby
Go diving in the Similan Islands, Thailand
While much of Southeast Asia gears up for monsoon thrashing in December, Thailand’s Andaman Coast welcomes the blue skies, calm seas and clear waters that herald the beginning of the diving season in the pristine Similan Islands, arguably Thailand’s top diving destination. The relative remoteness of this marine national park, about 60km off the mainland, has helped it to retain much of its natural beauty above and below the water. Think smooth, granite islands topped with lush rainforest and fringed by white-sand beaches and coral reefs housing a riot of colourful corals and oodles of marine life.
While it’s possible to stay on two of the islands in basic accommodation, many visitors prefer opting for snorkelling or diving day trips from the laid-back resort town Khao Lak, 70km north of Phuket. Signing up for a three-day live-aboard dive trip in Khao Lak, however, offers the opportunity to access some of the islands’ best dive sites – and enjoy them all to yourself.
Sarah Reid - Destination Editor for Southeast Asia. Follow her on Twitter @sarahtrvls
Eat, drink and be merry in Brussels, Belgium
Brussels’ Grand Place is often dubbed Europe’s most beautiful square and December is the perfect time to experience it in all its glory – the guildhalls and art nouveau masterpiece buildings are illuminated with a dazzling sound-and-light show at Christmas.
And while the city serves up some of the most tempting foods any time of the year, winter allows you to indulge in some serious comfort snacks washed down with plenty of Belgium’s famous beer. Wake up with waffles at historic Mokafé in the beautiful Galeries St-Hubert arcade, devour a cone of frites and mayonnaise at local favourite frites shack Maison Antoine, get your sugar rush on some of the world’s best chocolate and trade in your traditional Christmas dinner for a pile of fresh mussels. Sure, your waistline is going to take a beating, but it’s the ideal way to keep warm in the chilly Belgian winter.
Kate Morgan - Destination Editor for Western Europe. Follow her on Twitter @kate_ann_morgan
Carve up the powder in Alta, Utah
Known for its soft, powdery texture, skiers love Utah snow, and one of the best places to sample it is at Alta Ski Resort, just outside of Salt Lake City. Assisted by a generous microclimate that drops record amounts of the famed Utah flakes (540 inches a year, typically), as well as 2200 acres of bowls, chutes and steeps, Alta is considered to be one of the best places to ski in North America. With the ski season beginning mid-November, December is a great time to hit the slopes before throngs of peak-season skiers arrive.
And Alta’s one for the skiing purists: the resort is one of the few major resorts that limits access to skiers only (sorry, snowboarders). Bargain hunters can get a Ski City Super Pass, which gives additional access to Brighton, Snowboard and Solitude, all within the SLC area.
Alexander Howard - Destination Editor for the Western US & Canada. Follow him on Twitter @AlexMHoward
Ring in the New Year at Hogmanay in Edinburgh, Scotland
Only one country in the world celebrates the New Year with such passion and hardcore enthusiasm: Scotland. Hogmanay is Scotland’s biggest pride and one of the world’s largest New Year celebrations, with more than 150,000 people joining the party in Edinburgh each year.
Traditionally, Hogmanay was believed to have been brought in by the Vikings who invaded Scotland in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Norsemen celebrated the passing of the winter solstice by lighting fire torches and swinging fireballs.
Today, Hogmanay has transformed to become a three-day medley of massive street parades, music performances and fireworks. Many of the traditions are still kept alive – such as fireball swinging – so be sure to join in with your best Viking costume!
Experience a Christmas market in the Med, Spain
As Barcelonians gear up for Christmas the city gets quiet as tourist numbers temporarily dip, making it a brilliant time for those of us in the know to fly over. From early December, the Fira de Santa Llúcia – Barcelona’s oldest and biggest Christmas market – heads into town and bedecks the avenidas of the Gothic Quarter with hundreds of stalls selling Christmas decorations, gifts, trees and mistletoe in the shadow of Barcelona’s twinkling cathedral. This is the city’s answer to Northern Europe’s Christmas fun but it’s typically Spanish – don’t be disappointed by the absence of mulled wine because Catalonia has its own Christmas traditions worth homing in on. Top of your list of stocking fillers should be the caga tío (poop log – complete with a smiley face), which on Christmas day is supposed to cagar (crap) out gifts. Who wouldn’t want to wake up to that on 25 December?
Lorna Parkes - Destination Editor for Iberia & Turkey. Follow her on Twitter @LP_Lorna