From classic festive wonders such as mulled-wine-fuelled markets and Scotland’s Hogmanay to quirky Caribbean Christmas traditions, December’s cultural calendar is as jam-packed as a lucky child’s stocking.
We can’t all circumnavigate the world in less than 24 hours (just when is Santa going to reveal his secrets?), so here are some tips to help you pick your ideal December trip.
Indulge your medieval Christmas fantasies in Tallinn, Estonia
Towards the end of the year, plenty of cities in northern Europe play the Christmas markets card. Few, though, are blessed with such a tailor-made backdrop as Tallinn, one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities. Its walled Old Town and Toompea castle district are enchanting enough at any time, but come December it nestles under a blanket of snow, with candles flickering along cobbled streets and the Old Town Hall Sq sparkling with the lights of the annual Christmas market radiating from the famous tree. The days are short, the nights dark, but the atmosphere is genuinely charming and the traditional festive food – black pudding, gingerbreads – and steaming hot drinks warm the cockles. Shaking off its reputation as a stag-weekend destination, Tallinn is welcoming increasing numbers of boutique hotels and fine eateries, but remains great value.
- Trip plan: Spare time to explore the walled Old Town’s many Gothic and baroque gems, including the Town Hall, Toompea Castle, ancient Dominican Monastery and the many churches whose spires pierce the sky above the city.
- Need to know: The Christmas market runs from late November into early January (christmasmarket.ee).
- Other months: Jun-Aug – summer, busy; Apr-May & Sep-Oct – shoulder, cooler, quieter; Nov-Mar – cold.
Head to Trinidad to party in the sun to the sound of parang
The southernmost Caribbean island is hardly a shrinking violet. But rather than jumping to calypso, steel pans or soca, December – start of the dry season – is time for parang. Traditionally, in the run-up to Christmas parranderos toting guitars, cuatros, and castanets toured neighbourhoods to croon Spanish-style nativity songs in exchange for eggnog, rum and sorrel (a drink made from a hibiscus plant, hugely popular at Christmas). Today you might hear parranderos touring in Paramin or Lopinot, or performing in a bar or organised show, sometimes with a socaparang mix-up – but wherever the lilting notes serenade you, it’s a unique festive treat.
- Trip plan: Most of Trinidad’s attractions are on the west of the island. The beach at Maracas Bay and hummingbird-buzzing Asa Wright Nature Centre are north of Piarco International Airport; head south via capital Port of Spain to look for scarlet ibis and silky anteaters at Caroni Bird Sanctuary, enjoy the best nightlife in San Fernando, and sink your toes in the gloopy asphalt of Pitch Lake.
- Need to know: Trini food stalls rate as the best in the Caribbean: try rotis with curried meat and vegetables, doubles (curried chickpeas in bara flatbreads), or bake’n’shark (fried fish rolls) at Maracas Beach.
- Other months: Dec-May – drier season; Jun-Nov – rainy.
Visit Santa in his snow-clad grotto in Rovaniemi, Finland
Christmas comes but once a year – except in Finnish Lapland, where you can immerse yourself in Yule for the full 365 days. The town of Rovaniemi proudly declares itself the ‘official’ home of Santa, and at nearby Napapiiri (Finnish for the Arctic Circle), there’s a village dedicated to the cult of Claus. Naturally, the whole (unsurprisingly commercialised) shebang looks most festive in snowy December, when only those with a heart of ice could fail to be captivated by the magical ambience. And once your kids have met Santa and mailed a card from his post office, there’s plenty to occupy the family in and around Rovaniemi for several days: husky sledding, reindeer safaris, cross-country skiing and a trio of interesting museums in the city itself, covering art, Arctic life and Finnish nature. As a bonus, this is a great place to watch the Northern Lights.
- Trip plan: Fly to Rovaniemi via Helsinki. Accommodation includes Santa’s Holiday Village, igloos of ice and glass, a snowhotel and a range of chalets, lodges and hotels.
- Need to know: Temperatures can drop to -30°C (-22°F) in Lapland – bring plenty of warm clothes and thick-soled shoes.
- Other months: Nov–mid-May – snowy winter and early spring; Jun-Aug – summer, long days; Sep-Oct – ‘ruska’, fall foliage.
Celebrate the end of the year in the home of Hogmanay
Forget dropping balls or raising champagne glasses – the most inflammatory new-year shindigs involve blazing balls, barrels or torches paraded through Scottish towns. The traditional Hogmanay conflagrations reputedly stem from ancient Viking celebrations of the winter solstice, though some also claim they were intended to drive away evil spirits. The festivities come in a host of fiery flavours, with unique versions in different parts of Scotland. Inverness throws an alfresco party with music and fireworks; the people of Comrie in Perthshire light tall torches – birch poles topped with birch rags – and Biggar builds a huge bonfire; in Stonehaven a piper leads a procession swinging fireballs, while in Dufftown, the ‘malt whisky capital of the world’, the annual Hogmanay ceilidh ends with drams of whisky in the town square. But the biggest bang is surely in Edinburgh, with a huge party in Princes St, an outdoor concert and fireworks, and a lone bagpiper tooting in the new year from the castle ramparts.
- Trip plan: Book ahead, turn up and be ready to celebrate!
- Need to know: The town of Burghead ignores the Gregorian calendar and instead celebrates Hogmanay on 11 January with a parade of the clavie – a stave-filled barrel that is then set aflame on a nearby hilltop.
- Other months: Apr-Sep – warmest, driest (May-late Sep: midges); Oct-Mar – colder, wetter (Dec-Feb: snow likely at altitude).
Looking for more inspiration? Check out our book Where To Go When for 360 ultimate escapes from family-friendly adventures to animal encounters and relaxing retreats.