Amble through a Christmas market, mulled wine in hand, celebrate the festive season cruising the Rhine, or escape to the winter sun of the Middle East…
Iceland’s the perfect holiday destination for travellers in search of Christmas spirit. Here, the festive season pulsates with lively Christmas markets, where wooden booths brimming with food, drink and gifts glitter as imposing Christmas trees stand guard. Expect a true winter wonderland made up of wild lava fields and craggy mountains topped with snow for added sparkle. And, if things start to feel a bit chilly, there’s no better time to take a warm dip in the Blue Lagoon’s geothermal waters than when temperatures hit sub-zero. Take a self-drive into the mountains and catch the Northern Lights glimmering in the dark sky and don’t forget other seasonal sojourns such as trekking near the Snæfellsjökull glacier.
Includes admission to the Blue Lagoon, whale watching, Northern Lights hunt by minibus, Golden Circle and Secret Lagoon tour and Northern Lights boat trip
2. The Rhine
Spend the Christmas season afloat on the Rhine, accompanied by a glass of local wine as steep vineyards and historic castles slip by. You’ll find a Rhine cruise a soothing way to celebrate the festive season, as most journeys stop at Rhineland cities such as Cologne, Koblenz and Bonn. Here amidst the Christmas lights, Yuletide lovers mingle amidst charming Christmas markets, while the swish of skates on an ice rink, shoppers’ voices and Christmas carols provide a lively soundtrack.
Christmas holidays are celebrated with gusto in Germany as its famous Christmas markets overflow with copious helpings of mulled wine and shining Christmas lights. Hip Berlin offers up a huge funfair and you can get straight into the Christmas spirit with a ticket to the Alexanderplatz show. Festive history buffs might want to go further afield and spend Christmas at the luxurious ancient castle of Colditz, which was far from Christmassy during the war years. There’s a high chance of snow: temperatures can slip well into minus figures in December and the average low is -1C.
4. The Caribbean
The Caribbean is made for cruises during Christmas. Here, it’s all about swimming in azure seas, beachcombing on sandy beaches, sipping on a glass of Brugal XV’s smooth rum, while back on board there’s plenty of spa pampering with yet another island on the horizon.
Barbados, the go-to Caribbean favourite, is at its most relaxed between mid-September and mid-December, when hotel prices drop by up to a third and the air-kissing, winter-sun-seeking regulars haven’t yet jetted in. There’s a risk of rain, but it never lasts long and the temperature’s still a balmy 27C. Explore the wild east. The island’s Atlantic side is an exhilarating whirl of dramatic shores (particularly around the little town of Bathsheba), rolling surf, flapping coconut palms and topsy-turvy hills that seem a world away from the congested beach resorts lining the west and south coasts. Drive over to bask in the peace and fresh air; Bay Tavern in Martin’s Bay is a mellow spot where Bajans take a break on Thursday afternoons, shooting (and feeling) the breeze at a ‘lime’ (informal hangout).
Courchevel’s Russian moment when it became a byword for oligarch excess is over. But that hasn’t dented its status as a gathering ground for the world’s superrich. Broad, easy-skiing pistes combine with Michelin-starred restaurants and five-star hotels to create the most luxurious of all ski resorts. Boxing Day to New Year’s Eve has the biggest social buzz: think Champagne bars and perfect teeth, set against a razor-sharp mountain ridge.
New Year in Courchevel isn’t cheap, so save where you can by booking a central self-catering apartment in the Forum (pierreetvacances.com; sleeps four for £3,282, December 26 to January 2). Brush up your skiing with New Generation Ski School (£200 for five lessons), so you don’t take a tumble outside the key slopeside bars. And don’t wait until December 31 to start the celebrations.
Less blingy than Dubai, Oman still enjoys blazing temperatures (25C to 30C), with plenty of fun-for-kids activities, and it’s reached by a manageable overnight flight. With palatial digs aplenty, you can sip fizz while someone organises Boxing Day brunch for you.
Hop on an overnight flight after Christmas lunch (Oman Air and BA both jet direct), and wake up seven hours later in Muscat. Then get straight to the beach it’s only 15 minutes from the airport. The Chedi, with its kids’ menu and family pool suits small children. Got older kids? Head for Six Senses Zighy Bay, hidden behind the Al Hajar Mountains on the sandy south coast, five hours’ drive from Muscat. It’s a chic bet for grown-up families who want to go hiking or snorkelling or flop in the spa), before getting dressed up for a swish dinner.
Beyond beaches, you can take a traditional dhow boat trip from Marina Bandar al Rowhda so the little ones can enjoy goggling at rare marine life, and you’re within a cab ride of Muscat. Absorb the Bedouin vibes of the Arabian desert with teens; try stargazing and camel-riding at Wahiba Sands (pictured); and turquoise-hued Wadi Bani Khalid oasis makes for engaging TikTok content. Hire a local driver (about £100 through your hotel) and day-trip to Muscat to explore its frankincensescented Mutrah Souq. Nearby, the call to prayer echoes around the minarets at the opulent Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque (sultanqaboos grandmosque.com), open most days for visits.
It’s not just gingerbread-scented markets and riotous Hogmanay parties that make wintry Edinburgh so appealing. Even under grey skies, you’ve got warm, world-class museums and restaurants and the icy North Sea winds are your excuse to duck into a snug watering hole for a soul-warming Scotch.
For bargains, go in early December when the Christmas markets are open, but the city is still relatively peaceful. Take a spin on the panoramic big wheel above Princes Street, barcrawl under the fairy lights of George Street and pop into the Scottish National Gallery to contemplate winter scenes (nationalgalleries. org; free). After dark, head to the Royal Botanic Garden to sip spiced cider and marvel at its Christmas illuminations (rbge.org.uk; £19).
Revel in the unabashed schmaltz this is the fantasy festive break. Dressed to the nines in baroque finery and surrounded by snowcapped peaks, Salzburg the staunchly traditional, chocolate-box city of Mozart and The Sound of Music will cocoon you in comfort. Walk around the Old Town streets, dive into vaulted beer cellars and shop for lederhosen. To warm up? Climb every mountain, of course.
Make your first wander an atmospheric browse along the narrow Getreidegasse, Salzburg’s glitzy shopping alley, where five-storey Renaissance houses provide a bulwark against winter weather. Explore its dimly lit arched passages and within a few paces, you might stumble upon Balkan Grill Walter (1 on map), a kiosk selling Balkan beef sausages since 1950. After, make a Prosecco pit stop at Seppo’s intimate wine bar 2 , or cosy up with the crowds in the hidden Sternbräu beer garden 3.
9. Finnish Lapland
For the real deal and endless other wintry activities, such as snowmobiling, skiing and reindeer rides head north to the smaller resorts of Levi, Yllas or Saariselka. Levi is just 20 minutes from the airport, making transfers with weary tots super speedy. Here, Santa’s village is way out in the wilderness: a huddle of twinkly log cabins hidden among snow-laden pines. Kids can decorate gingerbread cookies with Mother Claus, make decorations and visit Elf school to learn Finnish words such as ‘Hyvää Joulua’ (Happy Christmas), as well as having a private tête-à-tête with Santa himself. The focus is firmly on wholesome festive fun and, refreshingly, souvenir stops are sparse.
But don’t go too early – Lapland without the white stuff is snow joke. Head from the second or third weekend in December for a guaranteed snowscape. Ample time is crucial: do not book one of those 24-hour round-trips, your child will be so tired and cranky you’ll wonder why you bothered. Four nights is better, and even then you’ll wish you had more. Darkness reigns: daylight falls between 10am and 2pm, when an eerie green and pink glow illuminates the sky.
Includes husky sledding, two Aurora camps, snowmobile safari, visit to a reindeer farm and sleigh ride, an Aurora workshop and Aurora snowshoeing
Breath frozen like a wraith on the air, the steady pad of footsteps on snowy pavements and multi-coloured Christmas lights — Russia, especially Moscow and St Petersburg, offers plenty of Christmas spirit. In St Petersburg, grab a chilled vodka at a Christmas market, while in Moscow the snow-dusted candy-coloured onion domes of icon-laden cathedrals seem good enough to eat. As Russians celebrate the festive season on January 6, you’ll find yourself getting a double helping of festive fun
11. New York
This city is the face of Christmas, especially in films. Don’t miss the magical displays at Macy’s (Miracle on 34th Street); the steps of the Plaza Hotel (Home Alone 2); and the iconic Rockefeller tree (Elf). The chance of snow isn’t as high as in the perma-dusted movies, but it’s always possible as temperatures can dip to a bracing -1C. New York’s stores turn charitable at Christmastime, with epic window displays – like free galleries. Start with the glittering scene at Bergdorf Goodman on 5th Avenue, then pass Tiffany’s before nipping over to Saks. Next head to the Rockefeller Center for a mulled wine and a gawp at the tree. For shopping, Bryant Park is transformed into a Winter Village, with stalls selling affordable gifts such as handmade scarves and soaps. It’s free to hit the ice rink here, too.
We love this hotel with incredible views of the Manhatten skyline.
12. Hong Kong
Hong Kong does Christmas with endless enthusiasm and at this time of year the city is brimming with baubles and markets. Plus, a festivity-filled Disneyland is just half an hour from the centre. The free nightly Victoria Harbour light show is always dazzling, but skyscrapers go all out at this time of year with seasonal 3D projections and festive tunes. Watch it from the top deck of the Star Ferry (about 20p), setting off from Kowloon towards central Hong Kong around 8pn. Seaside Stanley Market is a balmy alternative to rainy Euro versions – it becomes comically Germanic in December with fairy-lit stalls selling bratwurst, mulled wine and stocking fillers.
We love this quirky hotel in the district of Wan Chai.
If you’re hoping to add some winter sun to your Christmas this is the place to be. Yes, tourism has made its mark on Tenerife, but the choked resorts take up only a fraction of the island. Beyond, unspoilt beauty awaits: seaside villages and picturesque coves, gracious colonial towns, a rainforest dripping with lichen, and ravishing ravines. And all beneath the awesome gaze of a 200,000 year-old volcano.
We love this luxurious hotel that’s hidden well away from the crowds who come for the year-round Canarian sun.
14. The Danube
Here is one of Europe’s great rivers, a sleek beast perfect for a Christmas cruise taking in such illustrious cities as Budapest, Bratislava and Regensburg. Passing through the heart of central Europe revellers can celebrate the festive season at bustling Christmas markets garlanded with Christmas lights and spirit. A mulled wine here, a juicy, grilled sausage there — which Christmas market will be your favourite?
15. The Ganges
Spend Christmas on a luxurious cruise along India’s holiest river where the warmth of the winter sun mixes well with the Christmas spirit. On these cruises, you’ll find a journey whose stand-outs include misty early mornings revealing ancient temples and small boats bumping along in the water, devotees by the edge, followed by the wake-up call of bustling bazaars and the solemn fortresses of Jaipur and Varanasi.
There’s a local saying that Morocco is ‘a cold country with a hot sun’, and while snow on the Atlas Mountains from mid-November to April shows you how bitterly cold it can be at night, there are also piercing blue skies and sunshine warm enough for you to hit the pool. This is the time to snag a bargain, but pack layers and stay somewhere with heating. July and August are even cheaper, but only worth it if you can handle temperatures in the high 40Cs.
It’s the blossoming of Flame trees rather than the dressing of firs that marks the start of the festive season in Mauritius. These trees, red as Santa’s suit, bloom between late November and early December. Shortly after, hotel lobby decorations and seasonal shop window displays appear across the island. Food is central to a Mauritian Christmas and hotels in beach resorts like Grand Baie and Flic-en-Flac offer gala dinners and festive brunches so you can tuck in with a cocktail or two.
18. The Maldives
Trade in the traditional festive colour palette of red and green for a landscape that’s a centillion shades of blue. Fly to the capital, Male, then take a seaplane to a private island resort such as Medhufushi. Sleep in a villa suspended on stilts above the Jacuzzi-warm waters of the Indian Ocean, and snorkel and day-sail your way through the season. Many hotels in the Maldives offer traditional menus on Christmas day. However, if you boycott the brussels, you’ll be rewarded with platters of fresh lobster, oysters and grouper – all washed down with a bottle of something sparkling.
Could there be a better place to go in search of Christmas cheer than the country known as The Land of Smiles? In Bangkok you’ll find everything from tuk-tuks draped in Christmas lights to cocktail nights at the Skywalk Observatory. Things are a little bit more toned down in Phuket. This is the place to swap your Christmas socks for flip flops and spend the season with your toes dipped in syllabub-soft sands. Try a hotel like the Rosewood Phuket, with its spa, pavilion accommodation and views of Emerald Bay. As a largely Buddhist country, Thailand doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas. However, its resorts still put up bright festive decorations to make visitors feel at home.
It might not come as a surprise to hear that the country that gave the world tequila knows how to celebrate on a significant scale at Christmas. The main square in Mexico City is set ablaze with the light of thousands of festive illuminations. Coastal resorts like Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta host festive cocktail parties and gala dinners. At New Year, meanwhile, Los Cabos is the place to go. Fireworks bang as loud as sonic booms over the resort’s beaches, and hotels like the plush One&Only Palmilla pull out all the stops with themed parties and elegant midnight toasts.
Singapore soups-up the Christmas experience. Festivities start in mid-November when almost four kilometres of Christmas lights are switched on in the Orchard Road shopping area. Shortly after, restaurants debut their festive menus and Christmas Wonderland opens at Gardens by the Bay. The season’s crescendo is the extravagant countdown and fireworks party at Marina Bay. If you’re worried about it all feeling a little too merry and bright, stay at a beach hotel like Capella Singapore on Sentosa Island. With its infinity pools, 30-acre gardens and views of the South China Sea, it’s a sanctuary amidst the festive flamboyance.