December is a magical month. Cities across the world glow with festive lights heralding the arrival of the winter holidays, the smell of spiced cider and mulled wine wafts all around and, if you’re lucky, you can catch the sound of carolers spreading holiday cheer.
While the last month of the year can be hectic with last-minute shopping, cooking and greeting to be done, it’s also a great time of the year to get away on a quick trip.
Most destinations are in full holiday mode by early December, but flights and hotel rates tend to be lower than they are later in the month, which is when we see some of the highest prices for travel at any point throughout the year.
Let’s take a look at some of the best places to visit this year in December. Remember to be sure to do your research before embarking on a trip, as travel restrictions and requirements continue to change with new developments in the Covid-19 pandemic.
There’s quite possibly no better destination to visit in December than New York City. From the city’s dazzling Christmas trees to the festive holiday displays in department store windows and ice skating at any one of the rinks in town, you are sure to get a dose of nonstop holiday cheer if you visit the Big Apple in December. There are simply too many activities to list here, but if you’re planning a visit for this month, be sure not to miss the world-famous tree at Rockefeller Center, Wollman Rink in Central Park and any one of a number of Christmas markets that are set up in places including Union Square Park and Bryant Park. And for a memorable night on the town, snag some tickets to see the iconic Rockettes perform the annual Christmas Spectacular show.
The holiday cheer doesn’t end when you leave Midtown Manhattan, either. Further downtown in the Gramercy Park neighborhood, you’ll find a restaurant and bar called Rolf’s that’s fiercely devoted to Christmas, with wall-to-wall decorations and holiday music playing on loop. And the Dyker Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn comes alive each holiday season, with each home trying to outdo the next with over-the-top light displays, some featuring thousands of twinkling lights. You can book a guided tour to take in the views of Dyker Heights for $59.
New York is one of the largest cities on the planet, so there’s no shortage of places to stay once you arrive. If you have kids in tow, consider the Residence Inn New York Manhattan/Central Park. You’ll be close to the majority of the holiday action and near Central Park for charming snowy strolls, and the hotel has features like in-room kitchenettes that make it easier to travel with little ones.
If you’re looking to splurge on a festive getaway, consider the Conrad New York Midtown, where every room is a suite with a separate bedroom and living area. The property is close to quintessential New York sights like Central Park, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), numerous theaters and so much more.
For a charming and oh-so-New-England December getaway, look no further than Kennebunkport, Maine. Perhaps most famously known as the summer getaway of the Bush family, Kennebunkport should not be overlooked as a winter destination. Recently named by HGTV as the no. 2 Christmas town in America, the entire town is taken over by holiday cheer as December rolls around. One of the top attractions each year is the Christmas Prelude, an 11-day event that is now in its 40th year and features celebrations including tree lightings, a hat parade, caroling and more.
The town features miles of trails for winter sports aficionados who want to snowshoe or cross-country ski, or for anyone who enjoys a relaxing and festive sleigh ride.
Kennebunkport is a small town, meaning the majority of accommodations are small hotels or inns, only adding to the holiday charm. Check out the Kennebunkport Inn, which is located in Dock Square, where the majority of the holiday celebrations take place. The Inn goes all-out during the holiday season, with decorations found in common areas and guest rooms. The hotel even closes off its patio to create a space where guests can enjoy holiday music and cocktails while staying warm.
Situated on the exclusive Ocean Avenue, the Cape Arundel Inn & Resort is set in a charming mansion that typifies New England. Even in the winter, you can take in expansive ocean views — though in December you’ll be doing so in front of a roaring fire, with a warm beverage of your choice in hand.
If you’re looking to go somewhere with plenty of holiday cheer but somewhat off the beaten path, check out New Mexico’s charming capital, Santa Fe. This Southwest destination may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of December travel, but the city comes alive with festive decorations and celebrations in advance of the holidays. Santa Fe has a deeply Catholic history, which shines through in a number of its holiday festivities, including the annual midnight mass at the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi and the “Las Posadas” procession, which is a reenactment of the biblical story of Christmas.
Elsewhere, visit the Santa Fe Botanical Garden for a dazzling display of holiday lights or catch a performance of “The Nutcracker” put on by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Or attend the Christmas at the Palace festival, held at the Palace of the Governors, where the whole family can take in holiday decorations with a side of colonial art, live music, drinks and treats in the courtyard.
Located in a 300-year-old hacienda in the middle of town, the Hilton Santa Fe Historic Plaza offers easy access to attractions including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and the New Mexico Museum of Art and is a relatively affordable property suitable for the whole family.
If you want a secluded retreat that’s close to — but not in the center of — all the action, consider the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe. You can focus on wellness at this serene resort, set on 57 acres at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, at the property’s full-service spa or through its “Adventure by Design” program, which offers a number of experiences and tours led by local guides.
Ski season has just begun in Lake Tahoe by the time December arrives, and while the most popular time to ski is after the new year, there’s no reason you can’t sneak in a ski-centric getaway before Christmas. If you’re a fan of winter sports, you’ll be in for a treat, as December is a perfect time for skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding and more. Towns surrounding the lake like Truckee, California, turn into winter wonderlands with twinkling lights accentuating the snow sitting beautifully on rooftops and trees.
Offering ski-in, ski-out access, The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe is one of the best places to stay in the area. With comfortable and cozy rooms (many with fireplaces) and numerous places throughout the property to enjoy a warm beverage after a day of skiing, you can’t go wrong at this luxurious property on Northstar Mountain. Don’t forget to take a dip in the resort’s heated pool or treat yourself to relaxation at the full-service spa, either.
For an affordable stay that can accommodate the whole family, check out the Holiday Inn Club Vacations Tahoe Ridge. This property offers condo-style rooms, some of which can sleep six comfortably in up to 1,500 square feet of space and feature in-unit kitchens where you can prepare meals before or after days of enjoying all the area has to offer. The property is set adjacent to the Heavenly Ski Resort and offers ski-in, ski-out access as well as amenities everyone can enjoy, including multiple pools and a spa.
Northern Michigan is beautiful year-round, and Traverse City is the perfect place from which to can explore all the region has to offer. While people flock to the area in the warmer months to enjoy the crystal-clear lakes, winter provides a whole different set of activities in which to partake. Winter sports lovers can ski, snowboard, cross-country ski, snowshoe or even go on a fat-tire biking trip. Be sure to check out the trails at the stunning Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, which is equally as beautiful in the winter as it is in the summer. For those who prefer to just look at the snow from the inside, Traverse City offers numerous options for lovers of wine, beer and craft spirits — and at many places, you can enjoy from within a yurt or even an igloo.
The Hotel Indigo Traverse City, an IHG hotel is a perfect home base for exploring Northern Michigan. The property offers a taste of trendy urbanity but is within close proximity to many of the outdoor activities that the region offers. If it’s not too cold outside, head up to the hotel’s rooftop terrace to enjoy a glass of Michigan wine or a cozy hot toddy.
The Grand Traverse Resort and Spa is a huge property that offers numerous amenities for all ages — even in the winter. Kids will enjoy the resort’s indoor waterpark and pools, while adults can perfect their swing at the golf simulator or relax at the spa. The resort also offers snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals for enjoying the snowy Michigan winter.
Not everyone is a fan of frolicking in the snow. If you fall into that camp, there’s no shortage of places to seek out in December for a warm-weather getaway. Puerto Vallarta, on Mexico’s west coast, has warm weather and sunshine in spades practically all year. In fact, December brings some of the best weather you’ll see all year in Puerto Vallarta — the humidity and threat of rain are low, leaving you with beautiful days of sunshine and agreeable temperatures.
Just because there’s no snow on the ground doesn’t mean the city lacks holiday cheer. Christmas is a big deal in Mexico, and in Puerto Vallarta, you can plan to partake in any number of festivities, including posadas, a tradition that invites friends, families and even resort guests to participate in a Christmas celebration, often with a reenactment of the nativity story — along with a large meal, of course. Elsewhere, be sure to catch the Christmas piñatas hung throughout the city, which add color and cheer everywhere you look.
Remember, you must have a negative Covid-19 test result in order to return to the United States after your stay in Puerto Vallarta.
The Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta offers an all-inclusive vacation the whole family will love. Located right on the beach, this property offers multiple pools, numerous places to eat and drink, swim-up suites, a spa and more. The best part, of course, is that just about everything you do on the property is included in the price of entry.
Another beachfront property, the Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort & Spa offers a reasonably priced getaway appropriate for all ages. The resort has multiple restaurants and a full-service spa, as well as a gigantic infinity-edge pool with stunning views of the Bay of Banderas.
Easily accessible from much of the US mainland, the US Virgin Islands (St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix) are a fantastic place to soak up the sun, swim in turquoise waters and get away from the stresses of daily life. December is the beginning of the high season in the islands because temperatures are pleasant during the day and the evenings bring refreshing cool breezes. Holiday traditions abound across each of the islands, from a holiday-themed boat parade in St. Thomas to the month-long Crucian Christmas Festival and Carnival on St. Croix. Be sure to order eggnog made with unique-to-the-Caribbean guavaberry rum!
Anyone traveling to the US Virgin Islands, regardless of vaccination status, must submit a negative Covid-19 test result (rapid antigen or PCR) test within five days of travel to the islands, and submit their results via the US Virgin Islands Travel Screening Portal in order to receive clearance to travel.
Where to stay in the US Virgin Islands
There’s no shortage of amazing resorts to choose from in the US Virgin Islands, and where you stay will ultimately depend on which island(s) you choose to visit. Some of our favorite picks across the islands include The Ritz-Carlton, St. Thomas, The Westin St. John Resort Villas and the Carambola Beach Resort, St. Croix.
Looking for a travel credit card? Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as our best travel credit cards of 2021.