Santa's not the only one making a list and checking it twice. You've probably already started scouring the Internet to put together your list of options for winter destinations; or, if you're the meticulously organized planner, you've now pulled out your pre-existing destination bucket list and are wondering which works best as your year-end escape. Whether you prefer to run away from all things winter and chase the sun, sand, and sea, or you prefer a destination that looks like something out of a snowglobe, you've got your fair share of options.
TALLINN, ESTONIAvia Tallinn Encuenro
Imagine medieval streets, brick buildings, and bright sparkling lights strung up between them – then sprinkle a layer of snow. You might as well be walking through a Christmas card. Dating back to the 13th century, Tallinn is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Northern Europe, with its enchanting architecture and Gothic spires. The streets of Tallinn, Estonia, are still cobbled with houses painted pastel shades.
You could climb up the ancient city walls for some snow-covered views of the cityscape or sit in a café in a cozy corner with a hot drink – the most popular is hõõgwein, Estonia’s mulled wine with fruits and nuts on the side.
This city is rich in history and culture, with the entire walled Old Town of Tallinn being recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997. Old Town Hall is a pretty good place to start exploring. It's located right in the heart of the city where you’ll find all the local specialties sold around a giant Christmas tree, so lace up your boots and go for a scenic stroll around the city where old meets new. Restaurants, bars, galleries, and museums give life to the streets of the historic city centre all day round. The world-famous Tallinn Christmas market is a must-see for the holiday season. Spreading out in the Town Hall Square, with a towering glowing Christmas tree surrounded by vendors selling handmade goods and local treats.
Estonia as a country is usually overlooked on the map, lost somewhere between the borders of Russia and Latvia. So much of the Estonian culture, food, and architecture is more Russian than European, and the days are as short as you’d expect an Eastern European country to be in December. Estonian cuisine changes from season to season, and with winter come hearty options like pork, sauerkraut, sült (which is Estonian jellied meat), and herring. Estonia is also known for its craft breweries and traditional pretzel-shaped sweet bread served with whipped cream.
Accessible with a Schengen visa, Estonia is relatively affordable, and you’re one ferry ride away across the Baltic sea to reach Helsinki, Finland.
ZAGREB, CROATIAvia Getty Images
Zagreb is one of the most affordable destinations for a European Christmas market, but just because it's affordable doesn't mean it's not a stunning winter wonderland of an experience. Actually, Zagreb's been recognized globally for being one of Europe's best Christmas destinations, with Advent in Zagreb festivities held all through December and into January. Cobbled old streets and 18th-century buildings covered with a white layer of snow, children singing Christmas carols, a hot winter drink in hand, and you’ll feel like you just fell straight into a Christmas movie – roasted chestnuts from roadside food vendors and all. On New Year's Eve, the party starts at 11 PM at the city's main square, Ban Jelačić Square, with live music performances only stopping for the fireworks show when the clock strikes 12. Zagreb also makes for a great ski holiday; Mountain Medvednica is only a 20-minute drive and filled with ski resorts.
DUBAI, UAEvia Time Out Dubai
Dubai is always a good idea, but it doesn't really scream 'winter wonderland', does it? Throwing conventionality out the window, why not spend a not-so-white Christmas bikini-clad on the beach?
December through February is Dubai's peak season for tourism, so get ready to be met with crowds of festive travelers exploring the emirate and likely escaping the North cold. Starting December 26th and up till February 2nd is the Dubai’s Shopping Festival, and the whole city stays open late for those last-minute shoppers. Also, Christmas means business in Dubai; restaurants, bars, and hotels across the emirate go all out, with Santa, gingerbread, and jingle bells. Prices range depending on the area you choose, but think Dhs350 to Dhs850 on average.
Now while the world may celebrate Christmas and New Years with a market here and a firework show there, this is Dubai. Here, you go big or you go home. The city also has so many festive markets, fairs, and events. The Irish Village holds a popular annual tree-lighting event, complete with free mince pies and all – just make sure to get there early to get in. If you miss it, smaller tree-lighting events take place around the city in hotels, usually two weeks prior to Christmas. Winter Festival and Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah are also two events you shouldn’t miss out on.
And of course, the legendary New Year's Eve fireworks show at Burj Khalifa is an unfortgettable experience. From the fireworks show at Burj Khalifa to the bright lights of Palm Jumeirah, Dubai attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year that travel miles just to witness that night.
CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICAvia Getty Images.
Christmas is Cape Town’s summer, so expect a winter break with temperatures up in the 30s and hot, cloudless, long daytime hours and warm nights – a perfect time to visit the south of the continent and escape the cold. The warm weather makes the beaches of Cape Town the most popular this time of the year, so it's probably not optimal for those on the hunt for a quiet getaway. Actually, the whole city is very much alive this time of year, with events, concerts, festivals, and loads of outdoor activities.
On New Year’s Eve, the whole city is abuzz with celebration; you'll find plenty of events and parties on the beaches and across the rooftop bars, restaurants, and clubs in the city centre. The biggest event in the city is held at the V&A Waterfront, with a spectacular fireworks show at midnight to ring in the new year. If you prefer to party then you're better off heading down to Long Street for the best of Cape Town's nightlife scene.
Since it's summer in Cape Town, these cloudless warm days are the best time of the year to hike up Table Mountain. The top rewards you with an unforgettable panoramic view of the whole city. Throughout summer, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens hosts a series of open-air music shows that they call the Summer Sunset Concerts. The concerts feature top local musicians and even some international artists.
Make sure to plan your trip in advance and secure your accommodation, dining, and flight reservations since it’s peak season for Cape Town.
BRUGES, BELGIUMvia Explore Europe
Bruges is a fairytale city – think landscape painting of cobbled streets, old bridges, windmills, and chocolate box houses. It’s mostly known for being a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000. Nicknamed The Venice of The North for its beautiful canals and bridges, the city has some spectacular views that attract tourists from all over the world all year round, but especially around Christmas time.
You'll fall in love with the city as soon as you arrive – with its historic structures and old monuments, warmth and friendliness, and the scent of chocolate that fills the streets as you pass one chocolate shop to the next. It gets even more magical during the winter, with its preserved medieval architecture covered in Christmas lights and decorations.
Starting November, a cozy Christmas atmosphere takes over the streets of Bruges. The Christmas market in Bruges is one of the most vibrant and picturesque markets in Europe, if not the world. The whole city transforms into a Christmas wonderland, with vendors lining the streets and selling all things Christmassy – from food and drinks to handicrafts – and an ice rink sitting front and centre in the main square, all under the stunning backdrop of the Belfry of Bruges. All the narrow streets leading to the Market Square are lined with Christmas shops selling everything from small souvenirs to the famous Belgian chocolate. The market itself has a huge range of food options with Belgian everything: waffles, fries, hot dogs, and of course, mulled wine.
Bruges is exceptionally picturesque -- the market square with its cobbled lanes makes for the perfect backdrop for holiday shots. Walking through the medieval streets of the market, you’ll find the tourist in you taking endless shots of every corner. Sit back and indulge in Belgian waffles drenched in Belgian chocolate and thank us after the sugar coma.
BANGKOK, THAILANDvia Getty Images
This is the best time of year to visit Thailand; with the weather cooling down and drying, crowds reach their peak in the city. The vibrant city will overwhelm you at first, but once you're over the sensory overload you'll love its breathtaking sights and the mishmash of sounds, smells, welcoming people, great food, and amazing parties.
Although Thailand doesn’t celebrate Christmas, Bangkok is still one of the best places to visit during the festive season. Every mall lights up with decorations and all the hotels celebrate in different ways – Christmas trees, discounts, free services. New Year’s Eve in Bangkok is a whole other experience, and it can be as relaxed or as wild as you want it to be. Central World of Bangkok is the equivalent of Times Square in New York, with a countdown party that takes place every year where you can catch the fireworks show with the crowds that gather there from the early evening. There's usually a beer garden, live entertainment, and snack stalls, which is basically what anyone needs to do New Year's in a foreign country. Another way to ring in the new year in Bangkok is on a boat down the river. Departing at 11:15 PM, you can watch the city lights while eating a little dinner on the river until 3 AM.
Most luxury hotels and shopping centers roll out discounts and set up decorations that make up for the lack of snow and Santa Clauses. Bangkok also hosts Christmas markets, which are a staple no matter where in the world you're traveling this time of year – they're also a great opportunity to pick up souvenirs that double as Christmas gifts, or vice versa. If you’re willing to splurge a bit, you could eat Christmas dinner at one of the many buffets held by the city's luxurious hotels; on the flip side, if you’re traveling on a budget, you can still enjoy your night and treat your taste buds at one of the local pubs and restaurants – most of them are open and welcoming with overly festive open arms.
With this great weather, you might as well treat yourself to a rooftop party overlooking the Bangkok skyline. The city's nightlife is pretty busy, and especially with parties leading up to New Year's Eve. Travelers flock Khao San Road – that's where the party's at, with hundreds of bars, nightclubs, and discos.
If you’re visiting Bangkok, you can’t miss out on indulging in some street shopping – it’s a huge part of the identity of this city. The market is open on Saturdays and Sundays, so get your bargaining skills ready and just make sure you have room in your luggage for all that stuff you're about to buy.
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLICvia Getty Images.
Prague is one of the most stunning cities in Europe, and it’s even more stunning when it's covered in a coat of white snow around Christmas time. With Christmas markets – yes, plural – open from December 2nd until the 6th of January, some even being budget-friendly, Prague is basically the manifestation of walking in a winter wonderland. The Old Town Square is the center of Prague, and it holds the most famous Christmas Market in the city. Other markets include Wenceslas Square, Peace Square (a local favourite), and another Christmas Market at Prague Castle. Also, don’t miss out on one of the magical highlights of Prague in December: ice skating at the Ovocny Trh, a free skating rink operated daily until 10 PM by Prague City Hall.
Arts and culture fans absolutely cannot miss catching an evening of orchestras, choirs, and performances at the renowned National Theatre of Prague; if you've been good this year, maybe they'll have Swan Lake and the Nutcracker Ballet. Even if that’s not your cup of tea, the National Theater of Prague is actually among the most beautiful theatres and buildings in Europe, so it's worth swinging by and admiring the beauty of the building alone.
Now what's a visit to Prague without indulging in an endless supply of street food? Langose (fried bread with tomato and cheese), Czech sausages, Palacinky (French-style pancakes), svarak (mulled wine), and the famous trdelnik (a dough cone with cinnamon and sugar coating) – yes, the same ones you see on Instagram.