Whether you're heading out to celebrate a holiday, sending off a particularly good year, or just looking for a great way to finish off a mediocre one, a destination vacation may be just what you need during December.
With the world at your fingertips, it can be hard to narrow down the perfect year-end adventure. These international destinations are at their best in December, offering not only sights you don't see every day but also presenting experiences unique to this time of year.
Prague is one of the more affordable European vacations. You can cross the medieval Charles Bridge or see the iconic Prague Astronomical Clock. You can eat with the locals, enjoying crispy, slow-roasted Prague Ham, fried cheese, beer goulash, and strawberry and apricot dumplings, all washed down with mulled wine.
The best reason to visit Prague in December is the collection of Christmas Markets. The largest and most famous is in Old Town Square, complete with a nightly tree lighting ceremony. But locals are drawn to the Peace Square Market, or, for a truly magical memory, you can visit one backdropped by the thousand-year-old Prague Castle.
Nagano formed around Zenkoji, a centuries-old Buddist temple with beautifully detailed grounds and architecture. You can explore historic shrines or sample miso ramen and gohei mochi. But Nagano offers another draw: it's right at the base of the Japanese Alps.
Here, you'll find some of Japan's best skiing and snowboarding. You might also hike the mountain to catch a glimpse of the Japanese macaques, expressive monkeys famous for warming themselves in the hot springs around Nagano.
Warm summer weather and a festive atmosphere make the Sunshine Coast of Australia irresistible. Noosa, in Queensland, offers a grown-up alternative to other beach towns.
With gorgeous beaches — Peregian Beach is a local favorite — gondola rides down the Noosa River and the only everglades ecosystem outside Florida, Noosa is a natural wonder. It's also a foodie's dream, with beach-side cocktail and coffee bars and VanillaFood, a wholesome cafe locals swear by.
Caye Caulker, a tiny island off the coast of Belize, is one of the Caribbean's few lesser-known gems. The island borders the Mesoamerican coral reef, one of the largest reefs in the world.
In a morning on Caye Caulker, you can enjoy Fry Jacks, a Belizean breakfast made of fried dough with a savory filling. Then plan out your day: scuba dive, snorkel, zipline, visit Mayan ruins, or relax on the beach. Enjoy inexpensive lobster dinners alongside a Caribbean sunset. At night you can watch the water for native bioluminescent sea life or dance and drink in the island center.
Many tourists are intimidated by a Northern vacation during winter, but because nights are so long, this is an ideal time to view the Aurora Borealis in Reykjavik. This is also the time when Blue Lagoon, the nearby geothermal spa, is at its most beautiful. Not to mention the opportunity to go dog sledding, whale watching, and ice caving.
If the cold is too much, you can enjoy warm, grilled fish and vegetables in Rejkjavik's many eateries or enjoy music in the famous Harpa concert hall.
December marks the end of spring in Buenos Aires and is an ideal time to get a jump start on the busy summer tourist season. Buenos Aires boasts a bustling theatre district, the Teatro Colon opera house, and world-famous beef and wine. You can learn to tango or venture just outside the city to explore the Pampas grasslands with some gauchos.
The Serengeti comes alive in December during what guides call the "emerald season" — when the grasses and trees become incredibly green. This area is the perfect place for a December safari as the wildebeest herds gather on the plains, preparing for their mating season. They're joined by thousands of migratory birds in stunning colors: purple, red, and cinnamon brown. The wildebeest and birds draw natural predators like lions and hyenas.
Italy's cities dip in tourism during December, generally lowering the price of tickets and hotels, but the diversity of Rome's religious and cultural communities creates some truly beautiful holiday celebrations.
The shorter lines at popular historical marvels like the Colosseum allow visitors time to see other wonders, like the Giant Menorah lit at the Piazza Barberini during Hanukkah. On Christmas, the Pope offers blessings in Saint Peter's square. For foodies, Rome has traditional holiday desserts that can be enjoyed throughout December; from panettone, a dome-shaped cake full of candied fruits, to pandoro, a creamy lemon sweet bread arranged in the shape of a tree and covered in powdered sugar.
San Fernando has theme parks, water parks, aquariums, bird reserves, a Japanese-Filipino fusion buffet, a historic train station, and a 400-year-old Baroque-style church.
But the best reason to visit in mid-December has to be the Giant Lantern Festival. Once a year, there is a competition to determine the finest parol, a traditional Filipino lantern displayed at Christmas time. San Fernando is the best place to see these unique and colorful 15-foot lanterns.
Many New Zealand cities and beaches have balmy December weather. But Rotorua is unique in the island country for adventure seekers and lovers of Maori culture.
Rotorua is located near a volcanic valley, and visitors can tour geysers and colorful hot springs or take a mud bath. You can explore the centuries-old forest by bike or zipline or raft down an actual waterfall. The New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute welcomes all guests to learn about Indigenous artwork and culture with many engaging exhibits.
Every December, a week-long festival sees Medellin drape its streets in light, everything from hanging massive glowing ornaments to 3D Christmas light sculptures floating down the river. This is enhanced by a carnival on streets packed with food stalls and music.
Combine this festive display with the fact that December is the driest and sunniest month in Colombia, and Medellin becomes a top December vacation spot.
Home to one of Europe's most famous Gothic Cathedrals, Cologne literally lights up during December. Over 100 Nativity scenes from the modern to the medieval are spread across the city's streets.
You can hop on the festive green Market Express train to visit Cologne's many Christmas markets. At the largest one, watch woodcarvers and glassblowers create their wares. Rumor is, the Old Market was created by house gnomes, small creatures from German legend, and it features delicious local food and charming decoration. Heavenue is a market especially for LGBTQ visitors and Harbour Christmas Market is located right by the shores of the River Rhine.
Austria's largest Christmas market, arrayed in front of the historic Salzburg Cathedral, is a 500-year-long tradition. The picturesque city was also the birthplace of Mozart, and you can listen to his music or nightly caroling throughout the month of December.
Film buffs may enjoy visiting the cinematic location of The Sound of Music. For a less-traveled attraction, venture up the stone steps of the Imbergstiege — The Dark Staircase. Climb to a monastery garden with a gorgeous view of Salzburg's Old Town.
The weather in Cape Town is hottest in December, making it an ideal time to visit the beach. You can appreciate amazing views as you hike or cable car up the world-renowned Table Mountain. Many of Cape Town's hills and mountains offer paragliding and perfect views of the sun rising and setting.
You can also see some of the world's most beautiful gardens. Kirstenbosch has over 7000 plant species and is a Unesco World Heritage site, and African penguins revel in their natural habitat at Boulder Beach.
Many tourists flock to famous Thai beaches during the warm and dry December season, but Ho Chi Minh offers similarly gorgeous seasides at a fraction of the cost.
A city of fused French and indigenous Vietnamese cuisine, studded with rooftop bars and local markets, palaces, and river cruises, Ho Chi Minh is one of the best-kept secrets of December vacations.