December travel, eh? Oof. Chilly. But also atmospheric. Let’s see what we can see…
As the year draws to a close, let’s see what your travel options are for December. A lot of Christmas markets, obviously, but there are also a couple of other interesting things going on. Time to explore!
Slip slidin’ away, Japan
Let’s start with a spot of winter sport, shall we? If you’re in Europe or North America, there are many famous places to ski: names like Chamonix, Aspen, Val d’Isere and Whistler might be familiar to you even if you’ve never strapped skis to your feet in your life. But what about heading to another of the world’s great ski centres?
Most people would think of going to Japan in the spring or autumn, timing their visits with one of the great festivals, or with the blossoming of the famous cherry trees. But over the past few years, the country has seen a slow but steady increase in tourists during December, as people outside the country get wise to its amazing winter sport offerings.
Being part of the Pacific volcanic zone, Japan has a massive amount of hot springs bubbling beneath its surface, so at many of the 500 or so ski resorts, not only can you spend the day on the piste, when you’re done you can relax and take advantage of the various hot spring facilities.
There’s a fantastic variety of ski locations. Sapporo Teine, high above Sapporo, gives amazing views over the city. Rusutsu, one of Hokkaido’s top resorts offers forest runs, snowboarding, dog sledding, and snowmobiling.
There are eleven different resorts in the Hakuba Valley alone (which hosted a number of events at the 1998 Winter Olympics), and the Asahidake National Park gives skiers a chance to escape the crowds and enjoy some cross-country challenges.
These listed above are just a tiny number of the hundreds of possibilities that skiing in Japan offers. So when you’re listening to people telling you horror stories about the prices, the crowded slopes and waiting times of the most popular resorts in the world, you’ll know that you made the right choice.
Escape the rain in style, Miami, US
Normally if you think of Florida, you’d probably think of it as a summer destination: Disney, the Florida Keys, beaches, steaming heat and the like. Which is all true of course. But if you’re feeling particularly smart, why not visit in December?
Unusually, December is the time of the year when Miami experiences its lowest rainfall. So much so, in fact, that a lot of the city’s best outdoor events take place this month. South Beach hosts their week-long wine and food festival. The Calle Ocho is a massive celebration of Miami’s Latin culture, with eight stages of performance, streets and streets of stalls and endless partying.
The three-day Coconut Grove Arts Festival is a family-friendly event that includes the works of over 260 local and international artists.
If you’re not visiting for a specific event, it’s still worth taking advantage of the dry, mild weather by taking a tour of the city’s famous Art Deco neighbourhoods, either by car or on foot.
Get out of town by heading along the coast to the Deering Estate and take part in one of their badly spelt Nite Hikes, wandering at dusk through the wildlife reserve and along their tropical trail, surrounded by the sounds of nature coming alive at night. The two-hour guided walk ends with everyone sitting around the campfire, chatting and eating delicious roasted treats.
The wonders of the universe, Morocco
Each December, Earth crosses paths with one of its most regular celestial visitors. Emanating from an asteroid known as 3200 Phaethon, the Geminids are a prolific meteor shower that appears every year.
The number of meteors you can see is high, with around 120–160 reported as the yearly average. They vaporize as they make contact with the upper atmosphere, then appearing as long, slow-moving streams of light tracing beautiful paths across the sky. So where and when can you see this in 2019?
Well, the Geminids are scheduled to appear on 14 December, beginning at around 3am. You’ll need to be somewhere with clear skies and very little light pollution. Our suggestion is the Sahara Desert. We know, it sounds ridiculous — “oh, I’m just going to the Sahara Desert, it’s fine” — but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility.
The Sahara is in fact home to over two million people, and particularly from Morocco isn’t necessarily that tricky to reach. Trips run from Marrakesh to either the dunes of Erg Chebbi or the more remote and wilder Erg Chegaga, and both options offer either Berber-style traditional overnight camping (sometimes over an hour by camel from the nearest civilization, adding to the sense of adventure), or if you fancy a bit of mildly out of place luxury on your trip, permanent camps with running water and semi-permanent structures.
Either way, you’ll be in the perfect place to not only see the meteor shower, but to get a feel of the vastness of the planet, and the endless mystery beyond.
European Christmas markets
Okay, so every travel site in the world covers Christmas markets when they talk about things to do in December, so instead of doing a huge list, we’re going to pick a few that we think are particularly interesting.
A good place to start is Nuremberg. It’s often cited as the oldest recorded Christmas market in Europe, in an inscription on a wooden box dated 1628. The box itself is in the Germanic National Museum, also in Nuremberg, so it’s clearly a source of civic pride. It’s also one of the biggest Christmas markets in the world, with an estimated two million visitors each year.
A less crowded option would be Tallinn. Estonia’s beautiful capital hosts a market on the Town Hall Square every year (in 2019 it runs from 15 November to 7 January) and, along with the standard stalls selling handicrafts and knick-knacks, food and drink, there’s a large stage hosting a programme of music, dance and theatre from over 3,000 performers.
Like most of northern Europe, the Netherlands is a big fan of the Christmas market, and three of the most interesting are in Valkenburg, Heemskerk and Deventer. Despite these places not necessarily being household names, they’re worth a visit in December.
The market in Heemskerk is set in grounds adjoining the elegant castle; on 14 and 15 December, Deventer hosts a Dickensian market, complete with nearly 1,000 actors in period costume, carol singers, and the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian London; and the Valkenburg market, believe it or not, takes place in a network of caves underground!
Sick of turkey? The Basque Country
The Basque region of northern Spain has always identified as a bit of an outlier, even judged by the historically complicated relationship the country has had with the idea of nationhood.
For example, since its early days the football club Athletic Bilbao has only fielded Basque players, a tradition that proudly continues to this day. In the monied and multinational world of football, that’s a remarkable achievement, and is the perfect example of fierce Basque pride.
It’s a beautiful part of the world as well, and in summer, at the height of tourist season, the shoreline around San Sebastián is packed with tourists and locals alike, while across the border on France’s Basque coast, the 19th century glitziness of Biarritz attracts the more discerning type of beach bum, as well as surfers attracted by some of Europe’s best wave action.
The cosmopolitan city of Bilbao is well worth a couple of days of your time. Dating from medieval times, it rose to major prominence as a centre of industry in the early 20th century. Since the mid-1990s, it began a programme of urban renewal that has seen it become one of the foremost centres of art, architecture and culture in the country.
However, even though coming here in December is a good way to avoid the tourists of the high season, the main reason we reckon it’s a great idea is for the food.
Christmas appetizers include cold meats plus local produce such as asparagus, red piquillo peppers, artichokes and so on. Being near the coast, you also get the option of seafood like shrimp or baby eel, and for your main it’ll either be fish — most likely sea bream — or lamb. Follow all of this with a wide selection of desserts including stewed fruits, or a milky, nutty cinnamon pudding called intxaursaltsa, and you’ll want to take them home with you for next year’s festivities!
Finish with a festival, Goa, India
Look to See the vibrance of India’s dance traditions! #SAF2019 will bring to you 10+ dance projects from various parts of the country. #Panaji #Goa #arts #festival #dance #discipline pic.twitter.com/ahBHyvHmmP
— SerendipityArtsFest (@FestSerendipity) September 2, 2019
In these articles, we often look at an interesting festival or event happening during the month in question, and December is no different. This one, however, is not just a music festival, a comedy festival, or a theatre festival: it truly is a fully inclusive arts festival, and one that genuinely earns that description.
The Serendipity Festival includes all of the things mentioned above of course, but also other things that come under the umbrella of “art”, from traditional Indian handicrafts to old photography techniques, via cookery, dance and literature. Couple all of these with an underlying educational initiative involving workshops, talks and other ways to get hands-on, and you’ve got one of the largest arts festivals in Asia.
Running from 15–22 December, the festival site is spread along a two-kilometre stretch of the Mandovi River in Panaji, the state capital of Goa, and the locations for each performance or workshop “have been strategically chosen for their historical value, natural settings and affinity towards the arts”. These include churches, a former hospital, parkland, a palace and a riverfront promenade, meaning that not only will you see some fabulous performances, but you’ll also be in the midst of some of Panaji’s most iconic places. A serendipitous way to end the year? We think so.