I’m not going to say it, I’m not. I’m bored with saying that this year has been: challenging, terrible, rough – name your adjective. But, I think we all know 2020 has been a jerk in almost every way. December is usually my favorite time of year to travel because I normally visit spots where I can celebrate the Christmas season and really get into the spirit of things. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also usually low season in many parts of the world, adding modest crowds and lower prices to the reasons why I always early look forward to my Yuletide travels. Of course, like everything else, 2020 has taken this yearly tradition away from me as well. Rather than sit here and sulk, which I am in fact doing, I instead want to share some of my favorite places around the world to travel in December. Some may make sense, others may not but I promise they’re all a lot of fun. While it’s also true one cannot enjoy these trips in 2020, hopefully by 2021 they will once again be coveted travel destinations.
Czech Republic (Czechia)
In the few weeks before Christmas, Prague somehow elevates itself into a holiday experience the likes of which I had never before witnessed. I’ve visited many Christmas markets around Europe and without a doubt, not only does Prague embrace the season more so than most others, but it’s a lot more fun to visit as well. The focal point of Christmas festivities in Prague is at the Old Town Square, where most of the most popular sites in the city are found. The massive market takes place every year in front of the massive church Our Lady before Týn and Old Town Hall. It’s large, it gets busy but it’s also a lot of fun. Having spent (and enjoyed) a week beforehand touring Germany, it was nice to see some different foods and drinks offered, along with entertainment and gifts. It reminded me of why I love visiting a variety of European countries around Christmas and the overall effect was nothing short of transformative. The best way to get an idea of the enormity of the central Christmas market is to visit the top of the Old Town Hall Tower, an easy to visit site with views you have to see to believe.
When hard-pressed, I usually say that France is my favorite country in the world to visit. I have a strong emotional connection to it, I speak French and I love the culture. I’ve never had a bad time visiting France and that’s particularly true in December. While the weather is nothing to write home about, France has some amazing Christmas Markets and arguably the best one is found in Strasbourg. This large city in the heart of Alsace was a great introduction not only to this fascinating region, but also to French Christmas market traditions. The Alsace region has a troubled history, ping-ponging between French and German possession over the years, you’ll find a strong influence from both cultures all around town. This unique background necessarily affects the food and in the markets I discovered everything from foie gras sandwiches to traditional beignets. There’s not just one Christmas market in Strasbourg though, there are many strewn all around, which makes an exploration of the downtown area fun and filled with yuletide surprises almost anywhere you go. Every region has their own culinary specialties and while Strasbourg has many, it’s well known for its collective love of pretzels. You’ll find them in every size and shape and even lunch versions, topped with far-too-generous amounts of cheese.
I don’t go to Europe every December though, I like to alternate with different styles of experiences. One recent favorite was a luxury cruise along the Mexican Riviera onboard an amazing Crystal Cruises ship. While every port of call offered something new and fun to experience, one of my favorites was a side trip to the small town of Todos Santos. Walking around the old historic core, the vibrant colors of the buildings and the incredible wintertime weather all left me completely entranced. Turns out I’m not alone, Todos Santos has been quietly gaining a lot of attention by tourists in the know and even the Mexican government named it a Pueblo Magico, one of just 100 or so communities around Mexico recognized for its natural beauty, cultural richness and history. I’d never heard of this small town along the coast before, but I know it’s a spot that I won’t soon forget.
I’m a Disney Parks fan, so naturally I had to include my favorite park – Disneyland. Sadly this Anaheim institution remains closed, but hopefully it will be open in 2021 so I can once again enjoy the holiday transformation that takes place every year. When I planned a trip in December, I was a little concerned that I wouldn’t get the holiday feeling that I love so much, but I need not have worried. Disney does Christmas extremely well and being in the park just a few days before Christmas dramatically improved my overall holiday experience. Disneyland is a special place, especially for adults. In a world that is increasingly mean and chaotic, it remains a destination seemingly devoid of problems. That’s remarkable and to feel an honest sort of happiness for two days was the ideal way to finish the year. One of the many reasons why I love Disney is for the resort’s ability to transport guests to an easier and simpler time. For a brief few days, everything seems right in the world, and during Christmas this feeling is only enhanced. Everyone seemed happy, the decorations were festive and Christmas carols played in the background. It was a wonderful way to embrace the holiday spirit and I know it won’t be the last time that I experience Disney during the holiday season.
Last year, just a couple of months before the world closed, I had the great opportunity to once again sail with Viking Cruises on a river cruise in Portugal. It was my first time visiting the country and while I sincerely loved every moment, my time spent in Porto was what I enjoyed the most. Cruises start and end in Porto, making this popular tourist destination an important part of anyone’s cruise experience. I didn’t know a lot about the city before arriving, but I had read dozens of accounts by fellow writers all lauding the ancient city, many even naming it the best in Europe. A natural skeptic, I went into my time there with some initial detachment, but I too fell for the allure of Porto. Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities, founded in the 300s by the Romans and it’s Porto that eventually lent its name to the country of Portugal itself. Walking around the hilly city on a guided Viking hike, I found it impossible not to be charmed by the colors and sights of the historic center, while also trying to catch a view of the important Douro River whenever possible. I had plenty of time on my own in the city as well, and I used that time to delve even deeper into Porto’s neighborhoods and history, while also eating a fair amount of local delicacies along the way. Yes, Porto was another highlight of many for me on my Douro River Cruise, but I know I’m not unique in that feeling.
The granddaddy of all German Christmas markets, I’ve been fortunate to visit this famous market not once, but twice. Given the size of the market, it’s important to be strategic otherwise it’s easy to lose track of time. In my case that meant local delicacies I can only find in Nuremberg. Every German city, town and village has a variation of sausage and my own personal favorite is found in Nuremberg. Small sausages grilled to perfection and then served three to a bun make for a manageable but delicious snack or meal. Another snack that varies around Germany are Lebkuchen, sort of like gingerbread cookies but not really. Once again, Nuremberg is home to my personal favorite version of this holiday treat and not only did I eat a few that afternoon, but I made sure to stock up for the entire Christmas season. The Nuremberg Christmas market is famous for a reason, it’s enormous and fun, but of course this year it too is a victim of COVID. Like so many other annual celebrations, the market has been cancelled out of necessity, but you can still learn more about the remarkable experience of visiting through this video that Germany Tourism shared with me. (No, this isn’t sponsored in any way, I simply love the German Christmas Markets that much and want to help share the message.)
What are some of your favorite December travel destinations?