Best Places for Holiday Travel
Come December, Heidelberg, Germany, turns into a winter wonderland any Scrooge would don a Santa hat to experience. The best part? Weihnachtsmarkt, a mile-long string of outdoor markets that twinkle in the evening chill. As snowflakes drift down, you can shop for handmade ornaments while drinking hot spiced wine and eating freshly fried potato pancakes.
This year, why settle for lukewarm eggnog and guests you didn’t really want to see anyway? Sure, crowds and unpredictable weather mean that holiday travel can be stressful, but this time of year is also a great opportunity to get away and explore a new spot. So we asked Travel + Leisure writers for their top holiday travel picks, like Heidelberg, which is one of Aimee Lee Ball’s favorite places.
Another option: Charleston, SC, home of America’s most attractive people, according to our America’s Favorite Cities survey. Yes, the Christmas cheesiness culminates in a “charmingly motley holiday parade,” as writers Matt and Ted Lee put it, but it’s also prime time for local bivalve harvesting. Ask for a waterside table at Fleet Landing Restaurant & Bar, and you can dine on fresh seafood while eyeing decorated boats cruising around the harbor.
Further afield, Reykjavík, Iceland, is an adventurer’s dream with an otherworldly landscape. “Daylight is a four-hour affair,” says writer Jennifer Coogan, “and the liquid-green aurora borealis illuminates the nighttime sky.” As far as annual holiday traditions go, theirs may take the cake: rather than Santa Claus, here you’ll find statues of 12 rosy-cheeked Yule Lads.
Ringing in the New Year is a whole other story. You can celebrate on the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, where everybody dons revealing all-white outfits and underwear that reflects their wish for the coming year (red is for—you guessed it—romance). “Up to two million people join you on the beach,” says writer Peter J. Frank. “Learn a few samba moves—the music goes well past midnight.”
Grandma may be disappointed if you spend the holidays away, but hey, isn’t that what postcards—and presents—are for?
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico
A flickering bonfire, live guitar music, moonlight dancing—it’s these very things that draw us to Mexico on New Year’s. And, more precisely, the 57-room Esperanza, in Cabo San Lucas, where a private beachfront barbecue—chipotle-marinated flank steak; apple-mole sea bass—culminates in a spectacular fireworks show. The weather is a pleasant 75 degrees, and up at the hotel’s cliffside restaurant guests sip rum cocktails while overlooking the Sea of Cortés. During the day there’s horseback riding, mountain hikes to the area’s hidden waterfalls, and even deep-sea fishing (arranged by the hotel)—though you might be more content just relaxing by the infinity pool. —Logan Ward
Esperanza, An Auberge Resort (doubles from $665, including breakfast).
Charleston, South Carolina
December is the only month when our hometown, which tends toward the tastefully manicured, allows itself to be adorably cheesy. Santa lands in Marion Square to light up a 60-foot-tall tree (Dec.4), and lampposts are dressed up in ribbons and wreaths. There’s a charmingly motley holiday parade (Dec. 5) at which everyone is relieved when the Steppin’ Bulldogs marching band rolls through to bring order and triumph to the proceedings. (Suites at the recently opened Restoration on King hotel overlook the route.) The low country’s oysters are at their peak, so we combine our love for the briny bivalves with our fervor for the pageantry of the season by ordering buckets of shuck-your-own and snagging a waterside table at Fleet Landing Restaurant & Bar on the night of the Parade of Boats (Dec. 4), when local skippers decorate their sloops with colored lights and cruise around the harbor. —Matt Lee and Ted Lee
Great Value Restoration on King (doubles from $249); Fleet Landing Restaurant & Bar (dinner for two $45).
I’d like to say I was clever enough to plan a trip to Germany, where the Christmas tree itself was invented. Truthfully, it was luck, not foresight: a business trip took me to the town of Heidelberg, about 50 miles south of Frankfurt. The 418-year-old Hotel Zum Ritter St. Georg is the same vintage as the storied castle on the hill nearby, its Renaissance red-sandstone façade bearing an inscription in gold: Persta Invicta Venus (Beauty forever unconquered). It’s a prescient testament to a city that remains gorgeously Gothic and Baroque, spared bombing during World War II. During the four weeks of Advent (Nov. 24–Dec. 25), the mile-long Hauptstrasse leads to the Weihnachtsmarkt—outdoor holiday market. I shopped for marionettes, nutcrackers, and handmade ornaments while drinking hot spiced glühwein and burning my fingers (so worth it) on freshly fried Kartoffelpuffer (potato pancakes) dipped into chunky applesauce. For the evening’s entertainment, I followed the signs to local churches for free concerts with the enchanting music of the hometown boys: Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. —Aimee Lee Ball
Great Value Hotel Zum Ritter St. Georg (doubles from $183).
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
For an event that’s meant to be carefree and tropically dissolute, New Year’s in Rio does take a bit of forethought. What to wear, for instance: all white is the tradition, as sexy and revealing as possible. But you do have to choose a shade of underwear to reflect your wish for the coming year—red for romance, yellow for prosperity. Then there is the issue of getting to the Copacabana neighborhood before the massive fireworks display at midnight: with up to 2 million people joining you on the beach, and the streets blocked off, a taxi can only get you so far. Of course, if you’re staying at the Copacabana Palace Hotel, you just have to step out the front door. Lastly, you should learn a few samba moves. The music—stages are erected all along Copa’s 2 1/2-mile crescent—starts at 8 p.m. and goes well past midnight. If the throngs and the scene start to overwhelm, duck into Ipanema’s Zazá Bistrô Tropical, which serves Brazilian-tinged Asian fare in opium den–like surroundings. For a true escape, plan a post–New Year’s recovery at La Suite, a seven-room guesthouse clinging to the side of a cliff in Joá, a beachfront suburb just 20 minutes from Ipanema. —Peter J. Frank
Copacabana Palace Hotel (doubles from $555); Zazá Bistrô Tropical (dinner for two $100); La Suite (doubles from $460).
The Advent season in Vienna is a special time. When I leave the Hotel Sacher, my first stop is always Wilhelm Jungmann & Neffe, where members of Vienna’s aristocracy still choose the fabrics for their custom orders. I love the festively decorated Graben, where Christmas trees and spiked punch are for sale. Café Tirolerhof is my choice for a strong mélange. I always look in at Köchert, jewelers to royalty, and check out the windows on the Kohlmarkt, especially at the pastry shop Demel. For gifts, I recommend Lobmeyr, which produces hand-polished muslin glass crystal. For a holiday dinner, the Backhendl (breaded chicken) with fried parsley at the Sacher’s Rote Bar is hard to surpass. Of course, Vienna is a city of music. Don’t miss the Christmas oratorios at the Musikverein and the Augustinerkirche—they are divine. —Renée Price
Hotel Sacher Wien (doubles from $428); Wilhelm Jungmann & Neffe (coffee for two $5); Deme
If you’re not staying home for the holidays then you might as well go far, very far. Yes, Japan is a Shinto and Buddhist country, but it’s also a place that extols the virtues of spectacle, gift-giving and marking the seasons—all the secular stuff that makes this time so, well, fun. And really there’s no better, more dizzying shopping than in Tokyo. Wander around the lit-up department stores of Ginza (Matsuya and Mitsukoshi come to mind), and watch dozens of Santa Clauses on motorbikes blaze through the Shibuya district’s downtown. On New Year’s Day, eat osechi (a special feast of seafood and vegetables) and join the happy crowds huddling outside the Meiji-Jingu Shrine to get good tidings. The trappings and traditions may be different, but the joyous communal sense of transition, celebrations, and new beginnings all feels a lot like home. —Adam Sachs
In this otherworldly landscape, daylight is a four-hour affair and the liquid-green aurora borealis illuminates the nighttime sky. The ubiquitous statues of the 12 Yule Lads (the Icelandic version of Santa Claus) peer out from every corner shop and kitchen window. For covetable views of the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, check in to the Hótel Leifur Eiríksson. A five-minute walk away, you’ll find the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland, whose mittens, made with native wool, are ideal stocking stuffers. The seafood restaurant Vid Tjörnina lures locals for dinner with its classic Icelandic cuisine—how about fermented shark meat followed by shots of brennivín (a.k.a. schnapps, or “firewater”)? The best way to experience the country’s lunar terrain is by Superjeep with guide Ragnar Lovdal, who takes you to the eerily silent Langjökull glacier, rumored to shelter Iceland’s elves year-round. —Jennifer Coogan
Great Value Hótel Leifur Eiríksson (doubles from $143); Vid Tjörnina (dinner for two $80); Superjeep (tours from $245 per person).
Santa Barbara, California
During winter, the coastal towns in Santa Barbara County combine New England–style comfort and old California elegance with outrageous holiday kitsch. In Montecito, the 500-acre San Ysidro Ranch could be a Vermont hunting lodge (rooms have wood-beamed ceilings and stone hearths), except that it’s 20 minutes from world-class surfing at Rincon Beach. Meanwhile, amid the vintage Victorian houses on nearby Summerland’s main shopping street, Stacky’s Seaside stands out like a grounded trawler. Fortify yourself with its fish and chips before hitting the Summerland Winery’s tasting room for a wine that shouldn’t work but does: a sparkling Zinfandel. Six miles south, there’s Carpinteria, a quirky, bohemian beach hamlet where Christmas seems to last all year—its waterfront boulevard is even called Santa Claus Lane. —M. G. Lord
San Ysidro Ranch, A Rosewood Resort (doubles from $650); Stacky’s Seaside (lunch for two $25); Summerland Winery (tastings for two $20).
A Provençal winter is always fairy tale–like: the villages gone silent at summer’s end come back to life; music from medieval churches fills the cobblestoned streets; women crowd around market stalls to sniff out the freshest foie gras. In St.-Rémy, locals gather for the Fête des Lumières (Dec. 11), when galleries stay open late and the centre ville becomes a block party. In tiny Eygalières, a tree is lit and carols are sung (Dec 17). The market at Fontvieille’s 16th-century Château d’Estoublon sell delicate glass ornaments, sophisticated tableware, and rich bûche de Noël, and the Christmas Eve dinner at the château’s Bistrot Mogador is a don’t-miss: a traditional gros souper—grilled sea bass with aioli, vegetable gratin with black truffles, and more. And for the truffle-obsessed, the one-day culinary immersions led by former Alain Ducasse sommelier Kelly McAuliffe and chef Jonathan Chiri include tastings of the legendary fungi. The region’s grand hotels—Couvent des Minimes Hôtel & Spa; the Four Seasons Resort Provence at Terre Blanche—pull out all the stops for the season. But for a quintessential country escape, why not rent an old-but-renovated farmhouse with a cozy hearth and stone-walled kitchen? —Julie Mautner
Château d’Estoublon (indoor market Nov. 15–Dec.23); Bistrot Mogador (dinner for two $115); truffle tastings (
No other place celebrates New Year’s with such brilliance—literally—as Venice, when the city’s cathedrals light up at night. But my Venetian holiday is all about eating and drinking. Lunch is at Osteria Oliva Nera, a neighborhood restaurant where Isabella and Dino, the owners, feed you well (incredible baccalà). Afterward, I swing by the glass shop Venini for striped tumblers, followed by a glass of wine or two (and a meatball!) at Trattoria alla Vedova. By midnight, San Marco is packed with revelers; from the balcony at the Hotel Danieli, a final glass of Prosecco in hand, I watch the last dancers wander home. Tomorrow there’s a trip to Lido island, where the Ibernisti take a New Year’s dip before eating a bowl of lentils for prosperity. —Reggie Nadelson
Osteria Oliva Nera (dinner for two $70); Trattoria alla Vedova (lunch for two $77); Hotel Danieli (doubles from $1,194).
Quebec City, Canada
Even when it’s 10 degrees outside (yes, 10!), 402-year-old Quebec City rivals any European capital: French is the main language and snow-dusted castle turrets make up the wintertime views. The skating rink at Place d’Youville, in windswept Upper Town, is always packed, and at the classic crêperie Au Petit Coin Breton, locals line up for piping-hot cider. A table by the window of Le Champlain dining room, at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, is hard to come by (make sure to book in advance)—but there’s no better spot to watch the snowflakes fall over the frozen St. Lawrence River. The brunch here is the best in town, with sugar-coated maple cookies and nutty raw-milk cheeses made by monks. In the six Historic Suites of Auberge Saint-Antoine, the exposed wooden beams and brick walls all survived the British bombardment in 1759. It’s just a short walk to Restaurant L’Initiale, where the foie gras is seared, whipped into a pâté, and stuffed into supple dumplings. —Sherri Eisenberg
Au Petit Coin Breton (lunch for two $25); Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (brunch for two $92); Auberge Saint-Antoine (doubles from $299); Restaurant L’Initiale (dinner from $65 per person).
Just before dawn on the first morning of the New Year, the feeling of renewal is palpable. I’m paddling a kayak down the southern coast of Maui—the sun won’t crest the island’s 10,000-foot Haleakala volcano for half an hour. From here, I can see Ferraro’s, the patio restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort, where I’ll dine tonight on pan-seared branzino while watching the year’s first sunset. Around the point, the Fairmont Kea Lani rises; it was there on Christmas Eve that I saw Santa Claus paddle ashore in an outrigger canoe with his bag full of goodies. Farther south, Keoneoio (La Perouse) Bay, filled with dolphins and humpback whales, awaits for an afternoon snorkel. On land, Wailea Alanui Drive parallels my route—but it’s more fun by kayak. —Andrew Mccarthy
Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea (dinner for two $120); Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui (doubles from $499).
New Delhi, India
Fog shrouds the early morning yoga classes in the Lodi Gardens where insiders practice their dawn asanas as I make my way to Khan Market, in Lutyens’ Delhi. It’s a place I discovered by chance on my first trip to India when the concierge of the Taj Mansingh Hotel sent me to the nearest ATM. Then as now, the market is a postcolonial time capsule, where even the priciest new stores retain a raffish charm. Who can resist the turquoise gift wrap festooned with gold-leaf Hindi script at Anand Stationers? The owner totes up my holiday purchases on a pad with carbon paper inserts as if it were 1956. At Fabindia, I find housewares and silk fabrics, tablecloths, and kurtas. Nearby, Bahrisons booksellers is stacked with volumes dating back 50 years, while Jay Raj Arts sells colorful beaded necklaces and bracelets. My suitcase is full. But before going home, there’s one last stop: Khan Chacha’s for a tasty chicken tikka kebab. —Marie Brenner
Taj Mansingh Hotel (doubles from $473).
New York, New York
You know what makes Christmas shopping in Manhattan so magical. You know—because you have seen or imagined it—that the city becomes enchanted. Even the most hard-charging of executives will, upon leaving Broadway Panhandler with armfuls of kitchenware pressed resentfully to their topcoats, catch a whiff of candied nuts or make eye contact with a Santa and renounce their greedy ways. Exiting the New York Public Library’s Shop with a clutch of retro magnifying glasses, there is snow all of a sudden. Staggering out of Teuscher’s chocolate boutique, your breath is snatched away by the hugeness of the Rockefeller Center tree, and though another year is gone, you feel a joy more sweet than bitter. —Bruno Maddox
Vieques, Puerto Rico
I spot wild ponies on an empty stretch of beach—a sight not so unusual on this unspoiled island that’s been my winter haven for the past 12 years. In Esperanza (on the southern side of Vieques), I take my kids snorkeling off Sun Bay, which looks out onto Cayo de Tierra strewn with huge pink conch shells. Silver rays nuzzle up to us on the twilight kayak tour booked with Black Beard Sports. The island’s historic half, Isabel Segunda, fills with lights during the holidays, and we feast on conch and calabaza fritters at El Quenepo. For New Year’s, we camp out at nearby Green Beach to watch the sun set. Or, with a cocktail in hand, on the patio at the recently opened W Retreat & Spa. —Melik Kaylan
Black Beard Sports (kayak rentals $35 per person per day); El Quenepo (dinner for two $70); W Retreat & Spa–Vieques Island (doubles from $659).