It’s the most wonderful time of the year – unless you’re stuck at work or elbowing your way through the shops, of course. So if you’re lucky enough to have some holiday leave to take, why not treat yourself to a getaway? We’ve put together some of the best city breaks in December – sprinkled with plenty of Christmas cheer – ensuring you’re in the mood for the festivities. Wrap up warmly, explore beautiful Christmas markets, glow under the twinkling lights and enjoy a dusting of snow… these cities are truly exquisite in December and are bound to fill you with a real sense of magic ahead of Christmas Eve.
If there’s one country you should be paying a visit at Christmas, it’s Germany. The birthplace of the green Christmas tree and two beloved Christmas carols – ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Oh Christmas Tree’, this location does Christmas markets like no other. So where better to head than the capital of Germany – Berlin? Expect to see swathes of market stalls erected across the city in December, offering everything from handmade Christmas presents to steaming mugs of white chocolate milk. Head to the Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt first – located beside the Franzozische Friedrichstadtkirche and Konzerthaus, you’ll see a giant Christmas tree and live Christmas performances every day.
Budapest is one of the best city breaks in December. It’s a sensory overload, with streets dripping with Christmas decorations, the sound of lively bands and the smell of goulash and mulled wine helping to get you into a festive mood. Visit Buda Castle for a taste of Christmas on a grand scale and attend a Christmas concert at Matthias Church. And, if you’re brave enough to strip off in the cold air, soak in the Széchenyi Baths once you’ve had your fill of all things Christmas – the thermal waters are the perfect place to relax after a few days roaming the city streets, and they’re particularly atmospheric if you get there first thing in the morning to watch the steam rise in the early dawn light.
How does a Medieval Christmas city break sound to you? With honey coloured stones, breathtaking architecture, and grand old buildings fringing the cold river as it runs through the city, Bruges is a fairytale setting for a December getaway. You’ll be spoiled for sweet treats (Bruges is the chocolate capital of the world), and as you walk its cobblestone streets and drink in the festive atmosphere, you’ll hear church bells tolling with plenty of Christmas carolling to accompany it. There are couple of Christmas markets to explore, but if you want to experience a smaller, less crowded one, head to the Simon Stevin Square market and treat yourself to pralines from the nearby chocolatiers.
Another of the best city breaks in December is Dublin – it’s just a short flight from home, but with precisely the kind of warmth and spirit you’re looking for at this time of year. If it’s a sophisticated festive break you fancy, head to the National Concert Hall for Choral Favourites at Christmas, Vladimir’s Viennese Christmas and Carols by Candlelight – world-class performances that are all taking place in December. And for something a little more rough and ready? Pull up a stool in one of Dublin’s many bars, sing along with the locals and soak up every last drop of Christmas spirit – 37 (Dawson Street) and the Stag’s Head in Dame Court both feel particularly magical in December.
How about a properly cold Christmas city break? Temperatures in Helsinki average between -7°C and 0°C, with the first substantial snows arriving in December to smother the city in a blanket of white that looks particularly pretty against the warm glow of restaurants and shop windows. And, it’s dark enough to enjoy the twinkle of fairy lights and Christmas trees too, with the sun setting at before 3.30pm having not risen until almost 9.30am. So, pack your hats and gloves and amble down Aleksanterinkatu. This shopping street glistens with decorations with shopkeepers trying to outdo each other in the festive stakes, and you can always warm up with a mug of glögi afterwards. If you’re in Helsinki on 13th December, you’ll get to enjoy the St Lucia’s Day celebrations, complete with a horse-drawn carriage and Father Christmas.
Prague, Czech Republic
With its Baroque architecture, cobbled lanes and stylish boutiques, Prague is a brilliant location for a city break at any time of year. But it feels particularly special at Christmas. Relive your favourite traditions from childhood by visiting the Old Town quarter where you’ll find a large nativity scene and a live animal petting zoo, just a stone’s throw from market huts selling everything from hot wine and hearty food to Christmas decorations and handcrafted gifts. Prague is also a fabulous destination if you want to experience opera or ballet, and this December you could find yourself watching Swan Lake, the Nutcracker and Tosca.
New York, USA
New York is undoubtedly one of the best city breaks in December – perhaps the best in all of North America. Unlike many European winter destinations, Christmas in New York is more about hustle and bustle than serenity, serving up heaps of magic and cheer. Whether you walk around daydreaming about the numerous Christmas films that have been made in the Big Apple, or find yourself lighting up from within at the sight of the Rockefeller tree or the store displays on Fifth Avenue (Bergdorf Goodman always puts on the most magnificent display), you’re guaranteed to make Christmas memories that will last a lifetime. Wrap up warmly to take a horse and carriage ride through Central Park, journey on the Staten Island Ferry at nighttime to see the city light up, and consider booking tickets to see a show on Broadway – Elf is excellent, and A Christmas Carol is wonderful too.
Another destination well worth considering is Reykjavik. This Icelandic city is enchanting at Christmas, with its own quirky traditions to experience first hand. Like Helsinki, Reykjavik is located high in the Northern Hemisphere, and by early December the city only experiences five hours of sunlight a day. This, combined with average temperatures that hover between -2°C and 4°C, means you’ll be snuggled up in scarves and hats, seeking out the glow of cafes and and sipping on hot jólaglögg (mulled wine). Reykjavik has all the usual Christmas delights you’d expect in a city, including excellent decorations, markets and concerts, but it’s the wonders of the natural world that make it extra magical… if you’re lucky, you might just see the Northern Lights snaking across the night sky as you stroll out of a restaurant after dinner.
A final place to consider on this list of the best city breaks in December is Vienna. This Austrian city is one of the most graceful, elegant and sophisticated locations in Europe, with many beautiful buildings to explore and streets to stroll down. It will be cold in December, so wrap up warm while you explore the classy Christmas markets (saving plenty of room for food – there’s an awful lot to sample), and treat yourself to a mug of glühwein. You’ll pay a deposit for the mug and are allowed to take it with you as you browse the market, but don’t worry if you forget to return it – you’ll lose your deposit, but you’ll have a lovely momento of your trip. Admire the giant chandelier Christmas lights on Kärntner Straße and Graben and marvel at the glamour of the Rathaus and Schönbrunn Palace, and be sure to buy a snow globe before you return home: this quintessential Christmas ornament was created here, after all.
So, will you be booking a flight to experience the hustle and bustle of New York, or exploring the charming streets of Bruges? Let us know which of these best city breaks in December are on your Christmas list…