Maybe you’ve already got plans; maybe you’re still undecided. Whichever’s the case, if you’re anything like us, you don’t want to be captive in one place during your holiday travels. So we found eight cities where the festivities kick into high gear around December, along with nearby destinations worthy of a detour.
Your Destination: Bangkok
In the Buddhist country, December marks the King’s birthday, which means lots of festivities ensue. And come New Year’s Eve, fireworks rain from the sky and partiers make merry until well past a reasonable hour. The most spectacular spot to catch the view: Distil Bar at Lebua, a rooftop bar towering 64 stories above the street.
Your Detour: Hua Hin. The beach favored by locals is just 200 kilometers from the capital, so you can have a Thai massage, take a cooking class and perfect your tan at the Anantara Hua Hin Resort and Spa (doubles from $189) and still be back in time for your red-eye back to Los Angeles (sadly, no direct flights to BKK out of NYC).
Your Destination: Edinburgh
Winter is high season in the snow-globe-pretty city of Edinburgh, but the town truly comes to life for Hogmanay, the Scot’s charming name for New Year’s Eve. Expect bagpipes, echoes of Auld Lang Syne, a torch procession through the Old Town and the Pet Shop Boys performing live. To work off that hangover that will surely ensue, join the Loony Dook—a brisk New Year’s Day dunk in the River Forth (Santa cap not included—but encouraged).
Your Detour: Dumfries and Galloway. One of only three “dark skies” parks in Europe is just a few hours’ drive from Edinburgh. The 300-square-mile Galloway Forest Park is one of the best places to see the stars light-pollution free. Jupiter, the Milky Way, even the ISS are in sparkling display in this most dramatic of nighttime destinations. Want to peek further into Deep Space? The Scottish Dark Sky Observatory lies on the edge of the forest, with a retractable roof and two telescopes for optimal viewing.
Your Destination: Montreal
You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to get a little taste of France. Montreal, the capital of francophone Canada, is just an hour’s flight from New York City, and finding a flaky, chewy baguette here is as easy as saying “voila!” At yuletide, the funky, artsy city gets even quirkier: Horse-drawn carriages ply the snow-drenched streets and the Quartier des Spectacles is illuminated with experimental artwork projected on the facades.
Your Detour: Mont-Tremblant. Hire a car to take you to Mont Tremblant, the alpine ski resort just 90 minutes from Montreal. Along with 95 ski trails—half of them expert—and a European-style village complete with upscale shopping and casinos, there’s the 75-year-old fairytale Fairmont Tremblant (doubles from $129) tucked beside the Laurentian Mountains. When you’re not schussing down a black diamond or hunting for the perfect puffer, soothe your après ski skin with a treatment at Skandinave, a traditional Scandinavian-style spa where the icy Diable River is your cold plunge.
Your Destination: Tel Aviv
Ancient and modern effortlessly collide in this city by the sea that’s become something of a tech hotbed in the past decade—a center of youth culture, nightlife and newly-minted dot-com millionaires barely old enough to drive. All that energy and enthusiasm is felt in the streets any time of year in this sectarian city. Just don’t expect to sit on Santa’s lap or hear “Joy, All Ye Faithful” piped into the shops on Neve Tzedek.
Your Detour: Petra. If you’ve ever wanted to see the Treasury carved into the red rocks of Petra, Jordan, now’s your chance. Trips to the archaeological city of Petra—discovered only 100 years ago but carved around 300 BC—and the Wadi Rum desert can run one to four days and can be filled with as much adventure as an Indiana Jones flick.
Your Destination: Paris
In the City of Lights, spend your holiday cash at Colette, the boutique that invented the concept store. Overnight at Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris, a surrealist fantasy courtesy of Philippe Starck. And hit all the cultural landmarks that remind you that life is, indeed, beautiful.
Your Detour: Marseille. The TGV to Marseille takes just three hours, and upon arrival to the 2600-year-old city, visitors are welcomed with yet more institutions to satisfy their cultural cravings. There are buildings by Le Corbusier and Zaha Hadid, ancient cathedrals and castles, archaeology and civilization museums—not to mention 300 days of sunshine each year, thanks to those quixotic winds known as the Mistral.
Your Destination: Zanzibar
This island off the coast of Africa was the center of the slave trade in the 10th century, and though those merchants have thankfully gone out of business, they and the traders that followed for nearly a millennium left an indelible mark. African, Indian, Omani and English influences are evident in the architecture and native Swahili language, and true colonial gentility still reigns supreme at the superluxe Residence (doubles from $500)—66 thatched villas set on 80 acres of forest and sand fringing endless emerald waters.
Your Detour: Saadani National Park. A 15-minute puddle jump across the Indian Ocean lands you on a strip in the newest game reserve in Tanzania (it converted from a game park in 2005). Spend a few nights toggling between the Sanctuary Saadani River Lodge (from $360 per person, all-inclusive) on the banks of the Wami River and the beachfront Saadani Safari Lodge (from $450 per person, all-inclusive), the only permanent camp in the Saadani Reserve. Fill your days with game drives (hey, look! A giraffe!), river safaris, exquisite meals of fresh octopus and seriously mind-blowing spa treatments by the resident therapist.
Your Destination: Rio
Two million people head to Rio for New Year’s Eve, a night of fireworks and serious partying on the sands of Ipanema Beach. Afterwards, it’s champagne cocktails poolside at the Copacabana Palace Hotel (also pictured right), inspired by the fin-de-siecle resorts in the South of France.
Your Detour: Bahia. Boho chic never looked so louche as it does from the mosaic pool of Uxua Casa Hotel, a Bahiant retreat near the shores of Trancoso, in the state of Bahia. Dreamed up by a former Diesel executive, the 10-casa resort has four-poster beds draped in mosquito netting, a bar forged from a gorgeously decaying fishing boat and daily capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) lessons with locals on the quadrado (town square), where an impromptu game of futbol is as likely as a sunset mojito.
Your Destination: Las Vegas
You can’t really go wrong in Vegas for the holidays. There’s a party for every type of reveler, a shop for every tax bracket, a temptation to take anyone just outside her comfort zone. The latest place to let loose: The Nobu Hotel at Caesars Palace (doubles from $349), where the chef’s signature miso cod is on the menu and the rollicking nightlife comes courtesy of Pure, a 40,000-square-foot duplex of debauchery (and some seriously good people watching).
Your Detour: The Grand Canyon. It may seem quaint, this side trip is just the thing to purify the soul after a spin in Sin City. Make it quick with a helicopter ride over and into the red rocks by Papillon Tours ($229). There and back (and say you did it) in three hours.