Most of the time, the word vacation evokes beach scenes in Italy, springtime flower festivals in Holland, and autumn foliage trips through the UK. But December in America offers unique opportunities that vacations taken at other times, in other places often can’t. And not just because the holidays can be magical in Walt Disney World.
In fact, some of the best vacations can be had Stateside during the winter months -- the off-season in many places. You’ll encounter fewer crowds, more comfortable temperatures, and loads of attractions and special events that make any one of these trips a delight.
Despite being in the cold north, Chicago is one of the best cities to visit in December. The city is magical -- with lights, festivals, markets, and all the museums, theaters, and zoos still going full tilt. There’s no real off-season in Chicago.
Grab some hot cocoa or coffee from the many boutique shops along Michigan Avenue and head into the heart of the shopping district along the Magnificent Mile. Everything is open and bustling year-round, so you’ll find great service, fabulous sales, and delicious meals everywhere you go.
Don’t forget to pop into the Lincoln Park Zoo for the glorious ZooLights, grab a drink at the Hancock Signature Lounge on the building’s 96th floor, and stroll downtown at night to take in the city’s incredible light displays that twinkle from November to January. There truly is something magical in the air when Chicago’s streets are lit up -- no matter how cold it gets.
St. Augustine, Florida
Of course, if building a sandman is more appealing to you than a snowman, you’ll want to consider St. Augustine, Florida, for your next December getaway. While the town sort of “shuts down” when autumn hits and the bustling tourist season ends, there are still plenty of events to attend, sights to see, and things to do.
If you’re from a cooler climate, you’ll enjoy the beaches’ warmth in December. Bonus: St. Augustine’s beaches happen to be some of the nicest on the eastern coast of Florida north of Miami. There are seasonal events going on -- Nights of Lights, a Christmas Parade, and the Luminary Night at the St. Augustine lighthouse. You can also experience the eccentric Villa Zorayda Museum by candlelight, take a trolley tour through the city’s historic town center, visit the Castillo de San Marcos, or explore St. Augustine’s Victorian history at the Lightner Museum.
You’ll find really great vacation deals during December since this is St. Augustine’s off-season. Romantic inns and bed and breakfasts have lower prices while most of the attractions of the area are still open but way less busy than they are during peak summer months.
For skiing and other winter sports, Breckenridge is the perfect spot for a December vacation. Ski season is already in full swing by December and Breckenridge has some of the best slopes in the country. Admittedly, crowds will be heavy during December, and you won’t score any off-season deals, but the ski terrain, which includes nearly 3,000 acres along Tenmile Range, promises more space (and therefore more dispersed crowds) than a lot of other ski spots in the state.
The town itself is a charming, homey sort of place full of great spots for tourists to enjoy year-round. Visit Main Street for dining and shopping at locally-owned stores, tour the world’s highest distillery -- the Breckenridge Distillery -- go horseback riding through the snow, or meander the streets taking in the public art displays around the town, which is gorgeous, tourist-friendly, and always active.
Just be sure to book your accommodations a few months in advance since December is the start of Breckenridge’s winter peak season.
Key West, Florida
If you’re loving the idea of warm weather in December, Key West is a great option. The beaches may be narrow, but the water activities, hiking, shopping, and exploring are plentiful in every season, with temperatures in December hovering around 70 degrees.
With the warm air and semi-tropical waters, you can skip the slopes and take on the waves if you’re up for water skiing. Or go diving and snorkeling around the coral reefs. Charters go out from the island for fishing year-round, as well, and Key West restaurants offer fresh catches cooked up in Southern style.
Key West is great for unique revelry in winter -- it is known as the place for parties, after all, with great drinking spots like the Green Parrot and Sloppy Joe’s, plus fishing tournaments, lighted bike rides, and other events and spots where (almost) anything goes.
Best of all, in Key West, you can pretty much forget that it’s wintertime and just enjoy the temperate weather while you walk or bike the island, get some shopping in, and feast on steak, seafood, and Cuban dishes.
Asheville, North Carolina
If you’re not looking for the giant slopes of Colorado but still want some gorgeous mountain views during your December trip, Asheville, North Carolina, will pique your interest. This beautiful town is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. Ski slopes are nearby, hiking trails are accessible year-round, and the crowds aren’t as huge as those in the Rocky Mountain states this time of year.
The weather is much milder here than it is in many other snowy destinations, so pencil in some trail hikes, a stroll along Asheville’s historic streets -- where boutiques and restaurants offer a variety of unique options -- and a tour of the city’s historic spots. You’ll learn about the interesting figures who built homes here, including George Vanderbilt and his 250-room castle-like chateau, which hosts diverse holiday-themed events, from Gingerbread House Tea to Candlelit Christmas Evenings.
St. Louis, Missouri
For a destination with moderate December temperatures and loads to do, St. Louis, Missouri is a great option. This Midwest city offers more than you might expect, from a plethora of restaurants to interesting museums and historic sites in and around the city.
Pack a coat and gloves and get outside to explore the site of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Forest Park. The area features multiple attractions in close proximity, including historic sites from the fair turned into unique vantage points, the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Jewel Box greenhouse, and the historic Cabanne House.
St. Louis’s many gardens, parks, and other attractions are open year-round -- like the Missouri Botanical Garden. For the kid at heart, an afternoon spent climbing the structures and viewing the artwork at the City Museum is a few hours well spent, while a drive through Lone Elk Park promises elk, deer, raccoon, and other Midwest critter sightings. And don’t forget to take a tram ride to the top of the Gateway Arch for spectacular views of the city, day or night.
Another warm destination that’s well worth the visit is Biloxi, Mississippi, home of new restaurants, hotels, casinos, and more after its post-Katrina rebuild. Temperatures in the mid-60s barely require a sweater and the sunny skies promise pleasant views.
While you’re in Biloxi, you’ll want to visit the historical sites of the city, including the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library -- also known as Beauvoir -- and the Biloxi Lighthouse, but you’ll also have a blast seeing the newer side of town. Visit some of the casinos -- Beau Rivage and the Golden Nugget are good picks -- view art at the quirky Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, and grab a pint at the Biloxi Brewing Company to round out your vacation with some of the town’s unique modern highlights.
Astoria, situated at the convergence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, was established as a trading post in 1810. This beautiful historic town is a great place to vacation during the off-season in December. The weather can be a bit unpredictable -- it could be fair and sunny or stormy and brisk -- but that’s part of the charm of the town in wintertime. During your visit, you’ll find a range of activities that no one else is participating in because no one else is visiting. If you hate crowds and love unique vacations all to yourself, Astoria’s your kind of place.
You’ll want to pop into the Oregon Film Museum for a bit to relive memories of The Goonies, which was filmed primarily in Astoria back in the ’80s. The museum is also the site of the opening into the jail featured in the film.
For wildlife viewing with a twist, plus a good pint, you’ll want to hit up the Buoy Beer Company, which has a glass floor that allows you to see sea lions hanging out below.
Astoria’s historic downtown is charming and extremely walkable, so plan to enjoy a few hours popping into whatever museums, shops, and other attractions catch your eye. Nearby, you’ll find waterfalls, beaches, hiking trails, and other splendid outdoor spaces worth exploring. Temps are moderate, hovering in the 40s and 50s all month long.
Going to vacation in Oregon? Rent a car or hop on a tour bus from Portland to visit Multnomah Falls.
These eight great warm cities to visit around Christmas deserve your consideration, too. And if you want your vacation to be all about celebrating the season, then you need to read up on the best U.S. cities for a Christmas getaway in 2019.