Lifestyle

5 places to visit in December

Enjoy travel bargains and light crowds

(CNN) - Many of us who travel in December associate it with family visits centered around Christmas, Hanukkah and other observances. But there's a whole other world of December travel out there.

This can be a good month for taking a vacation, whether it's holiday-themed or not. Your destinations might embrace the short days and coming winter weather (in the Northern Hemisphere), or you may seek out warmer climes and lots of sunlight.

December can be a time of travel bargains and light crowds -- depending very much on when you go.

Jeanette Casselano, spokesperson for AAA, says the first few weeks of December are a good time to find low rates for Las Vegas getaways and Caribbean cruises. Another tip: If you can travel midweek, Florida beaches are often a good deal. She also points out when you might find smaller crowds at Orlando's theme parks (more on that below).

Here are five great places to visit in December (with or without family):

1. Germany

Some folks travel to escape Christmas. Others travel to immerse in it. If you're in the latter group, Germany in December is for you.

Germany's Christmas markets are renowned worldwide and scattered all over the country. A few samplings:

-- Dresden: Why not head to the oldest Christmas market in Germany? In 2017, the Dresden Striezelmarkt will be marking its 583rd season. That's correct -- Five. Eight. Three. Dresden is in eastern Germany, not far from the Czech Republic.

-- Cologne: Located along the Rhine river, not so far from the Netherlands and Belgium, Cologne lights up for Weihnachten (German for Christmas). Check out its various markets, where you can watch pewter pourers, wreath binders and glassblowers at work.

-- Berlin: Of course the capital of Germany has to put on spectacular Christmas markets. You have choices of markets in scattered locations, including at the Gendarmenmarkt, in one of Berlin's most spectacular squares, and majestic Charlottenburg Palace.

-- Stuttgart: In southern Germany, Stuttgart is home to museums dedicated to Mercedes Benz and Porsche. So while you're browsing around Stuttgart's nearly 300 brightly lit Christmas stalls, perhaps der Weihnachtsmann ("the Christmas Man," aka Santa Claus) will grant you a luxury automotive wish.

Michelle Weller, vice president of sales at Luxury Tour Cruises, has a Bavarian suggestion.

"Nuremberg is a Christmas market in a fairy tale old town," Weller says. Tourists can "soak up the beautiful lights in front of the Gothic church, buy a little replica ceramic Bavarian cottage and end up drinking hot red wine at the Gothic fountain."

Weller says some tourists are "not quite prepared for the bone-chilling cold during sometimes snowy Christmas markets." She advises bringing silk long underwear to wear under jeans and pants.

"Sporting goods stores carry hand warmers you can pop open and put in your shoes and gloves to take a bite out of the cold," she says. "It also makes you very popular with friends who are freezing and didn't prepare."

Beyond the markets, Weller says river cruises are popular, even in winter. And she says don't pass up a chance to check out the Bavarian Alps.

2. Kolkata, India

Kolkata, previously called Calcutta, isn't often on the itinerary for tourists visiting India and is passed over for more popular Delhi, Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal. But December is one of the best months to visit.

The city seems freshly cleansed in December after six months of monsoonal deluges and humidity give way to drier and cooler air. Locals begin taking out their socks and woolen shawls when the temperature at night drops below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (below low 20s Celsius). If nothing else, it can provide a good laugh for visitors.

Kolkata lies on an arm of the Ganges River called the Hooghly, and it's worth visiting just to take in the cadences of daily life on its banks. For centuries, residents have used its waters for worship, transportation, bathing, laundry and cremations. Or cross over to the other side for a visit to the 19th-century Dakhineshwar temple complex.

After a trip to the river, stroll down the strand. Eat street food such as pao bhaji (a flavorful vegetable and bread combo) and pani puris (fried pastry balls with fillings) famous along the Maidan, a vast green space considered the city's Central Park.

The Maidan is anchored by a massive structure built with Makrana marble, just like the Taj Mahal, and is a memorial to Queen Victoria. Although it is a painful reminder of the colonial past for Kolkatans, it is nevertheless a popular tourist destination.

The Marble Palace also offers white marble grandeur but from a different point of view. Built in 1835 by a Bengali businessman, the neoclassical building with Corinthian columns and bas reliefs is teeming with art and recalls a more opulent time in Kolkata's history. It's still a private residence but is open to the public.

Tourists are generally aware that Kolkata was once the capital of the British Raj. They may know it was the center of India's intellectual renaissance that gave rise to many of the nation's independence leaders. And they may also think of Kolkata, the "City of Joy," as a place of gruesome poverty where Mother Teresa catered to the neediest.

The images are clichéd because they are largely true, but visit Kolkata for other reasons more relevant to an India that has grown at warp speed in the past two decades.

Meander down crowded Chowringhee, Kolkata's main boulevard, go shopping at New Market, a holdover from British days where you can still hunt for bargains. While there, eat pastries at Nahoum's, an old Jewish bakery that's especially famous for its fruit cakes during the Christmas season and a favorite for Jews and gentiles alike. At night, turn onto Park Street, brimming with restaurants and nightclubs. During the holidays, Park Street vies with the very best with its light show, winter markets and festivities.

If you'd rather not try to navigate the chaos of Kolkata's streets by yourself, the city has organized walking tours because the best way to see Kolkata is by foot.

Before you leave Kolkata, make sure you take in something truly Bengali. The city, after all, is the essence of West Bengal.

Visit a sweet shop (Bengalis are famous for milk-based sweets) such as Nalin Chandra Das and Sons, Mithai or Mouchak. Or eat a Bengali meal of rice, dahl (lentils) and fish curry at Suruchi, run by female social workers, or 6 Ballygunge Place.

3. Anchorage, Alaska

Winter solstice 2017 is December 21, not a good day in the Northern Hemisphere for natural Vitamin D lovers. But maybe this is a chance for a truly interesting travel experience -- vacationing in the really short days and really long nights of December in Alaska.

In Anchorage on winter solstice, the sun will rise at 10:12 a.m. local time and set at 3:41 p.m. And if you head farther north, the daylight/darkness ratio gets even more extreme. Don't forget a bonus of all this darkness -- those spectacular northern lights. This is a great time to catch nature's ultimate nighttime show.

Folks in Anchorage just don't sleep this time away. There are plenty of December events to keep you busy. Here are a few:

-- Christmas Towne: Just up the road in Chugiak, this festival promises the usual Christmas cheer but in a truly spectacular winter setting.

-- Anchorage International Film Festival: Running from December 1 to 10, it's a chance to see promising independent films from around the world.

-- Zoo lights: All through December, the Alaska Zoo will be illuminated with colorful lights in the shapes of animals.

If you'd like to see the thrilling winterscape of Alaska but just can't stand the thought of being so cold, then the Aurora Winter Train may be for you. You can see the backcountry from the warmth of a rail car. It operates from mid-September to mid-May.

A few tips on what to wear:

-- Layer your clothes: For your inner layer, use wool or synthetics. No cotton. Your insulating layer should be loose-fitting. For an outer layer, buy a good parka.

-- Invest in boots: You may want to get toe warmers, too.

-- Mittens over gloves: Take your mittens off for taking pictures, etc.

4. Patagonia, Argentina and Chile

Descending upon Patagonia is like stepping onto another planet. Its high-elevation steppes, jagged mountains and blue glacial lakes stretch across the southern tip of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile.

December is one of the best times to visit, as it's summer in the Southern Hemisphere. The high temperatures average in the low 70s Fahrenheit (20s Celsius), and the days are the longest of the year. The summer solstice will bring more than 16 hours of daylight to El Calafate in Argentine Patagonia.

The weather and extra hours of light make for prime conditions for hiking.

The jagged granite peaks of Cerro Fitz Roy draw hikers from across the world to the backpacker town of El Chaltén, Argentina. The peaks have become the symbol of Patagonia.

Lots of hiking trails abound, but the big two are the ones to Laguna de Los Tres and Laguna Torre. The Laguna de Los Tres hike takes you to the crystalline lake in front of Cerro Fitz Roy, which has a glacier spilling over it. Save the hike for a clear day.

If hiking 15 miles in a day sounds like a lot, take a taxi or a van to Hostería El Pilar, which shaves the trip down to a tiring but doable 11-mile, 10-hour day hike.

The hike is one of the many you can do within Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The huge park's name comes from the 47 large glaciers within its confines. The area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1981.

A visit to Patagonia wouldn't be complete without a trip to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, an hour away from El Calafate. The glacier is part of an ice field that spans parts of southern Argentina and Chile and is the world's third-largest reserve of fresh water.

Half-day or full-day hikes include a short boat ride to the base of the glacier as well as spikes to strap to the bottom of your hiking shoes. Bring cash to pay for the park entrance fee, which isn't included in bus tours.

Once you've hiked so much that your legs hurt, wander into downtown El Calafate and find a restaurant called Mi Rancho. The tiny home has few tables, but it serves up a meal worth savoring. From osso buco to Patagonian lamb, each dish is served with a lot of heart.

5. Orlando, Florida

The first allure of Florida in December is rather obvious: warmer weather than most of the United States. But depending on when you go, you may get a break on crowds and prices.

"The first two weeks of December at Magic Kingdom and other Orlando attractions are not as crowded as the parks will get once school gets out for the typical two-week break, but are still busy," says Casselano of AAA.

And if you don't mind being in a big crowd, Orlando-area theme parks put on a great show.

"SeaWorld's Christmas Celebration, Busch Gardens Christmas Town, Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party and LEGOLAND's Christmas Bricktacular are all extremely popular," she says.

The Disney Tourist Blog also has advice on best times to go year round.

What if theme parks aren't your speed?

"Orlando offers sparkling lakes, lovely gardens and, within shouting distance, a string of Atlantic Coast beaches," Casselano says.

General tips

Casselano also has some general travel tips for December:

-- Driving: Make sure your vehicle is ready. Check the battery, windshield wipers and tires. Pack a winter emergency kit. Get plenty of rest before you start your road trip and don't drive drowsy.

-- Planning: Book early for the best deals on hotels, airfare, car rentals and more. Working with a travel agent may get you extra amenities. And your agent can be "a tremendous help in the event something changes or goes wrong on your trip."

-- Pack your patience: "The holiday season is one of the busiest times of year for traveling. Expect heavy crowds and allow plenty of time to get to your destination safely," Casselano says.


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