While Christmas normally conjures up images of cosy nights in next to the fire with loved ones, there’s so much more to December than Eastenders Christmas Specials and lukewarm mulled wine. Whether that be a glamorous rooftop pool, an oceanside hotel or an oh-so-instagrammable light display, more people are swapping home comforts for foreign pastures during the festive period to witness what the world has to offer.
Cape Town, South Africa
Set the scene: Colloquially dubbed the ‘Mother City’, Cape Town is a holidaymaker’s paradise with its crystal-clear waters and magnificent landscapes which, during December (the peak of the Southern Hemisphere’s summer), are at their most spectacular. If you manage to tear your gaze away from the breathtaking backdrop of Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak, the city is known for being one of the most multicultural places in the world, with 11 spoken languages (English as their first) and a rich mix of cultures helping to create a vibrant, welcoming atmosphere.
Eat here: From budget to blowout, there are a whole host of places to eat in the Mother City, but if you’re leaning towards the latter (it is Christmas, after all), The Test Kitchen fits the bill. At TTK (as it’s known among locals), your dinner begins in the Dark Room for a selection of inventive tapas with innovative twists, before moving onto the Light Room, where you’ll experience a bold mix of British, Asian and European dishes in a more formal setting. A sitting here will provide a different type of Christmas culinary magic – exciting, intimate, and most importantly, incredibly tasty.
Stay here: The oceanside Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa is the perfect base to explore Cape Town during Christmas. Dramatically situated above the sea, and flanked by the Twelve Apostles and Table Mountain, this five-star retreat certainly knows how to celebrate the festive season. Enjoy eggnog on arrival, live entertainment and a festive feast on Christmas Eve, as well as a gourmet Christmas Day lunch with all the trimmings.
Festive highlight: Sure, you’ll have to trade in the snow for some soft white sand, but the Mother City is packed full of Christmassy activities to give you all the festive feels. You can find your zen with a sunset yoga class on Clifton Beach on Christmas Eve, or snuggle up with your loved ones on Boxing Day at a live outdoor screening of Home Alone at the beautiful Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.
Set the scene: If you’re seeking a more traditional Christmas experience, where better to go than the home of Catholicism? Rome has been an important centre of Christianity since the Middle Ages, and with the seat of the Catholic church based at the Vatican, Christmas here is like no other. The ancient cobbled streets will be lit with light displays, Christmas markets are found around every corner, and with traditions centred on family, food, faith and festivities, you won’t feel far from home in the Eternal City.
Eat here: The ultimate ‘posh’ Roman trattoria, Pierluigi is one of Rome’s most popular haunts, luring the likes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton with its great food and ambience. Occupying one side of a pretty cobbled piazza just 300 yards from the River Tiber, seafood is unsurprisingly a specialty here, but if you’re yearning for a true taste of Italy, there’s lots of fresh pasta dishes combining traditional Italian cooking with innovative twists, which are included in their special Christmas Eve and Christmas Day menus.
Stay here: Located between two of Rome’s most picturesque piazzas, Piazza di Spagna and Piazza del Popolo, Hotel de Russie is one of the city’s most prestigious luxury hotels. There’s a festive brunch every Saturday and Sunday during December in their secret garden, where you can tuck into all the traditional seasonal trimmings, while the award-winning Stravinskij bar makes for a pretty special Christmas Eve nightcap.
Festive highlight: You won’t have to look far in Rome to find a Christmassy event, but Midnight Mass at the Pantheon is sure to get you in the spirit. Nearly 2,000 years old, this architectural marvel is the best-preserved Ancient Roman monument in the world, and on Christmas Eve you can hear much-loved hymns echo off its Corinthian-domed walls.
Set the scene: If you think there are only 12 days of Christmas, think again. In Sydney, the holiday season lasts an entire month, with ‘Sydney Christmas’ taking place from 24th November–25th December. The citywide celebration kicks off with a street party at Martin Place, involving roller-skaters dressed as baubles, church choirs and roaming entertainers, and continues with Christmas markets and nightly concerts.
Eat here: For a less crowded experience, try the Bathers’ Pavilion on Balmoral Beach. Overlooking Middle Harbour, this restaurant combines beachside elegance with 1920’s Art Deco soul, serving up a mix of Australian and French cuisine in a relaxed, trendy atmosphere. Their Christmas Day Brunch consists of a brilliant, booze-induced buffet, while the restaurant’s wall of glass looking out over the ocean just might make you wish you were staying longer.
Stay here: A stay in one of the sea-facing suites at the Sofitel Sydney Darling Harbour Hotel may be a world away from your usual Christmas Eve stopover, but after taking a dip in the rooftop pool and watching a breathtaking sunset over the ocean, you’ll soon forget about home. Let’s face it, those Boxing Days at the in-laws watching recycled episodes of Royal Family were getting pretty monotonous.
Festive highlight: On Christmas Day, Santa hat-wearing crowds descend on the beloved Bondi Beach for a day of festive merry making. Barbecues are sizzling, the fir trees are planted across the sand and, in the absence of snow, many try their hand at building festive sandmen.
Set the scene: Renowned for its gleaming forest of skyscrapers and futuristic culture, Tokyo might not be your first port of call for a homely Christmas holiday. But Japan’s capital still celebrates the festive season, albeit in its own, typically avant-garde style. Tokyo turns up the voltage each year with its winter illuminations, where different districts compete with each other to create some truly spectacular displays from a glistening 14-metre high Christmas tree (the largest in Japan) to a space-like exhibition of over 190,000 moving lights and balloons.
Eat here: While it may not quite be the festive feast you’re used to, Sushi Madusa on the outskirts of the city is a two-Michelin starred sushi joint serving some of freshest, most authentic sushi Tokyo has to offer, in a suave, contemporary restaurant. But, be warned – Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are huge date nights in Japan, so booking is essential.
Stay here: Tokyo is widely regarded as one of the most hectic cities in the world, so a bit of tranquility will be most welcome. Hoshinoya provides just that, and then some. This 17-floor hotel is one of the city’s most luxurious, with cutting-edge design and Japanese tradition merging beautifully in every nook and cranny whether that’s the glass-fronted bathroom which frosts at the touch of a button, or the hushed, calming ambience. The hotel even boasts indoor and outdoor hot spring baths connected by a cave-like tunnel, so if you’re craving a restorative break this Christmas, this is the place to go.
Festive highlight: The 400-metre stretch of Keyakizaka, behind Roppongi Hills, has become one of the most popular couples’ strolling spots, with over 700,000 LEDs decorating the tree-lined street.