List Words : Gwenllian Jones | 30 November

The best winter city breaks around the world

Whether you crave snow-dusted cathedrals and steaming roast chestnuts, or Christmas beach barbecues and steamy jazz festivals – head to these cities in November, December and January

1: Tallinn, Estonia

Christmas markets in Tallin (Dreamstime)

In Tallinn, opposites exist quietly side-by-side: glass towers stand next to ancient architecture, and dark Gothic towers punctuate streets of brightly-coloured buildings. Here, you'll find all the essentials for a fairytale trip, with a crisp winter trimming of snow and frost.

In winter, you'll be hard-pressed to find a place with as much charm as the city's old town. Whether you want to spend your time wandering the cobbled back streets exploring the city's history or taking part in some winter fun, it won't disappoint.

There's plenty going on this time of year. To get in the festive spirit, arm yourself against the cold with a cup of spiced wine and try the Christmas Jazz Festival or the Christmas market. Or, why not try your hand at some skiing (equipment rental available) on the Pirita Health Track? If you're here in February, you'll be just in time for the Tallinn Winter Festival, which champions musicians from Estonia and beyond.

Discover more:

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2: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Floating Christmas tree on the shores of Rio (Dreamstime)

Winter blues? Somewhere, summer is just beginning! The temperatures in Rio peak between December and March: the city's main beaches are swarming with people, and the atmosphere can be electric. Or, to escape the crowds, consider the journey to nearby Barra di Tijuca.

The season also marks the city's most dynamic time of year in terms of festivals. Bring the New Year in with a bang, and celebrate Réveillon on Copacabana beach. With an approximate crowd of two million people last year, it promises plenty of thrills; from music and dance to a momentous fireworks display.

When late February comes around, it's time for the spectacular carnival. If you're planning on visiting during this time, prepare yourself for huge crowds. Also, keep in mind that the city will be all about the festival, and many of Rio's top attractions will be closed.

Discover more:

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3: Bath, UK

Frozen canal in Bath (Dreamstime)

Bath does Christmas with aplomb. And at the centre of it all is the Christmas market, set against the backdrop of the Georgian town square.

It all starts with the impressive community Lantern Procession, held in late November by the Holburne Museum and open to all. The market then opens, complete with an outdoor ice rink and Aprés Ski bar filled with ciders, mulled wine and Alpine-inspired cuisine. And after a hard day's skating, what better way to relax than with a dip in the famous Roman baths?

Bath is a great alternative to London - and only a few hours away on the train.

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4: New York, USA

Rockefeller Christmas tree (Dreamstime)

An obvious choice perhaps, but a great one nonetheless. Whether you're travelling alone, with friends, in a couple, or with the whole family, you'll be inundated with things to see and do in NYC. Bring your layers, pull your hat down over your ears, and go out to see what makes the city tick. The classics include a stroll in Central Park, a leisurely loop of one of the ice rinks dotted around the city, and a visit to the Rockefeller Center's iconic Christmas tree. For a thick aroma of roasted chestnuts, head down 5th Avenue where the vendors come in droves.

When the New Year comes around, witness the ball drop in Times Square. Or for a more relaxed atmosphere, head over to the celebrations at Brooklyn's Prospect Park, then make your way over to the Brooklyn Bridge to see the year's first dawn over Manhattan.

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5: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Christmas lights in Ljubljana city centre (Dreamstime)

A far less complicated city than the name suggests, you'll soon find your feet and enjoy the understated beauty of this winter gem. The hazy light gives the city a mystical hue and snow is very common - making Ljubljana a safe bet for a white Christmas! You'll also find plenty of beer gardens that serve hot mulled wine and warming grub. For the best views of the city, walk to the top of the castle's tower.

The season brings with it a host of cultural events, from December's culture day - where galleries, museums and theatres open their doors for free - to February's colourful Shrovetide Carnival, when the city comes to life with costume parades, puppet theatres and marching bands.

Ljubljana is also the perfect base if you want to head to the slopes for some skiing. And don't disregard nearby Lake Bled as a possible day trip - make the short train journey and be mesmerised by one of Europe's most picturesque towns.

Discover more:

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6: Sydney, Australia

Sydney Hobart Yacht Race (Dreamstime)

Another winner if you're in search of the sun. Here, summer runs from December to February and Sydney usually welcomes Christmas with balmy temperatures. The weather is generally 25-29ºC over this period - perfect for that barbecue on the beach.

The sunshine means that all sorts of adventures are possible - try dolphin watching in Port Stephens or mark the occasion with a hair-raising skydive. Boxing Day (St Steven's Day) also means that it's time for the Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, so find a spot in the harbour or book a place on one of the spectator vessels.

January also sees the return of Sydney Festival with its blend of music, theatre, opera, and cabaret. You'll find events for the entire family, and acts from all over the country.

Discover more:

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7: Berlin, Germany

Berlin Christmas market (Dreamstime)

We couldn't compile a list of winter breaks without including the city of Christmas markets. Berlin has around 60: from the big favourites to the themed and intimate, and from the everyday to the boutique.

For something a bit different, try the Holy Shit Shopping Lounge - a showcase of young designers and artists, dubbed the 'club evening among the Christmas markets'. Do your shopping to the accompaniment of some of Berlin's best DJs.

The Nikolai Quarter is in the heart of the city, between Gendarmenmarkt and Alexandreplatz. Here, you'll find some quiet away from the bustle of the markets. Write your most heartfelt wish on a card, and add it to the decorations on the tree by the medieval Nikolai Church. You'll also find open-air performances here on a regular basis in the run-up to Christmas, adding to the serene - but still festive - atmosphere.

Discover more:

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8: Havana, Cuba

Playa Megano in Playas del Este (Dreamstime)

Rumba beats along the colourful Callejó de Hammel on sunday afternoons, the historical sites of Old Havana, and the beaches of Playas del Este... Havana delivers all year round. But the winter months in particular have some unique and exciting experiences to offer.

December sees the mass pilgrimage to the feast of San Lázaro, or Babalú Ayé. The journey to the former leper colony of El Rincón begins on 15 or 16 December, when thousands of people start to make their way towards the sanctuary - some on their hands and feet - to venerate the orisha Babalú Ayé (of the santerí­a, or Yoruba, religion) and promise to pay for any miracle bestowed upon them.

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9: St Petersburg, Russia

Palace Square covered in snow, St Petersburg (Dreamstime)

In Orthodox Russia, Christmas doesn't happen here until January 7th, and it's a much more religious and sombre affair than elsewhere. Although this means that prices stay lower for longer, try to aim for mid-December to avoid larger crowds.

The winter sees the city at its coldest, but most beautiful. The frozen rivers and canals are the perfect setting for a romantic walk, and the architecture (and temperature) will take your breath away. For some added charm, wrap up warm and take a troika ride through the park.

St Petersburg's cultural calendar is its busiest at this time, with street parties and concerts in full swing in time for the New Year. For concerts, go to Palace Square or towards the lavishly-decorated boulevard of Nevsky Prospekt. This is also the best time of year to see an opera or a ballet, so why not experience the shows in the country where they were first created? See the best of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Discover more:

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10: Santa Fe, USA

Candles illuminate paper bags at Farolito Walk (Dreamstime)

The capital of New Mexico celebrates with a blend of Indian and Hispanic traditions, giving way to a refreshingly genuine occasion that is rarely tainted by corporate excess.

Farolitos - lanterns - adorn every nook of the city. Candles are put in sand-filled paper bags and placed along the rooftops - an enchanting sight. Santa Fe's signature seasonal event is the Farolito Walk, which takes place on Christmas Eve. For a few hours, the lights of the city are switched off and cars are forbidden, meaning that the place is illuminated only by the lanterns' dimmed natural flame. Follow the crowds.

Enjoy the late opening hours of the galleries on Canyon Road, the impromptu carol singing on the side streets, and witness the tradition of 'Las Posadas' on the historic Plaza - the re-enactment of Mary and Joseph's search for a room in Bethlehem. On 25 December, experience the sonorous celebrations in one of the nearby pueblos.

Discover more:

Best of South-west USA - Highlights of Santa Fe and surrounds

11: Yangon, Burma

Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon (Dreamstime)

Escape Christmas entirely with a trip to Burma's once-capital, Yangon. The rainy season is over, and although the country is at its coldest, temperatures will still creep all the way up to 31ºC.

The 'City of Gold' has shimmering pagodas at every turn, and the Buddhist temples are an impressive place to start. The Shwedagon Paya, for example, is one of Buddhism's most sacred sites, and contains treasured artefacts including some strands of Gautama Buddha's hair. Explore during the day, then visit after dark to see it illuminated - who needs Christmas lights?

There are plenty of markets to choose from around the city - and you won't see a single mulled wine or gingerbread stall! Try the Bogyoke Market for fabrics, jewels, and rich spices. Get your palm read and release a caged bird for good merit outside the ancient Sule Pagoda, or renew your spiritual awareness with a visit to one of the city's popular meditation centres, just in time for the New Year.

Discover more:

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