black and white photo of a building at the intersection of two city streets

Best Places to Spend
Christmas in the U.S.

Europe might get most of the hype during the holiday season (those Christmas markets are pretty great), but there are plenty of festive cities right here in the U.S. While we’d recommend visiting any time of the year, these cities seem to shine just a little bit brighter—in many cases, quite literally—during the Christmas season.

Condé Nast Traveler

St. Augustine during Christmas

The Best Places to Spend Christmas in the U.S.

Conde Nast Traveler by CAITLIN MORTON – December 10, 2019

Fa la la la no passport required.

Europe might get most of the hype during the holiday season (those Christmas markets are pretty great), but there are plenty of festive cities right here in the U.S. While we’d recommend visiting any time of the year, these cities seem to shine just a little bit brighter—in many cases, quite literally—during the Christmas season. Whether they’re New England towns with major storybook vibes or some of the country’s biggest and brightest metropolises, celebrating in these cities is worth the price of a domestic plane ticket. And let’s face it: You haven’t really experienced Christmas cheer until you see it through the shiny lens of Las Vegas. From Austin to Washington, D.C., here are 19 of the best places to spend Christmas in the U.S.

Biltmore Estate in Asheville during Christmas

Asheville, North Carolina

Why we go: Asheville is easily one of the country’s best places to spend Christmas, offering all the light displays and holiday shopping—not to mention the perfect tucked-away location in the Blue Ridge Mountains—any vacationer could wish for. Some of the city’s seasonal offerings include a lit-up wonderland at the North Carolina Arboretum, a national gingerbread house competition at The Omni Grove Park Inn, and the Holly Jolly Christmas Trolley weaving through the downtown area.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Christmas at Biltmore is just as spectacular as it sounds, with 55 hand-decorated trees, 1,000 live poinsettias, and 7,500 feet of fresh evergreen garland drawing visitors through January 5, 2020.

Stay here: Cozy up in the The Foundry, a hotel opened in 2018 with a James Beard-nominated chef running its in-house restaurant.

Austin at Christmas

Austin

Why we go: Proving you don’t need cold temperatures to get in the Christmas spirit, Austin’s holiday celebrations put most northern cities to shame. Most notable is the Austin Trail of Lights, an annual festival that includes 2 million lights and 90 holiday trees (2019 marks its 55th anniversary). The event is even better this year, with the addition of Trail of Flights—a new, perfectly-named wine bar offering a variety of premium sips. 

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Throwing a few back at one of Austin’s decked-out bars, including the Secret Bar at W Austin and Gibson Street Bar.

Stay here: It doesn’t get more authentically Texan—or festive—than The Driskill, with its Christmas dinner and decked-out tree in the grand lobby.

Bethlehem, PA

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

Why we go: This Christmas, visit the little town of Bethlehem—in Pennsylvania, that is. The city’s German-inspired Christmas City Village and Christkinlmarkt feature rotating displays by artisans, live music, and glass blowing demonstrations. This year, make sure to check out the new Outdoor Village’s igloos and fire pits.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: The Winter Light Spectacular at the Lehigh Valley Zoo (about 30 minutes northwest of Bethlehem) features more than a million lights and illuminated scenes throughout the zoo.

Stay here: Historic Hotel Bethlehem gets all decked out for the holidays, with 35,000 lights, giant toy soldiers, and several Christmas trees.

Chicago Christmas

Chicago

Why we go: From its European-inspired Christkindlmarket to light shows galore, Chicago knows a thing or two about embracing the Christmas spirit (and the freezing temperatures). Can’t-miss activities include Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier, ice skating in Millennium Park, and seasonal menus and decorations in pretty much every restaurant in town. We’re particular fans of Z Bar‘s annual ugly sweater party, held this year on December 13. 

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Be dazzled by 2.5 million LEDs at ZooLights, an annual light festival held at Lincoln Park Zoo.

Stay here: Book into The Gwen, where you can find a pop-up curling rink and cozy “après-ski” cabin on the hotel’s outdoor terrace.

Christmas in Greenville, NC

Greenville, South Carolina

Why we go: The holidays come to life in Greenville every year, with events like the Indie Craft Christmas Pop-Up Shop, the downtown Festival of Trees competition with more than 30 decorated trees, Holidays at Peace with the Greenville Symphony, and the new Christmas Market on Main Street. And with an average December temperature of 55 degrees, enjoying all of these outdoor activities is, well, enjoyable. 

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Glide around Ice on Main, an open-air skating rink in the Courtyard Marriott plaza (open November through January).

Stay here: Hotel Domestique is more reminiscent of Tuscany than the American South, making your domestic travel feel just a little more exotic.

KENNEBUNKPORT, ME - DECEMBER 4: From a lobster boat on the Kennebunk River, Santa and Mrs. Claus wave to people on the bridge between Kennebunkport and Kennebunk on Sunday, December 4, 2016. Santa's visit was part of the Christmas Prelude, which runs through December 11 in both towns.

Kennebunkport, Maine

Why we go: Every December, this tiny New England town bursts with holiday cheer during its annual Christmas Prelude, an 11-day bash that’s about as New England as it gets (one of the main attractions is a tree made of lobster traps). The lobster rolls at The Clam Shack—considered to be some of the best rolls in Maine—will make you forget about gingerbread and sugar plums altogether.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Santa Claus arrives to the Christmas Prelude on a lobster boat. (This year’s arrival already occurred on December 8, but the festival lasts until December 15.)

Stay here: Our readers love Cape Arundel Inn & Resort for its oceanside location and restaurant serving up fresh seafood—and, unlike a lot of Maine resorts, it’s actually open during the winter months.

Aria, Last Vegas

Las Vegas

Why we go: If you thought Las Vegas was dazzling before, just wait until you see it decked out for Christmas. Basically the entire Strip transforms into a winter wonderland full of festive events for the entire family. This year’s activities include a ‘Twas the Knight dinner show at Excalibur Hotel & Casino, Santa Claus scuba diving in the Shark Reef Aquarium inside Mandalay Bay, and a massive holiday display—complete with 42-foot Christmas tree—at the Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Gardens.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Catch an iconic show at The Fountains of Bellagio to see performances set to “Santa Baby,” “Carol of the Bells,” and other holiday classics.

Stay here: ARIA Resort & Casino is particularly festive this year, with a 15-foot gingerbread house (complete with cotton candy chimney, pictured) adorning the main lobby.

Nashville at Christmas

Nashville

Why we go: We may have just dubbed Nashville one of the 20 best places to go in 2020, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sneak in a visit during the last few weeks of 2019. New to the Music City this year is GLOW, a massive holiday festival held at First Tennessee Park through December 31. Aside from 4 million dazzling lights, you can expect ice skating, 170-foot tubing hills, a market with more than 25 local vendors, and story time with Mrs. Claus.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Find the self-proclaimed “tallest Christmas tree in the South,” which stands proud at 100 feet, in First Tennessee Park.

Stay here: The Germantown Inn offers the best hygge outside of Denmark and is in the same neighborhood as the GLOW festival.

New Orleans at Christmas

New Orleans

Why we go: We aren’t surprised that New Orleans leans into the holiday season, but we still get all tingly thinking about the Christmas in the city (it might even beat uber-crowded Mardi Gras). NOLA lights up with events like LUNA Fête, where the Central Business District around Lafayette Square fills up with installations and animated graphics from December 12 to 15. City Park also becomes a wonderland for the entire month, with vendors, food and drink stands, and decorations adorning the centuries-old oak trees.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: The annual Christmas Eve lighting of the bonfires along the banks of the Mississippi River is a seasonal tradition that’s as authentically “New Orleans” as they come.

Stay here: The exceptional Hotel Maison de Ville, easily one of the best hotels in New Orleans, should be your home base.

New York City

Why we go: There’s no shortage of ways to make your New York City Christmas magical, whether it’s ice skating at Rockefeller Center, carriage rides through Central Park, or lurking around 34th Street hoping to witness a miracle.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Watch the Rockettes do their thing during the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, showing this year through January 5.

Stay here: The Plaza. (If it’s good enough for Kevin McCallister…)

Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade

Newport Beach, California

Why we go: The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is one of the longest-running holiday festivals in the entire country, celebrating its 111th anniversary this year from December 18-22. (To compare, the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting has been running for 87 years.) The “parade” takes place in the harbor of Newport Beach, where yachts, boats, and kayaks show off $50,000 worth of decorations to millions of visitors.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: View the parade from Balboa Island, where the decorated houses threaten to upstage the passing boats.

Stay here: The nautical, all-American feel at Lido House, Autograph Collection fits in perfectly with the theme of the holiday events.

North Pole, Alaska

North Pole, Alaska

Why we go: Even though this North Pole is 1,700 miles south of the true North Pole, the quaint Alaskan town is 100-percent saturated with Christmas cheer. Most famous for the Santa Claus House (the self-proclaimed “official” home of St. Nick), North Pole’s nominal spirit even extends to its streets: Snowman Lane, Saint Nicholas Drive, Holiday Road, and Santa Claus Lane, which has light poles shaped like candy canes. Just as adorable is the town’s post office, which gets flooded with tens of thousands of letters addressed to Santa Claus each year.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: The annual tree-lighting ceremony has plenty of photo-ops with Santa himself.

Stay here: The North Pole Cabins are comfortable and warm log cabin retreats, located just a mile from the Santa Claus House.

Snowfest at Park City Mountain

Park City, Utah

Why we go: As if the world-class skiing and Sundance Film Festival weren’t reason enough to visit Park City this winter, the town also happens to be a wonderful place to spend Christmas. The former Olympic city has ample opportunities for skiing, fly fishing, snowmobiling, and dog sledding—with no shortage of resorts to warm up in between runs, too.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Snowfest (December 22 through January 6), a festival at Park City Mountain, includes live music, ugly sweater parties, fireworks, and Santa skiing down the slopes.

Stay here: The 12-room Washington School House is just a hop away from Park City’s lit-up Main Street, and we must say its Christmas decorations put a lot of other hotels’ to shame.

Holiday Luminaria, Santa Fe

Santa Fe

Why we go: Santa Fe’s already-beautiful plaza becomes downright magical with the addition of Christmas lights—but the holiday spirit doesn’t start and stop there. The city also offers midnight mass at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis de Assisi, holiday exhibits at the New Mexico Museum of Art, a spectacular lights display at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, and seasonal shopping at the Winter Indian Market. Even when Christmas is officially over, you can still burn off all those green chiles at Taos Ski Valley and Ski Santa Fe—both just an easy drive away.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Santa Fe’s annual Canyon Road Farolito Walk, a Christmas Eve event consisting of farolitos (paper bags filled with sand and topped with a votive candle) lining the streets and walls of adobe buildings.

Stay here: Readers’ Choice Award favorite Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi has a tangible warmth to it, with gaslit kiva fireplaces and hand-carved four-poster beds adorning the rooms.

Seattle, WA at Christmas

Seattle

Why we go: Aside from the delightful sight of a Christmas tree atop the Space Needle, there are plenty of fun reasons to visit Seattle over the holidays. Now in its second year, Enchant Christmas is an immersive festival that offers 80-foot Christmas trees, an ice skating trail, Santa cameos, and a lot of twinkling lights (open now through December 29). There’s also a huge celebration just eight miles east of Seattle in the town of Bellevue: Snowflake Lane, a nightly light show and parade with Santa Claus, caroling, and snow machines ensuring a white Christmas. (The parade takes place in downtown Bellevue, every night through Christmas Eve at 7 p.m.)

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Sheraton Seattle’s Annual Gingerbread Village is probably Seattle’s most beloved holiday tradition, in which the city’s top architecture firms and culinary teams get together to create next-level gingerbread houses.

Stay here: With its mountain lodge interiors, The Edgewater Hotel is one of the best places to cozy up in the Pacific Northwest.

Seneca Falls at Christmas

Seneca Falls, New York

Why we go: It’s a Wonderful Life may have been shot on an RKO soundstage in Los Angeles, but the fine folks of Seneca Falls, New York swear that their five-square-mile upstate hamlet is the inspiration for the real Bedford Falls. Each December, they host an array of old-timey activities to prove it. This year’s festivities included special film screenings, holiday lights contests, and more than a few bake sales.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: The “It’s a Wonderful Bonfire” event on December 13, which includes caroling and a tree-lighting ceremony.

Stay here: The Gould Hotel has elegant rooms and a restaurant serving hearty, local meals that will warm you from the inside out.

St. Augustine during Christmas

St. Augustine, Florida

Why we go: Christmas in St. Augustine is truly something to behold. The holiday season kicks off this year with the city’s annual Christmas Parade, then continues through February—that’s right, we said February—with the famous Nights of Lights festival. During Nights of Lights, St. Augustine glows with 3 million tiny white lights, over the Bridge of Lions and through 20 city blocks in the Historic District. Bonus: You can enjoy the whole show without wearing a coat and gloves, because Florida.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Climb aboard the Old Town Trolley’s Famous Nights of Lights Tour, which departs nightly beginning at 6 p.m.

Stay here: The Collector pairs all the charm of a bed and breakfast with all the amenities of a true luxury hotel.

St. Louis at Christmas

St. Louis

Why we go: It’s been 75 years since Judy Garland first graced the world with “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” at the end of Meet Me in St Louis, and the Missouri city has embraced its role as one of America’s yuletide capitals ever since. Make sure you hit all the classics, like Wild Lights at the St. Louis Zoo, the poinsettia show at Jewel Box in Forest Park, and ice skating at Steinberg Rink. This year, there’s even a new Polar Express-themed train ride at the Union Station development.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Walk among a million dazzling lights at the Botanical Garden’s annual Garden Glow.

Stay here: You can’t beat the glittering, Gateway Arch-facing views at the Four Seasons.

Washington, D.C.

Why we go: There are few holiday displays in the nation that compare with Washington, D.C.’s National Christmas Tree. Located just south of the White House, this year’s tree is a 30-foot Colorado blue spruce, surrounded by 56 smaller trees representing our country’s states and territories. Other seasonal perks include ice skating on the roof of the Watergate Hotel, the Downtown Holiday Market, and a glorious absence of field trip groups in the Smithsonian museums.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Make it a priority to amble over to the Ford’s Theatre, which puts on an annual run of A Christmas Carol for the holidays.

Stay here: The Hay-Adams is a historic classic, just steps away from the White House and National Christmas Tree.