The holiday season is upon us, and cities around the country are making all the preparations for the ultimate celebrations. We’ve asked some of our favorite travel writers to share where to celebrate the Christmas holidays in the USA (and we’ve also covered the best places to celebrate Christmas around the world). The recommendations have us wanting to book a ticket and visit all of these Christmas destinations just to see the decor.
Best Holiday Events in the United States
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As a native Atlantan, the holiday season is easily my favorite time of year simply because there are so many different things to do around the city. For Christmas light displays, there’s the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s popular “Garden Nights, Holiday Lights,” Lake Lanier Islands’ “Magical Nights of Lights” (where we had our first kiss 10 years ago!), and Stone Mountain Christmas, where a whole village is lit up with holiday cheer.
You can also take a day trip to Callaway Gardens, whose “Fantasy in Lights” was named by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 Christmas Light Displays in the World.
If culture is your thing, there’s the German Christkindl Market at Atlantic Station, the frou-frou designer rooms of Christmas at Callanwolde, the Alliance Theatre’s annual production of A Christmas Carol, and the Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker.
If quirk is more your speed, try the Victorian Holiday at historic Oakland Cemetery, the Ugly Sweater Run for charity at Piedmont Park, or Horizon Theatre’s campy Waffle Palace Christmas. No matter how you prefer to celebrate the holiday, Christmas in Atlanta it all! –(Bret Love & Mary Gabbett of Green Global Travel)
The holidays are a wonderful time to visit the Windy City. Holiday festivities kick off with the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival the week before Thanksgiving. Ice skating is a huge attraction in the city with an outdoor rink at the Peninsula Chicago and a skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park. Don’t miss the traditional German Christkindl Market in Daley Plaza, where you can shop for hand crafted ornaments, enjoy some glühwein, and visit with Santa and the Christkind. Be sure to go on weekdays early in the season or first thing in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Those looking for more cultured events will want to head to one of the local theaters for the Nutcracker, A Christmas Carol, or It’s A Wonderful Life (performed as an interactive 1940s radio show). Want to get your girlfriends together? Try a holiday tea at The Drake, The Ritz, or the Russian Tea Room. The Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute are decorated for the holidays and are a fun treat at the museum.
Want to head outside? Don’t miss the Morton Arboretum’s Illumination with its completely decorated trees and holiday musical accompaniment. The Chicago Botanic Garden has Wonderland Express with its model trains and Chicago landmarks in miniature. Both the Lincoln Park Zoo and Brookfield Zoo have holidays light events to celebrate all season long. Chicago never disappoints during the holidays. (Kirsten of Kids Are A Trip)
DON’T MISS THE 25 BEST CHRISTMAS HOTELS FOR THE ULTIMATE HOLIDAY EXPERIENCE!
What better place to celebrate the season than Grapevine, Texas, the Christmas Capital of Texas? This small town is big on holiday fun, with more than 1,400 events in 40 days. These range from musical light shows, holiday movie nights, the Parade of Lights to the North Pole Express on the Grapevine Vintage Railroad and ICE!, a winter wonderland created entirely of ice.
Some of my favorite activities included making my own Christmas ornament at Vento Glass Blowing Studio, sampling the hot chocolate bar at Dr. Sue’s Chocolate, and singing along to some of my favorite Christmas carols during a concert at the Palace Theatre.
For those looking for fun photos to commemorate the holidays, head to Liberty Park in downtown Grapevine, which is decked out with fun decorations for the holidays. Sit with Santa, sneak a kiss at the Mistletoe Booth or pose with the oversized Christmas ornaments that are spread throughout the park. This is the perfect spot to snap a photo for your Christmas cards.
Of course, you can’t go wrong with shopping in the many stores and boutiques in downtown Grapevine or just strolling along, taking in all the holiday decorations. (Karon at This Girl Travels)
More than 100,000 people will gather on Monument Circle the Friday after Thanksgiving to celebrate the lighting of 4,784 lights strung from the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors monument. Millions of sightseers will take in this brilliant spectacle throughout the holiday season, lit through early January. Travelocity named the Circle of Lights® one of the top five “must-see Christmas trees” in the nation.
Other Indianapolis attractions include Lights at the Brickyard where visitors can see over 2.5 millions lights along the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Winterlights winter wonderland at Newfields with its beautifully decorated gardens, and Christmas at the Zoo the oldest holiday lights exhibit at a zoo. (Patricia at Savvy Traveling)
Santa may swap his sleigh for an outrigger canoe when dropping off gifts for the children of Kailua Kona but, that doesn’t mean a Hawaiian Christmas is without traditional trappings. The historic village of is decked out with lights, tinsel and Christmas trees. Visitors may spot penguins and other Arctic creatures sporting grass skirts as well. The Kailua-Kona Community Christmas Parade kicks off the season. This year’s theme, “A Story Book Christmas” is sure to be a sight as it travels along Ali’l Drive, Kona’s main drag.
If you need a little snow in your Christmas Holiday, head to Mauna Kea. There won’t be enough powder to ski or snowboard, but you’ll get your fill. Tour companies will provide visitors with warm gear, so there’s no need to pack it.
Traveling during Christmas time doesn’t mean your family has to forgo the Nutcracker Ballet or Christmas Eve services either. The West Hawaii Dance Theatre and Academy accompanied by the Kamuela Philharmonic Orchestra presents a visually stunning family-friendly Nutcracker production. Christmas Eve candlelight services at Mokuaikaua Church, Hawaii’s first Christian church, feature a “Silent Night” hula. So, stop dreaming of an island Christmas — go enjoy it! Mele Kalikimaka (Merry Christmas!). (Kristine Dworkin from Trekaroo)
If you are looking for other places to explore in Hawaii, check out what do do in Kauai!
Leavenworth is just a few hours away from Seattle, but as you pass thru the Cascade Mountains, you will feel transported to another country. Surrounded by snow-covered peaks, this Bavarian-themed town feels truly magical at Christmastime. Not only will you enjoy beautiful Christmas lights on all of the Bavarian buildings on Front Street, but there is a dramatic light display throughout the city park.
Kids will enjoy taking advantage of the sledding hill under the twinkling lights. Once they have worked up an appetite, grab a German sausage at Munchen Haus and then head to the Gingerbread Factory for hot chocolate and the most delicious gingerbread cookies. Don’t miss the two story the Kris Kringle Christmas store to pick out a new ornament for your tree. Just outside of town, kids will love a visit to the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm to meet the animals or take a photo with Santa and his sleigh. (Jen at Thrifty Northwest Mom)
While a White Christmas is a rarity in Nashville, the holiday season in Music City is still bursting with all things holiday magic and well worth a visit during the holiday season. There are tons of festive events, parades, and family-friendly holiday goodness – here are a few of our favorites:
The Country Christmas at The Gaylord Opryland Resort where the entire hotel is transformed into a winter wonderland. There are magical light displays throughout the hotel (free to the public), a holiday Seuss-themed playground made entirely of ice and holiday activities, music performances and events all season.
We also love Cheekwood’s Holiday Lights where millions of bulbs are strung throughout the mansion and botanical gardens. Cheekwood also hosts Santa’s live reindeer (and some weekend’s the jolly old elf makes an appearance too), s’more’s pits and holiday carolers along with stalls selling hot chocolate and hot toddy’s for those (occasionally) chilly Nashville nights!
Holiday markets pop up throughout the city, horse and carriage rides flock local neighborhoods for more light viewing, there is a sweet family holiday parade downtown to start off the season, and there is even a North Pole Express Excursion Train run by the Tennessee Central Railway Museum through December. (Sarah at The Wandering Rumpus)
New York City, New York
People would always ask me if I’m going somewhere for the Holidays. My answer would always be a definitive, “No!”. I never knew why anyone in my great City of New York would want to go anywhere else during this time of year.
New York City is the arguably the most exciting place to be during Christmastime. Restaurants are decorated to the hilt and the energy is unmatched.There are quintessential destinations such as visiting Macy’s Santa World to skating at Rockefeller Center’s most famous rink, under the most famous Christmas tree.
Choruses can be heard from every church doorstep and jingles are played in every store. The world-famous Rockettes kick up their heels at Radio City Music Hall, while the New York City Ballet performs the Nutcracker Suite at the famed Lincoln Center.
Okay, you may not be into the cultural thing. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy Christmas in New York. Go instead to Rolf’s German Restaurant, or Pete’s Tavern, where Old New York show all its glory in a down-home pub atmosphere. After a few eggnogs, you’ll find yourself a bit more cultured. (Andrew and Brenda from Dish Our Town)
Orlando, Florida (Walt Disney World)
We absolutely love Walt Disney World during the holiday season. There is something just so magical about seeing the theme parks and hotels all decked out for the holidays. Although the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is one of the busiest times of the year, they decorate the parks as early as November and the first couple of weeks of December are one of the least-crowded times to visit. Don’t miss Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. The parades are Christmas-themed, there are special holiday treats, and the nightly fireworks are set to festive holiday music and Christmas carols to keep you in the holiday spirit.
The weather in Orlando can be unpredictable at that time of year, but chilly in Florida is still a lot warmer than chilly in many other places. Plus, seeing Cinderella’s Castle sparkle in holiday lights is sure to warm up even the Grinchiest heart. (Corinne at Have Baby Will Travel)
The City of Brotherly Love always rolls out the red carpet for the holiday season. City Hall is dressed up and ready to welcome you to the annual Christmas Village, with an ice rink and carousel for the whole family to enjoy.
Anyone who grew up in Philadelphia will remember the old Wanamaker’s department store organ show. Thankfully, when Macy’s took over the shop, they continued this tradition with the Macy’s Christmas Light Show that happens throughout the day. Take the kids to see the window displays before scouting out your spot within the store. We personally like the view from the second floor, but get there early. The crowds do gather. While one parent holds a spot, the other can take the kids to see Santa.
Down on the river the Blue Cross RiverRink Winterfest is where you want to be at night. Lights are up, hot cocoa is keeping frozen toes warm, and locals and visitors alike are skating around the pier as the DJ plays musical highlights from across the decades. Other events and holiday decor you don’t want to miss include the Franklin Square Holiday Festival and Electrical Spectacle Holiday Light Show, the official Christmas tree at City Hall, and the Comcast Holiday Spectacular, a super hi-res LED show combining the Pennsylvania Ballet’s The Nutcracker, a sleigh ride over the city and a sing-along. Check the VisitPhilly.com website for more details, times and locations. Many events are free and you don’t want to miss any of them.
Looking for a day trip outside of Philadelphia? Head south to Longwood Gardens to see one of the most beautiful Christmas displays in the country. Each year the garden picks a new theme, and we hear this year will be “the Christmas Tree Reimagined.” Trees are sure to be hanging from the ceilings of the conservatory and we can’t wait to pop in to take a look. Make sure you stay until after dark to see the lights throughout the garden. Bundle up the kids and grab hot chocolates in the cafe as you stroll through millions of light displays across the grounds of this historic DuPont estate. (Keryn Means of WalkingOnTravels.com)
San Francisco, California
There are no White Christmases in San Francisco thanks to its temperate winter weather. What the City by the Bay lacks in snow, however, it makes up for in holiday spirit. The center of holiday action is always the city’s shopping district, Union Square. The season begins there after Thanksgiving with the lighting of the enormous Union Square Christmas tree. Union Square also erects a temporary ice skating rink and plays home to Santa in the world’s second largest Macy’s facing the square.
San Francisco is always a popular holiday travel destination, so the city’s finest hotels compete to outdo one another every year. The Fairmont San Francisco builds an enormous two story gingerbread house in its lobby. The Westin St. Francis creates not one – but two – castles of sweets in theirs. Many luxury hotels offer decadent holiday high teas on weekends, most of which are kid-friendly family traditions.
The holiday theater scene in San Francisco is always bustling as well. The San Francisco Ballet performs the Nutcracker annually, and the American Conservatory Theater’s performance of A Christmas Carol has been running for 42 years straight. For local flavor, the holiday version of the irreverent musical revue Beach Blanket Babylon is a can’t-miss. (Leslie at Trips with Tykes) *Don’t miss these fun things to do at Fisherman’s Wharf if you have time!
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