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Conde Nast Traveler: The Best Places to Spend Christmas in the U.S.

January 15th, 2020 |

Written by Caitlin Morton for the Conde Nast Traveler

Think of the phrase “Christmas in America” and you’ll likely imagine the usual suspects: giant trees festooned in twinkling lights, people of all ages caroling and singing “Silent Night,” ubiquitous tributes to the jolly man in red named Santa Claus, and gingerbread. Lots of gingerbread. But take a closer look and you may be surprised: Christmas celebrations across the United States can look very different, depending on the environment, local history, and present-day cultures of the people who live there. Not everything is a winter wonderland—in fact, maybe a warm-weather destination for the holidays is exactly what you need. Regardless of temperature, these 23 destinations are some of the best places to spend Christmas this year.

These places below are known for the ways they come alive at Christmastime: from the glitzy and glam festivities of big cities like New York or Chicago to the Santa-hats-and-shorts vibes of Santa Fe and St. Augustine. Of course, your Christmas vacation ideas in the US are far from limited to just these places. Here’s one idea: Head out on a multi-destination road trip to check out some fantastical drive-through Christmas lights displays. And while there are a great many places to celebrate Christmas around the world, experience one Christmas in America and you’ll be a person changed for the better.

Here are some of the best places to go for Christmas in the United States this year, ranging all types of atmosphere and styles: from Kennebunkport to Las Vegas, from Dallas to North Pole, Alaska (note the missing the). No matter where you choose, there are plenty of activities to participate in, events to check out, and places to stay. Happy holidays, y’all.

Alexandria, Virginia

Why we go: Located about 20 minutes south of Washington, DC, Alexandria is a picture-perfect place to spend the holiday season. The Old Town’s row houses and centuries-old brick streets look even more charming when adorned with snow and Christmas wreaths, and you can expect a ton of seasonal activities. The festivities kick off along the Potomac River shoreline with the Alexandria Holiday Boat Parade of Lights (December 2 at 5:30 p.m.) and the annual Scottish Christmas Walk Parade (December 3). Come Christmas Eve, try to spot Waterskiing Santa along the Potomac River.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Get a taste of the Christmases of yore at nearby Mount Vernon (George Washington’s former home), where you can take a candlelit guided tour, and enjoy some cider and cookies (with special events on November 24 and 25, December 1, 2, 8, 9, and 17).

Stay here: Book a stay at The Alexandrian, Autograph Collection, which is on King Street, in the heart of Alexandria’s shopping and entertainment area.

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, and the 29th Annual National Gingerbread House Competition at The Omni Grove Park Inn (on display from November 27 to January 2).

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Christmas at Biltmore Estate is just as spectacular as it sounds, with 100 hand-decorated trees, 10,000 ornaments, and 100,000 holiday lights drawing visitors through the new year in January.

Stay here: Cozy up in The Foundry, a hotel that opened in 2018 with a James Beard-nominated chef running its in-house restaurant. It’s Asheville’s best boutique hotel, filled with authentic touches—from lots of exposed brick to the restaurant’s modern spins on comfort food.

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 Christkindlmarkt (November 17 to December 17) feature rotating displays by artisans, live music, and glass-blowing demonstrations. After stocking up on handmade ornaments and nutcrackers, take a carriage ride through Downtown Bethlehem to take in all the Christmas lights.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: The Winter Light Spectacular (through December 31) 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: The Sayre Mansion Inn has warm and comfortable rooms, private six-course dinners, and beautiful Christmas decorations. If you want to venture out into the town, Lehigh University, St. Luke’s Hospital, the Steel Stacks Performing Arts Center, and the Wind Creek Casino are all nearby.

Bowling Green, Kentucky

Why we go: Normally, you wouldn’t expect an Arctic experience in southern Kentucky, but Bowling Green is shaking up the holiday game this year. The Christmas spirit is definitely alive at the city’s Reindeer Farm, where families can feed reindeer, watch holiday movies, and drink cocoa while writing letters to Santa. (There’s even wine tasting for the grown-ups.)

The one thing to get you in the spirit: End your festive vacation at the SoKY Marketplace Ice Rink, an outdoor rink where you can skate with Santa and the Grinch.

Stay here: Opened in mid-2019, the Lodge at Olde Stone offers 12 cozy, Kentucky-inspired suites and a restaurant serving up Southern dishes. And if you’re a golfer, be sure to pack your clubs: the property boasts 9- and 18-hole courses onsite.

Branson, Missouri

Why we go: Sort of like a family-friendly little sister to Las Vegas, Branson pulls out all the stops every holiday season. The Ozark Mountain town transforms into a winter wonderland with 1,500 Christmas trees in and around town, ice skating under the Branson Ferris Wheel, and several drive-through light displays.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Head straight to the 1880s-themed amusement park Silver Dollar City or the annual An Old Time Christmas festival. The party lasts until December 30 and includes 6.5 million lights, 1,000 trees (including an eight-story one), outdoor shows, parades, and, of course, rides.

Stay here: Chateau on the Lake is one of the nicest hotels in town, with beautiful lake views, a full-service luxury spa, and the Chateau Marina, where activities include fishing, water skiing, and tubing (though you may want to wait for warmer weather—or not, if that’s your thing).

Charleston, South Carolina

Why we go: Charleston is the perfect destination for any fan of the holidays, but not of the frigid weather that often comes with the season. There are plenty of Christmas-oriented events and festivities in the city that are fit for every type of tourist. Check out the Festival of Trees at The Charleston Place, where 16 Christmas trees, each one decorated by a local Charleston business or organization, will be on display throughout the beautiful hotel’s second floor. For something that sounds (and is) magnificent, catch The Sound of Charleston, where you can hear the music that tells the city’s story: gospel spirituals, music by George Gershwin, Civil War songs, and jazz. For something pleasantly aquatic, head over to the South Carolina Aquarium, which presents the dazzling light show Aquarium Aglow after the sun goes down on select evenings this November and December (be sure to say hi to “Scuba Claus” in the Great Ocean Tank).

The one thing to get you in the spirit: As far as classically Christmassy merrymaking goes, it doesn’t get any more traditional (minus the freezing temperatures) than the Holiday Festival of Lights at James Island County Park featuring a spectacular light show that features over two million tiny light bulbs.

Stay here: There are plenty of options in South Carolina’s beautiful port city: There’s the perennial favorite French Quarter Inn, which welcomes guests with a glass of Champagne and is just a few steps away from the famous Charleston City Market. Meanwhile, The Vendue, the city’s first art hotel concept, offers an ever-evolving experience—the hotel has a full-time docent and rotating exhibits. And for something classic, there’s Hotel Bennett, voted the very best hotel in Charleston by Traveler readers in the Readers’ Choice Awards 2023; its old-world grandeur and good ol’ Southern charm make this Marion Square hotel irresistible. (The place also hosts a holiday tea on Thursdays and Fridays until Christmas.)

Chicago, Illinois

Why we go: From its European-inspired Christkindlmarket (from November 17 to December 24) to light shows galore (there’s the Let It Shine drive-through Christmas lights display), Chicago knows a thing or two about embracing the Christmas spirit (and freezing temperatures). Can’t-miss activities include visiting the 51-foot Christmas tree in Millennium Park and cozying up in a heated igloo at The Godfrey Hotel.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Be dazzled by 2.5 million LEDs at ZooLights (from November 17 through January 7), an annual light festival held at Lincoln Park Zoo. Check out the event’s calendar for sensory-friendly visit times.

Stay here: As far as hotels go, travelers truly have their pick of the litter in the Windy City. One top choice is The Langham, Chicago, housed in a landmark Mies van der Rohe building along the Chicago River. It’s just a Chicago hotdog’s throw away from Magnificent Mile, where you can get all your holiday shopping done. For the sportier among us, there’s the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel, which has a strong local following for its historic lobby, indoor bocce, foosball in its game room, and the gem-like Milk Room bar, among other things. On the rooftop, and mostly enclosed by an atrium, Cindy’s cranks it up with large format cocktails, shareable dishes, and some of the best views of Millennium Park.

Dallas, Texas

Why we go: Proving you don’t need cold temperatures to get in the Christmas spirit, the holiday celebrations in Dallas put most northern cities to shame. Most notable is Holiday at the Arboretum (now through January 5), a Christmas village with millions of lights, a 50-foot tree with lights animated to music, and visits with Santa Claus. Elsewhere in town, you can drive through the Dallas Zoo Lights route (from November 17 to January 2) and skate next to the country’s tallest indoor Christmas tree at the Galleria Dallas Ice Skating Center.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Throw a few back at Miracle, a Christmas-themed pop-up bar that returns to Dallas this year at the cocktail bar Royal 38 in Uptown Dallas.

Stay here: If you really want a festive experience, check in at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, where the grounds are beautiful and the food is so tasty, you could dine on property every night.

Denver, Colorado 

Why we go: Unwrap the magic of the holidays in Denver this season with special events and millions of twinkling lights. Enjoy a family outing to the Denver Zoo Lights, or a fun day of shopping and ice skating downtown. Get a dose of culture with a viewing of A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker (see the full calendar here), then visit the Mile High Tree at the 16th Street Mall (it’s actually 110 feet tall, but that’s still pretty impressive).

The one thing to get you in the spirit: The Denver Christkindlmarket (one of the best German markets in the country) returns to Civic Center Park this winter, open daily now through December 23.

Stay here: The Crawford Hotel, a boutique property in LoDo’s Union Station, boasts Art Deco rooms, and the city’s most beautiful lobby. Soaring ceilings and sky-high chandeliers hang overhead, while oversized sofas and leather chairs create a casual and bustling “living room” frequented by travelers and locals alike.

Kennebunkport, Maine

Why we go: If you’re wondering where to go for Christmas celebrations unlike anywhere else, look no further. Every December, this tiny New England town bursts with holiday cheer during its annual Christmas Prelude; check out the site and you’ll see a live countdown to the event’s start date—it’s that highly anticipated. It’s 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. Speaking of, the legendary lobster rolls at hotspots like ScalesThe Highroller Lobster Co., and Miyake will make you forget about gingerbread and sugar plums altogether.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Santa Claus’s arrival at the Christmas Prelude on a lobster boat.

Stay here: According to this year’s Readers’ Choice Awards, Traveler readers love the 14-room 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.

Las Vegas, Nevada

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 rooftop ice skating at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (beginning December 2), colorful displays outside The LINQ promenade, a 6-foot-tall gingerbread man at ARIA, and a massive holiday display—complete with a 42-foot Christmas tree—at the Bellagio’s Conservatory and 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: It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to the hotels on the Strip in Las Vegas, especially as each property tries to outdo each other—whether for the holidays or just around the year. That said, for a classic experience, stay at The Venetian. The whole place is so marvelously over-the-top that it doesn’t matter that it looks nothing like the real Venice. That’s not the point. This is Vegas, baby.

Nashville, Tennessee

Why we go: The Music City is all about the—wait for it—music during the holiday season. From November 10 through January 1, enjoy “Country Christmas” at Gaylord Opryland, with tons of Christmas shows, plus ice skating and acres of light displays. Or head to the Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway and take the two-mile drive through Jingle Beat, a light show set to remixed versions of classic Christmas carols. And when in doubt, you can always catch a yuletide show at the Grand Ole Opry.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Given the Christmas season, a hotel named Noelle seems as perfect a place as any to spend the season. Its Holiday Glow Package is a nice deal, but even cooler is its Ralphie’s Christmas experience, inspired by A Christmas Story, which features Oval-tinis and other seasonal bites (happening in the hotel’s Hidden Bar until January 8).

Stay here: Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Stay at the Noelle—officially Noelle, Nashville, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel. It’s in the center of the downtown Nashville action, and its emphasis on art, design, and local artists and designers will help you get to know the city all the more.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Why we go: It’s no surprise that New Orleans leans into the holiday season, but we still get all tingly thinking about Christmas in the city. 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 7 to 10. City Park also becomes a wonderland for the entire month with Celebration in the Oaks (November 23 to December 30), a festival 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 Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans has lots of holiday offerings this year, including gingerbread house building and a four-course dinner on Christmas Eve.

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 Central Park, window shopping along Fifth Avenue, visiting the tree at Rockefeller Center, seeing the Rockettes in the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, or lurking around 34th Street hoping to witness a miracle.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Prepare to be incredibly and thoroughly overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the Christmas spirit in this Brooklyn neighborhood, which famously goes all out on the holiday decorations each year. Think candy cane lanes, giant snowmen, illuminated snowflakes, and too many glowing Santa Claus figures than the census can count. Lights go up after Thanksgiving and last through the New Year, so whether you’re driving through in a car or taking the pedestrian route, there’s plenty of time to take in the wall-to-wall displays of life-size nutcrackers, enormous twinkling trees, and lawn ornament reindeer. Big sleigh.

Stay here: Easy answer: The Plaza. If you’ve ever watched Home Alone 2, you’ll recognize it as the hotel where young Kevin McCallister, while lost in New York, lived lavishly in a posh suite for the holidays. Fittingly, the hotel has a “Home Alone 2: Fun in New York” experience package, offered throughout the year, that lets guests mimic memorable moments from the movie. It includes a limousine ride all over the city to landmarks like Central Park and Radio City Music Hall, a large cheese pizza (to be eaten in the limo, naturally), and the Home Alone sundae, made to fit Kevin’s exacting taste (specifically: 16 scoops of assorted ice cream, whipped cream, maraschino cherries, M&M’s, brownie bits, chocolate, caramel, and raspberry sauce). If a more traditional Christmas is what you’re looking for, there’s also the “Suitest Season of All” package that comes with a seven-foot-tall decorated Balsam Hill tree placed directly in your suite.

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 115th anniversary this year from December 13 to 17. (To compare, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting has been running for 90 years.) The “parade” takes place in the harbor of Newport Beach, where yachts, boats, and kayaks have been known to show off up to $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—especially with the addition of bright, colorful Christmas decorations in the cottages.

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), the North Pole’s nominal spirit even extends to its street names: 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.

Park City, Utah

Why we go: As if the world-class skiing isn’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.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Hop on a 90-minute train ride with the North Pole Express at Heber Valley Railroad, where you can sip hot cocoa and meet Mrs. Claus.

Stay here: The 12-room Washington School House is just a hop away from Park City’s lit-up Main Street, and its Christmas decorations are some of the prettiest ever seen. In nearby Deer Valley, there’s also the iconic Stein Eriksen Lodge, a luxurious chalet with easy ski-in/ski-out access. And just 25 minutes from downtown Park City Auberge Resorts’ The Lodge at Blue Sky is a perfect place to unwind in luxury.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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, holiday flamenco performances at El Flamenco Cabaret, and seasonal shopping at the Winter Indian Market. Even when Christmas is officially over, you can keep busy 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, is sure to get you in a pleasant and festive mood for the occasion.

Stay here: Condé Nast Traveler’s 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, Washington

Why we go: Aside from the delightful sight of a Christmas tree atop the Space Needle, there are plenty of reasons to visit Seattle over the holidays. Your one-stop shop for holiday cheer is Winterfest at Seattle Center (November 24 to December 31), which has family-friendly activities like train rides and ice sculpting demonstrations. There’s also a huge celebration just eight miles east of Seattle in the town of Bellevue: Snowflake Lane (November 24 to December 24), a nightly light show with caroling and snow machines ensuring a white Christmas.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: Sheraton Grand 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. This year’s event runs from November 21 to New Year’s Day.

Stay here: With its mountain lodge interiors, The Edgewater Hotel is one of the best places to cozy up in the Pacific Northwest. If you like to fall asleep while staring out at gentle waves glistening in the moonlight, you won’t find a better spot in the city.

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, the event runs from December 7 to 10 and will include special film screenings, gingerbread house contests, and museum exhibits.

The one thing to get you in the spirit: The “It’s a Wonderful Bonfire” event on Friday, December 8, which includes caroling, a visit from Santa, 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, 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 January 28 with the famous Nights of Lights festival. During the celebration, St. Augustine glows with three 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, you know, 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 from November 19 through January 28.

Stay here: The Collector Luxury Inn & Gardens pairs all the charm of a bed and breakfast with all the amenities of a true luxury hotel. No little detail is overlooked, from interesting on-site activities (like watercolor painting in the courtyard) to immaculate turndown service. The hotel has an age minimum of 16, making this a great retreat for harried parents.

St. Louis, Missouri

Why we go: It’s been almost 80 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. For the third year running, there’s even a 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 Missouri Botanical Garden’s annual Garden Glow, which runs from November 18 to January 6.

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

Washington, D.C.

Why we go: There are few holiday displays in the nation that compare with Washington, DC’s National Christmas Tree, but other seasonal perks include private igloos at the Watergate Hotel, the Downtown Holiday Market (now through December 23), 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 InterContinental The Willard Washington D.C., an IHG Hotel, is just a few blocks away from the White House and National Christmas Tree, and offers a holiday afternoon tea and tons of gorgeous decorations. You’ve heard it a thousand times: “There’s no place like home for the holidays.”

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