The holidays are looking both merry and bright in these towns where festivities run rampant.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Across the U.S., these holiday towns are offering the best in lights, handmade ice sculptures, and seasonal delights. From life-sized advent calendars to traditional Swiss alphorns to searching for hidden Nisse (Scandinavian Christmas elves)—and even the chance to experience an authentic wolf encounter—these seasonal festivities are not to be missed.
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Solvang’s legendary Julefest is an annual month-long holiday done in true Danish fashion. This year, more than 100 Christmas trees and thousands of lights will line Solvang’s walkable streets during a city-wide tree-decorating contest, while Solvang’s shops, Danish bakeries, restaurants, wine tasting rooms, wine and beer bars, and hotels join in on the friendly competition by decorating their own spaces. The village will also host its annual “Nisse adventure,” where participants can join in on a city-wide hunt for the 12 mysterious Solvang Nisse (Christmas elves), hidden throughout downtown Solvang. Once guests find the Nisse, they scan a QR code to continue along the route to earn a special prize at completion.
The quaint Bavarian town of Leavenworth, Washington, is known each holiday season as “the Village of Lights” with over half a million lights shining bright each night. Downtown’s Main Street and park have been converted into pedestrian-only traffic streets with plenty of outdoor dining to enjoy. The holiday lights will be lit each night from dusk to dawn, creating a winter celebration to experience all seven nights a week. This year, the town will also be offering a livestream of the lights for those who are staying home but still want to join in the festivities.
Vail Village’s “Magic of Lights” extensive walkthrough loop consists of a half-mile lights display, made from 500,000 individual lights. There’s also a holiday market, tree lighting ceremony, and the annual Holiday Sweater Run. Over in Vail Valley’s Bachelor Gulch, the Ritz-Carlton is hosting the “9 Days of Wonder” experience with holiday activities including a family-friendly “Edge of Wild” wolves encounter. Each day there will be a wolf outside on the terrace at the base of ski mountain, where visitors can gather to observe and meet the wolf (at an appropriate social distance) and ask its handler questions. Across the valley, Beaver Creek will be hosting “Beaver Creek Wonder,” an artistic playground of photo-friendly, oversized sculptures scattered throughout the town. From towering frost flowers sculptures to ice bikes and a giant snow globe, Beaver Creek Wonder’s installations pay homage to the natural wonders of the Vail Valley region.
A stroll on historic King Street during Christmas time feels equivalent to being in a real-life Dickens Village, complete with European flair and seasonal delights, such as the 40-foot tree on Market Square adorned with nearly 40,000 twinkling lights. The Colonial Christmas Programming at Mount Vernon includes a meet-and-greet with Aladdin, the Christmas Camel, and the chance to explore the historic estate, lit up with Christmas Illumination displays. For an unforgettable holiday dining experience, The Alexandrian, a historic and restored hotel property dating back to the Civil War era is launching a Winter Wonderland pop-up in the property’s courtyard, where guests can enjoy Southern small-plates and seasonal cocktails.
Frankenmuth, Michigan, is well-known as a destination for Christmas spirit, all year round—in fact, Frankenmuth is home to Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, which is the largest Christmas store in the U.S. However, each holiday season, the town ramps up its festivities and decorates each surface of its Bavarian-style village with tens of thousands of lights and multiple holiday displays and events. This year, there will be a 40-foot Christmas tree decked out with lights and music show to admire multiple times each day—in addition to a drive-thru style lights tour, an enormous life-sized snow globe, and of course, the town’s classic Christkindl market. This family-friendly experience will be shining bright throughout the entire holiday season and most events are cost-free.
North Pole, Alaska, feels like Christmas all year round, with light poles shaped and decorated like candy canes and streets like Santa Claus Lane, Kris Kringle Drive, and Mistletoe. But this city isn’t just well-known for its Christmas spirit—it’s also where the real Santa actually lives (he’s on the North Pole City Council)—with the city’s biggest and most popular attraction being the Santa Claus House. The holiday decorations are up all year round, but have been known to light up as soon as 2:30 p.m. in the winter when the sun sets earlier. The North Pole is also a great place to see nature’s holiday lights—the aurora borealis—Mother Nature’s holiday celebration.
The village of Cambria on the Central Coast of California traditionally hosts an annual legendary “Christmas market,” with dozens of shops offering the work of local artisans and holiday treats, but this year, the town will be offering a more intimate kind of celebration. The Lights at Cambria Pines will take the place of the Christmas market event this holiday season, and guests of Cambria’s Moonstone Hotel Properties can experience a more personal and spaced-out stroll through the property’s colorful path surrounded by over 2 million holiday lights and illuminated sculpture displays. For those who don’t want to spend the night, the nearby Cambria Nursery and Florist will be showing daytime displays at no charge, alongside fresh-cut fir trees, holiday decorations, and the largest display of Christmas decorations on California’s Central Coast.
Even though large gatherings like the annual lighting countdown traditional “Race of the Santas” have been postponed until 2021, the festive holiday spirit still twinkles throughout this mountain community. At the Lighting of Breckenridge, the town transforms its historic downtown into a scene straight from a sparkling snow globe, illuminating more than 1,250,000 LED twinkling holiday lights. Another beloved Breckenridge classic, the Ten Days of Ullr, will occur December 9-19 paying tribute to Ullr, the Norse god of snow, in hopes of being rewarded with a ski season full of snowfall. This year’s event will honor Ullr with a display of static open-air art installations throughout town, as well as a town-wide adventure race scavenger hunt, a Breckenridge Distillery virtual ShotSki event, and a Breck Film winter film series screening.
Also known as “Little Switzerland,” the town of New Glarus, Wisconsin, was first settled by the Swiss back in 1845 and its Swiss origins shine through today in the town’s chalet-style architecture and timber Bavarian design. When it comes to holiday displays, including traditional Swiss festivities, New Glarus does not skimp on the details. This year the town is celebrating the holidays with a life-size advent calendar which is organized each year by a well-beloved local resident who originally hails from Switzerland. There’s also the impressive tree lighting ceremony, and, of course, the town’s traditional Christkindli market. But the most authentic element of New Glarus’ holiday celebration might just be the town’s local alphorn players who annually rock out on authentic traditional Swiss alphorns that are decorated hardcore with wrappings of Christmas lights and holiday spirit.
This season’s “Nights of Lights” celebration in St. Augustine, Florida will sparkle from November through January, draping the city’s unique Spanish Colonial architecture and glowing from the sidewalks, over the rooftops, covering the Bridge of Lions, and seemingly every other visible city surface. These millions of tiny white lights can be experienced on guided tours, trolley and sightseeing tram, carriage rides, and even on the water. Additionally, “Luminary Night at the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum” will host its first-ever drive-thru event with various festive stations. Then, on December 12, the annual holiday boat parade hosted by the St. Augustine Yacht Club will feature a procession of sailboats, trawlers, shrimp boats, and more, all decorated with brilliant lighted holiday displays.