These U.S. cities take the holidays above and beyond with spectacular displays, decorations, and celebrations.
Like Christmas cards sprung to life, some of America’s towns go all out for the holidays. From coast to coast, these communities go to great lengths to make the season bright by decking out their streets with twinkling lights by the thousands or even millions. Window decorations, holiday markets—a hallowed European tradition–and towering Christmas trees all make for a very festive December. Here are ten U.S. towns and cruises with incredible Christmas celebrations.
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Christmas Town USA
WHERE: McAdenville, North Carolina
McAdenville, a small town about 20 minutes outside of Charlotte, has been getting into the Christmas spirit for over 65 years. They even change the name of their village to Christmas Town USA each year, starting the festivities on December 1st with a tree-lighting ceremony. More than 600,000 people visit Christmas Town USA to gawk at the decorations, lights, and decked-out homes and listen to Christmas carols emanating from the town’s historic bell tower. The downtown area features a large Nativity scene, and over 200 evergreen trees lit up with half a million red, green, and white lights.
INSIDER TIPSince two roads are closed to traffic during December, walking is the best way to see the light displays and decorated homes.
Koziar’s Christmas Village
WHERE: Bernville, Pennsylvania
Imagined as a true one-stop Christmas destination, Koziar’s Christmas Village has been a tradition since 1948. Driving into the valley is a magical experience—suddenly, out of the darkness, you see a Christmas town emblazoned with a million lights. A regional hotspot for families, Koziar’s packs in crowds to walk the village and gaze at indoor and outdoor holiday attractions, including Santa’s Post Office, a toy maker, and his shop, a manger, and train displays, as well as scenes depicting Christmas Beneath the Sea and Christmas in Other Lands. Gift shops, snack bars, and an opportunity to meet Santa Claus round out the experience. The Village opens the first Saturday in November and continues through January 1st.
INSIDER TIPJust 20 minutes southeast of Bernville is Judy’s on Cherry in Reading, a cozy “Euro-café.” Be sure to try the heart-fired pizzas, notably the Exotic Mushroom Pizza with porcinis, shitakes, oyster fungi, fontina cheese, and truffle oil.
Ogden’s Christmas Village
WHERE: Ogden, Utah
Northern Utah’s Ogden, one of the country’s great railway hubs, welcomes in the holiday season each year with their downtown Christmas Village. A winter wonderland is staged in the middle of town with miniature cottages modeled after Santa’s North Pole Village. Each of the 50 elf-sized cottages has its own theme, including The Elf Workshop, The Grinch, and Santa’s Castle—a cottage where children can visit with Santa himself. Visitors can also hop on a free train ride around the village. The season starts at the end of November each year, with an opening day Holiday Electric Light Parade featuring over 50 floats. Entertainment is offered six nights a week, and the whole event is free to attend.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to explore Union Station, the former train depot that served as a major hub for transcontinental rail service. The station has been retrofitted into three museums featuring trains, firearms, and automobiles.
Nevada City Victorian Christmas
WHERE: Nevada City, California
A truly unique experience can be found in quaint Nevada City (population: 3,142), which takes great pride in its annual Victorian Christmas festival. A former Gold Rush town in the Sierra foothills about an hour north of Sacramento, Nevada City is now noted for its many historic buildings, mountainous surroundings, and bygone picturesque downtown. Nevada City’s Chamber of Commerce describes the Christmas season as “a genuine Christmas card come to life” as the city transforms into a winter wonderland complete with twinkling white lights, authentic gas lamps, and carolers dressed in Victorian apparel. Festival attendees are also encouraged to dress in period attire, complete with feathers, scarves, and top hats. The festival typically runs on select Sundays and Wednesdays in December.
INSIDER TIPMake sure you stop by My Favorite Things in downtown Nevada City, where gorgeous Christmas décor and artisan local crafts fill a cozy boutique space.
Ozark Mountain Christmas
WHERE: Branson, Missouri
For an Ozark Mountain Christmas, head to Branson, Missouri, known as the Live Entertainment Capital of the World, thanks to the multitude of shows performed nightly. Starting on November 1st and throughout December, Branson transforms itself into a Christmas village. You’ll find 700 traditional and creatively decorated Christmas trees all around the town, part of Branson’s initiative to become America’s Christmas Tree City, and three drive-through light displays. Christmas in Branson offers so many activities for the whole family, including holiday shows and parades, a zoo featuring live Nativity animals and reindeer you can pet, multiple venues where you can meet Santa, and a Polar Express tour on the Branson Scenic Railway, you’ll be hard-pressed to see them all. Fan-favorite events include a Christmas show and meal on the Showboat Branson Belle and Dolly Parton’s Stampede, where you can have a four-course holiday dinner and see an arena performance adapted to incorporate snow, evergreens, and traditional holiday music.
INSIDER TIPLeave time to visit An Old Time Christmas festival at the Silver Dollar City amusement park, known for its 6.5 million holiday lights, 1,000 decorated Christmas trees, Broadway-style musicals, holiday treats, and shopping.
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.’s oldest neighborhood comes alive each December with warmth and Christmas cheer. Yuletide decorations fill the area known for its over 450 stores, restaurants, and galleries. And then there’s the Georgetown Glow, a free curated outdoor light art installation experience that is lit every night from 5-10 PM from late November through January.
INSIDER TIPTake a walking tour during December—over 30 are offered—to learn about the artists, installations, and the history of Georgetown, which predates the American Revolution.
Historic Zoar Village
WHERE: Zoar, Ohio
The tiny town of Zoar, Ohio (population 172), about 40 miles south of Akron, is the home of the Historic Zoar Village, a museum property that stages Christmas nineteenth-century style. The Village, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, hosts a tree-lighting ceremony and self-guided walking tours that trace its roots. Guests can visit 14 historical buildings, including a bakery and blacksmith, tin, weaving, sewing, and tailoring shops, and a store. There are also private homes within the village that put on their holiday finery for Christmas. The museum is typically closed in winter months but is open for the Christmas event on the first Saturday and Sunday of December.
INSIDER TIPHead about 20 minutes north to Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where you can learn about the history of America’s favorite sport and its top players.
Wisconsin’s Elkhart Lake Christmas
WHERE: Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
An hour from Milwaukee sits Elkhart Lake, a tiny getaway town famous for its Road America summertime racetrack. Come winter, Elkhart Lake shifts its focus to an all-out Christmas celebration, complete with an Old World Christmas Market held the first two weeks of December at the Victorian-style luxury hotel The Osthoff Resort. Modeled after the Nuremberg, Germany Christkindlesmarkt (meaning “Christ Child’s Market”), the market features local vendors selling crafts, art, and traditional dishes like schnitzel, sauerbraten, and potato pancakes. The resort otherwise ushers in Christmas in grand style by offering horse-drawn hay wagon rides and other activities for kids and adults—and, of course, hot cocoa by a warm fire.
INSIDER TIPTake time to visit Aspira Spa at the resort. It’s been voted among the best spas in America and offers indigenous-inspired treatments from around the world that can take your holiday celebration to the next level of enjoyment.
Genesee Country Village
WHERE: Mumford, New York
The Genesee Country Village is a living history museum that brings yuletide to the hinterland with its annual Christmas celebrations. Visit 68 nineteenth-century buildings where docents in costume play the part of village workers and offer demonstrations in practical arts such as pottery-making, tinsmithing, and blacksmithing. In December, the buildings’ fireplaces alight, and the rooms blaze with candles, holiday lights, and traditional decorations. Live performances and holiday menus illustrating the traditions and customs of Christmas’ past and in other countries are part of the experience, including a Polish Christmas Eve Wigilia dinner (a pre-Christmas meatless meal) and a visit from St. Nick.
INSIDER TIPHead up to Rochester, about 30 minutes north of Mumford, to visit the George Eastman Museum (of Eastman-Kodak fame) to delve into the history of photography, film, and photo-cinematic technology. From mid-November to January 1, the rooms in Eastman’s former mansion are filled with beautifully decorated gingerbread houses (which, by the way, are available for purchase via an online silent auction).
Holiday Mississippi Riverboat Cruises
WHERE: The Lower Mississippi River
Keep the holiday spirit going for a whole week on a modern riverboat to savor the sights, lights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Christmas in the South. American Cruise Lines offers two different eight-day, seven-night itineraries for Christmas along the lower Mississippi River. Depending on the cruise, stops include Memphis, where the big attraction is Elvis Presley’s Graceland, all done up in its Christmas finery. Other ports include Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, and Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana. The elegantly styled riverboats are decorated to the hilt during the holidays, the ships are alive with holiday entertainment, and Christmas gifts and treats are abundant for all guests (as is alcohol, which is included in the cost of the cruises). Similarly, Viking Cruise Lines has eight-day, seven-night riverboat sailings in December going from New Orleans to Memphis and Memphis to New Orleans. Onboard the boat, the holidays are all-out festive, with special celebratory meals pegged to the region’s cuisines and seasonal treats.
INSIDER TIP: Plan an extra day in New Orleans to savor Creole Christmas traditions such as the lighting of bonfires on the levee to illuminate Santa’s path to the city, caroling by candlelight in Jackson Square, a lights display called “Celebration in the Oaks,” and “Jingling Through the Crescent” tours of mansions in the French Quarter and Garden District. In early December, guests can also partake in a newer NOLA tradition: A Deutsches Haus Christkindl Markt (German Christmas Market).