There’s something about the Christmas holiday season that forces us to tap into our childlike spirits and embrace the beauty of winter.
The first snowfall of the year urges us to throw on our cold weather gear and head outside to catch snowflakes on our tongue, lay on our backs and make snow angels, and grab the sled from the garage — all topped off with a warm hot cup of cocoa.
The following destinations are sure to put you in the holiday spirit, and are our top picks for the best U.S. cities to visit during Christmas time. Filled with sounds of carols in the air, aromas of roasting chestnuts, and what seem to be millions of lights suspended on the breeze, these top yuletide destinations will leave you jingling all the way.
11. New York City
We’re only putting NYC at 11 on this list because it’s so obviously a great place to spend time around the holidays. The lighting of the Rockefeller Christmas tree alone is something you just have to see if you’re the festive type.
However, if you’re a window shopper (or, you know, a real shopper), you’ll get just as much joy from the elaborate window displays that festoon the fronts of all the big department stores as Christmas approaches. Some of them are truly artful.
You can see the Big Apple all decked out for the season by taking the Christmas Walking Tour from the Rockefeller Center to Radio City Music Hall. If you really love Christmas lights, take a trip out to the well-heeled Brooklyn suburb of Dyker Heights, where decorating for the holidays seems to be a matter of family pride.
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10. Chicago, Illinois
The Windy City and its surrounding suburbs host at least 12 holiday lighting ceremonies, including the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, Zoo Lights at Lincoln Park Zoo and St. Lucia Festival of Lights in Andersonville. Don’t feel like walking? The Chicago Holiday Lights Segway Tour is a popular and exciting way to zip through the city lights.
Despite Chicago’s freezing winter temperatures, visitors from around the world still flock to Chi-Town to see the city come alive during the holiday season. This year will mark the 104th anniversary of the Christmas Tree Lighting at Millennium Park.
Other renowned holiday hotspots in Chicago are Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry and Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier.
Chicago is also home to the world’s largest German market outside of Germany, Christkindlmarket. This festive (and free!) activity attracts more than 1 million visitors per year.
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9. Washington, D.C.
Running from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, 2019, from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. nightly, Georgetown GLOW DC is the region’s only curated exhibition of outdoor public light installations, making D.C.’s oldest neighborhood come to life during the holiday season.
State-of-the-art light installations are designed by local and international artists, inviting viewers to interact, connect, and play with the artwork. A concoction of chromatic rings and interactive landscapes are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood, making for a truly magical holiday experience.
Those traveling to Washington, D.C., during the holidays can also tick witnessing the illumination of the National Christmas Tree off of their bucket lists.
Can’t pick only one lights display? The Holiday Lights Bus Tour showcases the four top displays in the city.
8. Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin
Another Midwestern town with a Christmas market resembling that of the Christkindlmarket in Nuremberg, Germany, Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin is home to the famed Old World Christmas Market. Visitors can hop on for a horse-drawn wagon ride, have breakfast with Santa, or indulge in some traditional German schnitzel and mulled wine.
Travelers can spread the holiday cheer at nearby Greenbush’s Wade House Historic Site. In December, Wade House hosts An Old World Christmas, a mid-19th century-style Christmas celebration filled with live holiday music, horse-drawn rides bedecked with jingle bells, and photo ops with a Victorian Santa Claus.
7. Jackson Hole, Wyoming
A quaint ski town, especially charming during the holiday season, Jackson Hole, Wyoming is an ideal destination for outdoorsy types, offering endless winter activities and a magical town square ornamented with twinkling lights.
Throughout the holiday season, resorts in Jackson Hole spread the holiday cheer with room-delivered wreathes, trees, eggnog, fresh cookies, and horse-drawn carriage rides throughout the properties.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and the Teton Village Association offer a plethora of holiday-themed family events throughout December, including skiing with Santa on Christmas Day, ornament and tree decorating, cookie decorating and ice skating.
6. Nevada City, California
Whiffs of chestnut roasting on an open fire ride on the crisp air of this picturesque Gold Rush town during the holiday season at Nevada City Victorian Christmas. Vendors line the streets offering an abundance of Christmas treasures like hand-crafted candy, jewelry, perfume, dolls, and pottery.
This magical Christmas card setting thrives with wandering carollers dressed in Victorian attire, carriage rides, live entertainment, and delectable treats.
This year’s Victorian Christmas will be held Sundays, Dec. 9, 16 and 23 from 1:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. and Wednesdays, Dec. 12 and 19 from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
5. Ogden, Utah
If you’re considering Ogden for a winter holiday getaway, make sure to be there during the Electric Light Parade celebration, the town’s opening ceremony to kick-off the holiday season for Ogden’s Christmas Village. Since its beginning in 1962, Ogden’s Christmas Village has been a prized tradition for the people of this mountainous Utah city.
Landing on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the parade is filled with elaborate floats, world-class performers, and sensational holiday themes. Santa appears in the final float of the ceremony, flipping a magical switch and illuminating all of Christmas Village once reaching Municipal Gardens. The opening ceremony closes with a spectacular fireworks display.
4. Branson, Missouri
Lake of the Ozarks is primarily known for being a renowned summertime destination with boundless outdoor activity opportunities, but it may come as a surprise to discover that Branson — a prominent Ozark town — is home to a flourishing Christmas celebration during the holiday season: Ozark Mountain Christmas.
Deemed America’s Christmas Tree City and Live Music Show Capital of the World, Branson’s Ozark Mountain Christmas features top-notch live shows and performances, the largest Christmas light display in the area at Silver Dollar City‘s An Old Time Christmas and Branson Scenic Railway’s Polar Express Train Ride.
3. Bernville, Pennsylvania
Celebrating its 71st anniversary this year, Koziar’s Christmas Village in Bernville, Pennsylvania originated in 1948 when William M. Koziar began decorating his farmhouse for Christmas, simply for the enjoyment of his wife and children. What began as regular holiday decorating soon developed into a full-on frenzy, extending to the lake, walkways, trees and fences.
Today, Koziar’s tradition has grown into a town-wide celebration passed down for three generations. Now, more than one million dazzling Christmas lights adorn the town’s buildings and surrounding landscapes.
Koziar’s Christmas Village attracts visitors from near and far, featuring scenic festive displays housed in restored chicken coops, including Christmas in Other Lands, Christmas Beneath the Sea, and Christmas in the Jungle.
2. McAdenville, North Carolina
Located just 20 minutes outside of Charlotte, the tiny town of McAdenville becomes so invested in its holiday spirit and traditions that, each year, it changes its name to Christmas Town USA come December.
More than 600,000 people flock to Christmas Town USA annually to gaze upon the town’s 265 evergreens covered with more than 500,000 holiday lights, approximately 160 beautifully decorated homes and a large lake in the center surrounded by 38 lighted spruce trees.
Running daily from Nov. 30 through Dec. 26 of this year, Christmas Town USA’s lights celebration is open to the public free of charge, handing out free hot chocolate and kettle corn to the first 1,000 attendees each night.
1. Leavenworth, Washington
Our top pick for the best U.S. city to visit during Christmas time is, without deliberation, Leavenworth, Washington.
This quaint Bavarian town is idyllically situated in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, just two hours east of Seattle.
Come Dec. 1, this snowy mountain village transforms into the winter wonderland of your childhood dreams and lasts throughout the entire month. More than 500,000 lights deck the streets, with town festivities including caroling, Santa visits to the town gazebo, roasted chestnut vendors, boutique holiday shopping, sledding, sleigh rides, and more.
Check out our list of great U.S. cities to visit around Christmas in 2019 here.