Small towns seem to be full of the holiday spirit around Christmastime. TravelAwaits asked our readers to nominate and vote on their favorite small towns to visit during the holidays. Several of their favorite spots bring traditions from other countries here to the U.S. All of them have light displays, great places to finish your holiday shopping, and special seasonal events. Check out these charming small towns’ traditions and start planning your holiday getaway today!
1. Branson, Missouri
In an effort to become “America’s Christmas Tree City,” Branson businesses are displaying more than 700 colorful, unique, and creative trees — and that’s not counting the 1,000-plus trees at Silver Dollar City! Head to the 1880s-style theme park for An Old Time Christmas celebration featuring 6.5 million twinkling lights and live holiday shows every day. Of course, no Branson trip is complete without taking in a show, and the Missouri vacation destination offers plenty of variety and dinner shows, so be sure to see a Christmas-themed one if you visit during the holidays.
2. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
The gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg is a popular leaf-peeping destination in the fall, but this eastern Tennessee mountain town has much to offer during the holidays. Featuring parades, events, and shows, Pigeon Forge Winterfest transforms the Smoky Mountains into a glowing winter wonderland. More than 15 million lights turn the parkway that connects Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and Sevierville into a twinkling drive. Touring the light display is an annual tradition for many.
Gatlinburg SkyBridge becomes a tunnel of lights during the Lights Over Gatlinburg event. Lighted floats, holiday-themed performances, marching bands, and Santa Claus stroll through downtown for Gatlinburg’s Annual Fantasy of Lights Parade.
Hit the slopes at Ober Gatlinburg, a four-season adventure and ski park, and source one-of-a-kind artisan gifts on the Gatlinburg Arts And Crafts Trail. Don’t miss a Smoky Mountain Christmas at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge (November 5, 2022, through January 1, 2023), featuring holiday lights, shows, shopping, sweets, and more! Make the most of your Smoky Mountain getaway by staying in one of these gorgeous Gatlinburg cabins.
3. St. Augustine, Florida
“America’s Oldest City,” St. Augustine is one of the most magical places to spend the holidays. For 2 months, Nights of Lights lights up almost every corner of the town’s historic district with more than 3 million lights bringing a festive atmosphere to the region. Take in the lights by trolley, train, or boat. See them from the top of the St. Augustine Lighthouse, while riding a carriage around town, on a walking tour, or by golf cart.
4. Williamsburg, Virginia
Few places do Christmas better than Williamsburg — and particularly Colonial Williamsburg, an immense attraction within it.
There are many reasons to visit this quaint Virginia town during the holidays. Take a horse-drawn carriage through Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area and keep an eye out for Father Christmas at Merchants Square, an 18th-century style retail village. Enjoy colonial holiday traditions such as fife and drum performances, caroling by torchlight, and the celebration of the yule log. Listen to live holiday music in the town square and stay after dark for the Lighting of the Cressets and strolling musicians on the historic Duke of Gloucester Street.
A highlight is Colonial Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination, a celebratory firework, and historic gun-salute display, best viewed from the town green. Book a room at the iconic Williamsburg Inn, pictured above.
Beyond Colonial Williamsburg, Christmastide in Virginia celebration lets visitors explore the Jamestown Settlement and meander the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. You can celebrate Christmas and learn about American history at the same time.
5. Leavenworth, Washington
Nestled in the Cascade Mountain Range approximately 135 miles east of Seattle, Leavenworth feels like a Hallmark Christmas movie with old-world Christmas charm. One of the best small towns to visit for Christmas in the U.S., the Bavarian village celebrates the season with Christmas Lighting Festivals through February. The Village of Lights includes over half a million lights sparking downtown, live music, photo ops with Santa, chestnuts roasting, and holiday characters.
On Thanksgiving weekend, Leavenworth hosts the Christkindlmarkt, its annual Bavarian-style Christmas market. Taking place in Front Street Park and in the Leavenworth Festhalle, this popular tradition boasts Bavarian foods, handmade arts and crafts, gifts, and Bavarian- and Christmas-themed entertainment for the whole family. Check the Festhalle calendar for more festive activities.
But wait, that’s not all the holiday fun this adorable mountain town has in store! You can also tour Leavenworth Reindeer Farm (hot cocoa or cider in hand) and marvel at the antique nutcrackers at the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum, which is just steps from Leavenworth Square. Book your stay at the beautiful Bavarian Lodge.
6. Lindsborg, Kansas
Known as “Little Sweden,” Lindsborg, Kansas, won our 2021 Best of Travel Award for Most Hallmark Movie-esque Small Town. This year, the incredibly charming small Kansas town also ranked third in our Best of Travel Awards for Best U.S. Small Town.
Shop unique finds for everyone on your list downtown and check out Lindsborg’s Swedish holiday traditions, including Lucia Festival, celebrated on the second weekend in December, and Annandag Jul, a church service that takes place the day after Christmas.
7. Saratoga Springs, New York
Saratoga Springs, a quaint town in Upstate New York, has fun activities to celebrate the season throughout December. Events include a Holiday Home Decorating Contest, the annual Saratoga Springs Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony with Santa, and the Saratoga Festival of Trees. Donated and designed by community sponsors, 250-plus delightfully decorated trees, wreaths, and centerpieces are sold for charity.
Plus, live performers stroll the streets and are staged in storefront windows during the Victorian Streetwalk Weekend.
8. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
You don’t have to wait until December to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In addition to the holiday season, they celebrate Christmas in July! With a population of over 75,000, Bethlehem is more like a city than a little town. In fact, it is the self-proclaimed Christmas City.
One of the best Bavarian-style Christmas markets in the U.S., Christkindlmarkt Bethlehem will transport you into your own Hallmark Christmas movie. Shop artisans and vendors, enjoy live entertainment, and say hello to Saint Nick. Sample strudel, German bratwurst, and Christmas cookies, and stop by the biergarten for a hot toddy or beer.
9. Frankenmuth, Michigan
One of the best U.S. cities for a Christmas getaway, adorable Frankenmuth lies an hour and a half north of Detroit. Home to under 6,000 folks, Michigan’s “Little Bavaria” welcomes millions of visitors during Christmastime who look forward to celebrating the best German Christmas outside of Germany.
Settled by Germans in 1845, Frankenmuth has all the trappings of a Deutsch Christmas, including a Bavarian Village and Bavarian-style homes, church services in German, and a traditional Christkindlmarkt.
Frankenmuth is also home to the world’s largest Christmas store. Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland carries over 6,000 styles of ornaments as well as trees, wreaths, garlands, lights, nativities, collectibles, Christmas cards, stockings, and Advent calendars. Personalize a unique custom ornament as a keepsake gift.
10. Woodstock, Vermont
Tucked in by area mountains, Woodstock is the epitome of a classic, charming, and quaint Vermont town. Walking around the square of stately white colonial homes clustered around a green during the holidays transforms you into the main character of your own Hallmark Christmas movie, complete with falling snowflakes and twinkling lights.
Experience a Victorian-inspired Christmas with Christmas at the Farm at the Billings Farm & Museum, which also hosts Wassail Weekend, featuring Wassail punch (a spicy apple cider), cider donuts, and festive decor.
If you do celebrate the holidays in Vermont, stay at the elegant Woodstock Inn & Resort. This classic New England stay features exquisitely appointed suites, farm-fresh cuisine, and charming antique decor.
11. Temecula, California
Wine lovers should spend the holidays in Temecula. Home to nearly 50 wineries, this beautiful town makes for a fabulous winter getaway in southern California’s wine country. Located just a couple of hours from LA and one hour from San Diego, Temecula is also host to acclaimed golf courses, the Pechanga Resort Casino, and hot air balloon rides. Get in the holiday spirit with Temecula Chilled live entertainment, events, and activities; outdoor ice skating; and holiday shopping.
12. Galena, Illinois
Tucked in the northwest corner of Illinois, Galena, Illinois is a charming and quaint Midwest town. Known as the former home of Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant, this charming small town is the perfect place for history lovers to spend the holidays. Only 10 minutes from both Iowa and Wisconsin, Galena is also a perfect escape from bustling Chicago.
Many of Galena’s historic homes now serve as bed and breakfasts. The view down Main Street can’t be beaten, with shops, restaurants, and art galleries as far as the eye can see. Galena hosts several winter events, including an antique toy show and a tree festival. While you’re here, hit the slopes at Chestnut Mountain Resort.
13. Helen, Georgia
Adorable Helen is one of the best small towns to visit in Georgia. Known as the Bavarian capital of America, the Bavarian village town can be found in the North Georgia Mountains about 90 minutes from Atlanta. Its cobblestone streets are full of cute little chalet-style shops. Shop Christmas ornaments at Helen Christmas Shoppe, German-inspired gifts at Windmill Dutch Imports, and fashion, decor, and quilts at Village Peddler Boutique and Cabin Decor.
The town’s annual Christkindlmarkt takes place on the Marktplatz on certain weekends during the holiday season. This traditional German event offers everything from unique gifts and decorations to an assortment of savory and sweet foods, drinks, and candied treats.
14. New Hope, Pennsylvania
North of Philadelphia, Bucks County is a lovely countryside getaway that sits along the Delaware River. It is home to many historic covered bridges, holiday happenings, and the small riverside town of New Hope. This quaint Eastern Pennsylvania town has a plethora of bed and breakfasts as well as activities to keep travelers busy. It also boasts its own covered bridge, the potentially haunted Van Sant Covered Bridge.
The iconic Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope hosts holiday shows, while the New Hope Railroad has The North Pole Express and Santa’s Steam Train Ride. Shop clothing, cookware, jewelry, and more at Peddler’s Village about 5 miles from New Hope. During Christmastime, the charming shopping village’s Holidays in the Village program features a million twinkling lights, a gingerbread-house competition, visits from Santa, and more.
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