Christmas celebrations are as varied as the people and towns that throw them. Some places, like the Bavarian-themed towns of Leavenworth, Washington, and Frankenmuth, Michigan, lean into their status as year-round destinations for Christmas cheer. Other destinations, like Florida’s Walt Disney World or the mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, transform into winter wonderlands for a limited time only: Starting after Halloween, the Hollywood Tower Hotel turns into a gingerbread house, and 28 elaborately-decorated trees line the halls at three of Newport’s grandest homes.
But no matter how you choose to celebrate, here are eight of the best places in the U.S. to immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and sweets of the holiday season.
1. Leavenworth, Washington
Blink as you look around Leavenworth, Washington, and you might think you’re in Bavaria. Nestled in a valley surrounded by the Cascade Mountains, the former fur, gold, and timber boom town was bypassed by a new railroad route in the 1920s. After decades of decline, Leavenworth remade itself into a Bavarian Village—and now attracts more than 2 million visitors annually.
The town boasts one of the world’s largest collections of nutcrackers (somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 are on display at the Nutcracker Museum), beer gardens, bakeries, and more than 50,000 twinkle lights. Take a horse drawn carriage ride around town, sleep under the stars—and along the banks of Icicle Creek—at the Sleeping Lady Resort, or visit Kari and Hans Andersen’s farm, home to ducks, pigs, and more than a dozen reindeer.
2. Newport Beach, California
Home to one of the largest decorated boat parades in the U.S., Newport Beach, California, welcomes hundreds of ships every December. Decorated vessels of all sizes, from yachts to canoes, compete for awards in a parade viewed by more than 1.5 million people.
The 2021 Christmas Boat Parade and Ring of Lights will be the city’s 113th such celebration; what began as just a few dozen boats is now a beloved tradition featuring both bayfront estates and boats decked out in millions of lights, wreaths, and bows. Landlubbers can watch the parade from solid ground, but the best views are from out on the water.
3. Big Spring, Texas
Everything’s bigger in Texas—and holiday celebrations are no exception. What the Lone Star State lacks in snow, it makes up for in lights displays, parades, and an indoor Christmas tree forest. Located 5 hours west of Dallas, Big Spring goes all out during the holidays.
From December 1 to 25, hop in your car and follow the Comanche Trail Festival of Lights, a decades-long tradition featuring dozens of drive-by light displays. Local performers re-enact the birth of Jesus at the First Church of the Nazarene’s Drive Thru Nativity; the Heritage Museum of Big Spring houses dozens of unique trees decorated by local groups; and kids can hand letters to Santa (and Mrs. Claus) in person during the museum’s Drive Thru Christmas event.
4. Santa Claus, Indiana
Home to the only post office in the world with Santa Claus in its name, Santa Claus, Indiana, takes its holiday status very seriously. Every December the town receives more than 400,000 pieces of mail and enlists a team of volunteer elves to respond. Some people route their holiday cards through Santa Claus to receive a holiday-themed postmark, which changes every year.
For three weekends in December, the town hosts the Santa Claus Christmas Celebration. The Santa Claus Museum and Village features a 22-foot-tall Santa statue, and visitors can tour the Santa Claus Land of Lights on Lake Rudolph; watch a light show timed to music in nearby Dale, Indiana; or ride a train with the town’s namesake.
5. Frankenmuth, Michigan
Like Washington, Michigan has its own Little Bavaria. Frankenmuth has all the charm of its old-world inspiration, with classic architecture, family-style chicken dinners, horse-drawn carriage rides, and a 35-bell carillon imported from Germany.
The small town, located an hour-and-a-half north of Detroit, really comes alive during the holiday season. Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland, a 7.35-acre holiday emporium, claims to be the “World’s Largest Christmas Store,” and the Frankenmuth Fudge Kitchen serves up a rotating selection of seasonal sweets, including Buddy the Elf’s Hot Cocoa fudge and Santa Crunch Caramel Corn.
6. Orlando, Florida
Kevin McCallister might not have been thrilled to spend the holidays in a tropical climate, but plenty of people prefer to celebrate the holiday season in shorts and flip flops. Walt Disney World is magical at any time of the year, but after Halloween, the theme parks are decked out for the holidays with dozens of decorated trees and thousands of lights. Kids can visit with Elsa, Olaf, and other beloved characters, take a “Jingle Cruise,” or play putt-putt with Santa and his elves.
Adults can experience international holiday traditions at EPCOT, deck their own campsite at Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, and sip spiked hot chocolate or themed cocktails, including Fireside Cider, Elf Elixir, and Claus Mos.
7. New York City, New York
For those looking for a classic East Coast Christmas experience, New York City packs plenty of holiday cheer into every square mile of Midtown Manhattan and beyond. From the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree to department store window displays, there are plenty of free attractions to supplement pricier, ticketed events—although the Radio City Christmas Spectacular and New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker are both worth the splurge.
After Thanksgiving, parks and other public spaces transform into ice skating rinks and pop-up holiday markets featuring local artisans and sweet treats. Residents and businesses string lights on stoops, balconies, and scaffolding throughout the city—but for the best light displays, head to Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights.
8. Newport, Rhode Island
Newport’s mansions are breathtaking year round, but they really sparkle during the holidays when the grand halls of select homes are decked with dozens of trees, poinsettias, wreaths, and garlands. No fireplace, mantel, or staircase at The Breakers, The Elms, or Marble House is left unadorned.
This year, the Great Hall of The Breakers (the former summer home of the Vanderbilt family) features a 15-foot tree made of 150 poinsettia plants. The festivities spill outside, where the sprawling grounds are illuminated with thousands of lights. Visitors can enjoy holiday brunch at the Chinese Tea House, located in the backyard of the Marble House, or warm up at the White Horse, the oldest tavern in the U.S.