Traveling around Christmas time presents an excellent opportunity not only to witness firsthand how a different location celebrates the holiday season but also to take in the awe-inspiring decorations and festive events you might not get to experience in your hometown. Skiing enthusiasts and nostalgia chasers may want to scope out the snow-covered mountains of the north—whereas snowbirds may want to escape the cold by heading south. Either way, there's certainly no shortage of destinations that feel extra merry and bright this time of year.
Whether you're seeking to take your kids on a magical Christmas vacation, or planning a romantic getaway for two, these small towns go all out with their holiday festivities.
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The Best Christmas Towns in the U.S.
1. Sausalito, California
Just on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge lies a magical waterfront city named Sausalito—which feels like a little slice of Italy. Once you see the stunning meandering coastline, rolling hills, and colorful seaside houses, you'll instantly see why many refer to Sausalito as the Amalfi Coast of California.
The annual Holiday by the Bay celebration features 22 days of events throughout the month of December—many of which are free to the public and appropriate for all ages. These events include a tree lighting ceremony with treats and live music, breakfast with Santa, a holiday art fair, a lighted boat parade with fireworks, a Christmas-themed comedy show, and a number of family-friendly sing-alongs and concerts.
During the Sausalito Makers Faire and Santa's Workshop, you can pick out some unique gifts made by local artisans—and meet the craftspeople who made them. And at the ever-popular annual Gingerbread House Tour, dozens of Sausalito merchants and businesses display their wondrous creations.
As an added bonus, Sausalito is just a quick 20-minute drive from San Francisco, where there are tons more festive events and attractions—like ice skating rinks galore, the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, and performances of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.
2. St. Augustine, Florida
The Sunshine State may not be the first destination that comes to mind for a Christmas vacation. But Tonya Denmark, founder of Detail Oriented Traveler, says that while St. Augustine—the oldest city in the U.S.—is already charming to begin with, it shines extra bright during December and January. That's because the city is adorned with millions of twinkling lights as part of the legendary annual Nights of Lights holiday display. Residents and tourists alike flock to the historic district to see the many historic museums, houses, restaurants, and shops all aglow.
"This event was selected in 2011 and 2012 by National Geographic as one of the 10 dazzling holiday light displays around the world," says Bridget Highet, author of the Just Go Family travel blog. "Trains and trolleys offer special tours through the lighted areas, and the city comes alive with musical performances and Christmas spirit."
Denmark recommends taking a walk along the waterway for some incredible photo opportunities, or dining in one of the many charming eateries and pubs to catch a killer view of the illuminated district. Best of all, since Florida doesn't get too frigid in the wintertime, you'll find it's the perfect weather for evening strolls and outdoor dining.
That's not the only reason to visit St. Augustine this time of year, either: the Holiday Regatta of Lights features boats decorated with brilliant lighted displays, and the city's annual Christmas parade features marching bands, floats, and even a special appearance from Santa.
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3. Leavenworth, Washington
According to Megan Lawrence, the travel blogger behind My Moments and Memories, this quaint town could fill even the Grinch with Christmas spirit. Nestled among the breathtaking Cascade Mountains, Leavenworth is modeled after a Bavarian village and brimming with alpine character.
"Even the Starbucks locations and gas stations here look like they're straight out of The Sound of Music," adds Jessica Schmit, founder of Uprooted Traveler.
While there are too many special Christmas activities in this town to list, Lawrence says the incredible lights display, roving characters, and epic Christmastown Festival cannot be missed.
"The weekend after Thanksgiving, Leavenworth transforms into a winter wonderland, with half a million Christmas lights twinkling from its buildings," says Schmit. "The town also hosts various holiday activities, from carolers strolling the streets, chestnuts roasting over open fires, and even visits from Santa himself. Plus, due to its mountainside location, you're almost certain to have a white Christmas in Leavenworth."
4. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Gettysburg may be known as a mecca for history buffs, but Past Lane Travels blogger Jessica James says it also transforms into a picturesque winter wonderland during the annual Gettysburg Christmas Festival.
"There is a true spirit of community and old-fashioned fun during the holidays as the entire town is decorated with wreaths on the light posts and white lights are strung in the trees," she explains.
Kids can get into the holiday spirit by creating their own wooden toy at Santa's Toy Shop or by decorating their own sugar cookies or ornaments, or by getting their pictures taken with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Adults, meanwhile, might enjoy just listening to the carolers croon popular tunes or checking out the annual gingerbread house competition.
"Throw in some live reindeer and chestnuts roasting over an open fire, and it's a fun weekend getaway that can please every member of the family," says James.
Plus, Gettysburg's close proximity to major cities like Manhattan, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, means you can easily hop from place to place for a range of Christmas festivities.
5. Woodstock, Vermont
"This quintessential New England town is the perfect place to celebrate Christmas," says Luke Xavier, founder of USA Rover. "The streets are lined with beautiful Victorian-style homes, many of which are decorated with festive wreaths and lights. There's also a charming town square, complete with a towering Christmas tree."
Woodstock is quintessential small-town America, says Jacob Richard, founder of Camera Prism—the warm sense of community really adds to the festive vibe around the holidays.
"Everyone comes together to make the holiday season special," he explains. "The annual tree lighting ceremony is a highlight, and you can also visit Santa's workshop, or take a horse-drawn sleigh ride."
Jon Stephens, director of operations at Snowshoe Vacation Rentals, also adds that Woodstock's Wassail Weekend is a fun-filled festival that includes ice skating, a holiday craft fair, and so much more.
6. Santa Claus, Indiana
It's a no-brainer that a town named after Saint Nick is a must-visit destination during the Christmas season. Come December every year, tourists from all over the world come here to get into the holiday spirit and attend the many family-friendly events.
"This town happens to live and breathe Christmas every day of the year," says Fiona Perisone, a travel consultant for Planet Rider. "There's a massive celebration during the entire month of December, where you can go to craft events, light showcases, and a variety of parades."
Enjoy hot cocoa and cider with Santa at the Christmas at the Barn event, or feast alongside him at a buffet-style dinner in Santa's Lodge. Then, browse thousands of specialty toys at the annual Live Reindeer Exhibit, or decorate your own gingerbread house and watch the town's Christmas parade. Whether your kids were naughty or nice this year, make sure to stop by Santa Claus Museum and Village, where they can write letters with their wishlists to Father Christmas himself.
7. Frederick, Maryland
"Frederick has a bit of everything to cover your Christmas fix, kicking off in November with horse-drawn carriage rides, a Christmas market, and extended shopping hours in the downtown's cute boutique stores," says Jenny Ly, a professional travel blogger and entrepreneur at Go Wanderly.
Frosty Friday features a free trolley tour of the neighborhood, carolers, Santa photo ops, and stations where you can roast your own s'mores. And a brand-new Frosty Friday tradition culminates with Santa's exciting arrival is the Frederick Holiday Circus.
According to Ly, just some of the very merry events include a live nativity scene, brunch and dinner with Santa, carolers, candlelit house tours, and the Kris Kringle Procession–a German-inspired parade that ends with the lighting of the town's tree.
Adults can sip on festive libations and vote on their favorites at the Christmas cocktail competition, while kids are sure to delight in a ride on the beautiful and historic Santa Train, which chugs through the scenic countryside—with a special visit from Saint Nick, of course. Scope out festive works by local talents at the holiday art competition, marvel at the decorated sailboats lining Carroll Creek Park in a floating light installation, and listen to the group carolers and local children's chorus perform classic tunes at the heart-warming Festival of Lights ceremony.
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8. Dahlonega, Georgia
Danasia Fantastic, the travel blogger behind TheUrbanRealist, says this scenic mountain town is her top pick for celebrating Christmas. Located right at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dahlonega is known not only for its sweeping views and lively arts scene, but also its undeniable Christmas charm.
Stay in one of the many quaint bed and breakfasts near the town square, and you'll be able to walk to most of the Christmas activities. According to Perisone, Dahlonega's month-long festivities include Santa appearances, twinkling light decorations covering the entire town, and a legendary parade where crowds gather to see Kriss Kringle and his sleigh. Just steps from downtown Dahlonega Square you'll find the ultra-popular Christmas Market on Candy Cane Lane, where you can pick up unique gifts for loved ones—including ornaments by local craftsmen, themed gift baskets, and homemade sweets.
"The town's dedication and passion for Christmas can be felt as soon as you enter it," says Perisone. "That's one of the many reasons why it was featured in popular Hallmark movies—like Christmas in Homestead."