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A central street in Leavenworth, WA, that's decorated with Christmas lights.
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These dazzling Christmas cities in the USA go all out for the holidays

Looking for a spectacular winter getaway? These Christmas cities are all lit up and ready to celebrate.

Written by
Mark Williams
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Whether you love Christmas for the family time and well-worn traditions or the bright lights and festive atmosphere, the best places to get your holiday fix aren't big cities like New York and D.C. (even though, yes, we love their holiday vibe, too). It is the smaller communities that really go all out, the 'Christmas Cities' that should be at the top of the season's travel list.

For these cities across the United States, Christmas isn't just a holiday, it's a way of life and often their claim to fame. They erect dreamily lit-up villages, serve hot mulled wine, and cover the city in hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights. Some, like Santa Claus, Indiana and McAdenville, North Carolina have parades and Christmas tree lightings that date back years and years. Some of these towns will even transport you back in time, like at the colonial-style celebration in Williamsburg, Virginia or the Charles Dickens-inspired one in Franklin, Tennessee. While you may still find a few changes due to COVID (not the least of which include masking and distancing), there's still plenty of holiday cheer to go around.

For more Christmas excitement, try our guides to the best holiday markets in New York and London. If your ideal winter vacation combines Christmas cheer with something a little more adventurous, check out our favorite ski towns and snowboarding resorts. And if your Christmas will be brighter if you head out of the snow to warmer climes, our list of the best beaches in the country's got you covered, er...uncovered.

Best Christmas cities in the USA

It's not just the name Bethlehem that led this community to adopt the moniker Christmas City; the quaint Pennsylvania town is known for getting dressed to the nines each holiday season. Bethlehem's annual Christkindlmarkt is a heartwarming holiday event with live Christmas music and artisan vendors. While in town, stop by the nearby Lehigh Valley Zoo for their annual Winter Light Spectacular, which features more than 1.2 million brightly shining bulbs. For even more holiday spirit, drive about an hour to the famed Koziar's Christmas Village, celebrating its 75th year.

Turns out the North Pole isn't as far as you might think! This Alaska town has Christmas spirit all year round with the Santa Claus House, the world’s largest Santa (standing nearly 50ft!), live reindeer, candy cane-striped lamp posts, and fun street names like Kris Kringle Drive and Snowman Lane. After shopping for gifts and posing with Santa, mail your holiday cards or letters to loved ones with a genuine North Pole postmark. As an added bonus, you might even catch a glimpse of the wondrous Northern Lights.

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If you've searched this list for a mention of Charles Dickens, then this is the destination for you. Using Franklin’s charming Victorian architecture as a backdrop, the annual Dickens of a Christmas fills the streets with characters from A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist (don’t miss your chance to yell 'bah humbug'' at Ebenezer Scrooge) as well as merry-making dancers and musicians. Franklin also hosts a Christmas parade, tree-lighting ceremony and festival of lights.

This Christmas, celebrate on the water with the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade—the largest at-sea holiday celebration in the country—and the waterfront light display, the Ring of Lights. More than 100 boats ranging in size from yachts to canoes light up and sail 14 miles around Newport Harbor for five consecutive nights. Prizes are given out for categories such as best animation and originality. Some boat owners spend a whopping 50,000 to make their vessels sail past the competition. Other festivities include Nights of 1000 Lights at Sherman Library and Gardens. This year’s theme is 'Hooray for Hollywood' (literally putting the tinsel in Tinseltown). Be sure to visit Santa in his 'Miracle on PCH' workshop.

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This small Louisiana city is a festive place to spend Christmas, offering more than 300,000 lights and 100 set pieces celebrating the history of the city—the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory. Held for six weeks, from mid-November to early January, the 96th annual Natchitoches Christmas includes live music, parades, fireworks over Cane River Lake, and plenty of good food, like BBQ shrimp and cornbread dressing.

Duluth has a lot to offer Christmas lovers, including a winter village where local small businesses sell unique goods and there are hot drinks and firepits to warm you up, and a scenic holiday train ride around Lake Superior, but the big draw is Bentleyville, a massive walk-through light display. Located in downtown Duluth’s Bayfront Festival Park, the event features over 5 million lights and free sweet treats, including cookies, popcorn, and marshmallows you can roast over a fire. Santa and Mrs. Claus are on-site to visit with families.

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With a name like Santa Claus, this town gets pretty busy come winter. Dating back to the 1920s, the local post office (and its merry band of elves) have answered thousands of children's letters to Santa every year. Dubbed America's Christmas Hometown, the city also celebrates the holiday with local festivities including a candy castle, a traditional chestnut roasting, live reindeer exhibits, and Santa's Land of Lights, a 1.2-mile drive-through holiday light show.

The little town of Leavenworth, Washington is an interesting place: In the 1960s, town leaders gave the area a Bavarian-style facelift, renovating the downtown area and inaugurating a series of German festivals to invigorate the area’s tourism. Their plan worked, as the town now sees about two million visitors a year. From December to February, Leavenworth’s Village of Lights: Christmastown celebrates the holiday with over half a million lights, live entertainment, carolers, roasting chestnuts, photo ops with Santa, and, in the true spirit of Germany, glasses of Gluhwein.

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Historic Williamsburg was restored in the early 1900s when museum founders fashioned the colonial city into the living-history museum it is today. The site recreates the former capital in the 18th century, with all employees dressed in period costumes year-round. At Christmas though, Williamsburg pulls out all the stops, offering a roster of historical celebrations in addition to an ice pavilion, a Christmas market, and the chance to have cookies with Santa. Don’t miss the charming window displays in Merchants Square, and, for something more out of this century, check out the Busch Gardens Christmas Celebration.

Carrying the distinction of 'America’s Christmas Tree City,' Branson is fur real about getting decked out for the holidays. Local businesses display over 700 colorful evergreens and creative trees made from go-kart tires, wine bottles, library books, and more. To find the best ones, follow the town’s Christmas Tree City Tour. Other must-see experiences include a scenic Polar Express train ride through the Ozark Mountains and An Old Time Christmas at Silver Dollar City Amusement park, which features 6.5 million lights, 1,000 decorated trees, and Broadway-style shows. Why ride a sleigh when you can go on a rollercoaster, instead?

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If you're in Texas, then Big Spring is the place to be for the holidays. Often called the Light Poinsettia Capital of Texas for the huge light festival it throws with large poinsettias every year, the city offers a Christmas parade and multiple events over Christmas time. Enjoy more than one million colorful lights from the warm comfort of your car at the Comanche Trail Festival of Lights or take the kids to experience a magical Christmas Tree Forest at the Heritage Museum, where they can also meet Santa, Rudolph, Frosty, and the Grinch on the first Saturday in December.

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Durango has a lot going for it this time of year. In addition to being a great ski destination, the town transforms its historic steam train, the Durango & Silverton, into a can’t-miss holiday attraction. Board the Polar Express-inspired trip for a scenic ride through snowy mountains where kids will see Santa Claus in his workshop, meet two of his reindeer, and interact with characters from the book. For some time on the slopes, head to the nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area (an easy 30-minute drive from Durango), which boasts having 'The Most Snow in Colorado' (an annual accumulation of 430 natural inches)!

Want to enjoy the Christmas season and warm weather at the same time? Head to St. Augustine to see America’s oldest city decked out in lights, candles, and holiday decor from November to January. Line up for the city’s Christmas parade, see boats all lit up in the Holiday Regatta of Lights and hop aboard Old Town Trolley’s Nights of Lights Tour, where you’ll see over three million twinkling lights stretching across nearly 20 blocks. If you prefer, trade your Christmas trees for palm trees and spend a day relaxing on the beautiful St. Augustine Beach.

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Not to be confused with our earlier entry, Newport Beach, this Ocean State gem is the perfect holiday destination to reenact your favorite scenes from The Gilded Age (a Christine Baranski side-eye is fully encouraged). See the famous mansions—The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House—decked out and dressed up for Christmas with gorgeously decorated trees, garlands, wreaths, and fresh floral arrangements. Don’t miss the 15-foot-tall poinsettia tree or impressive outdoor lights display at The Breakers. For a unique take on a classic tale, check out the 'Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff' where the audience follows the dancers through the mansion, feeling like part of the story. Throughout December, Christmas in Newport, a 52-year-old tradition, offers concerts, tree lighting, craft fairs, candlelight house tours, and more.

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