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Williamsburg, Virginia at Christmas
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Williamburg

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
Sarah Medina

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

Bethlehem, PA
Photograph: Jeff Cushner/CC

1. Bethlehem, PA

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 heart-warming holiday event with live Christmas music and artisan vendors. Kids can also attend a breakfast with Old St. Nick on Saturdays throughout December. While you're there, stop by the nearby Lehigh Valley Zoo for their annual Winter Light Spectacular too, which features more than 1.2 million bright, shining bulbs.

North Pole, AK
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. North Pole, AK

Turns out the North Pole isn't as far as you might think! This Alaska town has Christmas spirit all year round with a permanent Santa Claus house with live reindeer, a mayor who goes by the name of Santa, and candy cane street lamps. In December, the town hosts a Christmas in Ice event that showcases ice sculpture artists from around the world.

Discover Alaska: 
📍The best things to do in Alaska

Franklin, TN
Photograph: Courtesy The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County, TN

3. Franklin, TN

If you've searched this list for a mention of Charles Dickens, then Franklin, Tennessee is the destination for you. This year's annual Dickens of a Christmas celebration fills the streets with roaming characters from A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, as well as merry-making dancers and musicians. The event also includes a window decorating contest, quaint shopping opportunities, a beer garden and a whiskey lounge.

Discover Tennessee: 
📍The best things to do in Tennessee

Natchitoches, LA
Photograph: Shutterstock

4. Natchitoches, LA

This small Louisiana city is an unexpectedly festive place to spend Christmas when the riverbank town sets up 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, a Natchitoches Christmas includes live music, parades, fireworks over Cane River Lake, and plenty of good food, like BBQ shrimp and cornbread dressing.

Discover Louisiana: 
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Duluth, MN
Photograph: Shutterstock

5. Duluth, MN

Duluth has a lot to offer Christmas-lovers, from a winter village for shopping to a snowy landscape, but the big draw is Bentleyville, a massive walk-through light display. Santa and Mrs. Claus are on-site to visit with families. Check their Crowd-O-Meter to choose a date with the best viewing.

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📍The best things to do in Minnesota

Santa Claus, IN
Photograph: Courtesy Spencer County Visitors Bureau

6. Santa Claus, IN

With a name like Santa Claus, this town gets pretty busy come winter. Dating all the way 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. 

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📍The best things to do in Indiana

Leavenworth, WA
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Leavenworth, WA

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 in an effort to invigorate the area’s tourism. While COVID has shut down Leavenworth's popular Christmas Lighting Festival, the lights will shine brightly throughout its European-style Christmastown seven days a week from Thanksgiving through February 2022. 

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Williamsburg, VA
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Williamburg

8. Williamsburg, VA

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 costume 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. 

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📍The best things to do in Virginia

Newport Beach, CA
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Sergei Mutovkin

9. Newport Beach, CA

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. 

Note: The boat parade has been cancelled this year, though the sister event, The Rings of Lights, in which homeowners around the harbor decorate to the nines, will still go on.

Discover Newport Beach 
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Woodstock, VT
Photograph: Shutterstock

10. Woodstock, VT

Filled with twinkling lights, historic decorated homes and unique local shops, Woodstock, Vermont turns into a veritable winter wonderland every December during the Wassail festival. Held over a single weekend, this year's fest features musical performances, Christmas movies, carriage rides, a scavenger hunt and more in the charming nineteenth-century town.

Discover Vermont: 
📍The best things to do in Vermont


11. Big Spring, TX

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 lit poinsettias every year, the city offers 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 this year's Christmas Tree Forest at the Heritage Museum. 

Discover Texas: 
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12. McAdenville, NC

Every December this North Carolina suburb transforms from regular ol' McAdenville to Christmas Town USA. The town is known for its impressive downtown display, covering 265 evergreen trees in 500,000 lights and decorating 160 houses as well as hosting annual traditions like a tree-lighting ceremony and the 70-year-old Yule Log Parade. The season kicks off with a three mile fun run through the holiday lights.

Discover North Carolina: 
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Stockbridge, MA
Photograph: Courtesy Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce

13. Stockbridge, MA

You might recognize this cute New England town as the setting for Norman Rockwell's painting "Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas (Home for Christmas)." Each year, the town fully embraces its claim-to-fame by re-creating the 1967 painting down to the vintage cars that line the street. While the recreation won't take place this year, the town is celebrating with virtual readings, outdoor holiday light shows and live theatre and a holiday marketplace instead. 

Discover Massachusetts: 
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Durango, CO
Photograph: Shutterstock

14. Durango, CO

Durango has a lot going for it this time of year. In addition to being a ski destination, the town transforms its historic steam train, the Durango & Silverton, into a 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 story.  

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St. Augustine, FL
Photograph: Courtesy Visit St Augustine

15. St. Augustine, FL

Want to enjoy the Christmas season and warm weather at the same time? Head to the ancient city of St Augustine, Florida, where the entire town is decked out in lights, candles and holiday decor from November to January. Hop aboard a historic trolley, book a ticket on the Big Red Train, head out to sea on a boat tour, or simply wander the historic city center to see the dazzling light displays as part of the city's Nights of Lights Tours

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