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Williamsburg, Virginia at Christmas
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Williamburg

These dazzling Christmas cities go all out when it comes to the holidays

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

Written by
Sarah Medina
Time Out contributors

The holidays are a magical time of year all over the country, but some cities in the United States (Christmas cities is what we're calling them) take it to the next level. For these cities across the U.S., 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 thousands of twinkling lights. And while Covid has made this year's celebrations a little different, there's still plenty of holiday cheer to go around. So if you're planning a winter vacation (and you want to look beyond ski towns and snowboarding resorts), you might want to check out these dazzling Christmas cities during the holidays. 

Note: If you are planning a trip this winter, make sure to follow local guidelines, practice social distancing and wear a mask. And you might want to check which states require you to quarantine or present a negative test when visiting before you go. 

Best Christmas cities in the U.S.

Santa Claus, IN
Photograph: Courtesy Spencer County Visitors Bureau

1. Santa Claus, IN

With a name like Santa Claus, this town gets pretty busy come winter. The local postoffice (and its merry band of elves) answer thousands of children's letters to Santa every year since the 1920s. 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. And while the annual parade has been canceled this year, it's been replaced with a dazzling fireworks display. 

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Leavenworth, WA
Photograph: Shutterstock

2. 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. Of those festivals, the most enduring is the Christmas Lighting Festival, when the European doppelganger illuminates with more than 500,000 lights. Although many of the festivities have been canceled for 2020, the lights will still come on every night at dusk for the perfect holiday backdrop. 

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Williamsburg, VA
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Williamburg

3. 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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St. Augustine, FL
Photograph: Courtesy Visit St Augustine

4. 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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Natchitoches, LA
Photograph: Shutterstock

5. 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, fireworks over Cane River Lake, and plenty of good food, like BBQ shrimp and cornbread dressing.

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Durango, CO
Photograph: Shutterstock

6. 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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Duluth, MN
Photograph: Shutterstock

7. Duluth, MN

Duluth has a lot to offer Christmas-lovers, from a winter village for shopping (whcih has gone virtual this year) to a snowy landscape, but the big draw is Bentleyville, a massive drive-through light display. And we're not exaggerating when we say massive; The year-round, non-profit operation is one of Minnesota's largest events hosting more than 330,000 people every year. Come for the firework displays and stay to see Santa and Mrs. Claus skydiving on opening night. 

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8. 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 traditons like a tree-lighting ceremony and the 70-year-old Yule Log Parade. While some events have been cancelled this year, you can still enjoy the lights (from a safe distance) and participate in the virtual 5K. 

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North Pole, AK
Photograph: Shutterstock

9. 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.

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Stockbridge, MA
Photograph: Courtesy Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce

10. 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. 

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Woodstock, VT
Photograph: Shutterstock

11. 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 for two days—December 5th and December 12th—this year's fest combines modern practices like masks and social distancing with nineteenth century charm in the form of wagon rides through the town and historic decorations. 

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

12. 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 Holiday Magic on Main celebration will include the usual tree-lighting, a window decorating contest, quaint shopping opportunities and roaming characters from A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. Roam the Victorian-era downtown area to see period dancers, listen to live music and wave to Ebenezer Scrooge and Father Christmas alike. 

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13. 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, the town gets its name from the huge light festival it throws with large lit poinsettias every year, but that's not all the city offers at 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 Drive Thru Christmas at the Heritage Museum. 

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

14. 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. 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.

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