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Winter snow covered sunset of Stowe village in Stowe Vermont, USA
Photograph: Shutterstock/ Don Landwehrle

The best Christmas vacations in the USA

The best Christmas vacations in the USA are brimming with yuletide joy.

Erika Mailman
Written by
Erika Mailman
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Sometimes, although we’ve decked our own halls and put up the light displays, we still want to have an adventure at Christmas. That’s why nearly 47 percent of Americans are going to be traveling at Christmas time this December. For many, that trip includes going to see family in far-flung places, but for some of us, there’s a pull to see a new destination, to experience the holidays in a fresh and beautiful setting. Maybe we want to see snow – or we want to leave snow behind. Maybe we’re up for a city Christmas with skyscrapers aglow, or we want to exchange busy streets for a quiet Christmas town. For those who are up for something new, here are our favorite Christmas vacations in the USA. 

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Best Christmas vacations in the USA

The main draw in Jefferson is the adorable Santa’s Village, which is open weekends through November and up to December 17-18. This themed amusement park offers pure joy for young and young-at-heart all year, including locating elf statues throughout the park, feeding actual reindeer, and sliding down the Yule Log Flume ride. Lodge at the fancy Omni Mount Washington Resort nearby where presidents have stayed, with its spectacular White Mountain views and access to 60 miles of cross-country ski trails and plenty of alpine skiing and riding. Finally, take a ride on the Cog Railway which operates even in winter to create that unforgettable memory.

If The Sound of Music is part of your holiday ritual, you’ll want to spend Christmas in Stowe, because after Maria, Captain and the children crossed the Alps at the end of the movie, they emigrated here. Stay at their Trapp Family Lodge, built to look Austrian, and set on 2,500 beautiful acres. Ski out the front door, catch a sleigh ride, snowshoe out to the sugar house for a tour of where maple syrup is created, and enjoy memorabilia on display – you may even see a Trapp grandchild leading the history tour. On Christmas Eve, family members sing with guests. Stowe itself is charming with a children’s lantern parade, a holiday bazaar and a free outdoor skating rink. A red gondola takes you to the top of the mountain for epic skiing and snowboarding.

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Exhilarate in having the park mainly to yourself and enjoy spectacular weather conditions that may create ‘cloud inversions,’ where clouds rest in the canyon below the rim. Snow may be present for incredible sunrises, and there’s even a Polar Express train ride put on by the Grand Canyon Railway & Hotel. The El Tovar Hotel offers a luxurious Christmas Day meal so you don’t have to cook, or you can cross-country ski through the pine forest, a true winter wonderland. The North Rim is closed to car traffic during this season, but you can be intrepid and hike there from the South Rim for a Christmas memory that will resonate in your head for years to come.

The splendor of this national park blanketed in snow cannot be overstated. From skating under the graceful swoop of Half Dome, to taking a sleigh ride or just turning in a circle in dazed disbelief at the views, Yosemite is worth the trip. Plus, Badger Pass Ski Area is the oldest downhill ski area in the state. Throughout December, the decorated-to-the-hilt Tenaya Lodge offers gingerbread and ornament decorating workshops and a Santa’s breakfast a few days before Christmas: plus a sumptuous Christmas Dinner on the day itself. Other lodging is available in the park; there’s even a Thomas Kinkade painting called ‘Christmas at the Ahwahnee’ documenting that majestic hotel’s glowing lights in the snow.

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With a lake beach for wading and a walkable historic downtown, this affordable town is just 10 miles from a certain ‘merriest place on earth,’ but has its own draw. The Ice! experience at the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center is a wonderland of two million pounds of carved ice sculptures and slides. It features a Dr. Seuss ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ display and six lanes of indoor tubing. To enter the frosty nine-degree environment, you’ll don a provided blue parka (because who’ll bring a winter coat to Florida?) to zip down the all-ages frozen chutes and walk through 20,000 feet of immersive iciness. The hotel itself has a huge Christmas tree and lighting display, while in Kissimmee there’s also a drive-through animated light show.

Shutterstock: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/mcadenville-christmas-lights-around-lake-136450478

There’s a reason Hallmark movies are often set in small towns; these are the places where celebrating is off the (stocking) hook. In McAdenville, known as Christmas Town USA, you can walk or drive through an incredible lighting phenomenon: evergreen trees around a lake are draped with lights, the 1883 bell tower gleams, more than 100 homes are decorated to the hilt, and an elementary school student each year gets to turn on the lights at the Tree Lighting Ceremony. Another important component is the Yule Log Ceremony, in place since 1949, where children pull the yule log through town on a sled—scrambling to get a hold on the finite rope—then it’s ignited at an open fireplace to start the festivities.

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Here, you can tour the historic Granger Homestead and Carriage Museum, decked out for a Victorian Christmas, with the Festival of Trees: tons of Christmas trees inside decorated by different civic groups. Outside, the Christkindl Market has heated tents with more than 100 booths of traditional crafts and goods. You can eat traditional German foods like strudel and schnitzel, as well as the typical fair food. Our favorite is the tent where you can sit and warm your hands with a piping mug of ‘Gideon’s Grog,’ a version of German glühwein, made with Sangria and spices, then mulled (you get to keep the branded mug), while a festive red trolley shuttles people from the parking lots to the action. Many other cities offer the traditional German Christkindl Markets, but this one is said to be one of the best in the US.

This small community founded by Danish immigrants in 1911 is filled with Danish architecture, a windmill and bakeries. The town makes a big fuss over Christmas with its month-long Julefest celebration with tree lighting, a citywide hunt for ‘nisse’ (gnomes!), a St. Lucia candlelight procession with floats, a JuleFEAST communal dinner under the stars, and the traditional, beloved Skål Wine and Stein Stroll with beer and wine from 15 makers and a gløgg (kinda like mulled wine) competition. The visitors bureau says Julefest is like ‘a walk through a vintage postcard and a Hallmark movie at the same time.’ New this year is a Christmas Light Show called Aurora Dronealis with 100 drones moving in choreographed patterns to holiday music.

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For Christmas in the city, the kind of montage you see in your head, nothing beats New York. Skating at Rockefeller Center, watching the Radio City Rockettes perform their annual Christmas Spectacular, hovering around the incredible toy displays at FAO Schwartz, seeing the New York City Ballet perform the Nutcracker, being part of the bustle of shoppers amid the glow of lit skyscrapers... it’s just magical. A light drifting of snow and yellow cabs working their way through traffic; maybe it’s stereotypical but it still gets our hearts going like ten lords a'leaping.

This isn’t the only US town named Santa Claus, but we love what they offer here. Kids can go into the town’s original post office to write letters to Santa which will be answered by elves, in a tradition going back more than 100 years. Take pony rides through Santa’s Stables, visit the Santa Claus Museum and Village, snap a photo with the 22-foot statue of Santa, and of course stop in at Santa’s Candy Castle for a sweet tooth treat. The village isn’t far from President Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home, if you want to stop by and pay respects to the wooden hutch there made by Abe’s dad. And for faster thrills, don’t miss the Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, a theme park with coasters and other rides.

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Ah, the sound of sleighbells... The sound of ‘jingle bells’ as horses pull a sleigh along through the snow arouses all that nostalgia for a Christmas we may have never even experienced! But you can in Manistee, at the Victorian Sleighbell Parade & Old Christmas Weekend, where Belgian draft horses pull an upright 30-foot Christmas tree through the streets. There are bagpipers, carolers, luminaria, reindeer, Victorian bell ringers, a festival of trees, a night parade, lumbering dioramas, hot chestnuts for sale: we’re dazed.

Check out the Christmas City of the North Parade at night with festive lights ablaze, then take a 30-minute ride on the Christmas City Express Train with hot cocoa and good cheer. The historic Glensheen estate, built with last-century iron mining money, is dressed for the holidays. The biggest draw, however, is the Bentleyville Tour of Lights, billed as ‘America’s largest free walk-through lighting display.’ Walk through the beautiful lights, sit and roast a marshmallow at a bonfire, and get a free knit cap and cookies after visiting Santa if you can convince anyone you are 10 and under.

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Each year, Cleveland kicks off festivities with a Winterfest (ice skating, pop-up stores, food trucks, carriage rides) and the tree lighting. There’s also a Riverfest with a beer garden, igloo village, skating rink and Santa visits. The zoo does a holiday lights display, and there are drive-through light displays throughout the city. But the thing we love most is the house used in the movie A Christmas Story. Tour the decorated home (crawl under the sink for a glass of milk?) and stop across the street for a museum where costumes and paraphernalia are on display. Also stop by Higbee’s, the dpeartment store with the traumatizing Santa slide. We sure hope Ralphie gets that official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle (breathe)!

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