Just a stone’s throw from Washington, D.C., and a bustling city in its own right, Baltimore is known for its historically important harbor and famous sports teams, but during the holidays it transforms into one of the most picturesque cities in the country. Holiday visitors can start their festivities at the German Christmas Village at Inner Harbor, which pays homage to the traditional German Christmas markets with wooden vendor huts, European food, and plenty of mulled wine. Also, be sure not to miss the Christmas light displays of the row houses on 34th Street or the holiday train rides with Santa at the B&O Railroad Museum.
New York, New York
New York City is a huge tourist destination year-round thanks to its Broadway shows, world-class museums, and amazing eateries, but nothing can top the magic of a visit to the Big Apple during the holidays. Whether you’re ice skating in Rockefeller Center, watching the Rockettes in the legendary "Radio City Christmas Spectacular," or simply window-shopping on Fifth Avenue, you're sure to be awash in wonder and enchantment.
Located about an hour north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley, Solvang is a charming Danish village that’s known for wine, Danish pastries, and the old-world architecture of the town square. Every December, this tiny California Euro-town hosts Julefest, a monthlong celebration of holiday cheer, music, lights, and of course, wine.
McAdenville, North Carolina
A teeny tiny suburb of Charlotte, McAdenville (population 651) is a quaint respite from city life, set alongside the Catawba River and in the scenic rolling hills of Gaston County. But this sleepy town comes to life each holiday season when it becomes "Christmas Town USA,” thanks to its dazzling display of holiday decorations. The town, in its 63rd year of over-the-top brilliance, features 160 decorated homes and 265 evergreen trees with more than 500,000 lights.
Bethlehem, located just east of Allentown in the Lehigh Valley, was founded more than 250 years ago on Christmas Eve and now has the nickname “Christmas City.” Given its name, it's not surprising that Bethlehem is rife with Christmas traditions and festivities, including the Christkindlmarkt, which “Travel + Leisure” named one of the best holiday markets in the country. Shoppers can browse handmade items from local artisans and enjoy live Christmas music, ice carvings, and breakfast with Saint Nick himself!
flickr.com via mt_falldog
Known as “Michigan’s Little Bavaria” for its Bavarian-style architecture and German hospitality, Frankenmuth is a unique corner of the mitten that sits about 90 miles northeast of Detroit. Frankenmuth also happens to be the home of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland, the world’s largest Christmas store, which is roughly the size of one and a half football fields and stocks more than 50,000 Christmas items and gifts. In addition to Bronner’s, be sure to make time for Frankenmuth’s authentic European holiday market and The Old Christmas Station, a Christmas-themed restaurant inside a 1920s train depot.
Wikimedia Commons via Crisco 1492
Located in the heart of the Ozarks, Branson rivals Nashville as the nation's country music entertainment capital, with live shows every day of the week as well as kitschy destinations like Dolly Parton’s Stampede. Branson is also a great holiday destination that offers plenty to do before Santa arrives, including the “Old Time Christmas” experience at Silver Dollar City theme park (which features around 6.5 million Christmas lights) as well as many live Christmas shows, including “The Andy Williams Ozark Mountain Christmas Show” and “Presleys' Christmas Country Jubilee.”
Related: 12 Christmas Tree Decorating Fails
flickr.com via bransonmo
Consisting of just one square mile and home to only 4,000 people, Carmel-by-the-Sea is just as charming as its name, with unbelievable views of the Pacific Ocean and Tudor-style architecture that makes it seem more like a fairy-tale land than a modern coastal city. The town becomes even more magical during the holiday season, which begins with a spectacular tree-lighting ceremony in Devendorf Park, followed by a Holiday Open House party right on Carmel Plaza. You also shouldn't miss the Annual Inns of Distinction Tour, where you can get a sneak peek of delightful local inns all dressed up for the holidays.
This small island off the Massachusetts coast is a classic summer destination where a wealth of pre-Civil War homes and a lack of traffic lights make visitors feel like they've been transported back in time. But long after the summer crowds leave, the island turns into a seaside winter wonderland with the annual Christmas Stroll. This weekend event gives shoppers a chance to pick up some gifts while listening to carolers, sipping mulled wine, and admiring the nearly 80 seven-foot Christmas trees that line downtown streets.
Durango, a small mountain town just outside Mesa Verde National Park and the San Juan National Forest, is the perfect destination for holiday trekkers who love the great outdoors. The town was established by a railroad company, and during the holiday season Durango goes back to its railroad roots by offering snowy, scenic train rides that include Christmas tree runs (where train riders can cut their own tree and have it transported back on the train) as well as a Polar Express ride, where kids can go up to the North Pole and meet the big man himself.
Nestled in the middle of the Cascade Mountains in central Washington, Leavenworth is a Bavarian-style town that is close to ski areas and wineries, and is one of the state’s premier vacation destinations. During the holiday season, Leavenworth amps up the Bavarian charm with a traditional Christkindlmarkt as well as the Leavenworth Village of Lights, in which more than half a million Christmas lights give the town a snow-globe feeling. At Leavenworth’s Nutcracker Museum, which is open year-round, visitors can admire 6,000 nutcrackers from more than 50 countries.
You can’t find more true New England ambience than in Woodstock, Vermont, which boasts a traditional town square filled with architectural gems and an abundance of charming inns. Although Woodstock is always scenic, the town is especially enchanting during the holidays, when the streets are covered with snow and the annual Wassail Weekend celebration is in full swing. This festive weekend includes carol singers, ornament-making, a horse-drawn parade through downtown, and a family-style Wassail Feast at the Woodstock Inn that serves up dishes like Cornish game hen and sticky toffee pudding.
North Pole, Alaska
Originally named to attract a major toy manufacturer, North Pole, Alaska, has made itself a Christmas destination for holiday lovers around the world. Though the toy manufacturer never came, there are still many opportunities to celebrate the holidays in North Pole. Ride down Kris Kringle Drive, taking pictures of the candy-cane-striped street lamps, then visit the official North Pole Post Office where thousands of “Dear Santa” letters are delivered each year.
One of the most popular tourist cities in America, Williamsburg, Virginia, appeals to history buffs who want to experience 18th-century life firsthand at Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest living history museum. During the holidays in Williamsburg, you can spend Christmas with George and Martha Washington in a presidential reenactment, go caroling by candlelight, and watch a fireworks show and gun salute during the Grand Illumination celebration.
Related: 20 Towns That Used to Run America
It may not get particularly cold in the small town of Andalusia, Alabama, located about 25 miles from the Florida panhandle. But climate aside, this Southern city transports visitors to the North Pole every weekend in December with its annual Christmas in Candyland. The Andalusia Court Square is transformed into a Candyland Cottage Village with meticulously built play cottages and a snow show that creates the illusion of a blizzard—without the freezing temperatures.
Dyker Heights, Brooklyn
It’s a tall order to compete with the Christmas spectacle that is Manhattan, but the Dyker Heights neighborhood in southern Brooklyn packs plenty of cheer into a small place with its annual Christmas light display. This glittering wonderland is best viewed on foot so you can see the tens of thousands of lights close up—and hear the Christmas tunes being blasted throughout the neighborhood.
Taos, New Mexico
Known as the "Soul of the Southwest," Taos is a world-class art destination in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with a rich Native American history and breathtaking scenery. In November and December, the city celebrates New Mexican holiday traditions during its Yuletide in Taos festivities, including the Lighting of Ledoux, when this historic street glows with the light of farolitos (small paper lanterns). Then, on Christmas Eve, the Procession of the Virgin Mary at Taos Pueblo, a 1,000-year-old Native American pueblo not far from town, winds past bonfires and throngs of visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Santa Claus, Indiana
When a town is named Santa Claus, ho-ho-holiday cheer is to be expected, no matter the season. Luckily, Santa Claus, Indiana, leans into its role by calling itself “America’s Christmas Hometown.” There, visitors can see the official Santa Claus Post Office, which receives more than 20,000 letters from good boys and girls each and every year—letters that are answered by Santa's dedicated volunteer elves. Other festive activities in Santa Claus include the Santa Claus Museum & Village, the Santa Claus Arts & Crafts Show, and the Festival of Lights.
Annapolis is a charming city right on the Chesapeake Bay that is home to historic 18th-century architecture as well as the impressive campus of the United States Naval Academy. Annapolis is routinely named one of the best cities to visit during the holiday season because of its stunning Lights on the Bay display and its appealing lineup of holiday-themed events. Don't miss the Holiday Candlelight Stroll, a guided walk through the decorated historic district where visitors also learn about the origins of traditions like Christmas trees and yule logs. In early December, the city showcases its nautical roots with the Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade, a colorful procession of illuminated yachts in the Annapolis Harbor.
Helen, Georgia, may be small (population 430), but its Bavarian-style buildings and its location in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains make it the third most visited city in the state. Helen’s alpine aesthetic certainly lends itself to the holiday spirit, and thousands of visitors come to experience a taste of Europe at their Christkindlmarkt, witness the spectacle of their annual Christmas parade, and browse the town square shops for special finds.
Natchitoches is the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, and its French and Creole roots make it one of the most interesting and colorful cities to visit in the South. Each year, thousands head to Natchitoches to see the Festival of Lights, which features more than 300,000 Christmas lights and 100 lighted set pieces right in the heart of downtown. Other festivities include historic home tours and an annual Christmas Festival, which is packed with holiday music and food, a parade, and a fireworks show—all on scenic Cane River Lake.
flickr.com via nsuengineer06
Portland is known for being the Millennial mecca of craft beer and craft coffee, and home to Powell’s City of Books, the world’s largest independent used and new bookstore. But this quirky city is also gaining a reputation for seasonal happenings like the Holiday Ale Festival—a weekend event where beer lovers can enjoy winter ales and huddle around the region’s largest decorated tree. Seasonal visitors to Portland also don’t want to miss Winter Wonderland, the largest light show in the Northwest, which takes over the track of Portland International Raceway.
Cape May, New Jersey
Cape May, located on the southern tip of New Jersey, is America’s oldest seaside resort and summer playground, consistently ranked as one of the top beaches in the country. Months after the last beach towel has left the shore, however, the seaside town transitions into a Dickens-era village, complete with flickering gaslights and garlands draped around the city square. There will be no bah-humbugging as visitors hop on a Ghosts of Christmas Past trolley ride, take in a lecture at the Dickens Christmas Extravaganza, or tuck into a Dickensian-style feast that even the post-visitation Scrooge would approve of.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
A historic coastal city right on the Piscataqua River, Portsmouth appeals to visitors who want to get a taste of Colonial life amid modern boutiques and top-notch restaurants. Portsmouth’s annual Vintage Christmas celebration encompasses the best of the old and new Portsmouth, including an intimate look at Christmases past during a candlelit stroll through the historic houses of Strawberry Banke, and a chance to show off your sweet architecture skills at the annual Gingerbread House Contest.
The town of Stockbridge, which was made famous by the Norman Rockwell painting “Main Street at Christmas,” is also the home of the Norman Rockwell Museum, a showcase for the artwork and memorabilia of this American icon. It’s no surprise, then, that Stockbridge is the quintessential place to spend the holidays, with a picturesque downtown, horse-drawn carriage rides, and even a re-creation of the famous painting—complete with vintage cars parked precisely where they're depicted in the original.
Nevada City, California
Originally settled as a mining camp, Nevada City is one of the most charming and unexpected towns in California, with rows of historic buildings and Victorian homes. Nevada City becomes a Christmas destination each year during its Victorian Christmas extravaganza, where visitors rub shoulders with carolers and strolling minstrels dressed in Victorian garb and wander through the vendor stalls selling roasted chestnuts, handcrafted jewelry, and other holiday treasures.
flickr.com via nevadacity
A small city in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Dahlonega is a laid back, family-friendly city with plenty of outdoor activities and local wineries. Come Christmas time, however, Dahlonega’s population swells with visitors eager to be part of the town's Old Fashioned Christmas. This Hallmark movie-worthy festival includes carriage rides, a Christmas market, musical performances, and visits with Santa.
flickr.com via ugardener
Newport, Rhode Island
This bustling seaside city has always been one of America’s most treasured spots and is probably best known for its collection of Gilded Age beauties, the Newport mansions. If you're lucky enough to visit over the holidays, you can experience Christmas at the Newport Mansions, when these stunning homes are festooned with lights and adorned with evergreen trees. If the opulence proves too much for you, you can also watch a holiday boat parade along the harbor or catch the Dickens Holiday Dinner Theatre Train.
Fredericksburg is a German settlement right in the heart of Hill Country that combines the best of Europe with a Texas twist. Like many other German towns in the United States, Fredericksburg has an annual Christkindlmarkt where shoppers can try traditional European foods and buy gifts. The city also puts up an outdoor ice-skating rink in the Marktplatz, and for the adults there’s a holiday wine trail to encourage visitors to try out the many local Hill Country wineries.
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville is an eclectic and artistic town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and is also home to the Biltmore Estate, the largest home in America. Unsurprisingly, much of Asheville’s holiday appeal lies in the Biltmore Estate and its annual dazzling display of holiday decorations, but there are many other nearby opportunities for festive fun, including the National Gingerbread House Competition at the Omni Grove Park Inn and the gorgeous light display at the North Carolina Arboretum.
Newport Beach, California
Santa’s workshop may be far from Newport Beach, California, but the holiday spirit is alive and well in this iconic beach town. The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, now in its 110th year, illuminates the harbor with decorated boats ranging in size from canoes to yachts. Visitors from all over the world travel to see this 14-mile spectacular, and prizes are handed out to boat owners with the best animation and originality.
flickr.com via Tom Walker
Whether it’s the world-renowned Art Institute, the attractions on Navy Pier, or the shops on Michigan Avenue, Chicago is always a fun and exciting place to visit. But if you can withstand the bitter cold, it's also a wonderful place to be during the holiday season. Start out with the Christmas Around the World and the Holidays of Light exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry, follow with the Christkindlmarket (where 65 percent of the vendors are from Germany), and finish up with the millions of lights, giant snow globes, and other fun decorations at the Lincoln Park Zoo—which, best of all, is completely free!
Related: The 20 Friendliest Cities in America
St. Augustine, Florida
You may not associate Florida with quintessential holiday towns, but St. Augustine, on Florida’s east coast, is one of the best places to see a spectacular holiday light display. The city's Nights of Lights features more than three million white lights spread all over the city. You can even tour it by boat!
Lewisburg, West Virginia
Set in a valley beside the Allegheny Mountains, Lewisburg, West Virginia, is a historic and artsy town that was once named one of the coolest small towns in America. Although this Mayberry-like place is always fun to visit, there’s nothing like seeing it during the annual Lewisburg Holiday Festival, which features live music, carriage rides through town, and visits from Mr. Claus. You also don’t want to miss the highly anticipated annual Christmas Eve Gingerbread Ball at the venerable Greenbrier.
Home to Ole Miss and literary legend William Faulkner, this Southern city is filled to the brim with charm and good food. And although it hardly ever gets cold this far south, there are still plenty of holiday highlights in Oxford, including a Gingerbread House Village with elaborately decorated structures made by volunteers, and a hometown holiday parade on Oxford's famous town square.
To jumpstart your holiday season, check out Bob Vila's favorite affordable stocking stuffers for everyone on your list!