Will you be home for the holidays?
This age-old adage holds true during December as many people travel home to trim the tree with loved ones, attend local holiday parades, and binge-watch Christmas flicks by the fire. But it’s never too late to try something new.
Even though departing from holiday tradition is difficult, it’s well worth the experience of traveling somewhere you’ve never been. Plan a trip to one of the 11 most joyful places to spend the holidays in the United States and you will be rewarded with a festive vacation you’ll never forget.
What makes a city one of the most joyful places for holiday reverie? We gathered a list of 100 mid-sized cities and analyzed the walk score of each, ranking them by number of hotels, restaurants, boutique shops and holiday events – think tree lighting ceremonies, historic holiday markets, menorah lightings, Santa sightings, and more. We’ve also included a few hidden gems in each destination so you can spend time as the locals do.
After compiling this data, the following 11 cities were named among the most joyful places to spend the holidays in the U.S. ‘Tis the season for a holiday vacation!
Snuggled up on Oregon’s central coast, this historic bayfront town is known for its picturesque lighthouses, Dungeness crab, and friendly locals. During the holidays, Newport offers a handful of festivities to help inspire a festive frame of mind.
Relive 19th century holiday traditions at the Yaquina Head Interpretive Center. Celebrations begin at 10:00 AM one Saturday in December and continue throughout the day. These include making ornaments, historical crafts, and decorating the holiday tree with lighthouse keepers. Exploring the Oregon Coast Aquarium after hours at the Sea of Lights (every Saturday and Sunday in December) also gives you a chance to give back to the community. Admission to the first weekend is $2 and 2 cans of food for the local food bank. Whether attending the historic lighted boat parade on the Yaquina Bay or perusing the Holiday House Arts & Crafts sale, where you can find a gift for everyone on your list, Newport will definitely deliver as one of the top holiday destinations.
San Luis Obispo, California
San Luis Obispo, colloquially known as SLO by locals, offers a little something for everyone during the holiday season. It may not be a white Christmas, but it sure is a merry one. Tucked between quaint beach towns and smack dab in the middle of the central coast wine country, you can take in the coastal beauty and rolling vineyards on your holiday getaway. Stroll down the twinkling Higuera Street and windowshop for one-of-a-kind gifts you can’t find anywhere else.
Whether you travel north to the Cambria Christmas Market or take the family to Santa’s House in Mission Plaza, every visitor will be reminded of the reason for the season. Celebrate each night of Hanukkah downtown outside of the Mission, where a menorah lighting will take place along with a community party afterwards including games, treats, and a big crowd. On New Year’s Day, head south to Avila Beach for the 6th annual Polar Bear Plunge where participants take a chilly dip in the ocean to celebrate the turning of yet another year.
Cedar City, Utah
Utah’s number one destination for the arts doesn’t lack in the holiday department or the great outdoors, for that matter. If you’re looking for some old fashioned holiday charm and a picturesque white Christmas, a trip to Iron County should be at the top of your list. Holiday lights line the snow-covered streets of this historic city, where you’ll find a handful of art galleries to quench your cultural thirst and discover unique gifts you’ve been searching for.
Take part in the annual Storybook Parade on Cedar City’s historic Main Street featuring a marching band, floats, and costumed storybook celebrities. Whether you spend Christmas morning partaking in snow sports on Brian Head or fishing in Panguitch Lake, Cedar City sparkles with holiday cheer. Take advantage of the town known as “The Gateway to Utah’s National Parks” and add room in your itinerary to travel southeast to Zion National Park and then North to Bryce Canyon.
- Christmas Lane: a neighborhood lights festival
- Homestead Christmas Market
- Zion National Park
Historic Bardstown, Kentucky has already earned the title of the most beautiful small town in the United States by USA Today, so it’s no surprise that it made our list as one of the best places to spend the holidays. While there’s no commercial shopping in Bardstown, this miniature metropolis has a wide selection of local artisan holiday gifts that you couldn’t find anywhere else. During the month of December, holiday cheer is a top priority.
Celebrate with the local residents for Light Up Bardstown, a family-friendly celebration that includes a Christmas parade, face painting, and the official lighting of the town’s monumental public Christmas tree. You can also explore the town in candlelight with a tour of Federal Hill. The historical overtones of these 19th century mansion tours will give visitors and locals alike a memorable holiday season.
- Walk down Main Street
- Attend the Light Up Bardstown celebration
- Making Spirits Bright by Lantern Light: a candlelit distillery tour
Holiday finery is a top priority for Decatur, Georgia, a quintessential college town where you’ll find a little bit of everything. At the beginning of December, take part in the tree lighting at East Court Square or bring the family to breakfast with Santa, where he’ll make a grand appearance on a City of Decatur fire truck. Later in the month, join the community at Bonfire on the Square, an event that features marshmallow roasting and choral groups singing holiday music.
There’s also the Grand Menorah Lighting, an outdoor Hanukkah party including latkes, and the lighting of the ten-foot menorah. If all of these offerings aren’t quite what you’re looking for, don’t worry. Decatur is 20 minutes east of Atlanta, meaning there’s plenty of shopping and big city celebrations nearby.
Montrose was designed to bring in holiday cheer. This historic Colorado town sits on the breathtaking Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains and is home to Black Canyon National Park, where snow sports and outdoor activities are abundant. Walking down the streets of Montrose, you’ll find a delightful downtown area featuring eclectic shops, historic victorian buildings, and wonderful window shopping. In December, the Parade of Lights illuminates historic Main Street and every year a different theme highlights the season (the 2017 theme is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” where participants are encouraged to build a float that represents their favorite Christmas carol).
Enjoy a cup of hot cocoa and carolers at the annual Christmas tree lighting in front of the courthouse. You can also attend the Native Winter Storytelling at the Ute Indian Museum, where you can hear historic storytelling while creating a native teepee of your own.
- Visit Black Canyon National Park
- Parade of Lights on Main Street
- Annual Christmas tree lighting at the courthouse
Grand Rapids, Minnesota
During the holidays, Grand Rapids is a great place to gather your family or even travel solo to enjoy cold weather activities. Located in northern Minnesota, the downtown area has an authentic small-town feel and is distinguished for its local eateries, fine wines, and good company.
Holiday celebrations include the annual lighting of the city’s water tower by Old Saint Nick himself and a handful of smaller holiday parades that kick off with the WinterGlo Festival, an annual community-wide event that signals the start of the holiday season. Bring the family to a classic holiday movie viewing. Fun for all ages, the event requires your favorite pajamas and a blanket. If outdoor activities are more your speed, head to Prairie River for a snowy hike or venture to Itasca county for some of the best snowmobiling in Minnesota.
- Hike Prairie River
- Victorian Christmas tours at the Historic Gilbert Mansion
- Stop into Forest Lake Restaurant and Lounge
Washington, North Carolina
This historic Southern town, located on the scenic Pamlico Sound, provides quintessential charm during the holidays. While you are here enjoy festive lights, including those that sparkle on the Pamlico River for the city’s annual lighted boat parade along the Washington waterfront.
Bring lawn chairs and blankets to lay out by the waterfront for a show you won’t forget. Check out the Washington Harbor District on Festive Fridays: shops stay open late to make buying local that much easier and there are several local galleries on Main Street.
- Lighted boat parade
- Festive Fridays at the Washington Harbor District
- Stroll down Main Street
Located in the heart of Washington, historic Ellensburg is home to a number of local art museums and galleries. When December rolls around, the many historic buildings of Kittitas County twinkle with sparkling lights and holiday cheer. Explore Main Street and you’ll find gingerbread house displays, Christmas markets, breakfasts with Santa, and a number of community events that the city hosts for local residents and visitors alike.
Take the family to the cookie decorating scavenger hunt through downtown and don’t miss out on the Little Elves Gift Making Workshop. If you’re in town to ring in the New Year, watch the fireworks display at the Kittitas County Events Center.
- NYE fireworks at Kittitas County Events Center
- Attend the Briarwood Holiday Bazaar
- Grab a bite to eat at The Yellow Church Cafe
Aberdeen, South Dakota
The Aberdeen Living Christmas Tree performance is the epicenter of holiday celebrations in Brown County, South Dakota. Head over to the city’s Civic Arena to experience an annual holiday performance, including a 20-foot Christmas tree filled with tinsel, lights and carolers that won’t disappoint.
The weekend before Thanksgiving you might stumble upon the city’s annual Winterfest event, an arts festival that features artists from across the region and provides ideal opportunities to purchase handcrafted items. There you’ll find food, entertainment, a fine art gallery, and over 50 artisan booths for all of your Christmas shopping needs. You’ll also find Hanukkah celebrations fueled by good food and friendship among the Aberdeen community.
- Attend the Living Christmas Tree performance
- Check out the annual Winterfest event
- Visit Storybook Land
Hallandale Beach, Florida
This east coast beach town lacks snow on the ground and that classic winter wonderland feeling, but draws visitors celebrating the holiday season with its beautiful beaches, boutiques, and large festivals. Located between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, Hallandale Beach offers many points of interest especially during the holidays. Get into the Hanukkah spirit at the 38th Annual South Florida Chanukah Festival, where over 10,000 people gather to celebrate with live Jewish music, good company and the lighting of Florida’s largest menorah.
After a short 30 minute drive, deck the halls of Hallandale Beach and join the Liberty City Performing Arts Ministry as they present “The Gift,” a family-friendly Christmas story of an unusual gift given to an exceptional receiver. Check out the Hope for The Holidays Pop-Up Market designed similar to the classic German Christkindlmarkts, complete with stocking stuffers, ornaments, and traditional German mulled wine that supports a local non-profit organization Community Partners.
- Chanukah Festival
- Jingle Bell Yacht Rock
- Holiday Wreath Workshop
If you’re interested in discovering more must-see destinations, take a peek at our list of the most charming cities in the U.S. There’s nothing that adds to the spirit of the holiday season like a town with a little charm. You can also browse our wide collection of collectibles for the perfect holiday gifting inspiration.
Discover Newport | Newport, Oregon photo courtesy of Windermere Real Estate | Visit SLO | Visit Cedar City | Visit Bardstown | Decatur | Visit Montrose | Grand Rapids | | My Ellensburg | Aberdeen | Hallandale Beach