8 U.S. Cities Where You Can Get in the Holiday Spirit

Eggnog recommended.

A large toy nutcracker drummer statue and the holiday lights in Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Head to places like New York City to get into the holiday spirit.

Photo by FashionStock.com/Shutterstock

There’s a shift in the air that seems to happen every November as cities around the country begin to snap into holiday mode: Festive lights are (untangled and) hung with care, skating rinks start to appear in parks and plazas, and carols and standards take over radio stations.

Across the United States, each city has its own unique ways of ringing in the holidays, from tamale-making in Texas to quirky spins on The Nutcracker in New York. Just in time for the holiday travel rush, these eight cities invite you to get into the local spirit.

1. Go on a Nutcracker crawl in New York City

George Balanchine revolutionized the American holiday season with the 1954 debut of his staging of The Nutcracker. New York City Ballet still performs his original work at Lincoln Center each winter, but the Big Apple is brimming with newer versions of the classic ballet.

Kings Theatre, a gorgeously restored 1929 movie palace deep in Brooklyn, is hosting both the touring Nutcracker! Magical Christmas Ballet (December 6) and The Brooklyn Nutcracker (December 16), which incorporates global dance genres (flamenco, hip-hop, Ukrainian hopak, Native American hoop dancing) as the characters travel all across the borough. Finally, be sure to leave the kids home for Company XIV’s Nutcracker Rouge (November 16 to January 27), a boozy burlesque take on the classic with plenty of risqué wit and sex appeal.

Where to stay

Few lodging options in the city can match the festive atmosphere of the Central Park–side Plaza, where you can even ask to have your suite decorated with a seven-foot-tall Christmas tree.

Night Time Scenic View of the Historic Texas Riverwalk with Christmas Lights on a Rainy Night in San Antonio, Texas.

The San Antonio River Walk hosts festivities during the holiday season.

Photo by Richard A McMillin/Shutterstock

2. Celebrate a feliz navidad in San Antonio

The San Antonio River Walk runs through the heart of Alamo City, and it looks especially spectacular when strung with 100,000 lights. Festivities kick off on November 23 this year with the Ford Holiday River Parade, which sees 28 floats gliding through the water, decked out with Mexican folk dancers and themed decor—including one covered in oversized Mexican pastries like conchas and bigotes.

Throughout the festive season, south-of-the-border inspirations continue with events like the Ford Fiesta de las Luminarias (December 1), in which the banks of the river are lined with traditional lanterns made from candles in paper bags, and Las Nuevas Tamaleras (November 30 to December 3), a holiday comedy about a trio of women throwing their first tamalada, or tamale-making gathering. Speaking of which, you’ll definitely want to pick up one of the seasonal specialties before checking out the lights displays around town (remember the Alamo!). They’re delicious and they make for great hand-warmers.

Where to stay

One of the coolest stays in the Lone Star State is Hotel Havana, which occupies a 1914 Mediterranean Revival building on a quieter section of the River Walk. Their onsite boutique is also ideal for picking up last-minute holiday gifts, like wool-stuffed animals from Chiapas, Mexico or cactus soaps from the Chicana-owned brand Nopalera.

Mickey Mouse on a Christmas float

Disneyland’s Christmas Fantasy Parade occurs during the holiday season.

Photo by jordissmall/Unsplash

3. Live out your favorite holiday films in Los Angeles

Southern California’s theme parks, unsurprisingly, put a cinematic spin on the holiday season. Universal Studios Hollywood busts out the fake snow for Grinchmas and Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, while Disneyland, farther afield in Anaheim, even adds a Nightmare Before Christmas overlay to the Haunted Mansion.

You can immerse yourself in the world of your favorite holiday films anywhere in Tinseltown. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, for instance, will host performances of John Williams’ whimsical (and Oscar-nominated) Home Alone score as part of its Deck the Hall holiday concerts series, while Rooftop Cinema Club will be showing films like The Best Man, Holiday, Elf, and Gremlins at its outdoor venues in Downtown LA, El Segundo, and the Arts District throughout November and December.

Where to stay

Opened last year just across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Conrad Los Angeles offers stunning views of Frank Gehry’s architecture and a cozy lobby fireplace for those chilly SoCal nights, when temperatures drop below…60ºF.

Gaylord Opryland Hotel entrance at night with christmas lights long exposure

Around the winter holidays, places like the Gaylord Opryland Hotel show off their decorations.

Photo by rylansamazingphotography/Shutterstock

4. Add some twang to your Christmas carols in Nashville

If your holiday playlist just wouldn’t be complete without Willie Nelson’s “Pretty Paper” or Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas,” you’ll want to make a seasonal pilgrimage to Nashville.

Here, the Grand Ole Opry hosts nine nights of holiday concerts, with performances by big names like Lady A, Trace Adkins, Scotty McCreery, and Lauren Alaina at the Grand Ole Opry House, a massive venue outside of town that celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2024. Back in town, the institution’s original home, the historic Ryman Auditorium, welcomes married country legends Amy Grant and Vince Gill for a 12-show residency called Christmas at the Ryman. You can’t find a better duo to remix the holiday classics: The couple has 28 Grammys between them.

Where to stay

The Graduate Nashville, near the Vanderbilt University campus, has a Dolly Parton–themed rooftop bar called White Limozeen, and the halls get decked appropriately with spangly tinsel and garland.

People are skating on an ice rink in Chicago City.

The McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park is just one place people can enjoy ice skating in Chicago.

Photo by Nejdet Duzen/Shutterstock

5. Strap on some skates in Chicago

Many cities install seasonal ice-skating rinks come holiday season, but few are as, well, cool as the Ice Skating Ribbon in Chicago’s Maggie Daley Park. Think of it as a lazy river that’s been touched by Elsa from Frozen—a quarter-mile loop that meanders past the park’s climbing wall, backed by impressive skyline views. Elsewhere around the Windy City, you can glide to your wintry heart’s content at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park; the Midway Plaisance Ice Rink in Hyde Park, on the site of the 1893 World’s Fair; and Winterland at Gallagher Way, which brings a European-style holiday market and Santa’s workshop to the area in and around Wrigley Field.

Where to stay

Guests of The Peninsula Chicago won’t even need to leave their hotel to partake in the winter revelry: The five-star property on Michigan Avenue plays host to the city’s only hotel skating rink, the Sky Rink, which sits high above the bustle of the shopping street below.

Parade of Christmas Boats during Seattle Boat Parade

Visit Seattle’s waterfront locales to get in the holiday mood.

Photo by John Morris Photography/Shutterstock

6. Celebrate a nautical Noel in Seattle

With more than 200 miles of freshwater and saltwater coastline, Seattle hosts the Seattle Christmas Boat Parade on December 16, which sees decked-out vessels circling Lake Union. Hit the water yourself with the Argosy Cruises Christmas Ship Festival, which has been going strong since 1949; covered in strings of white light, the Spirit of Seattle sails to more than 40 coastal communities on Puget Sound, as guests are serenaded by an on-board choir. Revelers who are 21 and older can opt instead for the “Follow Boat,” a rowdier ugly-sweater party at sea that takes place on a boat that follows closely behind the Spirit.

Where to stay

Set on a pier over Elliott Bay, The Edgewater is Seattle’s only over-water hotel, and December events include holiday-themed karaoke and a Merry Little Christmas Bar serving seasonal cocktails like the Mistletoe Martini.

United States Capitol Building and Christmas tree at night

This year, Americans created ornaments inspired by Appalachian culture, famous West Virginians, and regional flora and fauna for the Capitol’s Christmas tree.

Photo by Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

7. Take a winter wander around the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

While the mall may be a source of stress and anxiety back home (to-do lists! crowds!), the National Mall in D.C. is a rather lovely place to embrace a patriotic side of the holiday season. At the United States Botanic Garden, for instance, the Conservatory is filled with poinsettias and models of D.C. landmarks made out of plants, while outside, model trains zip through scenic displays, this year depicting oversized pollinators (bats, bugs, birds) and plants.

Each year, a different national forest is selected to source the towering conifer used for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree; this year’s comes from Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. Just across the National Mall, the National Gallery hosts a rink in its Sculpture Garden, allowing you to skate surrounded by works from Alexander Calder and Louise Bourgeois. While you’re in the neighborhood, stop by the White House Ellipse to see the National Menorah, the world’s largest at 30 feet tall.

Where to stay

Willard InterContinental Washington, D.C. pulls out all the stops during the winter season, with a roster of activities that includes nightly caroling and holiday afternoon tea in the opulent Peacock Alley.

The architecture of Boston in Massachusetts, USA in the winter season showcasing the Boston Public Garden at Back Bay.

Boston has come a long way since the Puritans banned Christmas for 22 years in the 1600s.

Photo by Marcio Jose Bastos Silva/Shutterstock

8. Channel the ghost of Christmas Past in Boston

Boston leans into its centuries of history with colonial-tinged celebrations. On the Freedom Trail, for instance, you can book an hour-long Historic Holiday Stroll, in which you’ll be led by a guide in Dickensian-era costumes. On December 9 at Omni Parker House, which is known as the first spot in the U.S. where Charles Dickens introduced A Christmas Carol to American audiences, there will be a live reading of the novella with musical accompaniments and a pre-reading discussion by the house historian.

For something truly magical, snag a coveted ticket to the Candlelight Concerts series. They happen all around the world, but the venues in Boston are especially magical: Lit only by flickering candles, these string quartet concerts will be held in the Gothic Revival Old South Church in the Back Bay neighborhood, the First Church in Cambridge, and Temple Ohabei Shalom on Beacon Street.

Where to stay

Lodging options don’t come more historic than the Omni Parker House, which opened in 1855 and ranks as America’s longest continuously operating hotel. If the Omni Parker House was good enough for Dickens, it’s good enough for you!

Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset, Wine Enthusiast, and more.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR