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
- Book now: The Plaza Hotel
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.
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
- Book now: Hotel Havana
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.
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
- Book now: Conrad Los Angeles
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.
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
- Book now: Graduate Nashville
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.
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
- Book now: The Peninsula Chicago
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.
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
- Book now: The Edgewater
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.
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.
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
- Book now: Omni Parker House
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!