The Most Charming Small Towns to Visit During the Christmas Season
If you asked most Americans to think about some of the hallmarks of the holiday season, it's usually the twinkling lights, snow-lined streets, and yuletide markets that first come to mind. That's why many agree that small towns across the country are some of the most charming places to visit at Christmas time—they offer all of these things and more. There are even some towns where residents prepare for their December celebrations all year long: These communities work together to turn their hometowns into true Christmas villages, and they're excited to welcome visitors when the holiday season is finally upon us.
If you're looking for a family-friendly destination to visit during the Christmas vacation, put one of these 15 towns on your list—though they're charming throughout the year, they're especially noteworthy during the holiday season. Have you long hoped to treat your family to a white Christmas? You're in luck, as nearly all of these destinations provide it by the bucketful. Even towns in the Southeast—like Andalusia, Alabama, which manufactures a faux snowfall for a festival—get in on the fun. There's more to do than just look at snowdrifts, though. In North Pole, Alaska, located in the suburbs of Fairbanks, the entire community bands together for unique activities, including an ice sculpture festival and visiting Santa's house. In Durango, Colorado, you can take a train ride that'll leave you feeling like you're aboard the real Pole Ex—the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad takes passengers to visit Santa in a would-be North Pole, just like the Polar Express.
Some would say that the activities in these towns are really just added bonuses, though. The real charm comes from just how quaint each locale is. Even in towns without a major parade or community-wide event in the days leading up to Christmas, cheer is in the air—local shops and restaurants decorated every inch of their storefronts with holly, lights, and other seasonal décor, and the hubbub on Main Street as people mill around becomes irresistible.
Whether you're looking to get away for a quiet holiday with your family or simply seeking out a day trip with festive cheer, these magical settings are sure to fill you with Christmas spirit.
Tucked away in northern Georgia, about 75 miles away from Atlanta, the town of Dahlonega comes alive at Christmastime—it's residents welcome those from near and far to partake in festive events and holiday displays around town. Main Street may look somewhat familiar to you, as it's regularly featured in popular Hallmark movies, including Christmas in Homestead. The day after Thanksgiving, Dahlonega kicks off a month-long celebration called Old-Fashioned Christmas, where children can expect appearances from Santa and twinkling lights are hung up throughout town.
North Pole, Alaska
If you're looking for festive cheer in wide open spaces, there's no where better to visit than Alaska. Given it's name, residents in North Pole celebrate Christmas all year round, but traveling there in December means you'll catch the North Pole Christmas in Ice Celebration. Ice sculptors from around the world attend the event, and the ice sculptures they create are put on display throughout the month of December. Plus, visitors can actually visit the Santa Claus house, which collects more than 400,000 pieces of mail per year from children all over the country.
According to the Branson board of tourism, this small city in southern Missouri puts up more than one million Christmas lights each year, as well as hundreds of Douglas Fir trees. December schedules in Branson consist of parades, Christmas light shows, and tree lighting ceremonies, but the biggest draw for families is when the Branson Scenic Railway transforms into the Polar Express seemingly overnight; kids can enjoy cookies and hot chocolate on the hour-long train ride where the iconic Christmas tale is recounted to all.
At the base of the rolling hills of the San Juan National Forest, Durango is often the scene of a winter wonderland, but in December, residents pull out all the stops to create a Christmas scene. Seasonal activities like sleigh rides and ice skating in an open rink in the heart of town are fun things to do in the evenings, but the main attraction for Durango is an extended version of the Polar Express aboard the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. Visitors snake their way in and out of foothills aboard a snowy locomotive towards the "North Pole" and Santa makes an appearance at the end of the journey.
People know and love this coastal town as a summer attraction, but it's just as alluring in the winter as it is during the warmer months. During the first weekend in December, permanent Nantucket residents invite visitors to join them once again on this quiet island off the coast of Massachusetts for the town's annul Christmas Stroll. Sip wine, listen to carolers, and check out hundreds of Christmas trees that are on display throughout the town.
If you didn't know you were in the middle of Washington state, you may believe you'd stumbled into a town straight out of the Bavarian countryside in Germany. Leavenworth is as close to a European holiday as you'll get stateside, as it exudes the same alpine charm as many chalet towns in Europe. During the town's Christmas Lighting Festival, visitors participate in activities around town (like meeting Santa and taking in live music) and watch as Leavenworth lights up with more than 500,000 Christmas lights. The town also hosts an annual cookie crawl!
Santa Claus, Indiana
Living up to its name, Santa Claus is a must-visit destination for any Christmas fanatic—the town throws the Santa Claus Christmas Celebration during weekends in December, with parades, craft shows, and a Das Nikolausfest at the St. Nicholas Catholic Church, where you can sample freshly baked goods with a German twist. Kids will love visiting Santa's Candy Castle or heading to the Santa Claus Museum & Village, where volunteers answer letters everyday leading up to December 20.
According to U.S. News and World Report, Williamsburg has been informally dubbed as the "Best Christmas Town in America," and it's easy to see why. At the historic Jamestown settlement, tour guides demonstrate how original colonists celebrated the holidays back in the 1700s. In Colonial Williamsburg, there's a lighting ceremony at Market Square, and visitors are treated to the history of the first-ever Christmas tree in America. Don't forget about amusement park Busch Gardens, which comes aglow by night thanks to ten million holiday lights, making this the largest display in America.
Christmas for wine lovers awaits in Solvang, California, which is centrally located in the Santa Ynez Valley and largely modeled on Danish heritage. In December, this small town—a collection of vineyards and quaint retailers—puts on a jovial festival known as Julefest. There's a holiday light tour that is offered multiple times throughout the month, plus a Santa Sprint fitness event and live concerts in town center.
McAdenville, North Carolina
The suburbs of Charlotte may seem innocuous enough, but those in the know have established McAdenville as "Christmas Town USA." Residents here band together to put on a massive holiday display that includes nearly every home in town—for over 60 years, people travel far and wide to see more than 250 trees decked out in upwards of 500,000 lights, according to the event's organizer, Steve Rankin. There's no charge to roam around and take in the 160 decorated houses in this suburb before heading back to Charlotte later in the day.
Nearly all of New England looks like a Christmas card in December, but even Vermont natives travel to Woodstock to experience a Christmas festival like no other. Known as the Wassail Weekend, visitors are treated to live carolers up and down main street and a public tree lighting. Antiquity is deeply rooted in this town, and historic buildings and old farmhouses open their doors to the public to showcase their beauty. The best way to see the everything? By horse and buggy, of course.
There's simply no better place to do your Christmas shopping than in Freeport, Maine, which is home to the L.L. Bean headquarters. The entire coastal town is filled with both national outlet shops and local retailers, but you'll want to pause your shopping to take in the tree lighting and an event known as Sparkle Weekend in early December. Here, L.L. Bean hosts a Christmas Parade of Lights right on their grounds and hands out free hot cocoa to everyone in attendance. Plus, you can enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride around town for a general tour before you hit the stores.
Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville is not the smallest place on this list—it's actually one of North Carolina's largest cities—but the unparalleled yuletide décor at one of the most famous mansions in the nation earns its spot on this list. The Biltmore, a historic property owned by the Vanderbilt family, is adorned in garlands, twinkling lights, and plenty of crimson ribbons for the occasion. Taking in the grounds and seeing its interiors is a great precursor to shopping in Asheville's River Arts district, which is home to local craft retailers with truly unique Christmas gifts.
Another example of Europe's influence on American villages, Frankemuth looks like a holiday scene all year round. The town hosts a small Christkindlmarkt in December, and lively Christmas light displays are peppered among the market's stalls. The true draw, however, is Bronner's Christmas Wonderland, which has been dubbed the "world's largest" Christmas store: You'll find unique décor here that you can't find anywhere else.
You'll be hard pressed to find a more popular Christmas destination for Southerners than Helen, Georgia. This whimsical village has built itself into a pristine replica of a German Bavarian town. In December, artists complete the transformation by decorating holiday trees that line the town's streets, and those holiday wonders are then auctioned off to the public at the Festival of Trees. There's also a Kinderfest and a traditional Christkindlmarkt for you to peruse.