Spectacular light displays, charming markets, historic tours, and ice skating from coast to coast.
This time of year, cities across the U.S. and Canada are decked out in bright lights, boasting world-class parties, handcrafted gifts, delicious holiday treats, traditional music, and more. Here, some of our favorite celebrations across the continent.
1. MYRTLE BEACH, SC
There’s no shortage of grand lighting displays across the U.S., but Night of a Thousand Candles at Brookgreen Gardens, on the South Carolina coast near Myrtle Beach, is the only one you’ll find that’s set up in a gorgeous sculpture garden. The Gardens, founded in 1931 and a National Historic Landmark, include a zoo and the largest collection of outdoor sculpture in America. Now, imagine wandering the property, cider in hand, taking in the spectacle: more than 5,500 hand-lit candles, an 80-foot-tall tree, and an outdoor glass sculpture exhibit, which you can catch through December 17 (brookgreen.org).
2. COLUMBUS, OH
Through January 7, Ohio State Expo Center’s Natural Resources Park is basically an outdoor canvas adorned with 39 oversized elaborate silk lanterns. The Ohio Chinese Lantern Festival features pieces designed by Chinese artists, nightly performances and traditional Chinese eats (ohiolanternfestival.com).
Nathan Phillips Square, a sprawling pavilion in front of Toronto’s City Hall, is home to the second annual Holiday Fair in Nathan Phillips Square. This free event, which runs through December 23, transforms the public space into vibrant, carnival-esque Euro-style Christmas market. There are vendors selling everything from crafts to fine art to jewelry to food and spices; food trucks; an ice bar with a range of beer, liquor, and wine, all Canadian made, and plenty for the kids to do. (Carousel, anyone?) Plus the aforementioned ice rink is open and skate rentals are available (fairinthesquare.ca).
4. PHILADELPHIA, PA
If you’re around the City of Brotherly Love between now and the end of the year, carve out some time for the City Center Holiday Tour, a three-hour excursion run by Philly Urban Adventures that hits all of the city’s major holiday attractions: the Christmas Light Show, which features the Wanamaker Organ at Macy’s and a light show narrated by Julie Andrews; the Comcast Center’s Christmas Spectacular, an outdoor LED display featuring “The Nutcracker” performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet; and the Christmas Village at City Hall, a dramatic setup of German-style wooden houses, live entertainment, and vendors selling everything from music boxes to hot mulled wine and bratwursts (urbanadventures.com).
5. NATCHEZ, MS
The Towers Mansion in Natchez, Mississippi, sits on five sprawling and stunning acres. The grand Antebellum home, which operates as a B&B, contains a treasure trove of antique furniture and fabrics, but this season, the highlight is its Jeweled Christmas, an annual floor-to-ceiling spectacle that virtually lights up the posh dining room with thousands of pieces of dazzling vintage costume jewelry. The eye-popping decor is on display through January 6 (thetowersofnatchez.com).
6. ST. AUGUSTINE, FL
This coastal Florida city is home to what you might call the hottest winter wonderland around. During Nights of Lights, through January 31, the historic city glimmers with 2.5 million tiny white bulbs, illuminating the 16th century colonial architecture and making the 144-square-block historic district an absolute fantasy kingdom. The trollies that roll from site-to-site across the city, one of St. Augustine’s biggest year-round attractions, are livened up with caroling. There are other ways to see the city as well, from historical tours to horse-and-buggy rides to the 45-minute Wine and Carriage ride, which includes—you guessed it— wine tastings. It’s available for groups as well as couples (visitstaugustine.com).
7. QUEBEC CITY
Quebec City is often described as European—French, to be precise. But through December 18, Christmas markets will transport you straight to old-world Bavaria. The German Christmas Market, which runs through December 23, features a huge variety of artists and craftspeople selling their wares, from jewelry and accessories to sweaters to foodstuffs and plenty more, in a village-like setup of wooden kiosks. There’s German food on offer (Bratwurst, anyone?), wine tastings, a DJ-fueled après-ski, and a puppet show for kids. All the while, Cicerone Tours offers Christmas Magic in Old Quebec Tour, a walking tour through the historic districts of Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It wraps up at the market (quebecregion.com).
8. DALLAS, TX
Everything, it’s said, is bigger in Texas. Even the little stuff. The miniature train exhibition in NorthPark is a huge attraction. Now in its eighteenth year, the display features 1,600 feet of track and coast-t0-coast landmarks in dollhouse-size form, from New York City’s Times Square to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and all the familiar sites in the great landscape between. Visitors can ride along virtual-reality-style, thanks to a cool app. The show runs through January 7 (thetrainsatnorthpark.com).
There’s no shortage of public art—especially of the electrical and digital persuasions— in Canadian cities and the holidays are certainly as good an excuse as any to crank up the lights. As part of Christmas Lights Across Canada, the grand neo-Gothic-style Canadian Parliament buildings of Ottawa are the site of a giant multimedia projection show through January 7. The projection, inspired by Canada’s nature, plays on loop and is accompanied by an original soundtrack. New this year is another Parliament Hill must-see—an installation of 24 giant prisms that send floods of colors at every turn. It’s free to wander (ottawatourism.ca).
10. ATLANTA, GA
Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park is usually the epicenter of holiday cool, with its ice rink and Holiday in Lights festivities, but due to park construction this year, those events will not take place in the park. Brand-new ice skating and holiday light displays are on tap, however, at The Battery Atlanta, the array of shops and restaurants (and more) surrounding SunTrust Park, home of the Atlanta Braves. And there's plenty of holiday spirit to soak up all over town: Don’t miss Atlanta Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” the Children’s Museum of Atlanta decked out in its holiday finery, and the always-inspiring High Museum of Art, which adds an extra layer of fresh fun to its impressive collection each December (atlanta.net).
11. CHARLESTON, SC
With its historic antebellum houses and towering palm trees, Charleston does not have your standard Winter Wonderland offerings, but it sure knows how to celebrate the holidays. From the family-friendly Festival of Lights, a stunning display of millions of lights on view through January 1, to Holiday Magic in Historic Charleston, a festive setup in Marion Square. In addition to a 60-foot tree, there’s a giant menorah and a Chanukah party with music, crafts, and food, and a Kwanzaa celebration. Free parking is available with a voucher, courtesy of the City of Charleston (charlestoncvb.com).
12. PORTLAND, OR
Leave it to Portland, with its distinctive artisanal vibe, to host one of the finest arrays of locally handcrafted gifts anywhere, with sales that include cool holiday parties, spirits tastings, and other creative ways to do your holiday shopping. Portland goes all out with holiday light displays this time of year, including the Christmas Festival of Lights at The Grotto, ZooLights, and the Christmas Ship Parade, with eye-poppingly decorated boats on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. You can get a dose of cozy winter traditions at the Benson Hotel with its gingerbread displays, the Festival of Trees at the Oregon Convention Center, and a western frontier town converted into a winter wonderland at Alpenrose Dairy’s Christmas in Dairyville (travelportland.com).