MYRTLE BEACH: There’s no shortage of grand lighting displays across the US, but Night of a Thousand Candles at Brookgreen Gardens is the only one you’ll find that’s set up on a former rice plantation. The Gardens, which was founded in 1931 and is a National Historic Landmark, has a zoo and the largest collection of outdoor sculpture. 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 December 15 through 18 from 3PM to 10PM.
Courtesy Brookgreen Gardens
COLUMBUS: Through January 2, 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, which has, until now, only happened in the summertime, features pieces designed by Chinese artists, nightly performances and traditional Chinese eats. Admission $15; $10 for children. Performances included in admission price. Check website for times.
Sichuan Tianyu/Culture Communication Co.
TORONTO: Nathan Phillips Square, a sprawling pavilion in front of Toronto’s City Hall is a bustling gathering spot in the summertime. In the winter, crowds have headed there for the ice skating rink, which is created on the central reflecting pool. For the first time this year, however, it’s a destination for another reason: the 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.
PHILADELPHIA: 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. The Village runs through December 24.
Jeff Fusco for Visit Philadelphia
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 2. Tours are available Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and by appointment for a fee of $20 ($15 for children ages 8 to 12).
ST. AUGUSTINE: This coastal Florida city is home to what you might call the hottest winter wonderland around. During Nights of Lights, 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.
David Nusbaum for OldCity.com
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 Markets, which run through December 18, feature 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.
Courtesy Ville de Québec
DALLAS: 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. The show is in its eighteenth year, but this is the first time visitors can ride along virtual-reality-style, thanks to a brand new app. The show runs through Christmas eve. Tickets are $7 for adults, $3 for children under 12.
Courtesy NorthPark Center
OTTAWA: 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 is 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.
Courtesy Ottawa Tourism
Atlanta is famous for a lot of things, but ice skating in the heart of its downtown is not one of them. The opportunity to lace up skates at Centennial Olympic Park Ice Rink ($12/person) in the middle of this southern city is just one reason to head to Georgia this month. Just outside the rink in Centennial Olympic Park’s Southern Company Amphitheatre is the inaugural Chinese Lantern Festival ($16 adults; $12 children), which runs through January 15. Twenty-five hand-crafted lanterns, a three-story pagoda, and a Chinese dragon that stretches for 200 feet make up this colorful spectacle. There’s also live entertainment each night, from acrobats to plate-spinners to Chinese operas, and craftspeople producing everything from candy to paintings right before your eyes.
Courtesy Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau
With its cheery 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 illuminate the sky on view through January 1, to Holiday Magic in Historic Charleston, a festive setup in Marion Square. In addition to all the standard Christmas standards, like a 60-foot tree, there’s a giant menorah and a Chanukah party on December 29 with music, crafts, and food, and a Kwanzaa celebration on December 24. Free parking is available with a voucher, courtesy of the City of Charleston.
Courtesy Explore Charleston
Leave it to Portland, a locavore mecca, to turn the city’s downtown into a marketplace of made-by-Oregonians gifts. For the seventh year. the city's creative set is coming out to hawk their handmade wares, including everything from from home goods to handmade jewelry and clothing to food and drinks. PDX Pop Up Shops are set up in vacant retail spaces through December 24 from 11am to 7pm Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5pm on Sundays. But wait—there’s more! From December 16 through 18, the Portland Bazaar, which takes place in a sprawling warehouse, features local artists’ works and small businesses’ goods. It launches on Friday with a party, then Saturday and Sunday are free entrance.
Holiday time in the USA means spectacular light displays, charming markets, historic tours, and ice skating from coast to coast.