Christmas is a magical time of year, so it makes the perfect time to plan a trip for your family full of wonder, light, and joy.
While there are countless locations you can visit that fall into the “captivating” category, there are a few that stand above the rest in terms of being truly magical as a Christmas destination.
Making Christmas Vacations Magical
This Christmas season, experience the wonder and joy of this time of year in a brand-new way by embarking on your own Christmas adventure to one of these 15 magical destinations.
Make wonderful memories with your family as you discover the joy of the season in a whole new way. Each of these destinations offers a sense of wonderment that makes it unique enough to merit a spot on my top 15 magical destinations.
1. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Aptly named a joyous Christmas destination, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania specializes in the wonderment of Christmas.
Located in Lehigh Valley, just about an hour north of Philadelphia, this little town could be straight out of a Hallmark movie. This Christmas City gives kids the thrill of reading stories with Santa, participating in a gingerbread man contest, and making crafts with Santa’s elves.
The main street is lined with Christmas markets, some of which are indoors, while choir singers serenade guests throughout their experience.
If you want to add another interesting stop on this trip, the Delaware River Railroad is just about 20 minutes away. This is noteworthy because they offer Polar Express Christmas Train Rides. Need I say more?
2. San Antonio, Texas
If you are like me, your first thought when seeing San Antonio and the famed Alamo on a Christmas vacation list is, why?
Well, first impressions aside, this is actually a very interesting Christmas-themed destination from mid-November through mid-January.
In fact, the River Walk has for hundreds of years adorned this area with Mexican Christmas lanterns. The purpose was supposedly to help light the way for the Holy Family during this sacred time of year.
You and your family can experience this awe-inspiring tradition either by foot or, for an even more fun experience, opt for a boat ride on Go Rio Cruises. These tours are kid-friendly and even allow you to bring along your stroller on board.
As part of your visit to this magical area, your family can add The DoSeum, San Antonio’s kid’s museum to the agenda.
This whole event is made even more special by adding a visit to the nearby Natural Bridge Caverns to the day. Here, professional Christmas carolers’ voices echo 180 feet below the surface.
3. Nashville, Tennessee
A visit to this area during the Christmas season can be a nearly all-inclusive experience. By staying at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel, you get to be part of Christmas at Gaylord, which comes with a host of activity options.
First, the hotel itself is decked out in Christmas regalia, including lights and decor. In fact, some people visit the hotel itself simply for its interior displays during this time of year without even being a guest.
However, as a guest, you can take advantage of the Christmas vacation package, including a Build-a-Bear Workshop, a gingerbread house decorating contest, a holiday cruise on the General Jackson Showboat, and much more.
I wouldn’t be doing this destination justice without mentioning the spectacular ICE experience, which is a dazzling display of thrilling ice slides some more than two stories tall, larger-than-life ice sculptures, and ice tunnels.
This immensely popular attraction utilizes over two million pounds of ice, and features hand-carved depictions from various Christmas classics each year.
Be warned, the temperature in the ICE experience is kept cold to preserve the sculptures, so wear your coat and mittens.
While the ice sculptures of the various classic scenes are neat to see, there is always a classic Nativity scene that is breathtaking.
Also, there is ice skating, tubing and the Polar Express experience, and more to enjoy all within the confines of the Gaylord Opryland Hotels.
(As an aside, you can venture into Nashville and see an NHL hockey game, watching the hometown NHL Team, the Predators, for a different kind of icy adventure.)
4. Greenough, Montana, The Resort at Paws Up
Situated a mere 35 minutes outside Missoula in Blackfoot Valley, this is a luxury resort located on a 37,000-acre working farm.
Here, at the Resort at Paws Up, you and your family are transported to a Montana Christmas experience and everything it entails.
Enjoy an old-fashioned tree trimming party, cookie decorating, gingerbread house contest, horse-drawn sleigh rides, and dog sledding.
Christmas packages typically offer five-night stays and include snacks, meals, and non-alcoholic beverages.
On Christmas Eve, there is a festive Christmas Eve party, where Santa himself makes a guest appearance.
(Fair warning this all-inclusive experience is pretty pricey and would likely be a once-in-a-lifetime type of experience. However, I felt it merited a mention on my list simply for its uniqueness.)
5. New York City, New York
No list of magical Christmas destinations would be complete without at least a mention of New York City. After all, just think of all the Christmas movies with a New York backdrop. How could I not include a trip to the Big Apple in this list?
To list what all you can do as a family in New York would take up this entire article. However, there are a few themed Christmas activities that you must make sure to fit in on a holiday visit.
This, of course, includes a visit to see the Rockefeller Christmas Tree all lit up, as well as walking 5th Avenue and seeing all the window displays.
For something a little outside of the typical scope of New York activities, consider a visit to the New York Botanical Garden’s Holiday Train Show.
During the holiday season, the Train Show decorates its collection of model trains that chug through a half-mile track winding in and out of miniature NYC landmarks such as Radio City Music Hall, the Empire State Building, and more, all of which are made out of natural materials like berries, bark, twigs and leaves.
I simply cannot end this synopsis of New York at Christmas without at least mentioning The Ride Entertainment Experience.
The Ride is a motor coach with theater seats, flashing lights, and floor-to-ceiling windows. It takes you on a tour of the city, allowing you to witness all of New York City’s holiday regalia as well as street performances.
The ride is hosted by two New York experts who are immensely entertaining, making this a truly unique experience.
6. St. Augustine, Florida
From a snowy, cold city to America’s oldest city with much more mild temperatures in Florida, a visit to St. Augustine is an interesting and magical Christmas vacation idea.
While the location itself is pretty and features lots of interesting activities, when it comes to holiday-themed options, the city’s annual Night of Lights event likely cannot be beat.
This event features the lighting of three million white lights that illuminate the beautiful historic district of St. Augustine from mid-November to late January.
The sheer beauty and wonder of this display has led to it being recognized as one of the world’s top light displays, and I couldn’t agree more.
Viewing the beautiful lights of the Night of Lights is obviously priority number one when staying in St. Augustine.
If you want a bit cozier of an experience with just a few others, try Gold Tours for an electric vehicle tour.
Of course, you can also opt to enjoy the views from the water aboard several vessels and can also choose to simply walk along the streets.
Ideally, you can try all of them or a combination to get immersed in the wonder of the lights.
Be sure to visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum for the winter event Lighthouse Illuminations: Tides, Tidings and Trees.
7. Seattle, Washington
Admittedly, this destination wasn’t one I had considered on a list of magical Christmas vacation ideas. However, spending time in this city around the holidays is a unique and wondrous experience.
First, the Woodland Park Zoo features the Iluminate Your Holidays event. This is an immersive experience that will take your family through exhibitions of nature scape lanterns and large-scale animals, representing various wild places from around the globe. This experience is a truly unique one that will delight visitors of all ages.
After spending some time at Woodland Park, you can continue your holiday-themed adventure by visiting the famous Ravenna neighborhood dubbed Candy Cane Lane.
More formally, this area is known as N.E. Park Road, but it’s more fun to call it by its Christmas-themed name Candy Cane Lane.
Here, there are around 23 houses, mostly 1920s Tudors that are simply delightful, that all beautifully decorate their homes. Look for features like fake snow, Christmas trees, and even life-sized moving objects.
Be sure to visit Pike Place Market as well, which is an open-air market where you can find a variety of handmade gifts and even free Santa photos.
8. Orlando, Florida
The Happiest Place on Earth is also a magical place to visit around Christmas, as this is considered the happiest time of year.
Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, doesn’t disappoint when it comes to ramping up decor and events for the holiday season.
Each section of Disney World offers a different way to celebrate the holidays. Epcot features the big man himself, Santa Claus, traveling through the World Showcase in his horse-drawn sleigh.
As another example of the magic you can expect from Disney, the Magic Kingdom also features a holiday trolley, colorful castle projections, and a philharmonic.
There are also tons of sweet holiday treats to enjoy, like cookies and hot chocolate, throughout the parks.
The most magical experience of them all, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, also takes place at the Magic Kingdom during select nights from mid-November through late December.
This is to say nothing of the seasonal decor throughout the park, where even the attractions are decked out in Christmas regalia.
Character greetings also take on an extra special significance during the holidays as they are all decked out in their Christmas finest.
If your kids are a little older or are Harry Potter super fans, then while in Orlando, it might be better for you to opt for Universal Resort.
Universal also does it up big in terms of Christmas decorations, especially within the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Expect to see lights and an ultra-decorated Hogsmeade Village and Diagon Alley during your visit.
(As a general tip, the busiest time of year to visit Universal Resort is the week prior to Christmas and then the week between Christmas and New Year. If you want to visit when the crowds are down, avoid these times and shoot to visit in early January when the decorations are still up, while dealing with a fraction of the people.)
9. Chicago, Illinois
The “Windy City” has several holiday-themed experiences to enjoy when visiting near Christmas.
For example, the Lincoln Park Zoo hosts what they call the ZooLights, which is an event that features a dazzling light display, an Enchanted Forest, a holiday-themed pop-up bar, and visits with Santa.
Another must-see attraction in the Chicago area is The Morton Arboretum’s tree light display. Here, your family can walk through a two-mile expanse of trees all beautifully decorated with colorful lights and set to the background of a holiday-themed musical soundtrack.
10. German Christmas Markets
Admittedly, this one is a bit further away as it takes place all the way in Germany, the birthplace of the original Christkindlmarkt. This real-life German Christmas market puts our US copies to shame in many ways.
As another way to experience this and still stay with something you know well, you can opt for an Adventures by Disney cruise, as there are cruises featuring both the Danube and Rhine Christmas markets.
The German Christmas markets feature a variety of items, as you might imagine, from freshly cooked treats to handcrafted ornaments and toys, all commingled within wooden huts selling these items.
There is nowhere that does Christmas markets better than Germany, so this is truly an unforgettable experience.
11. Asheville, North Carolina
This 8,000-acre property features two hotels, numerous restaurants, and the 175,000-square-foot home itself. This working farm includes livestock, produce, and more, and is pretty much self-sustained.
The Biltmore House, which was originally built by George Vanderbilt, still remains in the care and ownership of the family.
While a huge house where kids can’t touch just everything might not make you think, “that’s a great place to take kids at Christmas.”
However, I feel experiencing Christmas at the Biltmore is well worth the trip simply for the Christmas decorations, lights, shopping opportunities, on-site activities, and world-class service you get at every place on the property.
During the winter season the house tour features a candlelight tour at night, so you can truly enjoy the Christmas decorations spread throughout the home.
You can also visit the gardens along with the greenhouse more formally known as the Biltmore Conservatory, meaning there are all sorts of flowers and blooms to explore, even in the heart of winter.
You can rent bikes and take a ride on the various 20 miles of paved paths, enjoy one of the many excellent restaurants which serve estate-grown produce and meat, as well as enjoy the various shops that are located throughout the property near the Village Hotel and the Biltmore House.
Horse carriage rides are also available, or if your kids are old enough, horseback riding.
One thing I haven’t tried but would like to do is the Falconry experience that lets you actually hold a falcon and see this beautiful bird of prey in action.
(Also worth noting, The Spa is located on-site and is the perfect way to work away that holiday stress.)
12. Nassau, Bahamas
While this is admittedly a step outside the traditional Christmas get-away, for some people, a tropical excursion is exactly what the season calls for. Perhaps you can relate!
If this sounds like heaven to you, then the warm Caribbean climate of the Bahamas, with its pristine beaches and delicious food, is likely a perfect fit.
While you can stay at a variety of locations in Nassau, or take a cruise to enjoy the location, I personally like the thought of flying into the area and staying put in one place to truly rejuvenate.
Therefore, for me, I would prefer staying at the luxurious world-class Atlantis Paradise Island Resort.
This inclusive resort experience has a little bit of everything you could want in a destination including a kid-friendly water park on-site, Aquaventure.
If your kids are old enough and interested in the experience, they can even enjoy swimming with dolphins at the Dolphin Cay & Marine Adventures.
Suffice it to say that although the snow might be far away, you will feel rejuvenated with your holiday getaway that even comes with a bit of a tan, which is magical in and of itself.
13. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
For a more traditional experience for the holiday season, meaning lights, cold weather and maybe even a little snow if you are lucky, add a visit to the Smoky Mountain’s own beautiful Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
The entire city, along with nearby Gatlinburg decorates all the streets, buildings, and attractions for the holiday season beginning at the end of November through the early part of January.
While there are countless places to stay, and I admittedly love simply renting a cabin complete with its own private hot tub.
If you are going to visit the Pigeon Forge area during the holidays, it’s even better to stay at The Inn at the Christmas Place. This unique hotel is done up in Christmas decor all year long, but it’s especially fun to visit when there is a chill in the air and the decor fits a bit better.
(The architecture for this inn is Bavarian, which means it has traditional German design elements, making it perhaps at least somewhat like the German Christmas Villages outlined above.)
Just across the street from The Inn is the beloved Christmas Place store that also is open year-round and sells Christmas decor of all types.
When staying at the Inn, you can choose a regular room, a Christmas Suite, or even the deluxe Santa Suite.
The more deluxe rooms have a fireplace, but all of them feature Christmas decor throughout the space.
While in Pigeon Forge, make sure to visit Dollywood, created by the famous and respected Dolly Parton, who grew up in the area.
Dollywood does an excellent job at Christmastime to incorporate lights and decorations throughout the park.
They also usually feature a live stage show or two as well that is winter or Christmas-themed.
My personal favorite when visiting was Dollywood’s stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life which was an interesting take on the beloved classic.
Dollywood does feature kids’ rides and many options even for little ones, including a carnival section with traditional rides like a Ferris wheel and carousel.
A winter section typically features fake snow as well, which is part of their light show, always magical to kids.
14. St. Croix, US Virgin Islands
As another option for a less-than-traditional Christmas get-away with a beach theme, consider St. Croix, in the US Virgin Islands.
This gives you access to white sand beaches and many fun activities without having to worry about getting a current passport.
When visiting, try to time your trip so you can see the St. Croix Christmas Boat Parade. Since 1998, this has been an important tradition in the St. Croix’s area, bringing the Christmas spirit to the Christiansted Harbor.
The illuminated boats that take part in the parade light up the ocean, and the harbor plays Christmas music to add to the experience.
There are also Christmas markets in St. George Village Botanical Garden for even more Christmas-themed festivities.
Another event you will want to enjoy when in the Virgin Islands is the Crucian Christmas Festival, which is celebrated throughout the island.
There are also arts and crafts, face-painting, games, and visits from Santa even way out in the Virgin Islands, which will keep the kids happy while you enjoy the heavenliness of the warm temperatures and the pristine beaches and seawater.
15. Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Last but certainly not least on my list for magical Christmas vacation ideas is a trip to Steamboat Springs in Colorado.
There are many dining options to enjoy when in the area, along with a fireworks show, hot springs, and snowshoe trails.
Of course, the primary draw for this area is excellent skiing opportunities, but there are many other activities to enjoy as a family as well if that simply isn’t your thing.
If you want to go somewhere where the odds of snow are better than most, then planning a trip to Steamboat Springs is likely a good idea.
While the weather is notoriously fickle in most locations, during the winter months, this is known as a preeminent destination for skiing and great snow.
Steamboat Spring offers a wide variety of lodging and accommodations, from luxurious resort-style locations and condos to small bed and breakfasts full of charm.
In fact, there are more than 150 lodging options in Steamboat, so there is sure to be something that fits your family’s budget requirements and accommodation preferences.
The Sheraton Steamboat Resort or The Steamboat Grand are both wonderful options with on-site restaurants, fitness centers, spas, and outdoor heated pools. There are also cabins and campgrounds if you want a more rustic experience.
Overall, Steamboat Springs is known for its charm and affordability when compared to other ski towns and the holidays bring out the very best in the area for both residents and visitors alike.