The holidays are around the corner and for many of us, Christmas travel means heading to grandma’s house — you know, over the river and through the woods. For others, a holiday destination means a nice hotel resort on a beach somewhere. Today, I wanted to share idea for places to go for Christmas on the east coast that will put you in the holiday mood.
These are East Coast Christmas vacations that offer something extra special. From parades of boats to horse-drawn sleigh rides to botanical gardens dripping in twinkling lights, these Christmas weekend getaways are postcard-worthy venues for catching the holiday spirit.
And if you are looking for even more holiday inspiration, be sure to check out our posts on the best Christmas hotels, and ideas for celebrating the holidays in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and London. For a visual view, check out the places to go for Christmas web story.
Best Places to Go for Christmas on the East Coast
Updated November 12, 2021. Dates are subject to change and we recommend visiting the destination website to find out more details before planning your trip.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you click a link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission. All opinions are my own.
Starting in the north and moving south, here are our picks for the top places to go for Christmas on the East Coast of the USA.
Kennebunkport is a charming coastal town in Southern Maine, famous for its lobster rolls, Docks Square shopping, and the Bush Family compound. While visitors flock here in the summer, Kennebunkport (KPT) goes out of its way to shine in the winter too. For two consecutive weekends, Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, nearby Kennebunk, and Cape Porpoise are aglow with holiday-themed events from tree lightings to parades, crafts to caroling, and fireworks to Santa’s arrival.
You really won’t want to miss the lobster trap tree lighting! If you are staying overnight, the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel is right in the heart of the action.
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
The waterfront, historic town of Portsmouth is always a joy to visit, with its cobblestone streets, charming shops, bountiful restaurants, and harborfront. But Portsmouth really turns festive around the holidays with a Vintage Christmas. This month-long celebration is chock full of events from the Vintage Christmas kickoff party to the Annual Gingerbread House contest, Christmas tree lighting and Illuminated Holiday Parade, and the Annual Candlelight Stroll.
There are also special performances of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and Family Holiday Pops by the Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra, making Portsmouth a great East Coast Christmas vacation. Visitors can then enjoy a winter skate on the outdoor ice-skating rink at Puddle Duck Pond.
While you are in town, I’d highly recommend a seafood meal at Row 34 and an overnight stay at Hampton Inn and Suites in Downtown Portsmouth.
Woodstock, Vermont has to be one of the most charming towns in New England and a perfect place to get into the holiday spirit during a series of holiday events starting in November and running through the mid-December. The festivities kick off with a Gingerbread contest in late November, with the houses on display at Woodstock Scoops.
Next up, enjoy the Christmas spirit at Billings Farm on multiple weekends in December. Billings Farm is decorated in festive lights and Victorian Christmas traditions. Families can enjoy hot cider and toast s’mores by the fire pit.
The main event is the Wassail Weekend. This yearly celebration is filled with decorated historic homes, horse-drawn carriage rides, breakfast with Santa, and twinkling lights throughout the town square. Riders dressed in Victorian Era costumes and horses draped with sleigh bells lead the way in the Wassail Parade.
Visitors can also enjoy musical performances ranging from Christmas with the Celts to Cello by Candlelight, choirs and sing alongs. If you are making a weekend of it, there is no better place to stay than the Woodstock Inn & Resort.
Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, Massachusetts
Snowland at the Great Wolf Lodge is a true kid’s delight! Celebrate the holidays with special cookie deliveries from Wiley the Wolf, eat in the life-size gingerbread house, grab some free hot chocolate, decorate cookies, and participate in special activities like the Polar Wolf Walk.
Make your stay extra special by booking a Snowland Suite, with special holiday decorations and your very own tree. Of course there are Great Wolf Lodge hotels throughout the USA, including ones in the Poconos, Pennsylvania; Concord, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and Williamsburg, Virginia. Check out the video we made from our stay during the holidays at the Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg, Massachusetts.
Like most large cities, Boston puts on its shine for the winter holidays. But unlike some cities, you may just see some snow while you are there. Starting in late November, you can join in one of the many tree or holiday lighting ceremonies around town — from the Boston Common to the Columbus Park Trellis to Copley Square to the State House. You will find trees sparkling brightly in the Boston Common, the Public Garden, Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Copley Square, Prudential Center, the North End, Downtown Crossing, and along the Seaport waterfront.
European-style Holiday Markets also pop up across the city in December, featuring everything from vintage kitsch to New England crafts. Some popular markets can be found in SoWa in the South End, Snow Port at the Boston Seaport, and Old South Church’s Christmas Fair. The Theater District welcomes holiday shows, ice skating is open at Frog Pond, and many hotels offer special events and holiday displays. If I was staying overnight, I’d pick either the Boston Harbor Hotel or the Newbury Hotel, with its wood-burning fireplaces.
Newport, Rhode Island
I know that summer seems like the ideal time to visit the Yachting Capital of the World, but Newport turns out quite nicely for the holidays as well. Many of the historic Newport Mansions are decked out for Christmas in Newport, with special events like costumed caroling and garden club competitions.
Downtown, you can enjoy the holiday decorations while shopping or enjoy festive ice skating. Warm up afterwards in front of the fire at the historic Whitehorse Tavern or over a cup of chowder at the cozy Black Pearl on Bannister’s Wharf. If you are staying in town, curl up by a fire at the Vanderbilt.
Any town called Bethlehem is duty-bound to host some sort of Christmas celebration, right? Bethlehem, Connecticut is no exception and is one of the more charming Christmas towns in America. On the first weekend in December, this small town in Western Connecticut hosts an annual Bethlehem Christmas Town Festival.
The weekend is filled with musical performances, a tree lighting, photos with Santa, horse-drawn hayrides, craft fairs and gift bazaars, along with plenty of food and refreshments. Visitors can enjoy strolling carolers, holiday characters, a train ride, scavenger hunt, Santa’s workshop, and a bell choir concert. The more ambitious can even join the “Sant Made Me Do It” 5K road race.
New York, New York
Is there any better place to spend Christmas than New York City? It is worth battling the crowds and the cold to be part of the magic that is Christmas in NYC.
The whole city is decorated, but you must check out the store windows along Fifth Avenue and the giant holiday decorations on Sixth. There are many Christmas markets to enjoy, many with tasty treats, including Christmas markets in Union Square, Bryant Park, and Columbus Circle.
A visit to “the tree” in Rockefeller Center is a must, but you will get a better picture and a much shorter line for ice skating at Bryant Park. Also, buy tickets in advance to see the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall or sign up for one of the Christmas Lights tours from On Location Tours.
There are no shortage of hotels in New York that get decked out for the holidays, but some of the best are the Lotte New York Palace, The Plaza New York (a must for Home Alone 2 fans), Dream Downtown (grown ups will love the outdoor ice bar), The Standard East Village (where you can hang out in a heated yurt), and The Peninsula New York. Even if you only visit for a day trip, pop into any of the grand New York hotels to warm up and enjoy the holiday displays.
I can’t leave out a town that is dubbed “Christmas Town USA”, which is Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Once a steel town and now a college town, Bethlehem has eastern European roots which are evidenced with its European-style Christmas markets at both Bethlehem’s Christkindlmarkt and Christmas City Village. You can also shop at the Moravian Book Shop, the oldest continuously-operating book store in the world.
When you have stocked up on gifts, visit the Lehigh and Keystone Valley Model Railroad Museum or take a Christmas City Historical walking tour. At nighttime, Downtown Bethlehem really lights up for the holidays, and there is no better place to stay than the Historic Hotel Bethlehem. I’m a big fan of having dinner and drinks at Social Still in Bethlehem, and stopping for breakfast at The Flying Egg, right next door to the hotel.
Little-known Indiana, Pennsylvania is not just the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, it is also Jimmy Stewart’s home town. This little town does Christmas in a big way with a six-week “It’s a Wonderful Life” festival.
You can visit the Jimmy Stewart Museum, take a horse-drawn hayride through the trees at the Fleming’s Christmas Tree Farm, take in a Jimmy Stewart-themed show, and enjoy the It’s a Wonderful Life parade and festival.
New York gets a lot of attention as being a great “big city” holiday destination but I’d argue that Philadelphia gives it a run for its money. Christmas Village in JFK Plaza features food stalls and shops from more than 60 vendors and Winterfest down at the RiverRink you can go ice skating or enjoy the outdoor fire pits.
Visitors can also skate right beside City hall at the Rothman Rink or check out the Holiday Festival at Franklin Square, with a light show featuring over 50,000 lights coordinated to music. You also have to take in the neighborhood light displays at “Miracle on South 13th Street.”
One of my favorite attractions is outside the city at nearby Longwood Gardens, which is one of the premier botanical gardens in the U.S., covering 1,000 acres filled with flowers, lights, miniature train displays, lights and fountain shows, and special holiday events.
If you are making a weekend of it, my favorite place to stay in Old City is the Kimpton Monaco.
It is hard to beat the sweetness of the holidays in Hershey, PA. Candylane in Hersheypark features more than 70 rides amidst the twinkling lights. You can even meet some of Santa’s reindeer!
After a chilly night at the park, grab some chocolate and take a drive through the Hershey Sweet Lights, two miles of drive-through light displays to put you in the holiday mood on your winter vacation. During the day you can enjoy sweet temptations like chocolate tastings at the Hershey Story Museum and chocolate making at Hershey’s Chocolate World.
Annapolis has been named one of the best towns for the holidays by Travel & Leisure. The city’s downtown is decorated with garland and lights to put you in the holiday mood while visiting some of its cute boutiques to do your holiday shopping.
The month of December is filled with back-to-back events including the Annual Chocolate Binge Festival, where you can sample all sorts of chocolate — sign me up! On the second Saturday of December, the Eastport Yacht Club Lights Parade features beautifully decorated boats in the Annapolis Harbor.
In Annapolis, the capstone holiday event is the Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman football game. The season draws to a close with a family-friend New Year’s Eve Celebration at the City Dock ending with festive fireworks.
Williamsburg, Virginia is one of the best towns to visit for Christmas. Strap on some skates and glide across the ice at Liberty’s Ice Pavilion, then warm up with some hot cocoa or warm cider as you stroll through the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, which you will find walking tours on colonial decorating, live musical and theatrical performances, and discussions on holiday traditions.
For a little excitement, Busch Gardens theme park gets in the festive spirit with holiday theming, festive foods, and holiday shopping during a special limited-capacity event. Downtown Williamsburg offers the Williamsburg Christmas Market on the weekends, with live entertainment and over 20 vendors. Meanwhile, nearby Yorktown hosts a Christmas tree lighting and holiday-themed artisan market.
All the Gaylord Hotels (Grapevine, DC, etc) put on a magnificent ICE event with ice sculptures, displays, lights and family fun. The Gaylord Opryland goes all out with more than three million Christmas lights with a themed ICE celebration.
You can watch ice skating performances (or skate on the Gaylord Opryland’s 6,000 square-foot ice rink,) jump aboard the kids train, take photos with Santa, decorate gingerbread, eat cookies with Mrs. Claus, enjoy the outdoor nativity, or snuggle up on a horse-drawn carriage ride.
There are even Christmas fountain shows, a riverboat cruise through the hotel atrium, or a real showboat cruise on the Cumberland River. And while you are there, be sure to catch a show at the Grand Ole Opry!
Wilmington, North Carolina
The holiday season starts early in Wilmington, North Carolina as Thanksgiving week kicks off Flotilla Week in Wrightsville Beach. Flotilla Week is jam-packed with special activities from Friday’s tree lighting ceremony, a visit from Santa, Festival in the Park, the Holiday Flotilla procession of decorated boats, a massive fireworks display, and the annual Airlie Gardens’ Enchanted Airlie.
Enchanted Airlie turns its 35-acres of walking trails in the nighttime forest with nearly one million colorful lights, holiday displays, and seasonal music. If you go, make it a beach vacation with a stay at the Blockade Runner Beach Resort.
Charleston, South Carolina
The Annual Holiday Festival of Lights takes place in James Island County Park from mid-November through late December. Charleston’s most popular holiday event features two million shimmering lights with a three-mile driving tour each evening, making it one of the best places to visit for Christmas in the south.
After the drive, visitors can partake in the many family attractions and activities including roasting marshmallows, train rides, lakeside lights, an amazing dancing light display, an enchanted walking trail, an old-fashioned carousel, Santa’s Sweet Shoppe, and many gift shops.
There is also an Annual Christmas Parade of Boats, which takes place n the Charleston Harbor. This Lowcountry holiday tradition features a display of lighted and festive boats.
Jekyll Island, Georgia
Jekyll Island may be a popular summer destination but it gives visitors a good reason to come celebrate the holidays on this Golden Isle for a Christmas getaway weekend during Holly Jolly Jekyll. The Historic District, home to historic “cottages” of former Jekyll Island Club members like the Rockefellers, transforms into a holiday wonderland with over half a million lights, 35,000+ lights on the Great Tree, 712 firework shells, 15 Santa sightings and so much more.
This little island will be transformed into the brightest isle on the coast with attractions like Peppermint Land, Holidays in History, Mailbox on Main, and fireworks displays. Guests can enjoy seeing all of the lights through an open-air trolley tour on select nights throughout the season which provides a unique experience where the whole family can sit back and relax, enjoy complimentary beverages and more. Visitors can find more information and purchase tickets online.
St. Augustine, Florida
There are many ways to enjoy the lights, from Old Town Trolley tours, carriage rides, harbor tours, or guided walks. During the Annual Holiday Regatta of Lights, a parade of colorfully-decorated boats fill the bay. Stay in the heart of everything at the Casa Monica Resort & Spa, or enjoy the personal hospitality at the St. Francis Inn Bed & Breakfast.
Of course the theme parks really know how to go big for the holidays. With special events, holiday theming, and fantastic holiday decorations, you may want to spend your holidays with Mickey and crew, or Harry Potter and his friends at Universal Orlando.
Just keep in mind that the holiday week is the busiest for the parks and they often reach capacity by early in the morning (although that may be a little different these days.) If you can, plan a pre-holiday visit in the first two weeks of December.
There are so many other fun places to visit for the holidays, but these are some of our favorites.