Whether you are looking to experience a traditional American Christmas complete with snow, ice skating, and Christmas lights or you want to escape the cold winter and find the warm places to visit in December (hint: think Florida Vacation Rental!), this comprehensive list of the best places to travel in December will give you the heads up you need to start planning your perfect family vacation in this holiday season.
After you learn all about the best US travel destinations in December, give yourself an early Christmas present while you plan by learning how to stay in hotels for free all year round and how to keep your sanity on the road with the kids.
Best Places To Experience A Traditional Christmas in December
“Another tender Tennessee Christmas is the only Christmas for me…”
There’s no doubt the level of bias that lies in the heart of this travel writer! The mountains of East Tennessee will always be my home and always capture my heart most vividly during the holidays. While we don’t often get mounds of snow in the lower elevations of Tennessee, the upper regions of the Appalachian and Smoky Mountains will receive a beautiful white covering that truly enhances their beauty.
The amount of activity available in nearby Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, TN is dizzying and some of the hiking trails couldn’t be more stunning covered in snow and glittering with shimmering ice cycles.
For some great ideas on what to do in Smoky Mountains in December check out these other ideas.
- Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland
- Things to do in the Smoky Mountains In Every Season
- Get our list of 135+ Things To Do In The Smoky Mountains
Lookout Mountain, GA
While you are in Northeast Tennessee, why not take the short drive south to Lookout Mountain, GA and visit Rock City. Located just five miles from Chattanooga,TN, Rock City Gardens lies hidden away at the top of a small mountain town on the border of Tennessee and Georgia.
It’s one of the best December travel destinations in the US that few people actually know about. Throughout the entire month of December, Rock City hosts its annual Enchanted Garden of Lights–a celebration combining sparkling lights, decorations, and festive activities with hiking paths leading through tiny crevices in giant, moss-covered boulders to a waterfall that emerges on the other side.
From the top of the falls, you can even see seven US states on a clear, sunny day. Santa will be waiting for you there, and you’ll sip on warm cider or hot cocoa while enjoying holiday music performed by local choirs and live bands. You can also decorate Gingerbread cookies with Mrs. Claus, paint ornaments, or design your own Christmas stocking. If you’re a fan of beautiful nature, crisp winter air, waterfalls, holiday festivities, fragrant gardens, and pretty Christmas lights, then I highly recommend you choose Rock City for your next travel destination in the US in December.
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Christmas is a magical time full of gorgeous decorations, lights, and cheer. One of the best ways to experience the charm of Christmas is to visit a small historic American town like Alexandria, VA. In Old Town Alexandria during December, you will be plunged into the Christmas fairy tale. The 18th-century narrow streets with numerous galleries, shops, restaurants, and historic row houses is the perfect setting to experience a Charles Dickens style Christmas.
Alexandria, Virginia, sits on the Potomac River, right across Washington D.C with splendidly stretched around old cobblestone streets and red brick houses and chimneys perfectly decorated for a visit from the Santa Clause.
If you can, visit Old Town Alexandria is during the Tree Lightning weekend to experience a special visit from with Santa and Mrs. Claus as well as enjoy performances from local artists.
Maria Potehina from Call It Adventure
Maggie, from the Pink Caddy Travelogue says Washington D.C. is often overshadowed by nearby NYC, Washington, D.C. is one of the most underrated places to visit in December. The weather is mild yet the Christmas celebrations are out in full force!
There are two, that’s right, TWO national Christmas trees. One of them is located in front of the U.S. Capitol Building and provides one of the most picturesque DC Christmas settings. The other tree is located in front of the White House. That tree is also surrounded by 56 smaller trees, one for each US state and territory.
Speaking of the White House, it gets a makeover each holiday season. The President’s home is open to public tours all year, but Christmas is the best time to visit. The entire building is decorated with a multitude of trees, fresh pine garland, twinkling lights, and a gingerbread replica of the White House itself.
The National Cathedral puts on the Messiah each year, the Smithsonian Zoo hosts a light show complete hot cider and spiked hot chocolate, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon celebrates the season 1776 style. There’s no shortage of reasons to visit DC in December!”
PLEASE NOTE: In order to tour the White House, you must contact your local congressman at least three months in advance to request the tour. You can find out more information on the White House website here.
New York, NY
No place does Christmas better than New York City! In addition to the normal NYC tourist attractions, there are lots of special things to do for the holidays. It’s one of the best places to visit in the US in December. Just remember to bring some warm clothes!
First, you have to see the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. Nearby, you can see the department store windows elaborately decorated for the season. If you have more time, venture to the Brooklyn neighborhood of Dyker Heights for some over the top displays.
For those that still need to buy gifts, there are a few Christmas markets, the largest being Bryant Park. If you want to go ice skating, there are several outdoor rinks to try. Rockefeller Center and Central Park may be the most iconic ice rinks, but there the one in Bryant Park is also popular.
During the holiday season in New York City, there are usually some Christmas-themed shows on Broadway. I think the best show to see is the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall. It’s been a tradition since 1933!
Poconos Mountains, PA
As the air becomes crisp and cool, it’s time to put away the beach chairs and sunblock and take out the snow pants and gloves. However, just because it’s winter, doesn’t mean you can’t have a great vacation. The Poconos in Pennsylvania is one of the best places to visit in winter due to the variety of activities available.
Camelback Mountain is famous for their 42 lanes of snow-tubing available for people of all ages. You can even go galactic snow tubing at night under LED lights. If you’re more into skiing and snowboarding, Camelback has that too, but there is also Shawnee Mountain and Blue Mountain with a variety of hills for all skill levels.
If a romantic weekend getaway is more your speed, La Spa Foret is a great place to relax and revitalize. There are also a number of breweries and wineries in the area. To get you in the mood for the holidays, you can take a carriage ride at Hawley Winterfest, visit Jim Thorpe’s Olde Time Christmas for train rides with Santa, and make ornaments at Santa’s Winterfest.
No matter your age, there is something in the Poconos to warm you up in December.
Pam from the Directionally Challenged Traveler
St. Louis, MO
Jessica from Unearth The Voyage says that St. Louis, MO is a great place to travel in December because during the month of December, St. Louis is home to the Brewery Lights at Anheuser Busch. This annual Christmas lights tradition held by the brewery boasts more than a million twinkling lights. During the “Brewery Lights Festival”, the brewery grounds are transformed into a winter wonderland in which you can walk around and enjoy the Christmas lights as well as a free sample of Anheuser Busch beer. Find out more about this year’s Brewery Light Festival on their website.
“Garden Glow” is another great place to visit in December in St. Louis. Again, over 1 million Christmas lights illuminate the Missouri botanical gardens located in St. Louis. Visit their website for more details on this year’s Christmas light celebration at the Missouri Botanical Gardens.
Here are a few other festivals and events to look forward to in St. Louis, MO during the month of December.
- Window Walk in the Central West End–
- Maplewood’s Christmas Tree Walk
- Winter Celebration
- The Polar Express Train Ride at St. Louis Union Station
Omaha, NE is a hidden gem! Omaha is a very affordable city, making it a great choice for a cheap family vacation in December. Sarah, from The Prosperous Blonde, shared some of her favorite things to do in Omaha.
Omaha is a metropolitan area of more than 1 million people, but still has a small town feel.
My favorite place in the city is the area downtown known as The Old Market. This area is home to awesome historic warehouses that have been converted into super unique shops & restaurants.
You’ll find everything from antique stores to cool handmade jewelry. and if you love Christmas, you will love visiting Tannenbaum Christmas Shop-a shop dedicated to all things Christmas!
For more great things to do in December in Omaha, NE check out these options.
- Visit Tannenbaum Christmas Shop
- Holiday Lights Festival from Mid-November to New Years Eve
- Visit the Capitol District Ice Rink on 10th & Capitol Avenue
- Check Holidays in Old Market for holiday events throughout the December
If you are looking to escape the cold this and celebrate Christmas in your shorts and flip flops, these United States December travel destinations.
Sandpoint is a lake community in northern Idaho and is the perfect destination for families looking to experience the outdoors in December. Sandpoint is a hidden gem in the Pacific Northwest and is accessible after a 1.5 hour drive from the closest airport, located in Spokane, Washington.
During the winter, snow blankets not only the lake and small town of Sandpoint but also the nearby world-class ski resort of Schweitzer Mountain. Families who enjoy the outdoors will find that there are lots of things to do in Sandpoint during December, including skiing, snowshoeing, snow tubing and even horse drawn carriage rides.
When not enjoying all there is to do outdoors, visitors to Sandpoint can explore downtown which is home to several boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops. There is also a bowling alley and two movie theaters in the area if families are looking for activities to escape the cold.
If you’re looking for a fun and unique destination to take the family this December look no further than Leavenworth, Washington. This The bavarian-like town at the base of the Cascade Mountains is a popular year-round destination for families but, December is especially magical.
Starting on the first weekend of December and running all the way through to Valentine’s Day the town of Leavenworth is lit up with more than half a million Christmas lights. Every Saturday and Sunday in December there’s a Christmas Lighting Ceremony complete with the arrival of St Nikolaus, roaming carolers, live music, sledding, and seasonal treats like hot chocolate, mulled wine, and hot chocolate.
Outside of town the fun continues with winter wonderland activities like sledding, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. There really is something to excite everyone in the family during the month of December in Leavenworth, WA!
Lake Tahoe, CA
Lake Tahoe is a stunning destination to visit in the USA in December if you want to tick both California and Nevada off your December bucket list. The area is a white winter wonderland that is an enchanting backdrop for numerous outdoor activities suitable for all ages. From skiing and snowboarding to snowshoeing, ice skating and dog sledding, there’s a huge list of things to do in Lake Tahoe in winter for families. Ride a horse-drawn buggy, warm up with a delicious pizza and hot chocolate or go on an exciting snowmobiling adventure in the backcountry.
The scenery is amazing! Actually, think of Lake Tahoe as a big winter playground for kids of all ages. Lake Tahoe has 12 ski resorts and a number of world-famous ones, such as Squaw Valley, which was the host of the 1960 Winter Olympics. Other ski resorts that families will love are Heavenly, Northstar and Sugarbowl. Celebrate the holiday season at Lake Tahoe and see in the New Year at the Snow Globe Music Festival, which is a fun event that is popular with families.
Keystone is the best ski resort in Colorado for families and December is the perfect time to visit. The mountains are covered with a blanket of white snow and the trees in the ski village are strung with twinkling Christmas lights.
Families with young kids will love Keystone because there are so many fun activities besides skiing. You can take the family ice skating on the frozen 5-acre lake, ride the gondola to an enormous snow fort at the top of Keystone Mountain, or take advantage of the activities offered just for kids through Keystone’s Kidtopia program. My family’s favorite thing to do in Keystone around Christmas time is to visit the chocolate village in the lobby of the Keystone Lodge.
Every December the amazing Keystone pastry chefs set up a gigantic Christmas display made entirely of Chocolate. There are chocolate presents under a huge chocolate christmas tree and an entire chocolate ski town complete with a chocolate gondola and train. It is incredible. Santa frequently visits the Chocolate Village so make sure to ask the front desk when he will be there. Check out these tips for booking the perfect Keystone family ski vacation when plan your trip.
Jackson Hole, WY
The Part Time Tourists say that Jackson Hole, WY is “a great option for December travel! This family friendly town is magical during that time of year and has something that everyone will enjoy. A few activities that can be enjoyed by the whole family include taking a sleigh ride through an elk refuge and enjoying a “big red” tram ride up to the top of mountain to enjoy their world-famous breakfast.
You also can’t leave without taking advantage of the ice skating rink in the center of town. You won’t be able to miss it as it has the light-strung antler arches on all the entrances. The last thing that you can’t miss while exploring Jackson Hole during December is taking a winter wonderland drive through Grand Teton National Park. You’ll see wildlife and incredible views all from inside your warm vehicle.”
For even more ideas about check out this non-skiers guide to Jackson Hole in the Winter.
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Despite Minnesota’s reputation for cold weather and snow in the winter, Via Travelers tell us that the coldest months of the year don’t hit until January and February, making a visit in December a great time to experience the snowy beautiful city.
During December, you can hike a variety of trails or do cross country skiing in a number of different parks in surrounding Minneapolis. Cross country skiing is a staple for Minneapolis given the Nordic heritage of the community.
In fact, downtown Minneapolis celebrates that Nordic heritage with a German inspired Christmas market and festivities known as Holidazzle at Loring Park. Finally, take in a showing of the Christmas Carol the Guthrie Theatre or enjoy art in one of Minneapolis’ many art museums.
Travel With A Plan has some great tips for enjoying the nearby Bloomington, MN while you are in the Minneapolis area.
“Be sure to leave time to visit nearby Bloomington, home to none other than retail giant Mall of America – which will be perfectly adorned for Christmas when visiting in December!
This iconic shopping mall is home to over 500 general retail stores, specialty attractions, and more than 50 restaurants. Not only that, but MOA is also home to four of Minnesota’s top attractions – SEA LIFE Minnesota Aquarium, Crayola Experience, FlyOver America and world-famous Nickelodeon Universe.
As the nation’s largest indoor theme park, it’s always 70 degrees and sunny at Nickelodeon Universe. Thanks to its climate-controlled environment and glass ceiling that lets natural light in, guests avoid all inclement weather while still feeling like they are actually outside. With its combination of Family, Junior, and Thrill rides, there is literally something to do for everyone!
Cap off your visit to the Mall of America with a magical skating experience at MOA’s free Skate the Star. This custom-built ice rink is located at the North entrance of MOA. Take note that though you can bring your own skates, the small rental fee of $5 goes directly to the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities!
While in Bloomington, stay at the Radisson Blu or the JW Marriott, both of which are directly connected to the Mall of America. If you really want to thrill the kids in the middle of December, enjoy the indoor water park located at the Great Wolf Lodge which is located only steps away from the mall.”
Best Warm Places To Visit In December
Key West, Florida
I know I said that Tennessee was a special place for me in December, but you know that I am easily persuaded that Florida is the place to be when those temperatures start to drop. Coleman Concierge has me ready to book my tickets with this descriptions of Key West in December.
“Key West Florida is a fabulous place to travel in December because of its warm Caribbean sunshine. Since its an island, you can catch sunrise, sunset, and enjoy sunshine all day.
We recommend staying in a boutique hotel in the historic district like Amsterdam’s Curry Mansion Inn. It’s so convenient for an active family being walking distance from Duval Street, Mallory Square, and all of old town Key West.
Make sure you take a boat ride somewhere while you’re in Key West. Whether you’re snorkeling on the coral reefs or taking a sunset cruise. You can even take a jet ski tour around the entire island and count it for boat time if you like.
For more family fun, try taking the Conch Train across the island to explore the Hemingway House, butterfly Gardens, or Southernmost Point in the United States. Be sure to explore Fort Zachary Taylor and the shipwreck museum to learn about Key West’s nautical history.
The orange sun from sunrise at Higgs Beach to sunset at Mallory Square will be the perfect vacation to chase away the winter blues.”
“December is the perfect time to explore Miami. With weather in the mid-seventies, it’s a great time of year for visiting the beach and exploring the city without the heat being too oppressive. The beaches are much emptier at this time of year as they are too cold for the locals.
If you don’t want to spend the whole trip on the beach, there is also plenty to see in the city with it’s great shopping, food and many family friendly museums, most notably the Frost Science Museum which is a massive hands on museum that kids love.
You should also spend some time soaking in the Cuban culture with a visit to Little Havana. In December the city also has some fabulous seasonal activities that should not be missed, like going to see the Nutcracker at the ballet or a visit to Santa’s Enchanted Forest which is the largest holiday theme park in the world!”
Get more tips on visiting Miami from Travel Mad Mum
Maui is one of the most popular places to travel in December in the US to escape the winter temperatures. The Hawaiian island of Maui is ideal to escape the cold in the continental US with temperatures around 25 Degrees celsius (77°F). If you visit before Christmas you will avoid the crowds of New Year and January.
Maui is full of adventures, and it’s recommended to rent a car and drive the iconic Road to Hana where you get beautiful scenery, lush waterfalls and gorgeous beaches along the way.
There are also numerous hiking options and trails that you can explore as a family. I recommend staying in Kihei or Wailea beach as it’s a nice place for families with a relaxed vibe, nice accommodation alternatives and not too far away by car.
Alex from Swedish Nomad
San Diego, CA
Corritta from Itz a Family Thing says that San Diego is the place to travel in December!
“When you think Christmas, I am sure San Diego is not the first place that comes to mind. What we lack in snow we make up for in Christmas spirit and lights. There is no shortage of activities available for families in the Christmas spirit.
There is the San Diego Holiday Parade, Christmas Pet Parade, Balboa Park December nights, La Jolla Christmas Parade, and The Holiday Bowl.
The crown jewel of the Christmas celebration in San Diego is Global Winter Wonderland. You can see all the major attractions in lights from around the world in one-night. Start at the Nation’s Capital Washington D.C and work your way around the world through Tokyo, Paris, Italy, India, and China. There are also spectacular interactive light character mazes for families to enjoy (last year there were dinosaurs).
So, the next time you are trying to think of your next Christmas destination, come and join us in San Diego for family fun and nights full of adventure.”
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Travelgal Nicole has some great tips for hiking in Arizona and says that it is one of the best places to travel in December, “If you enjoy comfortable temperatures and plenty of fun things to do then you should definitely visit Phoenix in December.
Phoenix is the capital of Arizona and enjoys year round warm temperatures as well as lots of fun things to do for families.”
Here are a few things to do in Phoenix as you seek to warm up your December.
- Visit the Oasis Water Park at the Arizona Grand Resort and Spa: Voted one of the top 10 Waterparks in the US by the Travel Channel
- Take a day trip to the Grand Canyon and take in the majestic beauty from the south rim.
- Still want to see some Christmas lights? Check out Zoolights at the Phoenix Zoo
If warmer, but not HOT, is what you seek, consider Charleston, SC for your December family vacation. Elizabeth from Elizabeth Everywhere has a few pointers for making Charleston your December travel destination in the US.
“Head south for the winter with a trip to Charleston, South Carolina! Charleston is the perfect destination for a mild December getaway, with temperatures ranging from the upper 40s to 60s!
The city is a great getaway any time of year, with interesting history, beautiful architecture, and tons of amazing food, but the city really comes to life in December!
Walk down King Street, the main shopping street, and admire the Christmas decorations (and get any last minute gift shopping done)!
Be sure to visit the model train in Charleston Place and the Christmas tree in Marion Square! After a day exploring, warm up with some authentic southern cooking at one of the main soul food restaurants!”
Where are your favorite US destinations to travel in December?