10 Small Towns That Take Holiday Spirit to the Next Level

The North Pole’s got nothing on North Pole, Alaska.

Solvang brings Scandinavian spirit to the West Coast. | Central Coast Pictures/SolvangUSA.com
Solvang brings Scandinavian spirit to the West Coast. | Central Coast Pictures/SolvangUSA.com
Editor’s note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we'll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world. Be sure to check travel restrictions and protocols before you head out.

As a rough 2020 finally winds to a close, we could all use an extra dose of holiday spirit. And while there’s something magical about a big city like New York when the lights go up, a small-town that goes all in to celebrate the season casts its own special brand of spell. 

Many small towns go big with lights and cheer. But in the 10 towns below, big doesn’t cut it. Holly jolliness is embedded in their DNA. And while restrictions remain in place to keep the pandemic in check, they still have plenty of festive fun to offer throughout the winter, even if experiencing them might just mean driving through and ogling the lights while bumping some Darlene Love and dreaming of 2021, when comfort and joy will hopefully be back in full swing.

Photo courtesy of Central Coast Pictures/SolvangUSA.com

Founded by Danish families in 1911, Solvang’s Old World Scandanavian charm and architecture stand in stark contrast to the west coast’s, well, everything. And come winter, it’s downright transportative. Solvang goes big on Julefest, with more than 100 trees lining the streets and endless decorations covering windmills and other Northern European-inspired structures, including a replica of Denmark's Round Tower. 

Many perennial activities are on hold due for 2020, but you can still get in some holiday shopping from the local family-owned merchants and order an aebleskiver (a Danish pastry especially popular during winter) from the walk-up window at Solvang Restaurant. If you plan to stick around a while, book a room at The Winston and request a suite facing the Christmas tree in Solvang Park.   

Experience Williams

Just west of Flagstaff, Williams is an old mountain town that's redefined itself as a charming, under-the-radar tourist attraction. The shops and restaurants that line historic Route 66 have a timeless quality that suits the winter holiday season just fine, especially with its signature Gateway Arch (no, not that one), City Hall, and downtown rotary clock decorated in lights. A towering tree in the center of town is illuminated in a ceremony that traditionally takes place after the annual Christmas Light Parade in late November. 

However, Williams is probably best known for the Grand Canyon Railway, which travels to the biggest hole in America in a little over two hours with cowboys and other costumed performers. Opt for the Polar Express during winter and you'll take a much shorter route to the "North Pole" instead. For something a little less illuminated, hit Bearizona, a drive-thru wildlife sanctuary that's open year-round and takes on a cozy seasonal feel whenever snow falls.   

Photo courtesy of Branson Convention & Visitors Bureau

Pigeon Forge and the surrounding towns are unabashedly tourist oriented, so it makes perfect sense that Winterfest in the Smoky Mountains brings some serious sparkle to the holidays. Dolly Parton's Dollywood transforms into a Smoky Mountain Christmas, complete with carolers, weekend fireworks, and enough cheer to merit its own Hallmark Christmas movie. Soak in sky-high views of the region with a chair lift ride at Gatlinburg Skylift Park, where the world’s longest pedestrian bridge is illuminated as part of the "Lights Over Gatlinburg" celebration. 

A little north, Smokies Stadium in Sevierville transforms into Shardrick's Christmas Wonderland as families drive through twinkling light exhibits synchronized to music. Sevierville is also home to Wilderness at the Smokies, an indoor waterpark with an outdoor ice rink open during the holidays.   

Photo by Sherman Hogue for Santa Claus House

This little town near Fairbanks leans hard into its name, assuming the role of the North Pole’s American embassy with yearlong decorations and streets lined with candy-cane colors, which pop extra surreally when the northern lights emerge above. Drive down Santa Claus Lane, Kris Kringle Drive, and Mistletoe Lane and you'll see enough festive spirit to make even the most hardened heart grow three sizes. 

The post office officially shares a zip code (99705) with Santa, and volunteers help answer letters that arrive from nearly half-a-million children each year. And while the traditional Winterfest celebration is canceled, you can still pay a visit to the Santa Claus House, an over-the-top gift shop that's easy to spot: Just look for the 40-foot fiberglass statue of Old Saint Nick out front. Can't make the trip? Families have ordered personalized letter packages from Santa for decades now, complete with an official North Pole postmark to add a dazzle of Christmas magic to the gift.

Branson Christmas / flickr

A tourist destination famous for being a tourist destination, Ozark vacation town Branson is often described as Middle America's ultra-wholesome answer to Vegas. For the holidays, it rebrands itself as America's Christmas Tree City... and with more than 1,700 decorative trees around town, who's to argue? 

Most of them are at "An Old Time Christmas" at the Silver Dollar City theme park, which is overloaded with lights and activities. Two shows—including Dickens' A Christmas Carol—are on hiatus this year, but guests can still watch a song-and-dance revue on an outdoor stage. Elsewhere, you can drive through "Let There Be Lights" at the Promised Land Zoo, or board the Polar Express and sip on hot chocolate while traveling through Ozark foothills and tunnels. New this year: the "United We Stand" tree, decorated with ornaments from every state’s governor and standing tall next to the Branson Ferris Wheel (formerly housed at Chicago's Navy Pier). 

James Kirkikis / shutterstock

Iconic painter Norman Rockwell spent much of his life in Stockbridge, using the small town's snowy Main Street as the subject of Home for Christmas in 1967. Little has changed since then, allowing the town to effectively recreate the painting in real life by closing off traffic for an annual weeklong celebration each December. Unfortunately, COVID cancelled those plans this year, but you can still browse boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries in the area, many of which feel frozen in time and dripping with Americana. 

For an extra dose of holiday enchantment, walk among the Winter Wonderland tree display at the Stockbridge Library or the Winterlights garden exhibits at two large estates (with tickets sold in limited quantities this year). Yet no visit is complete without exploring the Norman Rockwell Museum, where you can view the original "Home for Christmas" in person and a toy train set depicting Main Street. If you can't make it this year, Stockbridge is offering quite a few virtual holiday events.  

Vadim Fedotov / shutterstock

There may be no badge of holiday honor grander than having a Lifetime holiday movie filmed in your town. But land two productions and you’re more or less up there with the North Pole. Such is the new legacy of Helen, the Blue Ridge Mountain Town and newly minted pilgrimage site for die-hard A Taste of Christmas and Christmas Love Letter fans. 

Granted, the adorable mountain village was a holiday rite of passage well before Nia Vardalos showed up, owing to its uniquely Bavarian aesthetic that makes you feel like you’re wandering around a gigantic advent calendar. Signature holiday draws include the annual Festival of Trees and Christkindlmarkt, though simply entering the town itself, alight in the winter, is enough to instill a sense of cheer.


Ok, Duluth is by no means a small town. But cruising up to Minnesota’s icy North Shore—and past a parade of small towns— is one of the Midwest’s most storied holiday traditions, and while iconic events like the Christmas City Express Train have been put on hold, the city’s kaleidoscopic signature event is still on, with a twist. 

The Bentleyville Tour of Lights takes the “extra” part of “extravaganza” very seriously, with a massive light display depicting iconic Minnesota sights like the nearby Split Rock Lighthouse ro non-Minnesotan delights like the Island of Misfit Toys This year, it’s a drive-thru affair, with the roadway converted into a series of tunnels, meaning you can keep warm and crank Christmas music. Might we recommend the 2009 Christmas album by Duluth native Bob Dylan? (Actually, don’t do that… just listen to Purple Rain on repeat.)

Natchitoches Christmas

Ever since 1927, this Cane River Lake town south of Shreveport has been the Christmas capital of the Creole world, and damned if it’s going to le COVID dampen its cheer:. Along with the historic district’s 100-set-piece-deep mega-display, the Christmas at the Park event features some 250,000 lights reflecting off the water, carolers singing, and more. 

The celebrations are essentially unceasing. You’ll find fireworks filling the skies, live music on the Riverbank, and tours of historic homes. Vendors will be selling holiday treats ranging from cotton candy to alligator. And if you’re looking to take in those spectacular lights without the crowds (which you probably should), everything stays up until January 6, when the crowds wane but the alligator is still delicious.

ehrlif / shutterstock

Michiganders have a love/hate relationship with Frankenmuth, a small Bavarian-style village rising in all its Germanic glory from possibly the least scenic stretch of gorgeous Great Lakes State. But come winter, it’s undeniably Michigan’s epicenter of Christmas cheer: No small feat in a state that actually boasts a town called Christmas.

Surrender to its allure and even the most miserly naysayers will find themselves stuffed with world-famous signature fried chicken from dueling food halls Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn and crossing a snow-topped covered bridge on a holiday light tour. More crucially, it’s home to Bronner’s, a year-round Christmas wonderland comprising 7.35 acres of indoor cheer over 27 landscaped grounds. If you have trouble finding it, billboards lining the I-75 corridor starting in Florida point the way, making it Michigan’s answer to Wall Drug and a mainstay of the roadside attraction hall of fame.

Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas and other destinations in Thrillist for more than seven years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, and other publications. Follow him on @rkachelriess.
Thrillist senior editor Andy Kryza hails from Michigan’s least-scenic stretch. Follow him to tales of endless chicken and Bronner's visits @apkryza.
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