We dare you not to feel festive in Leavenworth, Washington. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ICICLE TV
We dare you not to feel festive in Leavenworth, Washington. | PHOTO COURTESY OF ICICLE TV

Send Off 2021—Forever—with These Holiday Festivities and Travel Ideas

End the year on at least one high note.

Another strange year is coming to an end, but by now, hey, strange is normal. Nothing left to do but make the best of it. And despite 2021’s best efforts, December still means twinkling lights, powdery precipitation, and magic of all kinds—whether it’s the sun glinting off backcountry snow in a national park you’ve only ever seen in summer, an actual magic show in a castle far away (or, um, Los Angeles), or a visit with Santa in the North Pole. The 50-foot wooden one, that is. The real one is too busy to hang out there this time of year, obviously.

We’ve got festive small towns, winter road trips, and new wine countries for when the festivities get too much. There’s art festivals in Miami, desert shenanigans in Nevada, and tips for visiting the Midwest. Discover new cultural traditions (like partying for 45 days—we see you, Puerto Rico), and ways to give back. ‘Tis the season.

Find a small town with big holiday cheer

Sometimes we need a little nudge to get in the holiday mood. Luckily, these charming small towns can help. In North Pole, Alaska, you’ll not only find the world’s largest Santa statue (he’s 50 feet tall!), you can post some holiday mail with a pretty zippy postmark. Or take your sled down to the Danish town of Solvang, California, and search for the Solvang Nisse—a chubby, mischievous gnome—during the month-long Julefest celebration. Then head to Natchitoches, Louisiana, for six weeks of a Creole-style Christmas festival, with fireworks, a parade, a 5K, and a walking tour of the city’s historic homes, in a tradition dating back to 1927.

You can travel overseas without leaving the country in the Bavarian village of Leavenworth, Washington, where you’ll find Lederhosen-clad polka musicians and Alpine-style buildings serving up schnitzel and German beer year-round, along with a nutcracker museum. But this time of year is when you can especially feel like you’re walking in a snow globe: downtown turns into “Christmastown,” glowing with half a million lights and alive with festivities. This year they’ve added Krampusnacht, trading facemasks for traditional Krampus masks and costumes. If you’ve been good, you’ll get a sock with presents. If you haven’t, there’s still a Krampus Crawl of local taprooms.

Toast to the season in wine country

You know what’s also great around the holidays? Wine. But there’s no need to hit Napa or Sonoma Valley in California to taste the sweet nectar of Bacchus; there are actually 250+ American Viticultural Areas in the US—some probably near you—where you can revel in adult grape juice.

The wine trail across central Arizona’s Verde Valley takes you through Sedona and Jerome; Altus, a small vino-loving town in Arkansas, celebrates German heritage and is home to six wineries (and, fun fact, the first season of The Simple Life with Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie). McMinnville, Oregon, is more than just a stop for UFO enthusiasts—it's smack in the heart of the Willamette Valley, aka pinot noir country. Texas is the fifth-largest producer of wine in the US, and Highway 290 in Texas Hill Country is packed with fun wine exploration, and New Mexico has its own delicious wine trail (try the sparkling, especially at Gruet in Albuquerque).

And if you’re the RV sort, the boozy world is your oyster, as there are quite a few wineries, breweries, and distilleries that will let you camp out on their property and partake of their product (no drinking and driving here!). You just gotta know where to look.

Head out on a winter road trip

When the crisp air hits, places familiar in the summer take on a cool new personality. Add a dusting of snow, and they might as well be in disguise. Take a winter road trip to re-discover the paths well-trodden, maybe to the weirder reaches of Nevada, with its Alien Cathouse, desert installations, Clown Motel and Coffinwood, and some of the best stargazing in the country. Or hop on the North Cascades Highway in the Pacific Northwest, running through small towns and to stunning overlooks. Explore the less-touristed spots of the Pacific Coast Highway or the most beautiful places in California you never knew existed (a tunnel of cypress trees! The “Gibraltar of the Pacific”!). Turn up the chill factor in the frozen paradise of Lake Geneva in Wisconsin with wintertime ziplining, or zoom through Eagle River, Wisconsin, apparently the Snowmobile Capital of the World where in the winter months snowmobiles outnumber cars.

Explore a new national park

Just like road-tripping takes on a different sheen in the winter, so too do national parks. Some, like Zion, are more breathable without the crowds. Some, like Death Valley—aka the hottest place on Earth—shine brightest in these cooler temperatures. Everglades not only has thinned-out crowds and pleasant air temps hovering in the 70s, but also lower water levels, which make for better reptile viewing. At Channel Islands National Park, winter is right when the gray whale migration swims through.

And then there are the parks that lean into the frostiness of the season. Mount Rainier in Washington sees upwards of 50 feet of snowfall per year, perfect for winter sports and backcountry snowshoeing and camping. The hoodoos of Utah’s Bryce Canyon become otherworldly when dusted in snow. Denali, in Alaska, is a top-tier destination for the northern lights as is Glacier National Park in Montana. Can you feel it? Winter magic is coming.

Add some celestial sparkle to your life

There’s no better time than now to try stargazing, what with the wealth of gorgeous astronomical occurrences happening in December. On the 4th, a total solar eclipse sweeps across Antarctica, mostly experienced by penguins but also by those on the southern tip of South America, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. On December 13 and 14, cast your eye skyward to catch the Geminid meteor shower, one of the most exciting of the year, with up to 150 meteors per hour streaking bright and fiery across the sky. Any time between midnight and dawn makes for good viewing, but your best bet is around 2 a.m.

December 21 is the solstice, and the 21st and 22nd bring more opportunities for fireballing meteors, when the Ursids hit their peak. At 5 to 10 meteors per hour, it’s way less intense than the Geminids, but it makes for a gentle, sparkly way to ease into the holiday season.

Get artsy

Whether you’re all in on NFTs or think they’re some variation of things not safe for work, the December Art Basel in Miami Beach goes all in, returning after a Covid-19 hiatus. Hundreds of galleries featuring all mediums converge for what has become a full-on Miami Art Week, with additional fairs like the New Art Dealers Alliance (NADA), Design Miami, and the artist-run Satellite Art Show running at the same time. This year you may even catch Chester Cheetah of Cheetos fame, who’s hosting a free hip hop-inspired exhibition called “Yacht The Basel: The Art of the Cheetle.” “Cheetle” is apparently the official name of the cheesy Cheeto dust that sticks to your fingers, and the venue? A four-story mega-yacht. The event features work by street artist Lefty Out There, plus DJs and Cheeto-inspired food and cocktails. Cheesy!

Test your mettle with winter in the Midwest

Planning a winter trip to the Midwest? Might we suggest picking up The Midwest Survival Guide by comedian and Wisconsinite Charlie Berens for everything you need to know, from what to wear (layers), what to bring when visiting a lakehouse (casserole), to the various usages of the word ope. Before you go, learn what a three-way is, just in case anyone offers you one (it’s a type of chili), and while you’re there, maybe try ice fishing, and then take your bounty to a fish fry.

If Wisconsin is your destination, we’ve got suggestions, from the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee to ice caves and trails along the stunning Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to outdoor sculpture parks in Wisconsin Rapids (like Jurustic Park, an outdoor museum of prehistoric-inspired sculptures made from old metal). There’s state parks with caves, some with International Dark Sky status, and some accessible only by water. Just don’t miss the last ferry.

Or cozy up with a whimsical magic show

We could all use a little wizardry in our lives. LA’s famous Magic Castle is back in business, but if you’re not able to snag an invite—or become a member—they’ve been doing virtual shows for the uninitiated. (Around Thanksgiving, they were also selling full meals to-go which came with coveted passes to the castle, so look out for a similar promotion come Christmastime.)

Philadelphia’s Smoke and Mirrors also offers virtual shows of amazement, while for in-person delights, Vegas is the go-to for all things illusion, with David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, and Mr. Mindfreak himself Criss Angel all staples on the Strip (plus many, many more). And in New York, the famed Speakeasy Magick is back at the McKittrick Hotel (home of the immersive play Sleep No More, currently on Covid-19 hiatus), with larger digs for its sleight-of-hand and illusion fare—including one trick where the whole audience participates. Grab an individual seat or spring for a table for ten for holiday celebrations. That comes with two bottles of Champagne.

Discover new cultural traditions

Christmas in Mexico and several other Spanish-speaking countries means it’s time for Las Posadas, a faith-based tradition that commemorates Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem in search of accommodation (posadas means “shelter” or “inn”). The nine months of Mary’s pregnancy is celebrated nightly from December 16-24, and this year you can get a taste of it at the oldest celebration in the US on Olvera Street in Los Angeles.

And if you want to do it up as the Puerto Ricans do, aka non-stop for 45 days, take a trip down or start your own celebrations *checks watch* now. Don’t stop until mid-January at the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián. In that time, there’s parrandas (a Puerto Rican version of caroling, meant to “surprise” friends late at night); Christmas pasteles and coquito; Nochebuena, the night before Christmas when families gather to exchange gifts; and Three Kings Day on January 6th. This year, Puerto Rico also hosts a Spanish-language countdown on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest 2022.” If you’re down there, festivities take place at the Puerto Rico Convention Center and DISTRITO T-Mobile.

And find ways to give back

You know how you’ve been outdoors a whole lot more the past couple of years? Maybe it’s time to give back. Look into volunteering for trail maintenance, or learn how to be a trail angel. Participate in a beach cleanup in Los AngelesMiami, or San Diego, or organize one of your own. Maybe volunteer at a national park, doing everything from hosting visitors to leading bird walks, maintaining grounds, and much more. Anything goes, and all skills are welcome. Even stocking-stuffing, probably.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Find her vying for a chance to stay in the Home Alone house.