festive downtown mountain town
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

Gear Up for 2023 with These Holiday Festivities and Winter Escapes

End the year on a high note.

As another year comes to an end, unpredictability is the new norm. And there’s nothing left to do but roll with it. December still means twinkling lights, powdery precipitation, and magic of all kinds—whether it’s the sun glinting off snow in a city you’ve only ever seen in summer, otherworldly sculptures by the sea, the biggest meteor shower of the year, or a visit with Santa in the North Pole. (The 50-foot wooden one, that is. The real one is a bit too busy this time of year, obviously.)

We’ve got festive small towns, massive menorahs, and wine country to explore for when the family gatherings get too much. There’s art festivals in Miami, desert shenanigans in Nevada, and an Indigenous-managed mountain in Brazil to trek. Discover new cultural traditions (like partying for 45 days—we see you, Puerto Rico), and ways to get back in the swing of travel without throwing in the towel. ‘Tis the season.

Find a small town with big holiday cheer

Mariah Carey has spoken: The holidays will be here before we know it. Luckily, these charming small towns can help induce the festive spirit. Just two hours from Nashville, Paducah, Kentucky is particularly known for its quiltmaking (its nickname is “Quilt City,” after all). On display through January 10 at The National Quilt Museum is a stitched-up depiction of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Festive and warm. Over in Pennsylvania, Lancaster County is downright transformed with a Christmas Train, Dutch Winter Wonderland, lit up barnyards, Yuletide festivities at President James Buchanan’s Wheatland, Christmas ziplining, and more, while Petoskey, on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, is a virtual mini North Pole, with a two-mile Enchanted Trail snowshoe trek, lit by holiday lights and ending in a cozy yurt with steamy cocktails.

Over in actual North Pole, Alaska, you’ll not only find the world’s largest Santa statue (he’s 50 feet tall!), but you can also 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.

Travel overseas without leaving the country in the Bavarian-themed 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. This time of year is when you can especially feel like you’re walking in a snow globe, as the downtown area turns into “Christmastown,” glowing with half a million lights and buzzing with festivities.

Later, head to Natchitoches, Louisiana, for six weeks of Creole-style Christmas complete with fireworks, a parade, a 5K run, and a walking tour of the city’s historic homes—all part of a tradition that dates back to 1927.

Or seek the heat at a Caribbean festival

Perhaps your perfect holiday season means warm weather, but less Santa in swim shorts and more Ponche a Crème and Puerto Rican pasteles (or, perhaps, Trinidadian pastelles). Try one of these Latin American destinations that outshine Europe, from the beachside town of Paraty, Brazil to the vibrant colonial city of Guanajuato, Mexico or the stunning Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. And, of course, Buenos Aires.

Or limber up for one of these Caribbean holiday festivals. From Puerto Rico’s Nochebuena (and Three Kings, and Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián) to the Moko Jumbie stilt walkers of St. Croix’s month-long Crucian Christmas festival, to Trinidad and Tobago’s Parang festival, the isles know how to get down—a welcome opportunity after stuffing yourself with goat curry and rum-soaked black cake.

St. Kitts throws a bonafide Carnival, beginning at the end of November and lasting through a New Year’s Day Parade, while on December 26—AKA Boxing Day—Turks and Caicos has Maskanoo, a masquerade street party fusing African culture with colonial-era costumed balls. Over in the Bahamas, it’s called Junkanoo, with celebrations both in the summer and winter, while St. Lucia’s Festival of Light utilizes lanterns, symbolizing the triumph of light over darkness. Plan strategically and maybe you can hit them all.

See luminous creations on the shore

As we await artist James Turrell’s Roden Crater, the magnum opus he’s been carving into Arizona’s Painted Desert since the 1970s (don’t hold your breath), there are myriad opportunities to satiate cravings for the light sculptor’s work. Like Into the Light, his retrospective at Mass Moca, the trippy Danaë and Catso Red at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, and his celebrated Skyspaces everywhere from MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York to Bentonville, Arkansas’ Crystal Bridges. The latter is the first Skyspace to feature LED lighting.

Say you want Turrell’s light magic with a side of salty sea air. Easy—head to the beach town of José Ignacio, Uruguay, one with boutique hotels and charm to spare. And, as of last year. a new attraction: Ta Khut, a meditation chamber and Turrell’s first Skyspace in South America. It’s on the grounds of modernist hotel Posada Ayana and while guests can partake for free, anyone can be awash in its glow for a cool $40 (if you’re non-Uruguayan.)

Elsewhere in South America, the James Turrell Museum sits in the northwest Argentine region of Salta, on the grounds of a family vineyard. Here you can pair your infinite spaces with malbecs, pinot noirs, and sauvignon blancs at the only museum dedicated to the artist. A heady experience indeed.

Or get your immersive sculpture fix closer to home

Speaking of waiting 50 years for a sculpture reveal, September 2022 finally saw the opening of City, a monumental piece of land art in the Nevada desert by Michael Heizer, which he started in 1972. Heizer is known for gargantuan site-specific outdoor pieces that play with negative space—once saying, “As long as you’re going to make a sculpture, why not make one that competes with a 747, or the Empire State Building, or the Golden Gate Bridge?”

And this one is the largest of them all, spanning a mile and a half long by a half mile wide, and built with mounds of dirt, rock, and stacks of concrete that evoke ancient monuments like Chichen Itza. Mark your calendar: 2023 tickets (priced at $150 a pop, free for residents of Nevada’s Lincoln, Nye, and White Pine counties) go on sale January 2. Until then, Heizer’s Levitated Mass, a 21-foot megalith, is propped up at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for all to see and stand under. In addition, the always open and free to visit Double Negative gives you so much negative space you might question yourself. The Nevada desert earthwork is two long, 50-feet deep trenches cut into the tabletop of Mormon Mesa.

And though he’s not there this year, Heizer has been known to show at Art Basel in Miami. Find something new to love this December 1 through 3 as the see-and-be-seen crowd descends on galleries and venues like Meridians, where you’ll find 20 large-scale works including one by Judy Chicago. While you’re in town, don’t forget to check out satellite fests like Fridge Art Fair, (this year’s theme is Art Camp), NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance), with its 146 galleries, the contemporary Untitled Art, and the Latin America-focused Pinta. Also you could, you know, go to the beach.

Climb a once off-limits Brazilian mountain

It’s shaping up to be the new Everest: Brazil’s tallest peak, Pico da Neblina, looms 9,822 feet in the air in the northern Amazon, 585 miles away from the nearest big city. And as of March of this year, it’s open to tourists again after being shut down for the last 20 years due to the influx of travelers that were less than conscientious about its sacred status. There are new conservation-minded rules for trekking, and 100% Indigenous management. The Yanomami have made the mountain their home for thousands of years: They call it Yaripo, meaning “where winds cross.” And they’ve organized themselves into guides, porters, boat pilots, boat hands, and cooks in a forward-looking combination of territorial protection and cultural empowerment.

This December, consider ditching the chill for this (strenuous) adventure. To climb the elusive peak, book a tour through an operator like Amazon Emotions or Amazon Neblina Tours. Then start building your endurance, first for the mix of multiple train rides, a boat ride, and a 4x4 journey it takes to travel there, and then for the trek itself. That typically takes eight to 10 days, with steep altitude gains, plenty of critters, and widely varying temperatures. But, man, what a way to end 2022.

Winter in Wyoming

We’re all familiar with Jackson Hole as a destination for winter sports. Heck, over 2.6 million visitors descend upon it annually—into a year-round population just shy of 10,850—for skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling into Yellowstone (try Gary Fales Outfitting in Cody, who enters through the less-trafficked east entrance), and basking in the scenery of the jaw-dropping Tetons, the crown of the Rocky Mountains. Plus, there’s galleries, boutique hotels, and a historic town square to explore. Really, Jackson Hole’s big secret is that it isn’t a secret at all.

But if you’re looking for something a little bit more under the radar, with the wide open skies, tasty beerdamn good steakhouses, and, yup, some quality skiing, relocate about four hours southeast to Casper. Here, the sporting events lean more toward fly-fishing: The North Platte river is a bucket list destination for anglers year-round, with miles of blue-ribbon waters. In the winter months, add ice fishing to the schedule—Fat Bear Fishing will take you out to the Pathfinder Dam for that.

On Casper Mountain, you’ll find stellar hiking trails and the intimate Hogadon Basin Ski Area, with a gorgeous, glass-walled lodge for all your apres needs. Downtown, you’ll find your breweries, Backwards Distilling Company (try the absinthe), and the airy Nicolaysen Art Museum (AKA “The Nic”), which holds pieces by the likes of Matisse but also showcases talented local artists (check out the current exhibits by the Creative Indigenous Collective and Visceral by Shelby Shadwell).

Here, history abounds—Casper is the only place that the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express trails all came through. Learn all about them at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center. Just a short drive away is Independence Rock, where pioneers signed their names for their relatives to see when they passed by, as a guest book of sorts.

Into dinosaurs? The tiny and hands-on Tate Geological Museum at Casper College is a massive hidden gem. You’ll see some mammoth bones, sure, (its name is Dee, by the way), but when they say hands-on they mean it. Ask to visit Lee Rex and you’ll be escorted to a back annex where still lying in the plaster used to excavate him is the only T-Rex found in Wyoming that’s remained in-state. Named after the property on which he was found, they’ll even let you touch him. You sure can’t do that in Jackson Hole.

Toast the season in wine country

You know what’s also great around the holidays? Wine. But there’s no need to venture out to Napa or Sonoma to taste the sweet nectar of Bacchus. There are actually more than 250 American Viticultural Areas in the US—some are 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, while 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 prime 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 boozy exploration. Last but not least, New Mexico has its own delicious wine trail (try the sparkling, especially at Gruet in Albuquerque).

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

Or soak yourself in suds

Do you need to relax? Have you ever looked at a can of beer and thought: “I’d love to submerge myself in that?” Then you, friend, should try a beer spa. These nutrient-dense hoppy hot spots let you soak in suds to relieve sore muscles, supposedly removing impurities, tightening skin, softening hair, and relieving stress (we’ll be the judge of that). Thanks to the health department, beer spas in the US and Canada use more of an herb tea than an actual brew, so you won’t come out smelling like a dive bar.

The concept apparently dates back to the Middle Ages, originating in Eastern Europe. But in addition to places like Prague, there are spas in Iceland, Spain, Strasbourg, France, Zakopane, Poland, and the largest one (0r so they claim) in Ontario. That one, called Muskoka Beer Spa, feels like a sylvan retreat, with trees surrounding the hammocks, saunas, (non-beer) pools, and hot tubs. Day passes are available, with overnight accommodations for those who prefer not to soak and drive.

And in the US, a wellness-focused option, appropriately in the outdoorsy and craft beer-heavy town of Denver. The Beer Spa has a relaxation room with gravity chairs, and four private beer therapy rooms with infrared sauna, soaking tub, and rain shower. Plus of course a taproom, with local beer, cider, and wine.

Check out an, er, alternative Christmas Market

European Christmas markets are magical places, where you can wander around with a stein of beer or cup of warm boozy glühwein, peruse festive tchotchkes, and marvel at lights draped on stunning historic architecture. You can find this twinkling holiday magic everywhere from Zagreb to Munich, Nuremberg,Vienna, Strasbourg, Tallinn, Budapest, Malaga, Govone, and a particularly impressive spectacle in Edinburgh. (In the US, we have something similar: It’s called "Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter" at Universal Studios Hollywood.)

But there’s only one place you can get in on the XXX-rated version. Germany’s Santa Pauli, held in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn red-light district, is a debaucherous romp where Santa chugs beer, people perform Pornokaraoke, and topless drag queens run the show. You can make your own mulled wine, and trees are decorated with dildos. Hey, festivity comes in all forms.

For something less, ahem, ballsy, yet still off the beaten Christmas market path, try the highest market in Europe (that’s elevation, not the other kind of high). At the market on Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland, you arrive by cogwheel railway up a 6,995 feet stretch while enjoying stunning views of the Alps and the shining lakes below.

And over at the Barcelona Christmas Markets, you’ll find Tió de Nadal, which roughly translates to“Christmas Log.” It’s a jolly little piece of stick that plays a part in Catalan holiday tradition. Children take care of the log, keeping it warm and feeding it treats so that it will poop smaller presents like candy on Christmas Eve or Day. Pick one up and bring the tradition home—it’s much less creepy and invasive than the Elf on the Shelf.

Marvel at some massive menorahs

Did you know the world’s largest menorah is on Fifth Avenue near Central Park? Built by Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, it weighs 4,000 pounds, stands 32 feet tall, and has to be lit with the assistance of a crane. But it’s definitely not the only public menorah where you can gather and celebrate the Jewish festival of lights this December (for a list of events near you check chabad.org).

In Washington, DC, you’ll find the National Menorah, which holds its own lighting ceremony on December 18. The festivities include music, food, and a dancing dreidel—worth the free price of admission alone. Tickets are available beginning November 10, and if you can’t make it in person, highlights will be broadcast on all major networks.

Las Vegas’s Grand Menorah Lighting goes down on Fremont Street, while San Francisco’s is in Union Square. In true Albuquerque style, the New Mexican city opts for a menorah balloon glow. You’ll find other lighting ceremonies in Park City, Jackson Hole, Cancun, and Berlin, where they light a giant menorah at the Brandenburg Gate. The list goes on—really, just check chabad.org for all the details.

And for some history with your menorah lighting, Newport, Rhode Island is home to the oldest synagogue in the US, founded by Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants arriving from Barbados in the mid- to late-17th century. Touro Synagogue broke ground in 1759, and tours are conducted daily. Check the website for ticketing information.

Add some celestial sparkle to your life

There’s no better time than now to try stargazing, and those of us experiencing winter this time of year have a few extra hours of darkness to cast our eyes skyward. Do so on December 13 and 14, when the Geminid meteor shower works its sparkling magic. One of the most exciting meteor showers of the year, it hosts up to 150 meteors per hour, each streaking bright and fiery across the sky. Any time between midnight and dawn makes for good viewing, but your best bet is around 2 am. The complete duration actually kicks off on November 19, so start earlier and you may catch glimpses weeks before December’s peak.

With December 21 being the solstice, the 22nd brings 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, eye-catching way to ease into the holiday season.

Just get back out there

You may have already tested the travel waters, but if you haven’t yet, this holiday season is the time to do it. And it’s understandable if you’re nervous. For you, we’ve put together a comprehensive—and aesthetically pleasing, if we do say so ourselves—guide to getting back out there, from how to survive a long haul flight to what to do when your passport renewal goes haywire, to the best hotels for traveling with your new pandemic pet.

Did your flight get canceled? We’ve got you covered. Prepping for your first cruise? Don’t be scared. Don’t have Global Entry but still want to breeze through customs? We’ve got a doozy of a tip.

So get moving—we’ll see you next year.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She's already picked out and named her Tió de Nadal.