Got wanderlust this holiday season? Stick a pin in one of these spots for an unforgettable experience. Whether you want to celebrate in a city abuzz with holiday chaos, or to retreat somewhere quiet and revel in the wonder of nature, our list covers different locales from all over the country so you and your loved ones can pick the perfect destination for your next vacation.
1. Las Vegas, NV
Nothing can make the season brighter than the Las Vegas Strip, and nothing beats the feeling you get when you drive in and catch that first glimpse of the Strip in all its splendor. Head to Vegas if you’re in the mood to hit the slots and soak in all that is luxe and lively. The buffet prices might skyrocket this time of year, but you deserve it! Or if you’d rather indulge in more reasonably priced fare, venture off the Strip for the best oxtail soup or steak and eggs. (Market Street Cafe is one of our go-to spots.) Don’t forget to catch the Bellagio Fountains dancing to holiday music instead of the usual Frank Sinatra and Faith Hill tunes, and step inside Bellagio’s Conservatory & Botanical Gardens to check out their spectacular holiday display.
2. Zion National Park, UT
Prefer a silent night with naturally twinkling lights? Just two and a half hours away from Vegas, Zion National Park is the perfect place to go stargazing. And winter is the perfect time to go for a scenic drive through Zion Canyon, which is only accessible via shuttle March-November but opens to private vehicles off-season so you can take in all the breathtaking scenery at your own pace. You can also enjoy hikes that are typically unbearable in the summer (like The Watchman), but some hikes like Angels Landing could be dangerous due to snow and ice, and some sections could be closed. Be sure to check trail conditions and bring traction devices! For majestic winter views, we recommend Weeping Rock (which becomes a beautiful wall of icicles) and Observation Point.
3. San Francisco, CA
The unique culture and diversity of the Bay Area make San Francisco a prime holiday destination for creatives and explorers. Start your journey by cruising down 49-Mile Drive for a driving tour that covers many of the city’s major landmarks, including Lombard Street and the Golden Gate Bridge. After that, you’ll want to get down and:
(1) Wander around the Palace of Fine Arts and have an Instagram-worthy photo shoot.
(2) Ride a cable car and head to Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, and Ghirardelli Square.
(3) Browse the shelves at City Lights, San Francisco’s famous independent bookstore.
(4) Watch fortune cookies being made and take a whiff of their sweet aroma at the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown. And take home a batch of cookies with custom fortunes!
(5) Drive to Haight Ashbury to see the Painted Ladies. (Note to Full House fans: The actual Full House house is 10 minutes away, on Broderick Street.)
(6) Venture out of the tourist areas and feast on Indian pizza at Zante.
(7) Round out your visit with the festive vibe at Union Square, complete with lights, tree, and ice skating rink.
4. Breckenridge, CO
Looking for the best resort for your next family ski trip? Breckenridge Ski Resort, which is just a few hours away from Denver, has a variety of zones for skiers of all levels, along with areas for sledding and tubing. Rich with history as a former mining town, Breckenridge is also a great destination for history buffs. You can even take a dinner theater sleigh ride, featuring characters straight out of the Gold Rush!
5. New York, NY
If you want to immerse yourself in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, New York City is the place to be. For the quintessential New York holiday experience, be sure to:
(1) Channel your inner Kristi Yamaguchi at the ice skating rink in Central Park.
(2) Check out the iconic Rockefeller Tree and ornaments at Rockefeller Center.
(3) Go window shopping along 5th Avenue. If you’re strolling at night, catch the Saks Fifth Avenue storefront light show. If you’re there in the morning, have a bagel in front of Tiffany’s. *wink*
(4) Watch the Rockettes at the Radio City Music Hall.
(5) Admire the red-and-green-lit Empire State Building and go up to the top to reenact a scene from An Affair to Remember or Sleepless in Seattle. Or just take in the sights. Your call.
(6) Peruse the holiday markets at Bryant Park and Grand Central Station.
(7) Cross the Brooklyn Bridge and grab a slice (or seven) of New York cheesecake from Junior’s in Downtown Brooklyn. Explore the shops and arts scene in DUMBO (the neighborhood known as Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), and drink in gorgeous views of the Manhattan skyline.
6. Austin, TX
If you’re craving barbecue and Tex-Mex over turkey and stuffing, head to Austin for some good eats. Franklin Barbecue has notoriously long lines (upwards of 3-4 hours), but the life-changing brisket is well worth the wait. Iron Cactus features tableside guacamole, margaritas, and a rooftop patio that affords a nice view of 6th Street. Sit back and relax before heading down to check out its live music scene. For a generous dose of holiday spirit, you’ll want to see 37th Street, widely known for its numerous houses with huge displays of holiday lights and quirky decorations. The neighborhood experienced a hiatus for a number of years, but has recently started banding together to revive the tradition. As the locals say, “Keep Austin weird!”
7. McAdenville, NC
You might be wondering why we included this small town in North Carolina. For those of you who don’t know, McAdenville is also known as Christmas Town USA, since the entire town is decorated with lights, trees, wreaths, and more. No admission is charged, as everything is put together by a whole community of volunteers, so visitors are more than welcome to drive through and admire the displays. Our favorite spot is the lake lined with lit evergreens in the heart of town.
8. Mark Twain National Forest, MO
Looking for somewhere remote to go glamping with friends or family? The Mark Twain National Forest is a prime location to enjoy the great outdoors with plenty of treehouses and cabins nearby if you want to be secluded but don’t necessarily want to “rough it.” Enjoy a variety of activities in the forest, like hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, canoeing, fly fishing and trail riding. Don’t forget to pack provisions for roasting marshmallows and making s’mores! If it gets too cold, you can always snuggle up in your cabin with a nice cup of hot cocoa.
9. Cocoa Beach, FL
Dreaming of warm weather and frolicking in the sand instead of snow? Head down to Cocoa Beach, where average temperatures stay in the 70s through December. On Christmas Eve morning, you can hang loose with hundreds of Surfing Santas, an annual event that’s free for both surfers and viewers. If you’re in town on December 14th, be sure to check out the Cocoa Beach Boat Parade, when a long procession of boats boarded by costume-clad passengers and adorned with lights and festive decorations run down the Banana River.
10. New Orleans, LA
If you’re looking to celebrate Cajun-style, go to New Orleans and check out the Bonfires on the Levee, which guide the way for Papa Noel (the Cajun Santa Claus) on Christmas Eve. Then head to City Park for Celebration in the Oaks, a festival featuring magical displays with over a million lights, along with rides and fun for the whole family. On a trip for just the adults? Snack on beignets at Cafe du Monde before going on ghost and voodoo tours of the French Quarter. Party hard on Bourbon Street or hop through all the live music venues on Frenchmen Street. On January 1st, football fans flock to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the Sugar Bowl, so if you’re in NOLA through New Year’s, you can celebrate with the crowds at the Sugar Bowl New Year’s Eve Parade on Decatur Street.
What are your favorite holiday road trip destinations? Share your stories and tips in the comments!