It isn’t called Christmas City for nothing. Founded by Moravian missionaries in 1741—and named on Christmas Eve—Bethlehem puts on a show every holiday season, with its “star of Bethlehem” lights all over town, a nativity pageant, horse-drawn carriage rides, and even a “live” Advent calendar where treats are handed out. A big attraction is its German-style outdoor holiday market, Christkindlmarkt, where some 60 vendors sell handmade nutcrackers, Moravian glass, and other wares. The historic and delightful downtown is home to dozens of restaurants and retailers, including the Moravian Book Shop, which opened in 1745 and claims to be the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the world. Also downtown—and not only dressed up but also scented for the season—is Historic Hotel Bethlehem, voted the top historic hotel in the country this year by readers of USA Today. Distance from DC: 195 miles.
Santa may have reindeer, but this Hunt Country town has horses. Starting at 11 am on December 4, about 150 of them, along with riders in hunting attire and dozens of hounds, hit the streets for a “hunt review.” The day’s Christmas in Middleburg festivities also include a craft fair, hayrides, a “Santa’s workshop” for families, and an afternoon parade with floats, antique fire trucks, llamas, alpacas, and, yes, more horses. Parking is limited and must be purchased in advance ($30 to $50). [UPDATE: As of 12/1/21: Parking is now sold out and anyone who drives to Middleburg on December 4 without a pre-paid parking pass will not be able to park.] All season long, the town’s “Dickens Christmas” theme means carriage rides and tastefully decorated shop windows. Distance from DC: 42 miles.
The Eastern Shore town pulls out the sleighs for its annual celebration, Christmas in St. Michaels—this year December 10 through 12. Don’t miss the Saturday parade through the center of town, with marching bands, vintage cars, and festive llamas. Evening is when local captains deck out their decks in elaborate holiday lights for a boat procession around the harbor. Revelers can fuel up at two churches, which host ticketed holiday breakfasts or luncheons with Chesapeake specialties such as fried oysters. Shoppers can pick up oyster-shell wreaths and crab ornaments at the pop-up marketplace or Christmas Shop. Our favorite: ticketed home tours ($25 a person), where you get a peek inside the 19th-century town’s historic residences and nearby waterfront estates, hung with gorgeous decorations. Distance from DC: 83 miles.
’Tis the season at Colonial Williamsburg to find Father Christmas strolling Merchants Square and carolers’ voices in the air. The historic district’s most celebrated annual holiday event, Grand Illumination, was canceled last year due to Covid but is back with a bang: The usual one-night event now stretches to six (the first three Friday and Saturday nights of December). Depending on the evening, activities include a yule-log procession; 18th-century music and entertainment; and fireworks. Nearby, Busch Gardens theme park turns into a blazing “Christmas Town” thanks to more then 10 million lights, and Jamestown gets into the festivities with a lighted boat parade (December 4) and an outdoor Christmas market with nearly 100 vendors (December 4 and 5). Distance from DC: 152 miles.
This Victorian beach town doesn’t rest in the off-season—it’s a hive of activity come December. The three-block, pedestrian-only Washington Street Mall, lined with shops and restaurants, is festooned with decorations. So are many of the grand Victorian houses in town—you can see some on a candlelight house tour (December 4, 11, and 18) or by hopping aboard a “holiday lights” trolley ride. (If ghost stories are more your thing, opt for the Ghosts of Christmas Past trolley tour.) Also storied: the 1879 Emlen Physick Estate, which goes all out in Victorian finery—complete with a model train circling a miniature Dickens-inspired village. It’s open for day and evening tours. Distance from DC: 189 miles, or 143 miles via the Cape May–Lewes ferry.
New Hope, Pennsylvania
Old St. Nick greets passengers on the antique cars of New Hope Railroad’s “Santa’s Steam Train Ride.” Just outside town, 1 million lights adorn the 65 shops of Colonial-style Peddler’s Village. While this Bucks County destination is full of charm this season, perhaps the best reason to visit is a different sort of holiday tradition: On December 21 and 25 at nearby Washington Crossing Historic Park, you can watch several hundred people clad in Continental Army uniforms reenact General George Washington’s 1776 Christmas-night crossing of the Delaware River. Distance from DC: 180 miles.
It’s not too late to plan a winter or spring break—if you know where to go
If what you really want for the holidays this year is to spend them someplace warmer than here, may we suggest Ireland? Sure, it’s often dank and soggy, and only slightly warmer than DC, but it doesn’t usually snow, and it might be the best you can do.
That’s because, warns Alisa Cohen, founder of DC’s Luxe Traveler Club, you’ll be hard-pressed to book a room at sought-after beach resorts in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Florida. Anything you could find would be unusually expensive, she explains: “The Caribbean and Mexico are cost-prohibitive right now. Five-star hotels are $2,000 a night, minimum, and there’s no availability. It would be better to look for an alternative winter break.”
The same goes for Presidents’ Day week in February and Easter week in April, she says, which already have limited availability and inflated prices.
For those who still want a beach vacation but can live with temps in the 60s versus the 80s, Cohen recommends Southern California: “An LA–San Diego coast drive is a pretty week.”
Don’t need the beach? She suggests Arizona, where warmer-than-DC weather means you’d be able to hike.
Rather drive than fly? Cohen likes resorts down south such as Sea Island, Georgia; the Sanctuary on South Carolina’s Kiawah Island; and Palmetto Bluff, also in South Carolina: “It’s milder than here, and there are lots of outdoor activities.”
As Europe has opened up, it has also opened up the possibilities.
“We honestly are doing more and more winter breaks to Europe,” Cohen says. “Paris for New Year’s, or London.” And, she adds, the aforementioned Emerald Isle: “Ireland is a more affordable destination than almost anything in Europe. It’s also cozy. It’s all fireplaces and country-house manors. They do a lot for the holidays—it feels very festive.”
This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Washingtonian.