From New York City to Charleston, South Carolina, these festive destinations know how to spread the holiday cheer. 
(Getty Images)

Whether your family traditions include baking a gingerbread house or singing Christmas carols in the neighborhood, if you want to get into the holiday spirit, spend an evening checking out one of the festive light displays across the country. Though not necessarily the largest or the brightest celebrations, these 10 places know how to spread the holiday cheer with festive annual traditions and extravagant displays. Best of all, many holiday attractions are free and most will remain open through Jan. 3, 2016. For a holiday spectacle to remember, celebrate the season in these decked-out destinations across the USA.

Baltimore

Baltimore's Inner Harbor, site of the Pandora ice rink, light displays and a Christmas village packed with crafts vendors, is a walkable epicenter of holiday cheer. Kids will love The Polar Express, a 4-D film experience at the National Aquarium and weekend train rides with Santa at the B&O Railroad Museum. Catch other neighborhood lights in comfort aboard the Holly Jolly Trolley tour, which departs from the Inner Harbor twice nightly Thursday through Sunday.

Branson, Missouri

Music underscores an Ozark Mountain Christmas in Branson, Missouri, which features the 2½-mile-long, drive-through Shepherd of the Hills outdoor theater and Trail of Lights, plus seasonal concerts all over the colorfully decorated town. At the Silver Dollar City amusement park, catch illuminated floats in a daily parade and see 5 million lights decorating trees, shops and stages with live Christmas shows. The park's dazzling special effects Christmas tree features over a million of its own twinkling lights that move in sync to holiday music.

Charleston, South Carolina

Drive or walk through Charleston's 27th annual Holiday Festival of Lights in James Island County Park, which boasts millions of lights arranged in 750 displays. Allow time for a carousel ride, a photo stop in Santa's village, a peek at the massive Greeting Cards created by local students, the gingerbread house displays and booths full of sweet holiday treats.

Grapevine, Texas

With more than 1,400 different Christmas events in the lead up to the new year, the Victorian gingerbread-style town of Grapevine calls itself the Christmas Capital of Texas. Stroll along with Christmas carolers, catch the annual Parade of Lights spectacle, watch classic holiday movies nightly at the old-fashioned Palace Theatre and tour wineries and Christmas markets in the historic downtown.

Kansas City, Missouri

Each year, Kansas City's KCP&L Plaza Lights glitter along the Spanish-style rooflines of the Country Club Plaza, an upscale outdoor mall. Hallmark's headquarters and the free Kaleidoscope creativity workshop are part of the Crown Center complex, where lavishly decorated stores, an ice rink and a 100-foot-tall illuminated Christmas tree add to the festive spirit. Take home some Arthur Bryant's Rich & Spicy Barbecue sauce, or a bottle of Gates Bar B.Q. sauce for friends and family.

New Orleans

Like a Southern belle, City Park is dressed for the holidays with thousands of lights draped over live oaks and Spanish moss. The annual Celebration in the Oaks holiday lights include a Cajun night before Christmas display as well as Mr. Bingle, a cherished holiday character with holly wings who serves as the city's seasonal mascot. Walk or take the train around the 25-acre park to see the historic carousel, Botanical Garden and Storyland. 

New York City

Each year, as a time-honored holiday tradition, a 70-foot-tall Norway spruce covered in LED lights towers above 30 Rockefeller Plaza. During your time visiting the Big Apple, don't skip the American Museum of Natural History, which features an origami tree decorated with 800 paper models of rarities from their collection folded by hand. And don't miss the enchanting window displays at Saks, Lord & Taylor, Tiffany's and Barney's, among others, as you indulge in a holiday shopping spree.

Philadelphia

The cradle of liberty does the holidays in old and new ways. After 60 years, the musical lights show in the atrium of Macy's City Center, accompanied by the original Wanamaker Organ, still thrills six times daily; a themed Dickens Christmas Village is Santa's home on the third floor. Another classic is the Electrical Spectacle at Franklin Square, honoring Benjamin Franklin's invention with 50,000 lights dancing to the music of the Philly POPS every half hour. A festive multimedia event showing scenes from "The Nutcracker," music and special effects sleigh rides plays hourly in the Comcast Center lobby on a 2,100 square-foot video wall, one of the largest in the world.

Seattle

Seattle is loaded with holiday festivities, such as the Seattle Sheraton's huge, chef-made "Star Wars"-themed gingerbread village. Westlake Center Plaza has its big tree and the famous, 161-foot-tall star on top of Macy's, Westlake Park has its holiday carousel and the Pacific Place Mall has free midday concerts on weekends. The Seattle Center offers ice skating, miniature trains, live music and ice sculpting. And Woodland Park Zoo is packed with carolers and 600,000 LEDs shaped like wild animals for a WildLights display.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Join the 25,000 families annually who drive the 100 Miles of Lights route from Virginia Beach to Richmond, Virginia, passing through holiday lights displays in Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk and Portsmouth. In Virginia Beach, cars drive right on the boardwalk to enjoy the town's beachfront 40-foot-tall Christmas tree and nautical-themed light displays. 

Tags: travel, holidays


Kyle McCarthy  is the author of a dozen Frommer's guidebooks, contributor to many publications, and is co-founder and editor of Family Travel Forum, the online community trusted by family vacation planners since 1996.  Find more holiday lights ideas, use her Q&A @familytravel4um on FacebookTwitterInstagram or Pinterest and connect on LinkedIn.

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