10 Best US Cities to Visit in December: Lights, Shopping & Festivities

Christmas Washington DC

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Planning a winter trip to shop, dine and be wowed by twinkling festive decor? This guide reveals the best US cities to visit in December for winter sun or urban fun. So whether you are organizing a getaway with your significant other, friends or family, let’s dive into these top Christmas cities.

Note: Traveling during this time of year can mean winter weather and holiday chaos. Be cautious of events going on during the proposed dates for your December city break in the US and plan accordingly.

You may also like our guide to warm US destinations to visit this December.

Best US Cities to Visit in December and What to do There

Atlanta, Georgia

Often the backdrop to Hollywood movies, Atlanta is a fun city for those who like a mix of music, food and nature.

Atlanta is Georgia’s capital city and is historically important to the Civil Rights movement which you can learn about at the Martin Luther King Day at the Atlanta History Center.

It also played host to the Centennial Summer Olympic Games in 1996.

Things to do in Atlanta in December

  • See the Macy’s Great Tree all lit up
  • Catch a festive show at Fox Theatre
  • Enjoy a hot drink while being amazed by the garden lights of Atlanta Botanical Gardens
  • Ride the Ferris wheel among the lights at Olympic Centennial Park
  • Join in the holiday celebrations at Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
  • Drive to the National Geographic’s top 10 lights site, Callaway Gardens

Atlanta also features in our guide to the best places to visit in the US in January if you have some Christmas money to spend and Jan sales to smash!

Austin, Texas

The Two Scots Abroad crew is forever obsessed with Austin! Wondering why? Check out an Austin elopement and the world-class SXSW, plus all the fun things the city has to offer year-round.

The holiday season in Austin is particularly spectacular, so don’t miss out!

There’s no shortage of festive events, with a special emphasis on all the live music that Austin is famous for.

Also seek out places to go ice skating, follow light trails, and watch festive parades.

Things to do in Austin in December

  • Finish your holiday shopping at the Blue Genie Art Bazaar
  • Kickstart the season with the Austin Holiday Stroll
  • Follow the Trail of Lights in Zilker Park
  • Watch Minor Mishap’s Winter Solstice Lantern Parade
  • Or Chuy’s Holiday Parade
  • And, of course, eat allll the BBQ and tacos!

Our Austin Guides

Austin Christmas Trail of Lights

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston, my home city, will always be on my favorites list!

Visit in December for twinkling lights dancing across the Charles River, for cocktail parties and dressing up for First Night (that’s Boston’s NYE extravaganza).

The historic charm of this New England city can win you over any time of year. But there’s something extra special about visiting in December.

Things to do in Boston in December

  • Go ice skating on Frog Pond in Boston Common
  • Listen to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the Holiday Pops digitally
  • See Faneuil Hall all decked out
  • Check out New England’s tallest menorah at Brewer Fountain on Boston Common
  • Catch the iconic Nutcracker at the Boston Ballet virtually
  • Stay for First Night celebrations on NYE
  • Take a day trip to go skiing just outside the city

Our Boston Guides

Boston in December

Chicago, Illinois

Chicago is a city for all seasons. It’s one of the best US cities to visit in December because the holiday season is in full swing.

And Chicago loves a reason to celebrate!

Twinkling lights, ice skating, festive decorations…the city is magical in December.

Pack for freezing temperatures of around 21°F (-6.1°C) to 35°F (1.7°C)

Things to do in Chicago in December

  • Peruse the Christkindlmarket Christmas Market at Daley Plaza in the Loop virtually!
  • Watch a festive show at one of the theaters online
  • Go ice skating at the Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon
  • Or ice skate at Millennium Park
  • Have glogg at Simon’s Tavern
  • Be seen at Godfrey Hotel’s rooftop and enjoy a drink in an igloo
  • Go shopping along the Magnificent Mile
  • Check out the Christmas tree at Wrigley Building
  • Visit the 2 miles of lights at Morton Arboretum Illumination
  • Head to Adler Planetarium’s special evening events online

» You may also like | Things to do in Chicago at Christmas

Christmas Tree Magnificent Mile Chicago

Honolulu, Hawaii

Honolulu is a perfect US city to visit in December! Get some winter sun while still enjoying the festive period.

You’ll love the Honolulu City Lights, a month-long event that includes a traditional tree lighting, parades, and plenty of family-friendly activities.

If you want to get outdoors, this city is an ideal base to enjoy nature and still get the best of urban amenities.

Waikki Beach in Honolulu also features in our guide to the best beaches to visit in December.

Things to do in Honolulu in December

  • Of course, check out Honolulu City Lights in 2021
  • Attend the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade and this small group tour
  • Stroll the Chinatown Winter Walk all December
  • Run it all off before the holiday feasts at the Honolulu Marathon
  • Support local artists and artisans at the Ko’olina Artfest
  • Enjoy the Very Merry Holiday Pops from the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra
  • Get out to Waimea Beach to watch the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational
  • Marvel at the Victoria Ward Garden Lights

Related travel guide | Warm winter destinations in US

Las Vegas, Nevada

Vegas is a city for seasons…mostly because you have no idea what’s going on outside of the massive casinos and hotels.

If you’re looking for an awesome place to celebrate New Year’s Eve, Las Vegas is calling you.

Finish off your December US cities extravaganza with a real NYE extravaganza!

Dress to impress but definitely leave yourself some extra time in early January for recovery.

Things to do in Vegas in December

  • Marvel at the Bellagio Fountain played to the tune of Christmas hits
  • Check out the holiday display in the Bellagio Conservatory
  • Visit the Magical Forest with the kids
  • Enjoy the snow at Winter PARQ on the LINQ
  • Join in the Great Santa Run
  • Get tickets to a festive show
  • Get ready for a massive NYE celebration!

» Read More | Las Vegas itinerary ideas

Welcome to Las Vegas sign at night

New York City

NYC definitely has to be one of the best US cities to visit in December.

The festive feeling permeates the concrete jungle, warming even the most stoic New Yorkers with a cheerful smile.

It doesn’t hurt that NYC is a shopping aficionado’s dream destination.

Head there for all your last-minute holiday needs!

Saks Fifth Ave Christmas lights. Winter.

Things to do in NYC in December

  • See the iconic Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
  • Go to Bryant Park for ice skating and the biggest Christmas market
  • Hire a cozy igloo at Byrant Park
  • Check out the other Christmas markets dotted around the city
  • See the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall in 2021
  • Visit Santaland at Macy’s (a la Miracle on 34th Street)
  • Window shop and enjoy all the festive displays
  • Go for the lighting of the Menorah (Manhattan and Brooklyn have been competing for the world’s largest Menorah)
  • Stay for NYE in Times Square
New York Christmas decorations in Midtown Manhattan NYC.Depositphotos_259394780_L

Our NYC Guide

Ice Skating New York

Portland, Oregon

If you like your Christmas shopping teamed up with craft beer and your cities leaning a little to the left, then Portland is the perfect cold December getaway for you.

Portland is also known for its food trucks, coffee and as being home to Voodoo Doughnuts so you know there’s plenty of ideas for keeping the sugar levels high.

Oregon Zoo Lights Portland in December

Things to do in Portland

  • Watch the Portland Christmas Ships at Willamette or Columbia Rivers
  • Get merry at the Pioneer Courthouse Holiday Ale Festival (image credit)
  • See the lights at Peacock Lane
  • Shop local at Portland Holiday Christmas Market at the Portland Expo Center
  • Listen to local choirs at Portland Christmas Lights
  • Join in the 3-day Portland Winter Light Festival
  • See the decor at the mansion on the hill, Pittock Mansion

Our Portland Travel Guides

Santa Winter Ale Festival Portland Oregon

Tempe, Arizona

Arizona’s college town, Tempe is a fun city to visit for some tinsel action.

Known for its arts, this inner suburb of Phoenix hits highs of 68* F/20* C, a pleasant temperature for shopping and joining in the Christmas festivities.

Things to do in Tempe in December

  • Christmas shopping at at Tempe Marketplace and Arizona Mills
  • Reserve a ticket for the magical drive through lights show
  • Check out the decor at Peterson House
  • See how the Sepanek’s do decor at Lee & Patricia Sepanek’s Holiday Lights
  • Cool off in the water, paddleboard or kayak at Tempe Town Lake
  • Explore the 1500 acres of Papago Park
  • Learn about the native communities in Arizona

Washington, DC

Washington, DC, is the nation’s capital and my old stomping grounds.

You have to visit DC in December to see the National Tree, but you also should visit because there’s something magical about this month.

Many politicians and international workers leave for the holidays; most of the students depart after finals.

So a quiet falls over the city for locals to walk the streets and enjoy the monuments all to themselves.

Washington DC features in our cheapest places to visit in the US guide so if you are on a budget, this is the city of you.

Washington Monument on the Reflecting Pool in Washington, DC

Things to do in DC in December

  • Contact your local representative to request a visit to the White House to see all the decorations (definitely do this well in advance)
  • Go ice skating at the National Gallery Art’s Sculpture Garden
  • See the National Tree!
  • Check out what’s happening at the Kennedy Center from home streaming
  • Hit the shops at Union Station, Georgetown Park and Tyson’s Corner Center, VA
  • Stay warm with a tipple at BrewLights at the National Zoo.
  • Don’t miss the Boat Parade of Lights from Alexandria to the Wharf.
Christmas Washington DC

Tips for USA December Travel

Winter weather can already be in full swing in December. Wherever you’re traveling from or to, just remember that bad weather can have a domino effect.

Top tip for US December travel: Try to book a direct flight if possible. Any time you add a layover, you risk those dominoes falling into your flight path.

If you’re driving to your destination, then certainly make sure you are prepared for winter driving conditions as appropriate.

Finally, remember that this is the holiday season!

While airports can be super busy and traffic can be a nightmare, everyone’s just trying to get where they’re going.

Try to be patient and remember to wish everyone a festive season. And hand out candy canes if you’re feeling particularly generous!

Do you agree with out our top US cities to visit in December?

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Best Cities to visit USA December for Christmas shopping, festive lights, food, drink and to get merry! Whether you a looking for a winter or urban fun, this guide details fun cities to visit this winter.

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