As winter approaches, you might be wondering how you can celebrate the holiday spirit. Although many individuals prefer staying home during the holidays, many others enjoy embarking on trips and seeing new sights. Regardless of which category you fall under, there are plenty of fun activities to do, both at home and abroad. Here are 10 of our favorite holiday things to do.
1 Enjoy a Holiday Coffee
1 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is enjoying a fresh holiday coffee or cup of hot chocolate, usually only available during the winter season. There are several holiday flavors to choose from, such as peppermint mocha, gingerbread, and of course, cinnamon. These flavors play off of traditional Christmastime spices, which go as far back as the Crusades.
Fun Fact: In the 11th century, Christian Crusaders came across the diet and spices of the Middle East. Pepper and cinnamon were among these spices. When they brought these spices home, the European populace began connecting the spices with the Holy Lands. In the following centuries, people combined Christmas with the observation of the Winter Solstice. Holiday feasts became commonplace among nobility. These feasts became displays of wealth and resources, with imported spices as key indicators of the host’s fortune. At the same time, the use of spices spread into the creation of desserts (such as gingerbread) among locals and monasteries. Ever since, these flavors have been part of the western world’s Christmas traditions.
In the U.S, our go-to places to enjoy these coffee and chocolate flavors are Starbucks, Serendipity 3, and Joffrey’s Coffee and Tea Company. You can find a Starbucks in nearly every corner across the country. It might be novel, but its coffee rarely disappoints and the holiday flavors tend to stay for at least a couple months.
Serendipity 3 is an American restaurant unique to New York City, famous for its old-timey vibe and desserts. It has a nice range of coffees to order, but the real highlight is its wide selection of frozen hot chocolate flavors (including liquor-spiked drinks). You might even spot a celebrity here, thanks to the restaurant’s long-time popularity with actors and artists since its conception in the 1950s. (Reservations are encouraged, but not necessary.)
Joffrey’s Coffee is located within Disneyworld, Disneyland, Epcot, and associated parks and resorts. It is Disney’s official coffee brand, and offers a variety of seasonal drinks themed for the holidays. If you are at a Disney park or resort during the winter, think about trying one of Joffrey’s holiday beverages. If not, you can also find its only non-Disney location at Midtown Tampa.
2 Holiday Adult Beverages
There is a global assortment of alcoholic drinks that complement the holiday season. If you happen to be in these parts of the world during your winter holiday, consider trying these local drinks. For instance, it is popular to enjoy grappa in Italy and glögg in Denmark and Scandinavia.
Grappa is a distilled brandy made from alcohol and the remains of pressed grapes (the stems, pulp, seeds, and skin) left behind by winemaking. Initially called acquavite (the Latin name for “distillate”), the drink started as a medicine in the 15th century. Its purpose was to aid digestion and encourage liveliness. As alcohol production and distillation increased in the following centuries, Northern Italians began referring to the drink as grappa in the 19th century (derived from grappapolis, translating to “bunch of grapes”). Today grappa is consumed as a pleasurable after-meal drink.
Traditionally, Italians serve small glasses of grappa (no more than two ounces) after dinner to help digest large amounts of food. And the holidays of course, are the perfect time for large meals shared by many. Best taken at room temperature, grappa is meant to be sipped and savored after a meal while relaxing with friends and family.
Glögg is a Nordic spiced drink made from alcohol or fruit juice mixed with cinnamon, ginger, or cloves. The name is Swedish in origin, derived from glödgat vin, meaning “hot wine.” As the meaning suggests, glögg is a hot wine, though you should never boil the alcoholic version. Glögg’s origins date back to the 16th century, when travelers (usually postmen and messengers) drank spiced alcohol to brave the cold. The spice was used as a flavor enhancer, and as the centuries passed, glögg’s popularity turned it into a traditional Nordic winter drink.
The people of Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Estonia typically serve it in the winter season, especially at Christmastime. In Scandinavia, December is ripe with local Glögg parties, short and cheery afternoon gatherings in which friends and family share small cups of Glögg and traditional snacks after lunch. These parties tend to follow this set-up because most Scandinavians attend multiple Glögg parties per day.
Within the U.S, the peppermint martini is popular in New York, while Boston and Seattle specialize in Winter flavors of lager beer.
The peppermint martini is a cocktail made from a blend of ice, crème, vodka, and peppermint schnapps. A fun modern-day cocktail, peppermint martinis offer a vibrant taste during the winter and are especially popular at holiday parties and gatherings, particularly in New York. The Ayza Wine & Chocolate Bar is one of our favorite places for peppermint martini and wintry drinks in New York City.
Derived from the German word for “storage,” lager beer is brewed cool, and in the 19th century (prior to the invention of the refrigerator), was kept in cold caves before consumption. It is the most common form of commercialized beer today in many parts of the world. Come winter, Boston breweries churn out lager blended with holiday spices (Ex. nutmeg and cinnamon) and locals are more than happy to enjoy their lager during holiday gatherings. The Samuel Adams Boston Brewery and Jack’s Abby are some of our favorite spots for Massachusetts lagers.
Another increasingly popular holiday drink in the U.S is gingerbread beer. Created as recently as 2011 by Virginia’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, the blend combines ginger with beer for a seasonal spicy taste. Since then, gingerbread beer has grown in popularity, thanks to its novelty and association with the winter holidays.
If you are visiting New York City, Tavern on the Green located in Central Park goes all out with their holiday decorations, lights, and trees. Stop by for a holiday drink or a meal. It does get extremely crowded, so you may want to consider a reservation.
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3 See a Holiday Show
3 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is seeing a holiday-themed show. There are usually many seasonal performances during the holiday season, ranging from live concerts to Christmas at the cinemas.
For instance, people from all over the world travel to New York City yearly for the annual Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes at the Radio City Music Hall. It is one of, if not the, largest Christmas-themed theatrical shows in the United States starring over one hundred dancers from the Rockettes, a female dance company. After the music hall opened in 1932, the Rockettes starred in their first Christmas performance the following year as part of a series of extravagant shows presented alongside the Hollywood motion pictures. The “Christmas Spectacular” continued throughout the years, eventually becoming a staple of New York’s holiday season.
Today, the Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes runs 90 minutes. It presents live performances that combine songs, dance, music, and comedy. The show typically runs from November to January. You get an even better deal when you combine your show with an assortment of tours throughout New York City.
You can also find smaller-scale holiday concerts at a local theatre, opera house, church, or music hall. The holiday season is also ripe with holiday releases at the theater, with some movies even arriving on December 25th. For those who do not want to venture out of their homes, the small screen has more than enough holiday-themed selections available on streaming platforms (such as Netflix) and TV channels.
4 Visit a Garden Display
4 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is visiting a garden display. If you are close to a botanical garden during the winter holidays, be sure to see its seasonal display. Many botanical gardens will put on a specialized exhibit, complete with holiday décor and primed for the winter season.
Two of our favorite garden displays are Florida’s Largo Botanical Gardens and Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens.
From late November to January, the Florida Botanical Gardens host the Holiday Lights in the Garden. For this event, they decorate their property with colorful LED lights. If in the area, you can see dazzling décor and figures of light, as well as a bedazzled Christmas tree surrounded by model trains.
Around the same timeframe, the Longwood Gardens feature A Longwood Christmas. This event features an indoor display of trees, lanterns, paintings, and a winter wonderland. It also features a vibrant array of outdoor lights, fire pits, choreographed light and fountain shows, festive decorations, and a miniature model train display.
5 Visit a Theme Park
5 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is visiting a theme park. Usually starting December, many popular amusement parks transform into holiday-themed wintry wonderlands. Every season, these parks attract flocks of visitors from far and wide because of their unique themes and attractions. If you want to spice up your holiday celebrations, consider visiting one of these theme parks during your holiday vacation.
Disneyworld and Disneyland come to mind. During the winter holidays, Disney reinvents its parks with seasonal decorations, holiday cuisine, and themed firework shows, live performances, and special character sightings.
At Disneyworld (Orlando), you can also see Cinderella’s castle illuminated with festive cheer. Its Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios parks feature seasonal parades, sing-alongs, decorations, light shows, and more. Starting late November, Disney’s Epcot hosts the International Festival of the Holidays, which features holiday-themed décor, fare, and traditions from all over the globe. Book a Disneyworld package to get special offers and entrances.
Also starting November, Disneyland (Anaheim) hosts a Festival of Holidays that presents several multicultural winter festivities celebrated through music, cuisine, and bright performances. Throughout the season, the park will feature themed rides, specialized holiday décor, light shows, firework displays, and holiday parades while Sleeping Beauty’s Castle transforms into a wintry light show every night. Checkout these great Disneyland deals for the season.
Universal Studios is another theme park that transforms for the winter holidays. In addition to live shows and parades, it also features a scavenger hunt, seasonal treats and holiday souvenirs. See here (Orlando) and here (Hollywood) for Universal deals.
Located in the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood does its best to wrap you in a traditional Christmas experience. It features numerous holiday events, shows, fireworks, mountain cabins, shopping centers, and a Christmas tree that stands 50-feet tall. There is more than enough holiday cheer to go around at the Dollywood Theme Park. Also see here for what Dollywood deals are available.
6 Visit a Christmas Market
6 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is shopping and sight-seeing at a Christmas market. If you travel to Europe for the holidays, the local Christmas market is a sight you must not miss. Christmas markets are typically open-air street markets hosted in town squares. They sell seasonal products and feature live entertainment (usually traditional songs and dances). You can expect to find a variety of Christmas-themed food, drinks, and holiday items. Most markets feature a Nativity Scene, nutcrackers, plumb figurines, and traditional (as well as regional) Christmas treats and drinks.
Christmas markets are hosted throughout Advent season. Although most famous in Germany and Austria, you can encounter them throughout other European countries as well (such as France, Spain, The Netherlands, and England). On opening night, some markets feature the welcoming of a local child playing the Christkind (a traditional gift-bringer).
Fun Fact: The tradition of the Christmas market dates as far back as the 13th century, with these markets known as December markets. Then in 1434, Striezelmarkt opened as a one-day market to sell meat to citizens before Christmas and the Advent fast. It became the first official Christmas market, and still remains one of the most popular Christmas markets today. It now lasts for approximately 1 month instead of 1 day.
In addition to the aforementioned Striezelmarkt, our favorite Christmas markets are the Dortmund Christmas market and the Christmas Market on Rathausplatz in Vienna (also known as the Vienna Christmas World).
Germany’s largest Christmas market, the Dortmund Christmas market also features the world’s tallest Christmas tree, a Christmas Village for children’s activities, a Christmas Pyramid (a large leveled structure presenting holiday ornaments, biblical motifs, and a pyramid of candles), and live shows.
Vienna Christmas World features an assortment of traditional Austrian treats and drinks, handcrafted Christmas decorations, carousels, a Nativity Scene trail, a seasonal ferris wheel, a Tree of Hearts (a tree decorated with glowing hearts), and most fantastically, a brightly lit ice skating rink that offers skate rentals on site.
7 See Department Store Displays
7 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is seeing a department store display. Come December, upscale department stores and shopping complexes worldwide become home to grand holiday displays and décor.
If you are in New York City for the holidays, stroll outside its famous department stores to see what surprises they have for you. The Saks Fifth Avenue Holiday Windows & Light Show is one of our favorite displays. Usually running from November to January, this light show takes place every 10 minutes and lasts for 5 minutes.
Another of our favorite New York attractions is Macy’s holiday window displays. These displays recreate famous New York holiday sequences and are key to facilitating the city’s festive spirit.
Try a guided tour of all the best window displays in New York City, complete with transportation.
If you find yourself in Paris, make sure you visit the Galeries Lafayette this holiday season. Known for its lavish holiday themes and installations, this Parisian department store fully immerses itself in the Christmas spirit from its window displays to its famous tree. In its Paris Haussman store, a suspended Christmas tree makes its appearance against a backdrop of an elegant glass dome. Bedazzled with ornaments, the tree is also the center of a light and sound show that performs every 30 minutes.
8 See a Public Holiday Tree and Light Display
8 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is attending a public tree lighting display. Our favorite places to see tree lighting ceremonies are New York’s Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the Christmas Nights of Lights in Fredericksburg, Texas. If you travel to either state during the winter holidays, make sure you take the time to see these lovely Christmas trees.
The Rockefeller Christmas Tree arrives annually in Manhattan every holiday season, ready to be illuminated on the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. After a series of live performances, the present mayor of New York City will light the tree, accompanied by the Rockefeller Center CEO and honored guests in a public ceremony that crowds flock to see. The tree then remains on display until January.
From late November to January, Fredericksburg features regular Christmas Nights of Lights. On every night of the event, organizers present guests with a history of the town’s German influences, Christmas carols, and a countdown to the community Christmas Tree and German Christmas Pyramid. Decorated with handmade ornaments, the Christmas Tree is a beautiful sight that accompanies the Christmas Pyramid, a handcrafted import from Germany featuring levels of biblical motifs.
Insider Tip: If you are in New York City during the holidays, there is a fantastic display each year at the famous fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, just across the street from Central Park. It usually has an elaborate moving display and it is definitely worth seeing. For a really special treat, stay at The world famous Plaza Hotel.
9 Visit a Holiday Village
9 of 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is visiting a holiday village. Our favorite holiday villages are located in Williamsburg (Virginia), Big Bear Lake (California), and Bryant Park (New York).
Colonial Williamsburg will immerse you in 18th century Virginian life, recreating the experience of holidays from the days of old. Here, we can see costumed musicians and carolers, Father Christmas going for a stroll, and a series of diverse programs that educate and immerse us in 18th century traditions, trials, and celebrations. In addition to live entertainment and a variety of hands-on activities, Colonial Williamsburg also features a number of tree lighting ceremonies and firework shows. And if you have the time, visit the ice pavilion, go on a carriage or wagon ride, or visit one of the onsite museums. This holiday village offers more than enough fun for anyone.
Ready to go? Try one of these hotels in close proximity to Colonial Williamsburg.
The Village at Big Bear Lake
California is known more for sun than snow, but The Village at Big Bear Lake is an exception. Located in the mountains, the Village sees regular snow in the winter and is one of our favorite holiday retreats. In late November, the Village features a tree lighting ceremony complemented by live performances. Then you can see the surroundings transformed into a wonderland of sparkling lights and handcrafted wooden animals. Here, you have the opportunity to book an adventure at a ski resort, snow-tubing, or embark on an unconventional tour (on a jeep, helicopter, horse, segway, zipline, or snowshoe).
Looking for a place to stay in Big Bear? Try one of these cute and convenient hotels.
Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park
The Bank of America Winter Village at Bryant Park is perfectly captures the spirit of a winter dream. It features an open-air shopping square in the style of European markets, with holiday shops sitting behind custom kiosks. The village’s highlight is an ice skating rink next to a festive restaurant. With onsite skate rentals, the rink allows free admission, as well as free events and shows. Another creative feature is the presence of onsite igloos (that you can also dine within) and curling lanes.
*Note: You can score a 10% skate rental discount by swiping a Bank of America credit or debit card.
10 See Neighborhood Lights
Number 10 of our favorite holiday things to do is seeing local neighborhood lights. Drive around the local community to see what is on display. Our favorite places to see residential Christmas displays are LA’s Candy Cane Lane and Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights.
Both communities are nationally famous for their lavish holiday decorations. Their residents are willing to go all-out for the season, transforming their homes into living holiday homages. These displays come from a place of love for the season and humble holiday cheer. Strolling through these neighborhoods will more than put you in a festive mood.
At Candy Cane Lane, nearly every house offers an impressive assortment of Christmas décor, ornaments, and lights that could give professional displays a run for their money.
*Note: Nearby traffic can be heavy. If driving, it is best to park at a distance and walk into the neighborhood.
In Dyker Heights, you can expect to see large-scale ornaments, vibrant Santa figurines, reindeers made-to-scale, and dazzling holiday lights as far as the eye can see. (Just be aware of heavy traffic and crowds!)