A region as varied and storied as the South has plenty of wonderful holiday traditions. From the biggest of cities to the tiniest towns, Southerners — and Yankee tourists — have plenty of special ways to spend the Christmas season.
Honestly, I had a tough time picking ten destinations, but I think the ones I chose demonstrate the variety of Southern experiences. Enjoy!
10. Biltmore Estate, Asheville, NC
Ok, so I took some heat for putting Asheville in my list of the 10 Most Overrated Destinations in the South, but I stand by my choice. However, one of Asheville’s most iconic locations makes the list of the ultimate holiday destinations.
The Biltmore Estate is grand and gorgeous year round, but, like so many other places, Christmas decorations add even more beauty. George Vanderbilt’s palatial home hosts a display of holiday cheer that’s hard to top.
During the day, Biltmore offers wine tastings, visits with Santa, and tips for exquisite décor. At night, the estate features candlelight tours and impressive lighting displays. It’s enough to consider fending off those Asheville hipsters!
9. Graceland, Memphis, TN
Go ahead and admit it – you take Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” off the shelf for a spin every Christmas. So why not head on down to the ultimate Elvis holiday experience at Graceland?
The Presley estate decorates the King’s home every year just as he did in his heyday. Tons of lights, a life-sized Nativity scene, and themed decorations for the various rooms in the mansion greet Elvis’ fans for a mid-20th century Christmas treat.
The mansion boasts a special collection of Presley-family Christmas memorabilia, including red velvet curtains. There’s even a chance to give to charity in the name of the King (umm, Elvis, not Jesus). The holiday festivities continue into January with special parties on New Year’s Eve and for Elvis’ birthday. Come on – you know you’re ready to book your trip!
8. Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, Columbia, SC
In the heart of South Carolina lies its capital, Columbia. It’s a small city, containing certain areas that cultivate a unique, college-town vibe – the University of South Carolina makes its home there. In a town full of holiday traditions, one venue stakes a claim as the city’s oldest Christmas tradition – the Lights Before Christmas at Riverbanks Zoo & Gardens.
The flora and fauna at Riverbanks enchant guests throughout the day, but the park takes on its own special ambiance at night after most of the animals have gone to sleep. Riverbanks boasts almost a million twinkling lights in animated musical displays. A nightly bonfire allows guests to keep warm while they enjoy hot chocolate and other Christmas goodies. Santa himself makes appearances every night, and the park offers special magic for groups who host their holiday parties at the African-themed lodge there.
7. Lake Lanier Islands, Buford, GA
Growing up in metro Atlanta, there are so many great traditions during the holiday season that I just take for granted (although I wish I could hop in a time machine and revisit a classic that isn’t what it used to be). One of Atlanta’s most interesting Christmastime traditions takes place at a lakeside resort north of the city.
When the weather’s warm, Lake Lanier Islands’ beaches and water park crawl with tourists and locals. But as the holidays draw near, the resort transforms into the Magical Nights of Lights, a spectacular seasonal experience.
Millions of lights combine to create seven illuminated miles. But it’s not just about nighttime acitivites – Lake Lanier Islands offers zipline trips, a holiday shopping village, and ice skating. It’s easy to see why so many Atlantans flock there for Christmas fun.
6. Louisville, KY
One of the South’s most underrated cities, Louisville also brings some unique, appealing Christmas traditions to the table. In addition to a beautiful downtown area full of joyful decorations, areas on the outskirts of the city get in on the fun. One particular suburban town lights up completely – over 1,200 families brighten up their houses and yards for the holidays.
Local restaurants offer up Christmas-themed far, with one bourbon distillery serving up delightful holiday luncheons four days a week from late November through the end of December. One Louisville theatre company’s innovative staging of A Christmas Carol has grown in popularity, as has a new tradition of make-your-own hand-blown glass ornaments.
5. Key West, FL
For a Jimmy Buffett-style, beach bum Christmas, look no further than one of the South’s most iconic beaches. Key West cultivates its own vibe twelve months out of the year, but when you add Christmas to the already crazy mix…well, Christmas will never be the same.
The island offers plenty of unique experiences – from trolley tours by cottages and mansions, to parasailing and snorkeling, to sailboat trips with Santa for charity. The crown jewel of a Key West holiday is the Lighted Boat Parade, where dozens of watercraft hit the harbor in their brightest Christmas finery.
When a white Christmas means sand rather than snow, Key West is the place to be.
4. Williamsburg, VA
There’s plenty about Colonial Williamsburg to delight the history buff, but like so many other places, the holidays make the town even more special. One of the most unique features of Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg is that decorations and celebrations feature none of the glitz and glamor of modern entertaining – instead, the town comes alive with natural décor appropriate to the period.
Tourists can enjoy walking tours that feature the beautiful decorations throughout the town, including certain homes that do not normally open to the public. The Grand Illumination event features lots of candlelight, entertainment from the colonial period, and fireworks. Guests can book memorable dining experiences and enjoy other programs and musical performances as well.
The area around Williamsburg is part of a famous hundred mile stretch of road from Richmond to Virginia Beach winding through towns that feature lights displays, so guests can explore the modern celebrations outside of Colonial Williamsburg.
3. Riverwalk, San Antonio, TX
San Antonio’s Riverwalk district has quickly become the pride of the city with its vibrant mix of shops, restaurants, and entertainment, and the area becomes even more engaging as the holiday season approaches.
The Riverwalk comes alive with a different energy at Christmas, with hundreds of thousands of lights glistening in the night. Carolers sing from boats along the river, and shoppers discover special treats for the season. The district pays tribute to its Mexican heritage with the Fiesta de las Luminarias during December weekends, while musical group San Antonio Rose has started a new tradition with its Christmas shows.
A nearby mission puts on a production every year commemorating the shepherds’ journey to visit Baby Jesus, and other parts of the city feature their own vibrant traditions as well.
2. Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain, GA
Located just a couple of hours southwest of Atlanta and near Columbus, Callaway Gardens is best known for its azalea gardens and butterfly habitats. The park also offers fascinating activities throughout the year, from special concerts featuring the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, to hot air balloon festivals, to summertime beach parties. But Callaway Gardens’ flagship event is their annual Fantasy In Lights throughout November and December.
The Fantasy In Lights have grown so in quality and popularity that National Geographic Traveler named them one of the ten best destinations for holiday lights. The display features 15 scenes boasting over eight million individual lights, and they’re a sight to behold.
In addition to the Fantasy In Lights, Callaway Gardens offers holiday-themed train rides, a massive Christmas marketplace, special church services on Sundays, and storytelling with Mrs. Claus. Not bad for a little garden originally meant to preserve rare species of azaleas.
1. Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista, FL
What? Were you expecting anything different in the number one spot? Even setting aside my own Disney bias, Walt Disney World offers an unbelievable array of activities for the whole family during the holiday season.
Each of the four theme parks features special events that make Christmastime even more magical. Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom transforms into a breathtaking ice palace, and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (offered as a separately-ticketed event throughout the week) brings even more holiday fun to a more intimate group of guests. Epcot’s Holidays Around the World features storytellers and activities that add an international flair to the season, while a choir and celebrity narrator tell the story of Jesus’ birth at the Candlelight Processional. Disney’s Hollywood Studios boasts the inimitable Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, while Disney’s Animal Kingdom features the daily Jingle Jungle Parade.
In addition to the fun at the parks, the resorts are worth a visit, as each one shows off exquisitely themed decorations and other surprises. And guests can take care of all their gift giving needs at Downtown Disney. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s something for everybody at Walt Disney World during the holiday season.