There are several reasons the Christmas season is a wonderful time of year. Not only are you likely looking forward to holiday vacation and spending time with loved ones, but for several weeks leading up to Christmas Day (and after), many attractions across North Carolina have become holiday destinations and winter wonderlands.
Enjoy amazing light shows, outdoor ice skating, tours of decorated gardens and holiday-themed amusement parks. Whether you're visiting family here or hosting them (or looking to escape from them), here's your guide to making the most of your December days and nights.
Due to COVID-19, please check local tourism offices for the most up-to-date information on events and attractions. Additionally, please visit Count On Me NC to see participating businesses and for tips on how to stay safe when visiting North Carolina.
Holiday light shows
1 Winter Wonderlights
1 Winter WonderlightsNov. 6, 2020 – Jan. 3, 2021, GreensboroSee on map
New in 2020, Greensboro Science Center invites you to celebrate safely with loved ones at Winter Wonderlights. Featuring 12 magical realms of joyful sounds and shimmering lights such as dancing fountains, woodland wonders, a gingerbread barn, carousel dreams and more, this walk-thru experience is ticketed and timed to ensure proper social distancing. Check the calendar before buying tickets – most Mondays and Tuesdays are discounted, and you’ll find Santa and live music from the Greensboro Opera most Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
2 Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum
2 Winter Lights at the North Carolina ArboretumNov. 20, 2020 – Jan. 10, 2021, AshevilleSee on map
Please note: Due to COVID-19, the 2020 exhibition is a drive-thru show with per-car ticketing.
Experience this 3-acre nightly tour of the arboretum's nationally known gardens, including its Quilt Garden and Bonsai Exhibition Garden. Designed to showcase the natural landscape, the displays feature colorful native butterflies and winter wildlife with a special insect-themed lantern exhibit on view.
3 N.C. Transportation Museum in Lights and Candy Cane Train
3 N.C. Transportation Museum in Lights and Candy Cane TrainNov. 21 – Dec. 30, 2020, SalisburySee on map
Having canceled its Polar Express run, the N.C. Transportation Museum created a new drive-thru lights display plus a limited-capacity Candy Cane Train ride. Lights will be displayed along a 1.25-mile route with an option to visit a satellite gift shop to see Santa for a socially distanced photo. From Nov. 21 through Dec. 30, the Candy Cane Train runs on weekends and offers a from-the-rails view of the museum grounds and includes music, hot chocolate and cookies in the 1905 Back Shop.
4 Speedway Christmas
4 Speedway ChristmasNov. 21, 2020 – Jan. 17, 2021, ConcordSee on map
One of America’s largest holiday light shows, Speedway Christmas features more than 4 million lights over a 3.75-mile course that includes most of the oval and the new ROVAL. And Thursday through Sunday nights, you can watch holiday movies on the giant Speedway TV.
5 WinterLights at Elizabethan Gardens
5 WinterLights at Elizabethan GardensThrough Jan. 16, 2021 (Nov. 29, 2020; Tuesdays – Saturdays in December; Fridays – Sundays in January), ManteoSee on map
Peacocks, butterflies, deer and other enchanting creatures take up temporary residence at the Elizabethan Gardens. Created with flowers, seeds and other natural elements, the lighted displays join permanent art elements – which include the world’s largest bronze statue of Queen Elizabeth I of England.
6 Nights of Lights
6 Nights of LightsDec. 16 – Dec. 31, 2020, RaleighSee on map
Aiming to provide families a way to get in the holiday spirit safely, Nights of Lights in Raleigh does just that with a 1.3-mile route of magical lights inside Dorothea Dix Park. Fill up a thermos with cocoa, stay in your car and take in the illuminated towering oaks, light installations and art installations. This event is strictly drive-thru – no pedestrians or cyclists are allowed – ensuring safety for all.
Signature holiday events
6 The Polar Express
6 The Polar ExpressNov. 6 – Dec. 31, 2020, Bryson CitySee on map
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad had already achieved stardom by the time The Polar Express came out more than a decade ago. The animated film added to the luster with an annual excursion booked by thousands of passengers. The read-along ride features Chris Van Allsburg’s 1985 book, clips from the movie soundtrack, warm cocoa and a treat as the train of pajama-clad children clacks to the North Pole, where Santa awaits with a gift. Christmas carols will be sung as they return back to the Bryson City Depot.
7 Tweetsie Christmas
7 Tweetsie ChristmasFridays, Saturdays and select weekdays from Nov. 13 – Dec. 31, 2020, Blowing RockSee on map
Catch the arrival of Santa Claus as he enters on the train, or meet him in his home made of gingerbread and filled with candied furnishings. Step into a snow globe of swirling (synthetic) snow. Enjoy holiday lights throughout the park and along the 3-mile track. Roast s'mores and devour other handmade goodies from Tweetsie Railroad's fudge shop.
8 Holidays at Tryon Palace
8 Holidays at Tryon PalaceBegins Nov. 25, 2020, New BernSee on map
Overtaxed colonists had a bad case of humbug in December 1770, when Gov. William Tryon threw the first party at the fancy Georgian-style structure where he would live and run the government. Two-and-a-half centuries later, Tryon Palace historic site recreates the effect of the event with holiday-themed tours offered during the season. Plus, the annual Holiday Cheer takes place Dec. 12 and Dec. 19 with festivities illuminated by the glow of candlelight and fireworks, along with traditional circus performers.
9 Taste of the Season at Carowinds
9 Taste of the Season at CarowindsSelect days Nov. 21 – Dec. 20, 2020, CharlotteSee on map
Due to COVID-19, Carowinds' 2020 WinterFest has been canceled. However, thanks to an extensive reopening plan, the park has pivoted to a Taste of the Season outdoor Christmas event that features samples of sweets and savories, specialty drinks, holiday décor, seasonal shows and select rides.
Holiday Ice Skating
10 Skating at U.S. National Whitewater Center
10 Skating at U.S. National Whitewater CenterBegins Nov. 11, 2020, CharlotteSee on map
New in 2019, the U.S. National Whitewater Center (20 minutes outside of Uptown Charlotte) offers a 17,000-square-foot ice rink with several different skating zones on the upper pond. A single-day activity pass is required to skate. Bonus: An on-ice Airstream offers craft beer, wine and hot cocoa.
Hundreds of great events are taking place this holiday season across North Carolina. Find the event that best fits the experience you're looking for by searching our calendar.