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 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, here's your guide to making the most of your December days and nights.
Holiday light shows
1 WinterLights at Elizabethan Gardens
1 WinterLights at Elizabethan GardensSelect dates Nov. 17 – Dec. 30, 2023; 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.
2 Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum
2 Winter Lights at the North Carolina ArboretumNov. 17 – Dec. 31, 2023; AshevilleSee on map
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 Speedway Christmas
4 Winter Wonderlights
4 Winter WonderlightsNov. 22 – Dec. 31, 2023; GreensboroSee on map
Greensboro Science Center invites you to celebrate with loved ones at Winter Wonderlights. Featuring 12 magical realms of joyful sounds and shimmering lights, this walk-thru experience recommends making reservations online. Check the calendar before buying tickets; select weekdays are discounted, and you’ll find Santa most weekend days.
Signature holiday events
5 Polar Express Train Ride (Spencer)
5 Polar Express Train Ride (Spencer)Select dates Nov. 10 – Dec. 23, 2023; SpencerSee on map
This holiday favorite comes to life as you and your family take a ride on The Polar Express at the NC Transportation Museum. Set to the music of the motion picture soundtrack, the trip to the "North Pole" features singing, dancing, a reading of the book, hot chocolate and cookies, and a visit from Santa. Passengers are encouraged to wear their pajamas for the ride.
6 WinterFest at Carowinds
6 WinterFest at CarowindsSelect dates Nov. 17, 2023 – Jan. 1, 2024; CharlotteSee on map
One of the South's most popular theme parks, Carowinds transforms into WinterFest with thousands of shimmering lights, a large Christmas tree, lavish displays, live shows and strolling performers, and special holiday dishes and desserts fill the midways.
7 North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival
7 North Carolina Chinese Lantern FestivalNov. 17, 2023 – Jan. 14, 2024; CarySee on map
The North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival includes all-new displays, each one comprising hundreds of parts and thousands of LED lights. A variety of ticket options – including Twilight, Any Night and VIP – make planning your visit a breeze. There will also be cultural performances and artisan crafts.
8 Holidays at Tryon Palace
8 Holidays at Tryon PalaceBegins Nov. 20, 2023; 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 Candlelight Nights take place Dec. 10 and 17 with festivities illuminated by the glow of candlelight and fireworks, along with traditional circus performers.
9 Kersey Valley Christmas
9 Kersey Valley ChristmasSelect dates Nov. 24 – Dec. 23, 2023; ArchdaleSee on map
From the same folks who bring to life one of the top haunted attractions in the country comes Kersey Valley Christmas. In its inaugural year, this huge family-friendly event features a village of 1 million Christmas lights, train and wagon rides, jumping pillows, Santa’s workshop – and even a Grinch Cave. Pro tip: Purchase a photo package online beforehand to guarantee meeting both Santa and the Grinch, and join the virtual queue as soon as you arrive so you can spend more time exploring.
10 The Polar Express
10 The Polar ExpressSelect dates Nov. 24 – Dec. 30, 2023; Bryson CitySee on map
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad had already achieved stardom by the time "The Polar Express" came out, but 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.
11 Tweetsie Christmas
11 Tweetsie ChristmasSelect dates Nov. 24 – Dec. 30, 2023; 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. 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.
Holiday Ice Skating
12 Skating at US National Whitewater Center
12 Skating at US National Whitewater CenterMid-November 2023 through Mid-February 2024; CharlotteSee on map
The US 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.
13 Piedmont Winterfest
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.