There are several things that make Thanksgiving a much-anticipated and memorable holiday. But if you're visiting North Carolina for Thanksgiving, you're likely staying a few days, and eventually you'll want a break from the turkey, desiring to get out and about around town as safely as possible.
Here's your guide to making the most of your time here, allowing you to kick off the holiday season in festive ways. Fill your Thanksgiving weekend outings with holiday light shows, outdoor ice skating, downtown tree lightings and themed train rides.
Events you'll find in this article:
Winter Wonderlights | The Polar Express in Spencer | Tanglewood Park Festival of Lights
WinterFest at Carowinds | Winter Lights at N.C. Arboretum | Speedway Christmas
Chetola's Festival of Lights | Warm Southern Christmas | The Polar Express in Bryson City
Holidays at Tryon Palace | Thanksgiving Parade in Charlotte | N.C. Holiday Flotilla
Skating at U.S. National Whitewater Center | Piedmont Winterfest
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, 2021 – Jan. 2, 2022, 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, 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 most weekend days.
2 Polar Express Train Ride (Spencer)
2 Polar Express Train Ride (Spencer)Various dates Nov. 12, 2021 – Dec. 23, 2021, SalisburySee on map
This holiday favorite comes to life as you and your family take a ride on The Polar Express at the N.C. 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.
3 Tanglewood Park Festival of Lights
3 Tanglewood Park Festival of LightsNov. 12, 2021 – Jan. 1, 2022, ClemmonsSee on map
From storybook scenes to holiday themes, more than 100 light displays fill a nearly 5-mile route at Tanglewood Park, 15 minutes outside Winston-Salem. You’ll enjoy everything from "S'moresville" to individual-family tractor-pulled hayrides and private horse-drawn carriages.
4 WinterFest at Carowinds
4 WinterFest at CarowindsSelect dates Nov. 13, 2021 – Jan. 2, 2022, 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.
5 Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum
5 Winter Lights at the North Carolina ArboretumNov. 19, 2021 – Jan. 1, 2022, 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.
6 Speedway Christmas
7 Chetola's Festival of Lights
7 Chetola's Festival of LightsNov. 26, 2021 – Jan. 30, 2022, Blowing RockSee on map
This free Blowing Rock holiday tradition features nearly 30,000 lights and attracts thousands of visitors each year. Drive around Chetola Lake to view glittering ice skaters, a nativity scene, Rudolph catching a big fish and more.
8 Warm Southern Christmas
Signature Holiday Events
9 The Polar Express
9 The Polar ExpressNov. 12, 2021 – Jan. 1, 2022, 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.
10 Holidays at Tryon Palace
10 Holidays at Tryon PalaceBegins Nov. 22, 2021, 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. 11 and 18 with festivities illuminated by the glow of candlelight and fireworks, along with traditional circus performers.
11 Thanksgiving Parade
11 Thanksgiving ParadeNov. 24, 2021, in CharlotteSee on map
Take to the streets to celebrate 75 years of holiday memories at the Thanksgiving Parade in Charlotte, the largest of its kind in the Southeast. For the first time ever, the parade will be held at night as lights, marching bands, floats and creative performers star in this beloved tradition.
12 North Carolina Holiday Flotilla
12 North Carolina Holiday FlotillaNov. 26-27, 2021, Wrightsville Beach
Wilmington and neighboring beaches launch the holiday season with a boat parade on the Intracoastal Waterway. More than two dozen boats, from personal watercraft to yachts, channel their owners’ creativity into delightful light displays against the night sky. The annual event includes a tree lighting Friday night, an all-day festival and the main event, complete with fireworks afterward.
Holiday Ice Skating
13 Skating at U.S. National Whitewater Center
13 Skating at U.S. National Whitewater CenterMid-November 2021 through Mid-January 2022, CharlotteSee on map
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, and a time slot assignment is included with your ticket. Bonus: An on-ice Airstream offers craft beer, wine and hot cocoa.
Tree Lighting and Downtown Celebrations
- Home for the Holidays: Nov. 1, 2021 – Jan. 1, 2022, in Hendersonville
- A Dickens Holiday: Various events Nov. 19 – Dec. 4, 2021, in Fayetteville
- Christmas in the Park and Lighting of the Town: Nov. 26, 2021, in Blowing Rock
- Cashiers Festival of Trees: Nov. 26-27, 2021, in Cashiers
- Winter Wonderland: Nov. 27 and Dec. 4, 2021, in Franklin
- West Jefferson Holiday Parade: Nov. 20, 2021, in West Jefferson
- Novant Health Thanksgiving Day Parade: Nov. 24, 2021, in Charlotte
- Emerald Isle Christmas Parade: Nov. 27, 2021, in Emerald Isle
- Sparta Christmas Parade: Nov. 27, 2021, in Sparta
- Christmas Parade & Tree Lighting: Nov. 28, 2021, in Lincolnton
Other Holiday Events
- A Bryson City Christmas: Nov. 12, 2021 – Jan. 1, 2022, in Bryson City
- Tweetsie Christmas: Select evenings from Nov. 19 – Dec. 30, 2021, in Blowing Rock
- Ocean Isle Beach Flotilla: Nov. 27, 2021, in Ocean Isle Beach