There are several things that make Thanksgiving a much-anticipated and memorable holiday. And though it will look different in 2020, it's still a chance to celebrate with your household, Zoom with other family members, eat more food than you should, watch football and begin Black Friday shopping online.
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 drive-thru holiday light shows, outdoor ice skating, downtown tree lightings and themed train rides.
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 Tanglewood Park Festival of Lights
2 Tanglewood Park Festival of LightsNov. 13, 2020 – Jan. 1, 2021, 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 giant snowflakes to individual-family tractor-pulled hayrides and private horse-drawn carriages.
3 Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum
3 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.
4 N.C. Transportation Museum in Lights and Candy Cane Train
4 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. 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.
5 Speedway Christmas
5 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.
6 Chetola's Festival of Lights
6 Chetola's Festival of LightsNov. 29, 2020 – Jan. 31, 2021, Blowing RockSee on map
This free Blowing Rock holiday tradition features more than 50,000 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.
Signature Holiday Events
7 The Polar Express
7 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.
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.
Holiday Ice Skating
9 Skating at U.S. National Whitewater Center
9 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, 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
- Santa on the Green and Christmas Tree Lighting: Nov. 27, 2020, in Cashiers
- In the Spirit of Dickens: Nov. 27, 2020, in Fayetteville
- Warm Southern Christmas tree lighting (will also be streamed to social media): Nov. 27, 2020, in Elizabethtown
- Winter Wonderland: Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, 2020, in Franklin
- Hometown Christmas Tree Lighting: Dec. 5, 2020, in West Jefferson
Holiday Parades (Thanksgiving Weekend)
- Novant Health Thanksgiving Day Parade (televised only in 2020 due to COVID-19): Nov. 26, 2020, in Charlotte
- Sparta Christmas Parade: Nov. 28, 2020, in Sparta
Other Holiday Events
- A Bryson City Christmas: Nov. 13 – Dec. 31, 2020, in Bryson City
- Tweetsie Christmas: Fridays, Saturdays and select weekdays from Nov. 13 – Dec. 31, 2020, in Blowing Rock
- Taste of the Season at Carowinds: Select dates Nov. 21 – Dec. 20, in Charlotte
Please note: Due to COVID-19, these signature holiday events have been canceled:
- Holiday On Ice Charlotte
- Holidays at Old Salem
- North Carolina Holiday Flotilla