From the sunny coast to the snowy High Sierra, California delivers plenty of holiday charm, especially in historic towns and villages. Think old-fashioned carriage rides in the Gold Country, karaoke events (and visits from a certain jolly VIP) in an alpine resort, and gawking at gussied up, spirited neighborhoods. Here are some of our favorite holiday events and settings in California: Sneak away now—or add them to next year's holiday-travel wish list.
NOTE: Because of widespread COVID-19 restrictions, be sure to check with your destination’s website to confirm what events will be taking place this year.
Mendocino (North Coast). Want a break from the holiday crush? Rediscover the magic of a simple Christmas in the village of Mendocino. “There are no chain stores in the entire village,” notes Herman Seidell of the town’s elegant MacCallum House Inn. “Every shop and restaurant in town offers something unique and different.” Many of the shimmering historic buildings are filled with local crafts and art. Just north of town, the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens comes alive on weekends with music and lighted displays—from sailing ships to jellyfish—during its Festival of Lights. And in Fort Bragg, about 15 minutes north of town, hop aboard the Skunk Train for a special holiday sightseeing ride through the redwoods. It comes with hot cocoa and strolling musicians.
San Luis Obispo (Central Coast). Take a stroll along this town’s downtown district during the holiday season and you’ll see what community and yuletide spirit look like. Dozens of local businesses, boutiques, and shops band together to create “Light Up Downtown,” and the result is entire blocks draped in lights, both inside and out. It makes for a great family night out, wandering the shimmering byways and ducking into local businesses for a meal, drink, or hot cocoa. One standout: The folks at the famously photo-worthy Madonna Inn (just outside downtown) meet the heightened holiday expectations with gusto; their over-the-top Christmas decor, a true feast for the eyes, is put on display from late November through the end of the year.
Nevada City (Gold Country). Experience Christmas past during this historic town’s Victorian-style celebration. Looking like a scene that could have sprung forth from a Charles Dickens novel, the town’s narrow, hilly streets, lit by glowing gas lamps and set against a backdrop of towering pines, can almost make you lose all sense of time. Carolers in period dress, brass bands, and bagpipers fill the streets of this picture-perfect town, where the award-winning holiday movie The Christmas Card was shot. Munch on roasted chestnuts while enjoying a carriage ride past historic buildings with twinkling white lights. For another unforgettable Gold Country experience, drive less than 10 minutes to Grass Valley, where the Cornish Christmas Celebration commemorates the town’s historical ties with western England. Expect musicians, jugglers, and traditional cloggers.
Mammoth Lakes (High Sierra). Talk about a winter wonderland. Hit the slopes for world-class skiing and snowboarding at Mammoth Mountain, then get into the holiday spirit at The Village at Mammoth, where the kids can visit Santa Claus and you can belt out classic carols during karaoke events. And the Christmas lights you've seen elsewhere are nothing like the annual fireworks and torchlight parade during Night of Lights, put on by the Canyon Lodge.
Windsor (San Francisco Bay Area). Sixty-five miles north of San Francisco, this charming Sonoma County town pulls out all the stops every holiday season for its Charlie Brown Christmas Tree Grove, held in Windsor Town Green. It’s a true group effort—students, families, and various local service organizations and businesses all contribute to the display of 200 individually lighted and decorated trees that line the green’s walkways. Streaming holiday music and additional overhead lighting round out a scene perfect for celebrating the holidays and shopping at Old Downtown Windsor.
Petaluma (San Francisco Bay Area). Some 25 miles south of Windsor, another Sonoma County town kicks off the Christmas season with an annual Santa Riverboat Cruise. Held the first Saturday after Thanksgiving, Santa and Mrs. Claus chug into view and make several loops, greeting children and parents gathered along the banks of the Petaluma River, spreading good cheer. After, head downtown, where the annual Small Business Saturday will be in full swing with holiday sales, perfect for crossing names off your list.
Solvang (Central Coast). The annual Solvang Julefest brings Old World traditions to today’s Santa Barbara wine country. With authentic Danish-style buildings and windmills for a backdrop, costumed carolers, bands, and equestrians take to the streets for the Julefest Parade. You can sample local varietals (as well as craft beers) during the two-day Julefest Wine & Beer Walk, and finish your gift shopping—and get great deals—during the Shop, Mingle & Jingle event. There’s also a living nativity reenactment. It all comes to a dramatic end with the annual Christmas Tree Burn, a bonfire outside Old Mission Santa Inés in early January.
Fresno (Central Valley). If Paris is “The City of Light,” then Fresno is the city of Christmas lights, thanks to the two miles of decorations along Van Ness Boulevard—better known as Christmas Tree Lane. In December, millions of bulbs glisten from 300 trees and 140 lavishly decorated homes in the Fig Garden neighborhood. There are toy soldiers and angels, elves and reindeer, and all kinds of animated scenes and music. Certain days are designated for walking and others for driving, so check the website in advance for the day that suits your style.
Newport Beach (Orange County). Mountain communities might say “Let it snow,” but here at the beach the mantra is “Let it glow.” That’s because some 100 brightly decorated sailboats, yachts, and even kayaks cruise along the waterfront during the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, an event that dates back more than 100 years. (For an on-the-water perspective, take a Parade of Lights Dinner Cruise with Hornblower Cruises.) The boat parade takes place over five nights. Can't make it? You can still catch Newport at its most radiant on boat tours that pass illuminated estates and other buildings on the shoreline—what locals call the “Ring of Lights.”
Big Bear Lake (Inland Empire). With holiday lights aglow in the village and snow falling on the pines, Big Bear Lake transforms into a classic Christmas escape just a couple hours from Los Angeles. On weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas, let the kids say hi to Santa and Mrs. Claus at the town’s Christmas tree lot. Or cruise Big Bear Lake with Santa and look at snowcapped peaks during “Sail With Santa” excursions on Miss Liberty, a paddle wheeler (Saturdays before Christmas in December).
Julian (San Diego County). A hint of wintry chill, the warm glow of fireplaces. It must be Christmastime in Julian, the historic gold-mining town in the pine-forested mountains northeast of San Diego. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the annual Country Christmas celebration kicks off with the lighting of the town’s 80-foot-tall living Christmas tree. Festivities continue throughout the season. Head to Julian Tea and Cottage Arts for Victorian Christmas teas, or visit festively decorated houses on a home tour where you might just find quilts and other locally made crafts for sale.
Dana Point Harbor (San Diego County). Though holiday cheer might not seem the most natural fit in the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World, Dana Point Harbor puts forth a healthy dose of the stuff with a magnificent light display from mid-November through early January. Themed light exhibits include Candy Cane Lane and the romantic “Merry Kiss Me” arch. Starting in early December, little revelers can take a boat ride with Santa aboard one of the wharf’s whale-watching vessels.
More big city sparklers. California’s cities have their own seasonal charms. Browse upscale stores like Tiffany and Co. and Neiman Marcus, then ice skate beneath the shimmering Christmas tree at San Francisco’s landmark Union Square. In the state capital, Old Sacramento has a towering tree, and presents the Macy’s Theatre of Lights, which brings to life the classic 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” In Los Angeles, it’s only natural that a place called Candy Cane Lane, in Woodland Hills, has well-tended homes festooned with decorations, and in Torrance, visitors during the entire month of December can drive through the fanciful Sleepy Hollow Holiday Lights Extravaganza. In December, San Diego boats get dressed up for the San Diego Bay Parade of Lights. And if you want to see more than 4 million lights in one of the best Christmas displays in the country, head to the Inland Empire city of Riverside to visit the dazzling Mission Inn Hotel & Spa.