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.
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.
Nevada City (Gold Country). Experience Christmas past during this historic town’s Victorian-style celebration. "What goes on here is straight out of a Charles Dickens novel, and as close to the real thing as you can get,” says Cathy Whittlesey, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce. “The town’s narrow, hilly streets, lit by glowing gas lamps and set against a backdrop of towering pines, 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.
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. As one local recently tweeted, “Ahhhhh I Love #Christmas! So pretty tonight on Christmas Tree Lane in Fresno!”
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 offers a classic Christmas escape just a couple hours from Los Angeles. “Christmas to New Year’s, our town transforms into a place of yuletide cheer,” says Dan McKernan of the Big Bear Visitors Bureau. 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.
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. 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.