Gifting yourself an urban getaway during the winter holidays could have you singing “Cha-cha-ching” to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
Hotels in big cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco silently unleash some of their lowest prices of the year over the holiday season.
This is especially true during the week of Christmas and the week after New Year’s, when folks are occupying their parent’s house and business travel essentially comes to a halt. While you’re trying to squeeze onto your old twin bed wrapped in My Little Pony sheets, hotels are desperate for guests. In some cases, expect to save more than 50% what you’d regularly pay. (Just don’t expect that on New Year’s Eve.)
Below are cities extending the steepest hotel savings during Christmastime, plus a few favorite no-cost holiday traditions to soak up seasonal ambience during this specific winter travel period.
Average hotel savings: 60%
Yes, Chicago can get cold. But the chill, paired with a hot chocolate held between warm mittens, is part of the holiday ambience in Chicago – where architectural marvels, world-class museums, amazing cuisine and these holiday favorites await.
ChrisKindleMarket; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©
Christkindlmarket Chicago (Nov. 21 – Dec. 24)
Downtown Daley Plaza is transformed into a Bavarian-style Christmas market filled with artisan shops, food stands, a beer hall, musical performers and, of course, Santa.
Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier (Dec. 5 – Jan. 11)
One of Chicago’s top family-friendly attractions hosts a dazzling indoor winter wonderland that includes ice-skating and rides. Note: Activity wristbands are an additional cost.
ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo (Nov. 28-30; Dec. 5-7, 12-23; Dec. 26 – Jan. 4)
Even the animals get into the holiday spirit. Stroll through a zoo decked out in brilliant, colorful lights from 5 to 9 p.m. The holiday-inspired ambience also includes musical light shows, ice carving demonstrations and Santa’s Safari.
Spectators at the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival; Photo credit: Choose Chicago ©
Magnificent Mile Lights Festival + Macy’s Holiday Windows (Through early January)
Two of Chicago’s most famous shopping streets provide a festive backdrop to holiday and post-holiday shopping: Michigan Avenue and State Street. Linger outside the Macy’s Windows, a Chicago holiday tradition, before heading inside for a meal beside the Great Tree at the Walnut Room. (Arrive early to beat the crowds, as reservations are not accepted Nov. 8 – Jan. 1.)
Average hotel savings: 50%
The bright lights of The Strip glow a little brighter during the holidays, when resorts and casinos try to outdo each other with festive decorations. With temperature highs hovering in the upper 50’s, it’s unlikely that you’ll be singing, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”
Bellagio Conservatory & Botanical Gardens Holiday Display (Dec. 6 – Jan. 5)
Prepare to be dazzled as the setting is transformed into a shimmering, sparkling holiday wonderland. Even the dancing fountains outside of this famed Las Vegas resort are choreographed to a selection of Christmas music – always a crowd pleaser.
Freemont Street Experience (December-January)
Be prepared for seasonally inspired sensory overload at this five-block entertainment district in downtown Las Vegas. Christmas-themed stage shows, plus a holiday-inspired Viva Vision light show on its massive video screen are among the attractions.
The Ice Rink at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas; Photo credit: Denise Truscello ©
The Ice Rink at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas (Nov. 21 – Jan. 4)
The resort transforms its Boulevard Pool into a winter wonderland reminiscent of a Central Park ice skating rink. Only, this one overlooks the Las Vegas Strip and will include holiday films playing on its digital marquee on Mondays. Admission is free to visitors, although taking a twirl on the ice – yes, its real ice – is $15 per person, with a $5 skate rental fee.
Magical Forest at Opportunity Village (Nov. 21 – Jan. 4)
When a setting boasts “A Forest Filled with Hundreds of Dazzling Trees,” how can you say no? This family-friendly attraction includes numerous rides and nightly entertainment, including storytellers, friendly characters, parades and choirs. Note: There is an admission fee (check website), but all proceeds benefit Opportunity Village’s services and programs for people with intellectual disabilities.
Average hotel savings: 45%
When Congress goes on winter recess and the city’s less abuzz with political wheeling and dealing, visit famed national attractions such as the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, the U.S. Capitol Building and Smithsonian museums (all free!), along with these seasonal attractions.
The National Christmas Tree and the Pathway of Peace (Dec. 5 – Jan. 1)
With the White House as a backdrop, President’s Park hosts this seasonal attraction open to the public. The pathway around the National Christmas Tree features 56 more trees representing each U.S. state, U.S. territory and the District of Columbia. Musical performances by choirs, bands and dancers will be held nightly through most of December.
ZooLights at the National Zoo (Nov. 28 – Jan 1, except Dec. 24-25, 31)
More than 500,000 environmentally friendly LED lights transform the zoo into a festive wonderland from 5 to 9 p.m. Live music performances and a new light show this year add to the ambience. Most animal houses remain open for special animal keeper talks, too.
Downtown Holiday Market (Nov. 28 – Dec. 23)
This outdoor market filled with food, music and good cheer takes place in front of the Smithsonian American Art Museum & National Portrait Gallery. Browse for gifts amidst a rotating group of 150 regional artisans, crafters and boutique businesses.
Union Station (December)
The historic building (home to an upscale shopping mall and train station) decks the halls in December with holiday ambience inspired by Norway. It addition to a giant Christmas tree, it will boast a Norwegian-inspired holiday market and a holiday model train display that winds through Norwegian towns and fjords.
Waterskiing Santa on the National Harbor; Photo credit: Waterski Santa Show ©
Waterskiing Santa (Dec. 24)
Head down to National Harbor for this annual event. Before taking to the skies in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, Santa skis the Potomac River alongside some special guests.
Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses of Worship (Dec. 26, 4-9 p.m.)
Nearby Frederick, Maryland, hosts this annual event celebrating religious diversity, as a dozen houses of worship welcome guests with choirs, nativity scenes and more.
New York City
Average hotel savings: 40%
Just walking around New York City is a festive feast for the eyes during the holiday season. Consider these free attractions the start of an otherwise very, very, very long list.
Midtown Christmas © NYC & Company/Joe Buglewicz
Holiday windows (through winter)
Chanel your inner Holly Golightly for a stroll down iconic streets where store windows are a main holiday attraction. On Madison Avenue, ogle the windows of Barneys New York before strolling over to 5th Avenue, where Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue windows dazzle passersby. Finally, head down to 34th Street, where Santa awaits at the flagship Macy’s.
Holiday markets (various times, see website)
You may not find big bargains on Madison or 5th Avenues, but the pop-up holiday markets throughout New York City offer reasonably priced artisan gifts and food amidst decadent holiday ambience. Favorites include Winter Village at Bryant Park and the Union Square Holiday Market, both of which also feature ice-skating. To stay indoors, head to the Grand Central Holiday Fair.
Rockefeller Center (Dec. 3- Jan. 7 )
No visit to New York around the holidays is complete without a stop at Rockefeller Center, where the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree and ice-skating just below it provide a great backdrop to hot-chocolate strolls and selfies.
Dyker Heights Christmas Lights (December – early January)
To see some of the most over-the-top holiday light displays, head to Brooklyn. Those in the Dyker Heights neighborhood attempt to “outdo” each other each year and the spectacle was most recently seen on TLC’s Crazy Christmas Lights.
Queens County Farm Museum Holiday Open House (Dec. 26, 27 & 28, 12-4p.m.)
Tour a decorated farm … in New York City! With history dating back to 1697, Queens County Farm occupies New York City’s largest remaining tract of undisturbed farmland. This free event also features kid-friendly craft activities and plenty of mulled cider.
Wollman Rink in Central Park © NYC & Company/Julienne Schaer
Free Central Park tours (through winter)
Central Park transforms into a real-life winter wonderland, especially with a fresh blanket of snow. Take advantage of free escorted tours to learn the stories and legends attached to America’s largest urban park.
OK, this isn’t exactly free. But – waiting in this line at either the Times Square, South Street Seaport or Downtown Brooklyn locations can save you 20 to 50 percent on same-day tickets for popular holiday-themed shows.
Average hotel savings: 40%
Holidays in Bean Town beckon with a colonial-inspired atmosphere authentic to this city steeped in American history. While free attractions such as the Freedom Trail – a must-do walking tour that strings together 16 historic sites – and the Sam Adams Brewery tour are perennial favorites, these seasonal highlights below delight visitors and locals alike.
Ice skating on Frog Pond; Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
Candlelight Carols at Trinity Church (Dec. 13 at 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.)
A Boston tradition since 1909, the popular musical performance is offered twice to the public free of charge. (Donations are welcome.) Doors open an hour prior to the performance for those anxious to snag a seat in this historic church located in Copely Square.
BLINK! A Light and Sound Extravaganza (Nov. 22 – Jan. 4)
The free show, which illuminates the Boston skyline to the songs of the Holiday Pops, takes at Faneuil Hall Marketplace a dozen times daily between 4:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. The iconic open-air marketplace is also home to the largest Christmas tree in New England and live performances from Broadway shows, dance troupes and holiday carolers.
Downtown Crossing Holiday Market (Nov. 27 – Dec. 24)
The sixth-annual Downtown Boston Holiday Market returns to Summer Street Plaza after Thanksgiving for holiday shopping hoopla. Situated across from Macy’s, the giant white tent will feature a new weekly collection of artisan vendors, gourmet food makers, artists and more.
Harvard Square Holiday Craft Fair (Dec. 5-7, 12-14, 18-23)
Ivy League ambience adds collegiate charm to this holiday fair in Cambridge. Browse unique gifts for you and loved ones before strolling Harvard’s campus.
Boston Common Frog Pond
Although taking a twirl on its iconic ice skating rink is not free, the holiday ambience at this winter favorite is spectacular. Simply walking through the heart of Boston Common, the oldest U.S. park, especially after a light sprinkling of snow, can be magical.
Average Hotel savings: 30%
It might not be a white Christmas in the City by the Bay, but one of the most beloved holiday stories of all time takes place in San Francisco, The Nutcracker. Although performances by the SF Ballet come with a price, here are some seasonal activities that don’t cost a dime.
San Francisco City Hall; Photo credit: Hugh Grew ©
Lighted Boat Parade (Dec. 12)
Experience the largest boat parade on San Francisco Bay by staking out a vantage point from Aquatic Park, PIER 39 or the Marina Green. More than 60 boats will be decked out with lights and holiday décor.
San Francisco Hotel Lobbies (December – early January)
Tour the grand hotels of Nob Hill and Union Square for opulent lobbies decked out for the holidays. Favorites include the Westin St. Francis, The Palace and the Fairmont.
SantaCon 2014 (Dec. 13)
Dress up as Santa or one of his helpers to join this popular and often tongue-in-cheek pub-crawl through the city, where interesting interpretations of popular Christmas carols abound.
Santacon; Photo credit: Roy Asneeded
24th Annual Union Street Holiday Program (Dec. 6-31)
Holiday entertainment and merriment comes to Cow Hollow, one of San Francisco’s most beautiful historic neighborhoods. The month-long celebration along Union Street comes with validated parking and store open houses complete with holiday refreshments. Join the group holiday caroling on Dec. 21.
SF Ballet’s Nutcracker under the Dome (Nov. 20-Dec.31)
The iconic dome of the Westfield San Francisco Centre springs to life each night with an innovative 3D light show that includes digital performances by the San Francisco Ballet. In addition to this show, enjoy live entertainment and performances throughout the holiday season.
Ice Skating (various, through mid-January)
Although none of the ice-skating venues in San Francisco are free, the holiday ambience swirling around them make them a must-visit during the winter season. Favorites include the Holiday Ice Rink at Embarcadero Center; the San Francisco Zoo’s “green” holiday skating rink made of recycled materials; and the Safeway Holiday Ice Rink in Union Square.
24 HoliDAYS on 24th Street (Dec. 1-24)
Free holiday hayrides on Saturdays are just one of the many free attractions at this month-long celebration in the charming Noe Valley neighborhood. Carolers, activities for kids – even live reindeer – are among the other anticipated attractions along the festively decorated shopping street.