12 Amazing North Carolina Christmas Experiences Not Too Miss

If you’re looking for unique places to celebrate the holidays, then perhaps you might consider Christmas in North Carolina. Every year, the state is aglow with festive lights, music and good ol’ Yuletide spirit.

family sitting in front of a christmas tree
Our family in front of the Raleigh Christmas tree

While many people consider New York to be the state of Christmas, North Carolina should not be underestimated. From the lighting of the Christmas Tree in McAdenville, aptly nicknamed Christmas Town, to riding the iconic Polar Express, there are so many things to do at Christmas in North Carolina.

But what are the top experiences? What should you not miss on a North Carolina Christmas trip? In this guide, we’ll be covering all the best experiences in the state, so you can have the festive holiday of your dreams!

Experiences To Celebrate Christmas In North Carolina

Now you know why you should consider a North Carolina Christmas, it’s time to share with you the top experiences and places to celebrate Christmas in North Carolina.

1. Ride the The Polar Express 

Santa talking to a child on a train - The Polar Express

One of the most popular NC attractions during the Christmas holidays in North Carolina is to ride the Polar Express from Bryson City

The experience is just like in the movie, you board a vintage train and ride for 1 hour 15 minutes to the “North Pole” to meet Santa, before returning to the Bryson City Depot.

If you’re looking for things to do in North Carolina at Christmas with kids, then you better make sure to add this to your itinerary.

Each year, around 90,000 people visit Bryson City in the months of November and December to ride The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad (GSMR) Polar Express.

Trail lit up at night

You even get served hot chocolate served with a song, along with a snickerdoodle cookie and see dancing elves outside the train windows.

The highlight is when Santa boards the train to give out Christmas gifts. And many people attend the Polar Express experience dressed in pajamas to really feel like they’re in the movie. 

Child holding a golden ticket to the Polar Express

If you have time, don’t hurry away after the train journey. Spend a while walking around downtown Bryson City to see all the beautiful Christmas decorations and lighting displays.

The Polar Express departs from Bryson City Depot, 45 Mitchell Street in Bryson City and operates from November 10th until December 31st 2022. It’s advised you arrive one hour before the departure time. Get tickets here.

We have a guide here on The Polar Express, Bryson City NC and click play on the video below to see it live in action!

2. Watch the Raleigh Christmas Parade

Giant float of a bear at a Christmas parade in Raleigh, NC

Christmas parade’s are something unique and special to the USA, and in North Carolina, you simply cannot miss the Christmas parade in Raleigh.

The size and scale of the parade is impressive, and it is the largest Christmas Parade between Washington DC and Atlanta. 

Each year, more than 60,000 visitors visit Raleigh for a single day to watch this iconic Christmas event. Watch as 115 performances pass by, including marching bands, floats and specialty vehicles, as well as horseback riders and helium balloon characters. 

Group of military personel on a parade float

The event is organized by local shops as publicity for their stores before the Christmas shopping begins. You might also see some floats dedicated to charity organizations to raise awareness of their cause.

The parade starts at Hillsborough Street at the intersection of St. Mary’s Street and finishes at Lenoir Street. It lasts for around 2.5-3 hours, and starts at 9.00am. We suggest you get there from around 7.30am to get a good spot to view it from.

Parade float of a giant gingerbread cookie

The parade takes place on November 19th, 2022 and travels around a 1.4 mile route around the downtown streets in Raleigh. You can see the full route map here.

Video: Raleigh Christmas Parade 2021

3. Visit Christmas Town USA, McAdenville

Christmas trees around a lake
Image courtesy of townofmcadenville.org

Christmas Town is arguably one of the main reasons why people visit North Carolina for Christmas. The quiet town of McAdenville is a normal town throughout January – November, but when December comes, it has a whole new name – and here’s why.

In 1980, the small town was brought to public attention after it featured on the Charles Kuralt Morning Show as the most festive town in America.

This town only has around 1,000 full-time residents, but during the months of November and December, it receives 600,000 visitors, all wanting to gaze upon the town’s decoration.

A house decorated at Christmas
Image courtesy of townofmcadenville.org

It’s as though a Christmas decoration box the size of the moon exploded over the town, as every square inch of the streets and homes are decorated in Christmas spirit.

The annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony takes place on December 1st on Main Street, and is when a child from the town turns on the Christmas tree display, officially starting the festive holidays.

The subsequent evenings host a Christmas Light Show, which runs from the December 1st until December31st, and starts from 5.30pm until 10:00 pm. The event shows downtown McAdenville’s Christmas light displays come to life.

Christmas trees on the side of a road

The town also hosts a Yule Log Parade on the December 15th, which has been a tradition since 1949. The parade features a marching band and carolers, and starts from Main Street and travels through the historic district before finishing at a Memorial Yule Log Fireplace at Legacy Park. 

4. Check out the Oakwood Candlelight Tour in Raleigh

a house with christmas decorations

Oakwood is the historic district of Raleigh, where most homes date back to the mid-1800s to 1900s. It’s a beautiful area to wander through any time of the year, but at Christmas, this area really comes into its own.

Each year, the historic homes in Oakwood are decorated with hundreds of decorations and lanterns. 

There are ten properties in particular that open their doors to visitors on the Annual Historic Oakwood Candlelight Tour, where visitors can see inside an elegantly decorated historic home.

Not only that, but you can see how lovingly preserved these Victorian homes are. You get to glimpse into the architecture and craftsmanship in a more intimate way, which you can’t do any other time of year.

This once a year event takes place on one weekend only. On Saturday, December 10th and Sunday, December 11th, the homes are open from 1.00pm to 7.00pm. 

5. Drive into Charlotte on the Speedway Christmas

Cars driving through a wall of lights
Image courtesy of charlottemotorspeedway.com

Of course, no trip to North Carolina at Christmas would be complete without taking a visit to the Queen city of Charlotte. 

But it’s not necessarily the city that you should come to see, but more the way into the city. Each year, the Charlotte Motor Speedway becomes the brightest and most iconic speedway in America, as it’s lined with thousands of twinkling lights.

Presented by Continental Tire and Tire Pros, the sea of 4 million twinkling LEDs light up the country’s largest drive-thru speedway, including the oval, road course and concourse of the 4-mile long speedway. Watch this video.

Christmas lights at a NASCAR race track
Image courtesy of charlottemotorspeedway.com

But it doesn’t stop there, every night from November 18th to January 16th, the speedway has a light show from 6pm until 10pm.

Of course, with an event as cool as this, you can’t simply rock up. You need to purchase a ticket which varies in price depending on the vehicle.

This is sure to bring Christmas cheer to everyone who comes to visit Charlotte.

6. Witness Candlelight Christmas at Biltmore Estate

Christmas tree outside Biltmore House
Image courtesy of Biltmore.com

The Biltmore House is a gorgeous stately mansion and America’s Largest Home. Its interiors are decorated with fresco paintings, huge open fireplaces and ornate detailing in every corner. This huge Châteauesque-style residence was built for George Washington Vanderbilt II in 1889-1895. 

The house is magical all year round, but even more so during the festive period. The inside has been filled with decorations and no less than 67 elaborate decorated Christmas Trees.

The highlight being the 35-ft. live Fraser fir in the Banquet Hall, and a 55ft Spruce Tree in the gardens.

Christmas tree inside Biltmore House
Image courtesy of Biltmore.com

Around the estate, you’ll find a further 100+ decorated trees in the grounds, with over 25,000 ornaments. There’s 1.5 miles of fresh garlands and 500 wreaths, 2,000 poinsettias and 100 kissing balls. Needless to say, this is one home that takes Christmas decorations seriously!

Throughout the holiday season, the house has a Candlelight Christmas Evening event from November 4th, 2022 until January 7th, 2023. Watch the video.

The event features a tour of the house, gardens, Antler Hill Village and the Winery where you’ll partake in a complimentary wine tasting event. You’ll be greeted with choirs and live musicians, to really amp up the festive spirit.

You must purchase tickets in advance for the Candlelight Christmas Event. You can even choose to stay at Biltmore for the night if you want to!

7. Ride the Tweetsie Railroad in Boone

Steam train lit up at Christmas

If you’re looking for fun things to do in Boone during Thanksgiving and Christmas, then make sure to check out the Tweetsie Christmas event at the Tweetsie Railroad.

The Tweetsie Railroad is North Carolina’s first theme park and a special place where you can live out your Wild West fantasies. The iconic Tweetsie Railroad takes you on a journey through the Blue Ridge Mountains on a vintage narrow-gauge steam locomotive.

Just for the holiday season, this locomotive passes through a twinkling wonderland during the evenings of the Tweetsie Christmas Event. The event opens on November 25th, and operates on selected nights only during the end of November until December 30th. 

Christmas lights

You’ll also be graced with a live performance at the Tweetsie Palace, get a chance to meet Santa at Santa’s Gingerbread House, roast s’mores over an outdoor fire pit and of course, ride the amusement rides.

Raindeer with kids in a the sleigh

Train rides start at 5:30pm, but to beat the crowds, be sure to book your ticket online first. The doors open at 5.00pm, and we highly recommend you come at this time to meet Santa and watch the show before the big crowds arrive.

Click to see the REEL of our Tweetsie Railroad experience in Boone last year.

8. Catch the Fireworks at the Candlelight Event at Tryon Palace, New Bern 

Fireworks over Tryon Palace
Image courtesy of TryonPalace.org

Another notable experience in North Carolina at Christmas not to miss is the Candlelight event at Tryon Palace

On the eve of Saturday 10th December, between 4.30pm and 9.30pm, this historic house is illuminated with stunning decorations that resemble the story of a mysterious princess who was illuminated by the magical glow of candlelight.

The event features a tour of the Governor’s Palace, Stanly House, Dixon House, and expansive grounds. 

Candlelight at Tryon Palace
Image courtesy of TryonPalace.org

As well as tours, there is live entertainment and activities in the Performance Tent, as well as a series of food trucks cooking up delicious food outside the main gate.

Head over to the King’s Arms Tavern and Mistletoe Corner to enjoy mulled wine and delicious festive snacks. 

The festive evening is concluded with a black powder fireworks display. It doesn’t get any more merry and festive than this!

9. See Incredible Cultural Arts at the North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival

Chinese Lantern Festival
Image by visitraleigh.com

North Carolina has a multicultural community and what we love about this state is that every culture is celebrated, even during Christmas.

On November 18th until January 8th, 2023, The North Carolina Chinese Lantern Festival takes place. The festival features hundreds of huge and colorful lanterns created by Chinese artisans. Each year, the event gets bigger and better, and this year promises 40 all new displays.

Each lantern display is created with hundreds of parts and illuminated by LED lights. This is a true celebration of craftsmanship and tradition. There is also a main stage featuring cultural arts performances.

chinese lantern festival
Image courtesy of NCChineseLanternFestival

The lanterns are displayed in Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary and performances take place at 7pm, 8pm and 9pm every night. The lanterns are open to the public in the evening only, from 6m – 10pm.

The event has become hugely popular over the past couple of years, so be sure to book tickets in advance to avoid disappointment.

10. Winter Lights at the NC Arboretum, Asheville

Winter Lights at the NC Arboretum Asheville
Image courtesy of .ncarboretum.org

The North Carolina Arboretum’s Winter Lights show is an unmissable festive experience in North Carolina for the Christmas season. 

As you walk-through the gardens and arboretum, the grounds are slow with new lighting displays and decorations. The highlight is a giant 50ft illuminated Christmas Tree and the Quilt Garden.

Each year, the event showcases many favorite light designs plus some new creations. The event runs every evening from November 18th until December 31st, 2022.

Tickets can only be purchased online and each guest is given a designated time slot of either 6.00pm, 7.00pm or 8.00pm.

11. See the Winter Lights Event at Elizabethan Gardens, Manteo

Christmas lights of a ginger bread house
Image courtesy of ElizabethanGardens.org

The Winter Lights event at The Elizabethan Gardens in the Outer Banks is a holiday tradition filled with joy and Yuletide spirit. As you wander along the stunning garden walks, the pathway is illuminated with festive holiday lights and decorations that turn this ten-acre garden into a wonderland.

As well as being illuminated in thousands of twinkling lights, each evening is alive with activities and entertainment. Come and meet Santa, get your face painted, or watch live music and choirs sing on selected evenings.

The Winter Lights evenings run from November 25th, 2022 until December 30th, from 6.00pm until 9.00pm. 

This is a weather dependent event, and tickets can only be reserved online as each person has a timed entrance.

12. Watch the North Carolina Holiday Flotilla, Wrightsville Beach

Boat lit up with Christmas lights
Image courtesy of ncholidayflotilla.org

Another Christmas parade to make sure you catch is the North Carolina Holiday Flotilla in Wrightsville Beach.

The parade has been running since 1983 and features lit-up floats and performances, followed by a fireworks show. The parade happens on November 26th at 6.00pm and is viewable from Wrightsville Beach Park.

It’s also free to watch the event, so if you’re looking for free things to do in North Carolina during the holidays, this has to be it.

While the parade starts at 6.00pm, the festivities begin at 10.00am when the Festival in the Park opens.

During the daytime festival, you can take part in arts and crafts, watch a car show competition and order some food from local food vendors.

Is Christmas in North Carolina Worth It?

You might be asking yourself, is it worth it to visit North Carolina at Christmas? The short answer is, absolutely! 

North Carolina goes all out at Christmas, possibly due to being a largely Christian State. The people are merry, the carols are ringing and the lights are twinkling!

Does it snow on Christmas in North Carolina?

If you’re planning a trip to North Carolina for Christmas, then you might be concerned about the weather. Generally, North Carolina doesn’t see a lot of snow, so if you’re expecting a white Christmas, you may need to adjust your expectations. 

The good news is that means you don’t need to worry about being snowed in or worry about driving in snowy conditions.

The weather is still cold. You’ll want to pack jackets, gloves, scarves and hats, but that’s what tells you it’s Christmas!

The weather in North Carolina at Christmas time is pretty much perfect, which is another reason why you should consider a Christmas vacation here!

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