Austin may be weird, but it’s also a winter wonderland once the holiday season sets in. Zilker Park even ranked among the top seven places in the United States for Christmas light displays, according to CNN. Now, that's high praise, considering the Santa Clause House itself at the North Pole is also on the list!
The city's twinkling lights are indeed spectacular in making the season bright here. But in addition to all those illuminated spaces are so many more enchanting places and experiences to raise your festive spirit.
So, deck the halls and fa-la-la-la-la all the way to these dazzling destinations that are nothing short of magical. No Grinches allowed.
Where: Congress Avenue, between 9th and 11th Streets
Take it to the streets for Downtown Austin Alliance’s festive party on December 1 that features the lighting of the downtown Capitol tree and the ultimate holiday singalong. With live music by Austin Children’s Choir, Girlfriend ATX, Shy Beast, The Polyphonic Spree, and more — plus a holiday market, photos with Santa, food trucks, live art and performances, and a kids’ winter playland — it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
Where: 604 Brazos St.
The Texas-glam grandeur of this historic hotel with its glossy marble, crystal chandeliers, stained glass, and luxe details really sparkles around the holidays. The grand lobby tree gets lit on Tuesday, November 27 at 6 p.m., accompanied by music and caroling. But, cozy up to the bar or come for afternoon tea anytime after that and you’ll still feel plenty of good cheer. Plus, the Driskill hosts other Christmas events throughout the season, including holiday music in the evenings, photos and cookies with Santa, and a fancy dinner on Christmas Day.
Where: 509 Rio Grande St.
Oozing with a cooler-than-thou vibe, this punk-rock diner dishes up nostalgic, sinfully good fare — all day long. Call it your comfort-food fix for the holidays. But, in addition to treats like cookies-and-cream cake pancakes, choco tacos, pumpkin spice soft serve, and more, they have frozen spiced wine to really get you in the holiday spirit.
Austin Trail of Lights
Where: Zilker Park, 2100 Barton Springs Rd.
The city’s largest holiday tradition — and second largest event — returns with more than 40 displays, two million lights, food trucks, nightly entertainment, and all sorts of other holiday activities. You can’t miss it — literally — what with its beacon-like mega 155-foot-tall Zilker Tree strung with thousands of lights and bulbs.
The fantasy of it all runs for two weeks from December 10-23. But, you have a few chances to get in on the illumination early. There’s a Fun Run on December 1, where you can jingle and jog your way through the lights in your best holiday costume and then attend the ultimate after party, the Finish Line Festival. The best part is that you get to see the lights before anyone else, which is reason enough to lace up those running shoes, if you ask us. Or, attend the “Night Lights” Preview Party, benefiting the Trail of Lights Foundation, on December 8 with local headline performers, light bites and cocktails, complimentary Ferris wheel and carousel rides, and a classic car show.
Four Seasons Austin
Where: 98 San Jacinto Blvd.
It’s a gingerbread fairytale here; the theme for this year’s gingerbread village is “White Christmas" with 11 traditional-meets-modern houses named after some of Austin’s most historic neighborhoods. Executive pastry chef Amanda Pallagi-Naim was inspired by the luxe hotel’s newly renovated lobby which features a mix of classic and contemporary design elements — and you can see it all 24 hours a day through December 25.
Operation Blue Santa
Where: Various locations
‘Tis the season for giving, and you can help the Austin Police’s Operation Blue Santa toy and gift drive for families in need by delivering, donating, or volunteering.
Lake Austin Boat Trail of Lights Parade
Where: 360 Bridge at Lake Austin, Capital of Texas Hwy.
It’s BYOB — bring your own (decorated) boat! — at this unique display of holiday cheer. The shipshape parade floats in on Saturday, December 8. Find a place to scope out the “Best in Show” boats for free, as they cross under the 360 Bridge, or buy a pass on a VIP party barge with complimentary food, drinks, photos, and exclusive gifts. Proceeds benefit select local children’s charities and programs.
Where: 403 W. 2nd St.
Play Santa Claus at this mega happy land of nostalgic, quirky toys everywhere you turn. It’s highly likely you can find some stocking stuffers and other gifts here, too.
Where: 713 Congress Ave.
The gloriously ornate, historic theater gets into the Christmas mood with all sorts of entertainment including an Elf Pub Run (December 4); Austin Chamber Music’s A Charlie Brown Christmas (December 8); holiday films screenings like Miracle on 34th Street (December 11), It’s A Wonderful Life (December 16) and The Muppet Christmas Carol (December 18); and more.
Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In
Where: 2103 E.M. Franklin Ave.
See a heartwarming holiday movie under the stars at this retro-modern place that just so happens to be showing a whole host of Christmas classics — from When Harry Met Sally to A Christmas Story, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, Nightmare Before Christmas, and the list goes on and on. Your #NetflixAndChilling just got an upgrade.
Lala’s Little Nugget
Where: 2207 Justin Ln.
It’s always Christmas at Lala’s, where the quirky-kitschy bar channels holiday cheer all year long. But, that’s even more reason you should stop by in December.
Optimist Club of Austin Tree Lot
Where: 2813 San Gabriel
Not only can you find your perfect Christmas tree here (they’ve been selling them since 1952!), the profits from the lot go to local youth charities in Austin — which means, that tree is suddenly shining even brighter.
Where: 100 E. Main St., Johnson City
Johnson City has already flipped the switch on its stunning display of lights, making it the twinkliest town in the Texas Hill Country. More than a million lights dazzle across three city blocks, including the highly decorated Blanco County Courthouse, at this free, family-friendly and pet-friendly extravaganza that’s worth the drive outside of city limits. The lights stay turned on through January 6.
Where: 2115 Holly St.
Forget the PSL. Pumpkin Icebox Pie is where it’s at with miso caramel, bourbon, coffee cocoa nib crunch ice cream, and even pumpkin-spice-latte meringues at the darling, retro-chic eatery. Of course, the birthday cake ice cream sandwiches are always in season as is the sweet-and-savory brunch.
Where: 507 San Jacinto Blvd.
Carbs don’t count in the winter — or something like that, right?! The Backspace’s pretty, handmade Neapolitan pizzas are just about as cozy as its rustic, intimate atmosphere. And, all that melted cheese, straight from the wood-burning oven, will leave you full and happy.
Where: 11410 Century Oaks Terrace
Holiday shopping can be stressful, but at The Domain, the Christmas tree alone is enough to put you in a more sparkling mood. They also have pet photos with Santa on December 2.
Where: 242 Monkey Rd., Elgin
Go off the beaten path to get this year’s Christmas tree with a fresh-cut beauty at this eco-friendly family farm. You can take a wagon ride out to the field to pick out your own tree and cut it down — or pick a pre-cut Noble fir or Fraser fir. Plus, on the weekends, they have a campfire for roasting marshmallows, pine cone painting, s’mores, hot cocoa, and more.
Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
Where: Palmer Events Center, 900 Barton Springs
If you’re not about that mall life, especially around the holidays, this Christmas Bazaar is just the answer for everyone and everything on your shopping list. The 12-day extravaganza from December 13-24 features national and local award-winning artists of all genres along with live music and two full bars for a festive, lively atmosphere. No mall rage here.
Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside Dr.
Waltz with the Snowflakes when this iconic holiday performance returns for the 56th annual production from December 7-23. Ballet Austin’s rendition promises to be as beautiful as ever with hundreds of dancers, sparkling sets and costumes, and Tchaikovsky’s delightful score performed live by the Austin Symphony Orchestra.
Ice Skating on The Plaza
Where: Whole Foods Market, 525 N. Lamar Blvd.
Grocery store gone festive… that’s the situation on the plaza deck of the flagship Whole Foods Market downtown. The skating rink opens on November 23 and stays frozen until January 15, so you have plenty of times to lace up your skates — before you get groceries. You can also rent skates at the rink.
Where: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Ave.
With thousands of luminarias, magic is in the air at the Wildflower Center at this naturally beautiful celebration from December 6-9. Along with the enchanted gardens, this year features performances from Austin aerial dance group, Blue Lapis Light, who take it all to the next level with illuminated dancers beautifully suspended above the Savanna Meadow; the group has created an original work just for the event.
Winter Wonderland at The Circuit
Where: Circuit of the Americas, 9201 Circuit of the Americas Blvd.
Start your engines — COTA’s high-octane holiday experience is back and brighter than ever. The second annual Winter Wonderland is an immersive, captivating experience that boasts the largest outdoor ice skating rink in Texas along with the H-E-B Tunnel of Lights, Singing Trees, Santa’s Workshop, camel rides. and a petting zoo — plus, the world-famous Chinese Lantern Festival. Enough said. Don’t miss this adrenaline rush of holiday cheer on select dates from November 23 through December 30.
‘A Christmas Carol’
Where: The Topfer at ZACH Theatre, 202 S. Lamar
ZACH’s inspired adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic is a musical sleigh ride through rhythm and time, infusing the traditional Victorian story with a score that spans all genres and eras. That means Motown meets the ho-ho-holidays in this performance, where the three soulful ghosts take Ebenezer Scrooge on a joyride to find his Christmas spirit.
Where: 3825 Lake Austin Blvd.
This is no ordinary coffee shop. Along with that caffeine fix, Mozart’s gets all dressed up and ready to party with its legendary Christmas Light Show. It’s nothing short of a festive outdoor symphony where the lakeside deck gets, well, decked out with more than one million LED lights coordinated to all the most popular holiday tunes. The Christmas treats and the hot chocolate are both pretty legit here, too, with rich flavors and all the cocoa add-ins you could hope for — from marshmallows to peppermint candy, whipped cream, and more.
Where: 218 W. 4th St.
If you need another hot cocoa fix, Halycon has you covered. Their gourmet hot chocolate flavors include Mexican, French, white peppermint, peanut butter, and bittersweet caramel, and, of course, you can spike those with a shot of something-something, too. Or, just cozy up to one of their seasonal cocktails or coffee cocktails. And, get the s’mores to go with that hot beverage for the total package.