San Juan, Puerto Rico
Before anyone cries foul that it’s not technically in the United States, you don’t need a passport to get there and they really do it up on Christmas. Plus, it’s sunny, so quit whining. Join carol singers, experience a traditional midnight mass, snap up unique wooden crafts made by local artisans, and enjoy classic Christmas dishes like pasteles and roasted suckling pig.
Stay: Rest your head in the Old World-style El Convento hotel, where ocean breezes waft through open balconies in bright and airy rooms.
Eat: Stick to holiday classics at Ajili-Mojili, where everything from arroz con gandules to roasted suckling pig are on offer, with flan and arroz con dulce to finish off the meal.
Play: Listen to a salsa-style version of "Jingle Bells," attend a midnight mass, and go wild with locals on Christmas Eve (called Nochebuena) where traditional feasts are served and eggnog is replaced by a type of coconut nog.
Few places boast the same kind of romance and sense of tradition as Charleston, S.C., the city that manages to always feel like a small town. There’s also no better place to have a truly Southern and boozy Christmas than Charleston — eggnog is spiked with bourbon and the traditional St. Cecila Punch is still served today (it originated at formal Christmas balls in the 1700s). Sleigh rides, tea parties, twinkling lights along small side streets, and a giant Christmas tree round out the spirit of the season. (Photo courtesy of Charleston Place/Joe Vaughn)
Sleep: Book a room at the grand and quintessentially Southern Charleston Place, where you can escape the cold with hot chocolate in the Palmetto Café or a swim in the spa’s pool.
Eat: Find lowcountry classics like She Crab soup, heirloom grits, and short ribs at Poogan’s Porch.
Play: Listen to carol singers at Drayton Hall Plantation and take the kids on a sleigh ride, or leave the little ones at home and join the annual Holiday Pub Crawl.
For most non-desert-dwellers, the thought of spending Christmas in Taos may come off a bit strange, but this small New Mexican city is incredibly festive and beautiful this time of year. The streets are lit with paper lanterns, skiers savor the Taos Ski Resort, and Christmas traditions are mixed with American Indian rituals, making for a completely unique Christmastime.
Sleep: Book into a rustic casita at Casa Gallina. An ex-New Yorker escaped to New Mexico to open this cozy and gorgeously decorated small inn with animals running around and great homemade food coming from the kitchen.
Eat: Dine on comforting foods made with locally sourced ingredients at El Monte Sagrado hotel’s De La Tierra.
Play: Take the kids to a three-story Native American puebla in town, stroll along the “luminarias” (paper lanterns) lit up along the streets, and watch the Yuletide parade.
New York City
Of course, New York City is the ultimate classic Christmastime destination, where everything from department store windows to giant Christmas trees are iconic staples of the holiday spirit. Skating in Central Park, munching on roasted chestnuts washed down with piping hot chocolate, watching the legendary Rockettes, strolling down Fifth Avenue with snow coming down — it’s the romance of Christmas all in one place. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Vibragiel)
Play: Ice-skating at Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, or in Central Park is a must, as is window shopping (or real shopping) at the beautiful boutiques and department stores on Fifth Avenue, and staring in awe at the city’s enormous Christmas trees.