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Winter in the Cities: 8 Holiday Getaways Around the Northwest

Get your holiday and Christmas sparkle on in Seattle, Tacoma, Leavenworth, Vancouver, Victoria, Portland, Bainbridge Island and Bellevue


Published on: December 18, 2013

Keryn Means

Dazzling lights, family-friendly museum exhibits, tourist hot spots with fewer crowds: These are just a few of the urban pleasures that await you around the Northwest this winter. Whether you need to entertain kids on break, show visiting grandparents sights or while away a weekend, our cities have wonders to spare. Here are inspired itineraries for day excursions or a weekend away, with add-in Christmas and holiday attractions for a fantastic day away or getaway.

Death Star in gingerbread

1. Seattle: Play tourist, top holiday attractions

Holiday and Christmas attractions

Winter in the city offers a less-crowded, just-as-fun opportunity to play tourist in downtown Seattle, with the added bonus of wonderful holiday and Christmas attractions for families.

Seattle Center’s Winterfest (Nov. 27–Dec. 31) is free-holiday-fun central, starting with the huge model train village and amazing entertainment line-up at the Armory. Also at the Seattle Center, catch a musical, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, at the top-notch Seattle Children’s Theatre.

Downtown, don’t miss the intricate Gingerbread Village at the Sheraton Seattle, with a well-timed Star Wars theme this year (24 hours a day, Nov. 24–Jan. 3) or nightly “snow” flurries at Pacific Place (Nov. 27–Dec. 31). Younger kids will love the Teddy Bear Suite at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel (through Dec. 24).

Finally, to light up your nights, head north to Woodland Park Zoo to be dazzled by WildLights, with 600,000-plus lights and, this year, Santa and reindeer (Nov. 27–Jan. 3); and find a port to see the Argosy Christmas Ship, which docks nightly around Seattle to let onboard choral groups serenade the on-shore audience.

More Seattle fun

Start with a favorite museum at the Seattle Center: EMP Museum for sci-fi and music thrills; Chihuly Garden and Glass for a much-needed shot of color and art; and Pacific Science Center for dinos, stars and the just-right-for winter tropical Butterfly House. 

Zoom downtown on the Seattle Monorail, then take a spin on the Seattle Great Wheel (with special lights for the holidays) followed by nibbles at Pike Place Market or tea at The Georgian at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel.

Older kids might prefer the International District: Play hard at the Seattle Pinball Museum, slurp hand-shaved noodles at Shanghai Garden and hit the Bruce Lee exhibit, part two, at Wing Luke Museum.

Money-saving tip: Pick up a CityPASS, a bundled pass to five of the city’s best attractions.

Running the train at Winterfest

Octopus Light Display at Zoolights | Photo courtesy of Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium

2. Tacoma: Zoolights story + museums

Holiday and Christmas attractions

During the holidays, head to south Tacoma to see the spectacular Fantasy Lights at Spanaway Park, the largest drive-through holiday and Christmas light show in the Northwest. If you're heading to Fantasy Lights, check out the "other" LeMay museum, The LeMay Family Collection at Marymount Event Center, just a stone's throw from Spanaway Park, with a huge display of vintage cars, trucks and motorcycles in various states of restoration.

Kids wild about trains? Don’t miss the vast model train layouts at the Model Train Festival at the Washington State History Museum (Dec. 21–Jan. 1), where Santa is also in the house on select days; there is also an outstanding exhibit on Captain James Cook's Arctic explorations

Now that you're in downtown Tacoma, hit a couple more museums, all within walking distance on the light rail line. See new exhibits on western art and indigenous art at Tacoma Art Museum, or do art at TAM's expansive studio (no admission required for art-making). After TAM, ice skate across the street at Polar Plaza; or visit the pay-as-you-can Children's Museum of Tacoma for serious playtime.

Head to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in the evening to be stunned by Zoolights, one of the region’s biggest holiday light displays, where you can also ride a camel and see some of the animal exhibits (Nov. 27–Jan. 3).

Or head east for a polar adventure via a Santa Express train ride by Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad & Museum in Elbe (Nov. 27–Dec. 22).

More Tacoma fun

Consider going to the zoo before Zoolights and visiting the sharks, lynx kittens, red wolves and tigers at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

Carve out a couple of hours for Tacoma’s newest museum, LeMay – America’s Car Museum, where kids can race slot cars or design a vehicle of the future.

Near LeMay – America’s Car Museum, steer over to beloved burger joint Friesenburgers, with a gluten-free menu, or drive to retro-cool Shake Shake Shake, in Tacoma’s Stadium neighborhood.

Leavenworth's Christmas Lighting Festival

3. Leavenworth: A taste of the Alps at Christmas

Holiday and Christmas attractions

Drive into Leavenworth and you know you have arrived somewhere special. This picturesque German town looks like it could have been plucked out of a storybook and popped into the Cascade Mountains. The most magical event of the holiday season is the Christmas Lighting Festival, one of the top holiday attractions of our region, held the the first three full weekends in December (Dec. 4–20, weekends only). On Fridays, St. Nicholas welcomes children.

But wait! Leavenworth does not like to let go of the winter celebrations just because Christmas has come and gone. The Bavarian Ice Fest happens in mid January 2016 (fees vary) and it is another must-not-miss event. Strap on those snow chains and make the drive out to see ice sculptures, tug o' war, an ice cube scramble for kids six and under, the great Frisbee sweep, Relay Races, Iceberg Challenge Giant Slide, Fireworks, and Leavenworth's famous Smooshing Contest: a unique race peculiar to the Great Bavarian Ice Fest.

More winter fun in Leavenworth

Drive out in the morning to have a few hours of fun exploring the shops and eating your weight in traditional German food. 

Take a sleigh ride, offered by Red Tail Canyon Farm, Icicle Outfitters and Guides, or Mountain Springs Lodge. Head to Leavenworth's Ski Hill for low-key tubing, Nordic skiing, snowboarding and Alpine skiing. You can also make the short trek to Stevens Pass for Alpine and Nordic skiing.

Stay: Choose from the Bavarian Lodge or Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort, with the sustainable-gourmet Kingfisher restaurant. 

Courtesy Trophy Cupcakes
Courtesy Trophy Cupcakes

4. Bellevue: Lights, snow, action!

Holiday and Christmas attractions

Bellevue is another hot spot for free Christmas and holiday fun. Your kids will thrill to the drum rolls and the “snow” drifting over them at Snowflake Lane’s free, spectacular nightly holiday shows on Bellevue Way (Nov. 27–Dec. 24). Skate at the region’s largest open-air holiday rink, Bellevue’s Magic Season Ice Arena (Nov. 27–Jan. 10), located in Bellevue's Downtown Park.

Courtesy Bellevue Collection
Jingle Belles at Snowflake Lane. Courtesy Bellevue Collection, George White Location Photography

And don’t miss the brilliance of Bellevue Botanical Garden’s Garden d’Lights, a stunning and affordable holiday and Christmas lights display featuring dozens of garden and creature shapes, including a smoking dragon (Nov. 28–Jan. 3; $5, ages 10 and under free). 

More Bellevue fun

Before heading to Snowflake Lane or Magic Season arena, explore Downtown Park, a 20-acre green space that anchors downtown with sculptures, fountains, bike/walk paths and a playground. A block away, stop by the intimate, innovative Bellevue Arts Museum — just the right size for short attention spans — for a peek at current craft-and-design exhibits or, on a Saturday, an affordable “Get Crafty” workshop for families (gingerbread houses in December!).

Continue your cultural experience with lunch at renowned dumpling palace Din Tai Fung on Bellevue Way, followed by a sweet stop at Trophy Cupcakes at the Bravern.

Work off cupcakes at one of Bellevue’s wild, wonderful parks (Lewis Creek Park and Mercer Slough have indoor options in case of rain) before exploring the world via Crossroads Bellevue, a mall that’s home to an excellent international food court, as well as free live entertainment and a terrific indoor play option, WiggleWorks Kids.

Bloedel Holiday Village
Bloedel Holiday Village

5. Bainbridge Island: Ferry tale + holiday village

Holiday and Christmas attractions

Every December, the visitor’s center at Bloedel Reserve puts on its festive best and hosts the Holiday Village, an intricately detailed miniature world of handmade buildings, houses, furniture and train sets created by Bainbridge resident Dwight Shappell (Dec. 12–Jan. 3). Sip cider and watch the trains roll. Explore the trails at Bloedel Reserve, a stunning 150-acre landscape of woodlands and gardens.

More Bainbridge fun with kids

From downtown Seattle, ditch the car and stroll onto the ferry at Pier 52. You’ll barely have time to get settled in before it docks, and it’s only a few blocks to the town of Winslow. Kids will love playing pirate at the Kids Discovery Museum, a small but well-designed children’s museum.

Across the street, the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art is always free; don’t miss the rooftop garden. Pick up meatloaf or bacon veggie sandwiches at Fork & Spoon, get ice cream at Mora Iced Creamery. Wander back to the ferry via the Waterfront Trail. 

portland reindeer sign oregon travel
Holidays in Portland Oregon | Travel Portland

6. Portland: Hop on shop

Holiday and Christmas attractions

Teens agree: The best place to take your budding fashionista for an urban, tax-free shopping spree is Portland, Ore. Try Nob Hill in northwest Portland for national retailers and boutiques; the 811 East Burnside building in Central Eastside Portland for an indie-mall experience; or the Portland Saturday Market for handmade jewelry and scarves created by local artists. Want deep discounts? Head to the Woodburn and Columbia Gorge Premium Outlets just outside of the city.

Marvel at more than a half-million lights at the Oregon Zoo’s own ZooLights (Nov. 27–Jan. 3). Or save your holiday pennies for a February trip to celebrate Chinese New Year at the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which hosts two weeks of celebrations that include lion dances and cultural performances (garden is currently closed).

More Portland fun with kids

While visiting, make time to indulge in Portland-style cuisine, from food-cart fare to a splurge-worthy Peruvian feast at Andina to Portland’s best scoops at Salt & Straw. Round out with a ride on the aerial tram downtown, a hike on Mount Tabor (a dormant volcano in the city) or the always-engaging Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Stay at the McMenamins Kennedy School (movie theater and hot tub on site) or the Silver Cloud Inn in northwest Portland.

Canyon Lights at Capilano Suspension Bridge Park

7. Vancouver, B.C.: Culture, city skiing – and Year of the Sheep

Holiday and Christmas attractions

A weekend in Vancouver is an ideal urban winter escape, with shopping, lights and culture galore. Shop and nibble your way through the Vancouver Christmas Market at Queen Elizabeth Plaza (through Dec. 24), and take a miniature train ride through Stanley Park and admire holiday lights. Meet reindeer, take a sleigh ride or skate on an 8,000-square-foot outdoor ice rink as part of Grouse Mountain’s Peak of Christmas events (Nov. 27–Jan. 3). Be dazzled by Capilano Suspension Bridge Park’s unique Canyon Lights, complete with the world’s tallest living Christmas tree (at least by some measures) and hundreds of thousands of lights glittering through the rainforest and suspension bridge (Nov. 27–Jan. 3).

More Vancouver fun with kids

In February, ring in the Year of the Sheep by watching the Chinese New Year Parade in Chinatown, with lion dances, martial artists and live music; at Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, with crafts, guided tours, games and performances; or at the malls in Richmond, with flower shows, live performances and a wide range of dishes to try.

Take the early train up and spend the day shopping downtown and exploring gems such as Stanley Park (and the phenomenal Vancouver Aquarium), Science World, Granville Island and Asian food and culture in Richmond, a majority-Asian suburb of Vancouver with food courts that are a taster’s paradise.

If your family lives to ski, it’s only 30 minutes to the slopes of Grouse Mountain, accessible by North America’s largest aerial tramway. Or book a ride on one of Vancouver’s newest attractions, FlyOver Canada, an all-ages flight-simulation ride that soars you — via a huge dome screen — over some of Canada’s most spectacular scenery. Stay at the Blue Horizon in Vancouver’s West End, with bike rentals and an onsite restaurant.

Butchart Gardens in December. Photo by Keryn Means

8. Victoria, B.C.: Tea and holiday lights

Holiday and Christmas attractions

Thanks to the Victoria Clipper, the capital of British Columbia — and its museums, high tea and holiday lights — is just a walk-on boat ride away. Don’t miss the (free) Truck Light Convoy, a unique holiday parade with dozens of decorated big rigs, or the Lighted Ship Parade — both on Saturday, December 5. Visit Father Christmas in the Old Town.

But the true highlight is Butchart Gardens’ holiday wonderland, including the “Twelve Days of Christmas” light displays (arguably one of the best holiday light exhibits in the Pacific Northwest), with ice skating, a carousel and more (through Jan. 3).

More Victoria fun with kids

Start with tea at either the Fairmont Empress Hotel (Prince and Princess tea for kiddos) or the Asian-influenced tea at the Hotel Grand Pacific. Visit the tarantulas at the Victoria Bug Zoo, check out the Royal BC Museum’s latest exhibits (a wildlife photography exhibit anda living languages exhibit) and wander the trails of Beacon Hill Park, a low-key alternative to Butchart Gardens. If you stay for the weekend, book a family-friendly hotel with a pool, such as the Royal Scot Hotel & Suites

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