Boys on a fall getaway to Leavenworth, Wash. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Leavenworth at Christmas can be magical, but getting there is a bit tricky. You’ve got to drive across a dark and snowy mountain pass, kids bundled in winter gear and needing to stop for a potty break. Add to that the potential for crowds and very cold weather, and the challenges for a holiday getaway to Leavenworth begin to pile up.
Better idea? Go now! The leaves are ablaze in color, and it’s a gorgeous drive over to our state’s little Bavarian-style village. Leavenworth is about a 2.5-hour drive from Seattle, and this time of year, getting there is just as nice as the destination. Take Highway 2 over Stevens Pass to see forests of golden larches. (You can also reach Leavenworth via Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass, then north on Highway 97 over Blewett Pass.)
Our family has visited Leavenworth in the fall a few times. My kids are always thrilled to get to go swimming, and I am pretty excited to be somewhere with fresh sheets and towels and a hot breakfast that I didn’t have to prepare.
On our most recent visit, like every arrival into Leavenworth, we felt like we’d traveled much farther than just a few hours away. We felt plopped right into a charming (character version of) Europe. We saw sloped roofs with ornate trim, decorative crossbeams and lots of Gothic typeface. Even the local McDonald’s and Starbucks are Bavarian-style.
Front Street, the main drag through downtown Leavenworth, was initially closed off to cars due to the pandemic, and it remains that way now. Picnic tables occupy parking spaces and outdoor seating for restaurants spills out into the street. It’s brilliant. And it looks like the town may make this welcoming, pedestrian-friendly change permanent.
As we walked through the village, fall leaves swirled in the wind and every balcony overflowed with flowers. We noticed horse-drawn carriages, people dressed in lederhosen and dirndl dresses, and street signs marked “strasse.”
So, why, exactly, is there a Bavarian-themed village in the Cascades? In the 1960s, some forward-thinking businesspeople hatched a plan to save this dying logging town. They remodeled the buildings in a Bavarian style and the tourism dollars flowed in. A little wacky, but it totally worked. Have a sausage, have a pretzel and maybe go for a horse-drawn carriage ride. The best thing to do is embrace the cheesiness and have fun.
Must-see Nutcracker Museum
No trip to Leavenworth is complete without a stop at the famous Nutcracker Museum. This museum houses the biggest collection of nutcrackers in the world, totaling more than 7,000. A couple of years ago, the museum moved to new digs downstairs in the same building, and it is now much more accessible and nicely lit.
Nonagenarian founder of the museum Arlene Wagner was onsite during our visit and gave us hints to complete our Nutcracker scavenger hunts when we got stuck. There are nutcrackers of every kind and shape to see, from “Star Wars” figures and all sorts of animals to Karl, a 6-foot-tall nutcracker custom-made in Germany.
Snacks and shops
With Front Street now a pedestrian promenade, window shopping through downtown is better than ever. There’s the nutcracker store, the fudge shop, the outdoor art booths — something for everyone.
You could easily get lost for hours at Kris Kringl, a year-round Christmas store with two levels of everything Yuletide. I had to pull my kids away from the Harry Potter miniature village in the back. We also liked Wood Shop and Hat Shop, two side-by-side stores selling funky hats and bins of tiny treasures.
Treat everyone to a scoop of house-made gelato at Viadolce (try the panna sweet cream). We visited mid-week, which meant no crowds but fewer flavor choices. For dinner we enjoyed a yummy artisan pizza from Blewett Brewing Company.
There’s an easy hike right in town along the river that’s fun for kids. Follow a flat gravel path from Waterfront Park, across Blackbird Island, to Enchantment Park, which has a playground (and a pretty epic pump track, if you’re game to bring bikes).
You’ll walk by pocket beaches, along the Wenatchee River and over bridges. We saw a warning sign about a mama bear and cubs spotted in the area. Didn’t run into the bears, but we did see four deer out for a stroll.
There’s an even better way to see that beautiful mountain scenery than hiking — on horseback. Icicle Outfitters and Guides’ stable is located just 2.5 miles outside of town. The horses are gentle, and you don’t need any prior experience to do a 2-mile ride (lasting about 45 minutes). Kids must be at least 6 years old to ride their own horse; younger kids can ride with an adult.
Day trip or overnight
Leavenworth is totally doable as a day trip; it just makes for a very long day. It’s also a perfect weekend or mid-week escape. If you can swing it, Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort is a wonderful splurge for families. Kids love the sleeping lofts, parents love the beautiful location. After extensive renovations, the pool and hot tub are back open.
We stayed at Enzian Inn, located half a block from downtown. There’s a complimentary hot breakfast, complete with a made-to-order omelet bar and an alp horn serenade. All open and included with your stay: the hotel’s 18-hole putting course, ping pong room, racquetball room, and, best of all, the swimming pool and hot tub.
Other hotels in the downtown area offer a range of different amenities, and some welcome your furry family members as well.
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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2020 and updated for 2023.