The writer was hosted.
Want to get as excited as Buddy the Elf about Christmas? A whirlwind December road trip through the mountain towns near Asheville put me in a holiday mood that just might last until the daffodils erupt in March. My smile, like the Grinch’s heart, grew as my traveling partners and I strolled through twinkling gardens, sampled seasonal brews and gawked at amazing gingerbread displays. The decades rolled back and I truly felt like my 5-year-old self waiting to meet Santa for the first time.
Western North Carolina’s been on my Christmas radar for a while. Two of the premier holiday events in America happen in Asheville – Christmas at Biltmore and the National Gingerbread House Competition at the Omni Grove Park Inn. And the surrounding North Carolina towns lean into the holidays with gusto.
For five days, we logged hundreds of scenic North Carolina mountain miles and oohed and aahed at millions of lights.
We out-Christmased Clark Griswald and I learned that the holiday season in Western North Carolina is magical. Here’s what to expect at many of the region’s top Christmas events plus dining and lodging suggestions for a sleigh-worthy road trip.
Read More: Best Places to Visit in North Carolina
1. Have a Hallmark Moment at Biltmore
The 8,000-acre Biltmore estate located minutes from downtown Asheville has the feel of a grand European aristocratic manor with a stunning, 250-room French Renaissance chateau at its center. When my family toured it back in 2006, we gasped and gawked like country bumpkins who’d never seen indoor plumbing. The kids particularly loved the basement bowling alley and swimming pool.
Bedazzled for the holidays with thousands of ornaments, twinkle lights and lush wreaths, Biltmore is breathtaking. Daytime tours begin at 9:30 am, continuing until the Candlelight Christmas Evenings begin at 5:30 pm. The 1.5-hour audio guide tour winds through the home and provides rich details about the Vanderbilt family, architect Richard Morris Hunt and unique features of the home.
I wandered around, imagining what my life would be like after winning Powerball, as a talented high school choir performed in the Winter Garden, filling the house with music.
Although many productions have been filmed at Biltmore, it wasn’t until 2023 that the estate got its chance for top billing. The Hallmark Channel, with the encouragement and cooperation of the fourth and fifth generations currently running the estate, released A Biltmore Christmas.
The usual rom-com plot (girl meets boy, girl loses boy and – spoiler alert – girl and boy live happily ever after) is elevated in this film thanks to a magic hourglass, gorgeous ’40s costumes, sassy banter and lush sets. Fun fact: the film’s star, Bethany Joy Lenz, starred in One Tree Hill, a classic high school CW series set and filmed in the Tar Heel State that’s currently celebrating its 20th anniversary.
Also on the estate property is Antler Hill Village, a retail/entertainment complex with a winery, shops, dining and an Outdoor Adventure Center. Biltmore tour tickets include admission to Antler Hill, and, in 2023, tickets also include FREE next-day grounds access to the Estate.
Christmas at Biltmore
2023 Dates: November 3, 2023 – January 7, 2024
The final Candlelight Christmas Evening is January 6, 2024
2. Check Out the Entries in the National Gingerbread House Competition
My greatest gingerbread house-building success was the year I glued together sheets of graham crackers with tubed frosting. Basically a “2” on a scale of 1-10. The entries I swooned over at the annual competition at the Omni Grove Park Inn inspired me to make a better effort next year.
Two hundred bakers entered this year’s event, competing in four age categories: adult, teen, youth and child. The displays must be at least 75 percent gingerbread and 100 percent edible. If the judges get suspicious, they sample the goods so cheaters need not apply. There is no fee charged and every entry is displayed and judged. It’s also free to view the displays.
If you’re really eager to hone your skills, a two-hour gingerbread house workshop will be held on December 11 at Montgomery Sky Farm in Leicester, NC, about 20 minutes from Asheville.
National Gingerbread House Competition
Omni Grove Park Inn
290 Macon Avenue
2023 Dates: November 27 – January 2, 2024
3. It’s Time for a Toast at Grovewood Village
My friends are crafters. They knit, crochet and felt. And I’m totally jealous of my buddy who can Cricut. After visiting Grovewood Village, I’m all about planning a return girlfriend trip because this is way better than an outing at Michael’s.
This historic site was once home to the weaving and woodworking operations of Biltmore Industries. Operations ended in 1981 and the property was transformed into working artist studios in 1992. Visitors can learn about the rich history, tour an antique car museum and shop ’til you drop in the 9,000 square-foot retail space featuring the work of more than 350 artisans.
Vessels of Merriment is a special holiday event. Celebrating its 5th year in 2023, drinking vessels including goblets, flasks and tumblers are available for purchase from 15 potters just in time for a holiday toast.
Vessels of Merriment
2023 Dates: November 11 – December 31
4. Head to Forest City for Hometown Holidays
A million lights are bright in Forest City, RomanticAsheville.com‘s #1 Christmas town in the greater Asheville area. After a cozy dinner for two, snuggle up for a horse-drawn carriage ride, take a hand-in-hand twirl around the “ice” skating rink, then commemorate the moment with a photo in front of the largest lighted ornament in POP (Pavilion on Park Square).
Note: The carriage rides and skating are weather-dependent and were sadly unavailable during my visit.
Forest City Christmas
2023 Dates: November 23 – January 1, 2024
5. Spend an Evening at the Holidays at the Garden Illumination
Want to wander through a garden full of lights? Head to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens for their annual illumination. A highlight of this year’s event is a 7-minute fable told through lights and sound, tracing a fawn’s journey through the four seasons.
Tiptoe through light tulips, skip along light discs and stop for photo ops in the glittering pavilion in the Children’s Garden.
Holidays at the Garden
2023 Dates: November 24-December 23
The Garden is closed on Mondays
Want more glowing gardens? Winter Lights at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville is another popular event.
NC Arboretum Dates
2023 Dates: November 17-December 31
6. Shop by Candlelight in Dillsboro
Celebrating its 40th year in 2023, the Lights & Luminaries festival is a sparkling two-week celebration in Dillsboro, about an hour’s drive from Asheville. I chatted with one patriarch herding his large and lively family into one of the shops who said he’s been coming for more than 30 years and wouldn’t miss it. More than 2500 luminaries are set out to light the way to the town’s shops and studios where the owners welcome guests with hot cider, hot chocolate and holiday treats.
I collect snowflake ornaments so I was tickled to score ones woven out of sweetgrass at Dogwood Crafters, a cooperative of 40 artisans that opened back in 1976. Another must-stop is Nancy Tut’s Christmas Shop. The 100-year-old home is full of ornaments, many of which can be personalized; follow the peppermint swirls on the floor to guide you from room to room.
Santa and Mrs. Claus are on hand to meet the kiddos. Romantic (and FREE) horse and buggy rides are a highlight. Sadly, due to wet weather, the rides were canceled during my visit. The music lineup for 2023 includes Grammy-nominated bluegrass legend Darren Nicholson on December 9.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Parking can be difficult. Be patient and don’t be afraid to ask for assistance to secure a spot. A very kind gentleman walked us to an open space and helped us back in. Or head to Monteith Park to park and take the free shuttle downtown.
7. Attend the Sylva Tree Lighting
The tree lighting ceremony in Sylva is accompanied by live music and a brilliant fireworks display – normally. This year, because of drought conditions, the fireworks display was canceled.
But that didn’t put a damper on the celebration that takes place at the foot of the town’s historic courthouse. It’s dramatically perched 107 steps above Main Street and is billed as the “most photographed courthouse” in North Carolina. The building’s been repurposed as the county library and the view of the town from above is worth the climb.
After the lighting, explore Sylva’s Main Street, a major stop on the Jackson County Ale Trail, promoted as pouring 100 different drafts. Prefer mixed drinks? Check out the sassy sips at The Cut.
Sylva Tree Lighting and Fireworks
2023 Date: December 1
8. Catch a Christmas Parade
The last thing you want to do in New York in December is stand on the sidewalk to watch a parade. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade is the city’s last seasonal hurrah. But southern small towns, with their above-freezing late fall temps, stage festive Christmas parades, often paired with Christmas tree lightings, to kick off the season. Most, including Rutherfordton’s and ones in Banner Elk and Tryon, occur annually on the first Saturday in December.
Our group was graciously hosted by Jim Masek and Russell Knight, innkeepers of Carrier Houses Bed and Breakfast in Rutherfordton for a parade viewing party. The 8-room guesthouse in the Blue Ridge foothills features period furnishings and a grand front porch providing the best parade view in town.
Rutherfordton Christmas Parade
2023 Date: December 2
9. Watch Santa Rappel in Chimney Rock State Park
If you’re looking for an unusual, only-in-NC holiday event, the Annual Santa on the Chimney features the man of the hour rappeling 314 feet down Chimney Rock, assisted by pros from Fox Mountain Guides.
Sadly, due to inclement weather, I wasn’t able to witness the spectacle or take an elf-led hike to Hickory Nut Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls east of the Mississippi.
But our group still made the ascent via a 27-story elevator ride to join Santa Claus for a photo op. There’s a craft table and letter-writing station for the kids.
At the base, Chimney Rock Village is filled with kitschy souvenir shops and restaurants.
Chimney Rock State Park
Santa on the Chimney
2023 Dates: December 2 and December 9
10. Stroll Christmas Town USA
The neighborhood with the over-the-top Christmas lights near my home in New York is Dyker Heights in Brooklyn. In North Carolina, the standout is McAdenville, a town of 650 that swells during the holiday season to accommodate more than a half-million visitors.
The FREE event is a perennial finalist in USA Today’s 10Best Public Holiday Lights Display, ranking alongside big-time and big-money shows like Austin’s Trail of Lights and Lights Under Louisville, the underground festival of lights in Mega Cavern.
Sip a beer in the River Room in the Dynamo 31 complex while you wait for the lights to go on at 5:30 pm. The taproom is a unique funding source for the Catawba Riverkeeper, a not-for-profit tasked with preserving the Catawba-Wateree River Basin. All beers served are produced within the basin.
Although you can drive through the lights, I suggest walking to appreciate them. You can park in the lot at Dynamo 31. Stroll along the pond with the floating trees and continue through the housing development which has an HOA requirement that homeowners participate in the light display. It’s a circular loop that winds back to the downtown area with shops and restaurants.
Christmas Town USA
2023 Dates: December 1 – 26
11. Ride The Polar Express
One of the first things I did this year when my grandbaby was born was to book a Christmas trip on our local Polar Express. It’s a holiday tradition for many families throughout the US, and North Carolina has one of the best.
Beginning in early November, families don their Christmas pjs and climb aboard the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad’s Polar Express. There’s singing, dancing, cocoa and cookies on the ride to the North Pole to pick up you-know-who.
The Polar Express Train Ride
Bryson City, NC
2023 Dates: November 9 – December 31
12. Drive-Through a Christmas Winter Wonderland
Tryon International is a renowned equestrian center near Rutherfordton and the site of Shadrack’s Christmas Wonderland Drive-Thru Light Show. In addition to the illumination, there are live music performances, ice skating and kid’s activities in the Winterfest Village.
Tryon International Winterfest
2023 Dates: November 17 – January 1, 2024
Where to Eat and Drink Near Asheville
EDISON, Craft Ales + Kitchen
The Omni Grove Park Inn has 10 dining options (some seasonal). The EDISON features a farm-to-table menu, gorgeous Blue Ridge mountain views and adult beverages including craft beers, small-batch bourbons and handcrafted cocktails.
On tap during the holiday season is a special local beer, Highland Brewing’s Gingerbread Ale. It was lighter than I expected with a pleasant spice cookie aroma and taste. It held up against the rich flavors of the bites I sampled, including a taste of the South appetizer that topped fried green tomatoes with pimento cheese, four-cheese grits, arugula, lemon vinaigrette and smoked tomato jam.
Try to save room for a souvenir mug of hot cocoa served from the full-size REAL gingerbread house in the lobby. Take your cocoa to one of the chairs in front of the 36-foot-wide fireplace and soak up the sound, sights and smells of the season.
Maples on Main
Discard your good intentions. “Dan’s Too Thick French Toast” is too good to pass up at this cozy eatery in Rutherfordton. But it’s only served on Sundays. The Lavazza coffee was the best I had on this trip.
Nellie’s Southern Kitchen
I’ve had great experiences at celebrity restaurants (sublime fish and chips at Gordon Ramsay’s in Atlantic City) and those that were meh (overpriced and underwhelming entrees at Richard Gere’s Bedford Post Inn). Nellie’s Southern Kitchen, owned and operated by Denise and Kevin Jonas, the parents of the singing Jonas Brothers, falls into the great category. The mission here is to serve elevated Southern comfort food in an environment that evokes memories of meals enjoyed ’round a family table.
Nellie was Kevin’s grandmother, the family’s beloved matriarch who lived, worked, sang and cooked in Belmont NC. Her beaming portrait watches over guests in the dining room. She’s dressed in a gown of billowing cotton, a nod to her employment in the local cotton mill.
Our group dined with Denise and Kevin who graciously told us about the development of the restaurant as a way to honor Nellie and keep her recipes alive for future generations. Denise is a talented cook too. She’s modest about her abilities but her Sweet Potato Caroline casserole was a standout of the many bites we sampled. I also really enjoyed the shrimp and grits. The shrimp float on a fried raft of grits accented by a Cajun cream sauce.
Of course, Nellie’s is a destination restaurant for fans of the band. The rear hall is lined with notable awards marking milestones in the brothers’ careers. Kevin beamed like every proud papa, especially noting a photo of the family in the White House with President and Mrs. Obama and Sir Paul McCartney taken after the boys surprised the Obama daughters with a performance.
Chimney Rock Smokehouse
The weather outside was frightful but the mood inside the Chimney Rock Smokehouse was truly delightful. Nick Sottile and his crew transformed their small BBQ joint into a pop-up Miracle bar for the holidays. There are 200 of these application-only pop-ups in the US and Canada that feature Griswaldian decorations and a curated menu of holiday cocktails.
The “Die Hard”-inspired Yippie Ki Yah Mother F*****r! was a coco-rummy delight, served in Santa’s pants and decorated with a basil sprig “tree.” My pulled pork sammie was tender and flavorful and the baked potato salad had a fresh flavor thanks to a sour cream dressing.
City Lights Cafe
When traveling, I’m always on the lookout for the local version of my hometown breakfast joint, Sparky’s Diner. I’m sure you have one – the place where regulars stow their mugs behind the counter, you bus your table and the owner knows your name, order and the date of your next dentist appointment. City’s Lights Cafe gives off a Sparky’s vibe.
Adjacent to the City Lights bookstore, the cafe serves breakfast all day (the restaurant closes at 3 pm) and a variety of sweet goodies that are hard to resist.
When a sommelier marries a Michelin-trained chef, good things happen in your mouth. That’s what I learned when dining at ILDA, the passion project of sommelier Crystal Pace and chef Santiago Guzzetti. The restaurant features a charmingly eclectic interior with an open kitchen and large bar where mixologist Antoine Hodge serves tasty cocktails and homemade numbered batches of limoncello infused with a rotating assortment of herbs. Batch #58, for example, featured a blend with echinacea, feverfew and lavender, an appropriate potion on a drizzly grey evening.
Consider sharing entrees with your dining partners so you can eat more of the light and lovely tiramisu at meal’s end.
Babbo Italian Kitchen
We like to call these places red sauce joints. Expect satisfying portions of traditional Italian-American favorites at Babbo. We sampled several appetizers including tasty mushrooms stuffed with crabmeat, a caprese salad and one whopper of a meatball.
My entree, Pollo alla Babbo, featured chicken encased in a too-dense-for-my-taste breading. But the Alfredo cream sauce was delicious. Table entree favorites were the ravioli, plain and lobster.
Where to Stay
Inn on Biltmore Estate
1 Antler Hill Road
Asheville, NC 28803
It might be hard to go back home after a stay at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. A Forbes Four-Star property, the Inn pampers guests with Vanderbilt-level attention. The setting serves up million-dollar Blue Ridge views, the rooms are comfortably elegant and the services are those you’d expect at a high-end resort:
- Evening turndown with chocolates on the pillow
- Complimentary bottled water
- Spa reserved for Biltmore Estate Annual Pass Holders and guests of the Inn, Village Hotel or Cottages
- Complimentary guest shuttle service to the Estate, Antler Hill Village and Winery and Amherst at Deerpark
The Esquire Hotel
168 W. Main Street
Gastonia, NC 28052
A six-year renovation transformed a bank building that opened its doors in 1918 into a boutique luxury retreat, an Ascend Hotel Collection property. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Lawyers Building as it’s known locally, is an architectural delight. Barrister’s is the hotel restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
SheBuysTravel Tip: The Esquire is located on Gastonia’s Christmas parade route. Accessing the parking lot can be difficult during the festivities. Speak to the front desk staff about when the streets will be closed to traffic and for help with alternate routes.
Hampton Inn and Suites
227 Sparks Drive
Forest City, NC 28043
I was thrilled to discover this gem in Forest City. The bright, cheery lobby features a treat station to purchase bevvies and snacks. The lobby is a high-ceilinged great room with plenty of light and seating. And the complimentary breakfast area, featuring the chain’s legendary waffle station, is clean and well-stocked.
Rooms at the Hampton Inn are large with comfy bedding and seating areas, fridges, microwaves, desks and a very handy wall-mounted valet station for coats.
Best Western River Escape Inn & Suites
248 WBI Drive
Dillsboro, NC 28725
Don’t be put off when pulling up. The approach to the Best Western is through an industrial area over railroad tracks. Consider it a mullet. The front might be all business, but the party’s in the rear where this budget-friendly hotel fronts the Tuckasegee River. During my stay, the river was shrouded in an eerily beautiful fog, a view I enjoyed from my guestroom balcony.
Rooms are large with mini-fridges, microwaves, flat-screen RVs, a desk and a tub/shower combo. There’s a large indoor pool and hot tub with several chaise lounges. And the nightly rate includes a complimentary hot breakfast. The holiday events in Sylva and Dillsboro are less than 15 minutes away.
Can You Have Too Much Christmas?
I was afraid that the trip was going to be too much of a good thing. Just the opposite. I left western North Carolina super excited to savor the season. Bring it on, Santa!
It may seem crazy to travel during December but there are lots of reasons to pack up the sleigh and just do it.
As a young mom, the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas was a total blur. While the kids were at school, I’d hustle around like an overstressed elf, prepping for the holidays. On January 2nd, I’d let out a huge sigh and collapse. I would have loved a trip like this for a few days with my girlfriends to unwind, shop and get some holiday decorating inspo.
Now that the kids are grown, I appreciate the Christmas season more. Getting into the holiday spirit means cycling through Hallmark movies, stringing twinkling lights while sipping a seasonal cocktail and planning Christmas season grownup getaways. I saw so many adorable senior couples dressed in holiday sweaters and holding hands while wandering around Biltmore. It was the sweetest thing ever. Our wedding anniversary is in late November. I think I know what we’re doing next year and I can’t wait to suggest it to our friends.
Getting to Western North Carolina
Touring the western North Carolina holiday events is a wonderful seasonal road trip because you’ll travel through the scenic Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains. Wish for a dusting of snow to turn the whole landscape into the stuff of snow globes.
If you’re flying into the area, you’re in luck. Airport options near the NC mountain towns are numerous. Check Charlotte Douglas International, Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport and Asheville Regional Airport for flight fares and car rental rates.