Tis the season… to be thinking about what to gift your loved ones, where to find the best lights displays, and all of the best holiday markets and bazaars. Here in Texas’ Capitol city, there are more than a million ways to make the holidays special — but these 15 activities are Christmas in Austin’s best and brightest:
15.) Show off your ice skating moves at Whole Foods Downtown
Whole Foods’ ice skating rink in 2013. Video: YouTube user Adrian Moseley.
You might not get to do much “real” outdoor ice skating in Austin, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have any opportunities to lace up your skates and harness your inner Michelle Kwan. Chapparal Ice, for one, is a great year-round ice skating destination, but without a doubt, the most “Austin” ice skating opportunity is found at Whole Foods‘ flagship store on Lamar. Grab hot food or drinks on the lower level and then head on up to the rooftop plaza to enjoy holiday music and some good old-fashioned wintry fun with neighbors.
14.) Buy locally-made treasures at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
The 2011 Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Video: YouTube User Brandon Fuller.
Starting mid-December, head down to the Palmer Events Center for the shopping extravaganza of your life: the Annual Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Featuring more than 160 fine art and artisan vendors, the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar basically ensures that you’ll find epic (if not quirky) holiday gifts for friends and family members — and all while savoring cold beer and great food. Expect to hear a heck of a lot of live music too; each year’s Bazaar hosts a slew of bands and musicians.
13.) Walk through the Zilker Trail of Lights
The 2015 Austin Trail of Lights. Video: YouTube user Austin TrailofLights.
Actually, forget walking: you’ll want to skip through this amazing lights display. With over 1.25 miles of Christmas lights, festive sculpture arrangements, live music, 30 food trailers, photo opportunities with Santa, and a huge Ferris wheel and carousel, the Austin Trail of Lights is an absolute must-have holiday experience. Generally attracting more than 425,000 people (which is more than ACL, F1, and SXSW draw individually) over its 15 nights of operation, the Trail has been a community fixture since 1965.
12.) Take part in the Trail of Lights Fun Run
Let’s admit it: the Trail of Lights can get pretty down crowded. Enjoy the lights a few days before it even opens to the pubic with the annual Trail of Lights Fun Run. The event helps to Keep Austin Active with a night where fun runners run, jog or stroll a 2.1 mile course through Zilker Park and the Austin Trail of Lights ending in the Finish Line Festival. Guests enjoy a fitness and wellness expo, DJ entertainment, a costume contest, photos with Santa, and more. Get more info here.
11.) Ooh and ahh over the biggest Christmas tree in town
Spinning around beneath the 155-foot Zilker Holiday Tree while looking up is a sacred Austin tradition that you shouldn’t skip this season. Located at the Moonlight Tower in Zilker Park, this massive tree is a whopping 380 feet wide, and it’s the biggest one in town, so plenty of folks can perform their annual spins at once, with lots of space to fall down in the dizzying aftermath. The Zilker tree sports no less than 3,309 lights and a gigantic star that measures 10 feet between all of its points, so trust us — it’s definitely a sight worth seeing!
10.) Drink your weight in hot chocolate
Apple cider and eggnog are entirely different, but they do have two things in common. First, they’re both Christmastime beverages, bringing on the holiday cheer with every sip. And second, both of them pale in comparison to hot chocolate in terms of glorious deliciousness. Admittedly, that last statement is biased. But seriously, you can find some killer hot cocoa in Austin and December is the perfect time to guzzle gallons of it!
Expert tip: Here’s where to find the best hot cocoa in town.
9.) Have the Mozart’s Coffee Roasters holiday experience
Mozart’s 2015 Holiday Light Show. Video: YouTube user Jack Ranstrom.
If you’ve been in Austin for any period of time, you know that Mozart’s Coffee Roasters has quite the holiday reputation. Every year, the coffee shop and bakery rigs their Lake Austin Blvd storefront with over 150,000 Christmas lights set to popular tunes, including UT’s “Texas Fight Song,” the Trans Siberian Orchestra’s infamous “Wizards in Winter,” many a selection from the Pentatonix, and so many more. The show, which begins at 6 p.m. and continues until closing time, is even better when coupled with Mozart’s yummy hot chocolate and coffees. Seriously, do not miss this.
8.) Buy a real Christmas tree from a local farm
Instead of setting up an artificial tree, try this: load the family into the van, drive out to an actual Christmas tree farm, and select a real tree to adorn your home this holiday season. As long as no one in your home has a cedar allergy, decorating your living room with a real tree can be quite the fulfilling adventure. There are four local farms within reasonable driving distance of Austin. Elgin Christmas Tree Farm, located just 30 minutes east, has been providing Austinites with beautiful trees since 1984, and The Texas Christmas Trees Growers Association has three other awesome farms in the greater Austin area: Hope Valley Tree Farm in Bastrop, Coupland Christmas Tree Farm in Hutto, and Evergreen Farms Christmas Trees in Elgin.
Just remember: when you’re ready to take down your tree, don’t just throw it away. Be a good little greenie and recycle.
7.) Carol down Congress Avenue
The 2013 Holiday Sing-Along and Downtown Stroll. Video: YouTube user Renee Moreno.
In early December, festive Austinites gather in front of the Texas State Capitol Building to participate in yet another beloved city tradition: Austin’s annual Holiday Sing-Along and Downtown Stroll. The annual event, which is coordinated and run by the Downtown Austin Alliance, KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9, and the Sustainable Food Center, begins with Christmas caroling at 6 p.m., followed by the lighting of the Capitol Christmas tree, photos with Santa, live music, extended hours and fun activities at many downtown businesses, a farmers market, and more. You’ll even have the opportunity to donate canned goods to families in need. Now don’t that just beat all?
6.) Be Santa for a kid who’s got it rough
Your Christmas in Austin would be grossly incomplete without gift-giving. Through the Austin Police Department‘s Operation Blue Santa campaign, you can give presents to kids who may not get presents otherwise. With help from the Austin Fire Department, Austin Energy, Austin Water Utility, the Texas National Guard, and a ton of other local businesses, organizations, and individual Austinites, APD provides 5,000+ families in the greater Austin area with full Christmas meals and presents for every little one.
If you’re looking to go big and adopt an entire family, the Foundation Community Holiday Assistance Program is always looking for adopters. The largest private affordable housing provider in Austin does lots to help out their residents around the holidays, but they can’t do it without help from the community. This is an excellent way for social groups, offices, and generous families to help out those in need. There are other ways to help the organization and its residents, including monetary donations, volunteering, and donating single items for their holiday drive. Find all info on their holiday page.
5.) Infuse your holiday with weird on 37th Street
The 37th Street Christmas lights look different every year. Video: YouTube user Yogaduke.
There’s really nothing else like 37th Street’s annual Christmas spectacle. The community of festive neighbors is a historic local wonder, boasting holiday lights that have kept Austin weird since the 1980s. When you head over, please remember that families, students, young professionals, and more are sharing their homes with you. Be respectful with noise after bedtimes and of the street overall.
4.) Spend December in the District at 2ND Street District
2ND Street District‘s month-long celebration includes an annual Holiday Window Walk and Santa Lounge and Market at the W Austin. During the Holiday Window Walk, visitors can check out the storefronts of 2ND Street District businesses as they transform into decorative holiday scenes. Additionally, each year, visitors are invited to celebrate with 2ND Street District at Santa Lounge and Market at W Austin. Guests enjoy holiday carols from local groups and solo artists while sipping holiday cocktails, browsing the local holiday pop-up shops, and giving back to a local charity.
3.) De-Scroogeify yourself at A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol 2014’s dress rehearsal. Video: YouTube user ZACHTheatre.
Another feel-good holiday classic that made it onto our must-see list is A Christmas Carol, a musical based on that Dickens story about crotchety old Ebeneezer Scrooge that we all know so well. But this isn’t your ordinary musical — this time the traditional Victorian story comes complete with a musical score that spans all genres and eras. Motown meets the HoHoHolidays in this family celebration at Zach Theatre, creating an infectious spirit that has everyone dancing in the aisles. If that isn’t totally and utterly magical, then we don’t know what is. Find out more about A Christmas Carol here.
2.) Take in some beautiful gingerbread houses
The Four Seasons delights visitors every year by showcasing a beautiful array of gingerbread houses, sometimes with different themes. These displays are open to the public, in addition to those staying at the hotel. They also offer teddy bear teas and scrumptious brunches to make Four Seasons a special holiday destination, even if you’re not staying the night.
New for 2019, the Westin is also hosting a gingerbread display – though their’s is life sized! Bonus: you can dine inside of it.
1.) Ride a train to the North Pole and back
Take a ride on the North Pole Flyer! Video: YouTube user TourTexasVideo.
Bet you didn’t know that you can take a train to the North Pole from Austin! It’s true — every holiday season, the Austin Steam Train Association will transform its vintage train into “The North Pole Flyer.” For $38-53, you can ride the train to Bertram and back with Mr. and Mrs. Claus, enjoying delicious Christmas cookies and hot chocolate, listening to the Christmas Story, and spending quality time with loved ones along the way. It’s not exactly the North Pole, but this train is so festive it might as well be a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer!
From live performances to charity and real Christmas trees to fake snow, every one of these fifteen seasonal activities is guaranteed to grant you a wonderful Christmas in Austin. Here’s to happy holidays for you and yours, and a nifty New Year’s too!
Featured photo: Flickr user Earl McGehee, CC licensed