It’s November and we know what’s on your mind. Starting now until the 25th, you’ll be thinking about what to gift your loved ones, how to stay positive if the season brings bittersweet memories, and where to find the best holiday eats and drinks. 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 do’s:
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, and the temporary holiday setup at Omni Barton Creek Resort is quite impressive, to say the least — 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.
525 N Lamar Blvd. 512-542-2209. Tickets $10, skates included. Open daily November 27 through January 9, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Website.
14.) Buy locally-made treasures at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
The 2011 Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. Video: YouTube User Brandon Fuller.
This December 14 through 24, 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; this year’s Bazaar is hosting 34 bands and musicians. Their 2016 lineup included some pretty big names like Alpha Rev, Ruthie Foster, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Carolyn Wonderland, and Shiny Ribs, so get excited for this year!
13.) Lovingly decorate a cedar tree on Loop 360
Austinites start decorating the trees in November. Video: YouTube user KXAN.
Let’s admit it: we Austinites get a little crazy with our holiday decorating. Take the 37th Street Christmas spectacle for example. Our 1.25-mile Trail of Lights in Zilker Park. Mozart Coffee Roasters‘ 15-minute synchronized lights display. Well, for years, we’ve been channeling our powers of festivity into decorating the cedar trees that line the northwesterly section of Loop 360. If you haven’t ever participated, this is the year for you to discover your inner elf! Pack a box full of ornaments, garland, and an especially weird object or two and head out to Loop 360 to take part in this vibrant Austin tradition.
There’s only one catch. After New Years, you’d better come back and un-decorate or someone else will have to!
12.) Ooh and ahh over the biggest Christmas tree in town
Speaking of Christmas trees, 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!
2100 Barton Springs Rd. 512-970-8891. Open daily 24/7 starting November 27. Website.
11.) 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.
10.) 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,” and in 2015, the song “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. The 12-minute show, which runs every hour beginning at 6 p.m. until closing time, is even better when coupled with Mozart’s yummy hot chocolate and coffees. Seriously, do not miss this.
3826 Lake Austin Blvd. 512-477-2900. Free. Light show runs 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. most nights November 20 through the first week of January. Website.
9.) 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. 2014 marked the Trail’s 50th anniversary and this year it’s even bigger than ever.
8.) Buy a real Christmas tree from a local farm
Instead of setting up an artificial tree this year, 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: Bill’s Trees in Georgetown, 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.
At 6 p.m. on December 3, festive Austinites will 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 2016 event, which is coordinated and run by the Downtown Austin Alliance, KUT 90.5 and KUTX 98.9, 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?
1100 Congress Ave. 512-469-0476. Free. Event starts at 6 p.m. Website.
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. To make a difference through Operation Blue Santa, you can drop off unwrapped toys at any of these locations or adopt a family by filling out an online sponsorship application. The deadline is December 17!
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. Sponsor request forms are due Friday, December 2. In addition, you can donate single items for their holiday drive from December 6-9. Find all info on their holiday page.
4101 S. Industrial Dr, Suite 260. 512-974-2583. Website.
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. You’ll just have to see it for yourself.
4.) Appreciate a holiday classic: The Nutcracker
The Nutcracker has been running for 53 years! Video: Vimeo user Ballet Austin.
For a perfect holiday in Austin, we recommend not only experiencing your fair share of caroling, hot cocoa, and lights displays, but also watching classic theatrical performances like The Nutcracker. If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, then you’re in luck. Thanks to Ballet Austin and The Long Center, we have an epic rendition of the timeless show right here in Austin — and in its 54th year, no less! Find out more about The Nutcracker here.
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 brand new musical based on that Dickens story about crotchety old Ebeneezer Scrooge that we all know so well. But this isn’t your ordinary musical — the show’s director, Dave Steakley, has actually managed to infuse the musical with reinvented rock songs in the spirit of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge. If that isn’t totally and utterly magical, then we don’t know what is. Find out more about A Christmas Carol here.
1510 Toomey Rd. 512-476-0541. Nov 23 to Dec 31 — show dates and times vary. Buy Tickets.
2.) Build a gingerbread house at Hill Country Galleria
The Candy Jar is hosting their Annual Gingerbread Workshops, now in its fourth year, on select dates from December 4-20. For $50 per house/child, your family can build its very own holiday house of sweets. All children under 6 must be accompanied by an adult. Register here.
12700 Hill Country Blvd. 512-263-0001. $50. Website.
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 — from November 26 until December 17, 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!
401 E Whitestone Blvd, Ste C-100 (Cedar Park). 512-477-8468. Call for rates and availability. Website.
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
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014 and updated for 2016.