40 Places to See Stunning Holiday Lights and Sights for Free

All across the country hotels and merchants are stringing up lovely lights and decking their halls for us to enjoy – for free.

Photo By: Anthony Quintano, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by Anthony Quintano, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by Anthony Quintano, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by Angi English, Flickr

Photo By: Photo courtesy the Greenbrier

Photo By: Photo courtesy the Greenbrier

Photo By: Photo courtesy the Greenbrier

Photo By: Photo courtesy The Jefferson Hotel/Hayes & Fisk Photography

Photo By: Photo courtesy The Jefferson Hotel/Hayes & Fisk Photography

Photo By: Photo courtesy Hilton Chicago

Photo By: Photo courtesy Hotel Roanoke

Photo By: Photo courtesy Hotel Roanoke

Photo By: Photo courtesy the Inns of Aurora

Photo By: Photo courtesy the Inns of Aurora

Photo By: Photo courtesy Waldorf Astoria, New York

Photo By: Photo by Trey Ratcliff, Flickr

Photo By: Photo courtesy the Driskill

Photo By: Photo by Jonas Lamis, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by Jack Thielepape, Flickr

Photo By: Photo courtesy Windsor Court Hotel

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Photo By: Photo courtesy the Bellagio

Photo By: Photo courtesy the Bellagio

Photo By: Photo by Shawn Clover, Flickr

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Photo By: Photo by: gigi_nyc, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by: Wally Gobetz, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by: Wally Gobetz, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by: Wally Gobetz, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by: Tasayu Tasnaphun, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by: Wally Gobetz, Flickr

Photo By: Photo by: Wally Gobetz, Flickr

Photo By: Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris

The National Tree

The National Tree lighting is a yearly tradition that started in 1923 with President Calvin Coolidge and takes place after Thanksgiving. Every year free tickets are acquired through a lottery for the seated ceremony or you can visit the tree until the beginning of January at its location opposite the White House lawn. The tree lighting will also be on your local PBS station. 

Inside the White House

Each season the White House is decked out in holiday finery for visitors from all over the world to enjoy. In 2014 the decorations paid tribute to the Armed Forces and their families. This is the Blue Room. It is always free to tour the White House though it is advised to book tickets well in advance of your travels.

Our House

The White House library boasts more than 2,700 books and a round table covered in hand painted globes. On last year’s tree many of the ornaments were handwritten messages composed by children like Vicky Somma of Occoquan, Virginia thanking the troops for their service.

Blue Christmas

Last year's 18-foot balsam fir in the White House Blue Room was adorned with medals, badges and patches gathered from our military serving all over the world.

The Greenbrier

Located just a car ride west of our nation’s capital is another white house, The Greenbrier resort, which has been frequented by 26 U.S. presidents since it opened in 1778. Located in West Virginia beneath the Allegheny Mountains the resort hosts several tree lighting ceremonies, visits from Santa and numerous rooms filled the holiday trimmings.

Lucky Lady

Day visitors are always welcome at the Greenbrier, and there are plenty of sights to see all across the sprawling 10,000-acre resort. During the holidays, Christmas trees, carolers and other distractions lurk around every corner to occupy the kids so mom and dad can sneak off to the casino.

Parlor Games

Cozy up to the parlor, relax and sip a warm brandy. Rest assured, if the holiday cheer goes to your head, the Greenbrier is sure to find room for you. They’ve got over 700 rooms and suites and a staff of elves ready for turn down service.

The Jefferson

The historic Jefferson hotel in Richmond opened on Halloween in 1895. The grand dame has played host to the likes of Elvis Presley, who reportedly brought his own television, perhaps so he could shoot it out. They invite you to come on down and hear the tall tales, see the tree and enjoy live music. The decorations will be up until January 3. 

Moving on Up

We’re looking forward to some quality time with these nutcrackers and a Lady Astor from the Jefferson’s grand mix master. The Lady (grey goose vodka, Cointreau, freshly squeezed lime, white cranberry juice) pairs nicely with her mate, the Jack Rose (Laird's applejack, Jack Rudy grenadine, lemon, Peychaud's bitters). Talk about holidays on ice!

Hilton Chicago

Located within stumbling distance of the shops of Michigan Avenue the historic Hilton of Chicago was recently given a complete refresh and is ready to host your holiday fun. Stop in to the hotel’s 720 South lounge and ask for a Christmas in a Glass, a gingerbread-flavored sparkling cocktail sure to cheer. The floor-to-ceiling décor features nearly two thousand inches of decorated garland, a 30” Poinsettia kissing ball and 60 ft. wreaths throughout the hotel.

Hotel Roanoke

Located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Tudor-style Hotel Roanoke was built in 1882 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You’re invited to come and take in the twinkling lights and Christmas decorations; we recommend a stopover in the Pine Room, which was once an officer’s club during WWII.

Battle of the Trees

Every holiday season the hotel hosts numerous events such as Fashions for Evergreens, a competition featuring 34 custom designed trees that raises money for the United Way of the Roanoke Valley. Come and pick your favorite.

The Inns of Aurora

About an hour west of Syracuse, the charming Inns of Aurora are comprised of the Aurora Inn (seen here), Rowland House and the E. B. Morgan House. Around 1833 the Aurora Inn started taking in weary merchants hauling produce down the Erie Canal to New York City, while the others were private homes.

Toddy for Two

When fire destroyed part of nearby Wells College, the inn gave students a place to bivouac. It is in this tradition of hospitality that you are invited to stop in, put up your feet by the fire and enjoy a toddy or four. Personally, we’re itching to try the Cayuga Lake Monster. Don’t ask what’s in it; just drink it.

Waldorf Astoria, New York

You may know that the Waldorf is where room service originated, but did you know that personal concierges will arrange every holiday detail for you like an in-room grand piano for caroling as well as life-sized chocolate figurine if desired? (Yes, someone went there.) Slobs like us will are glad to loiter in the lobby after a visit to Sir Harry’s Bar.

The Driskill

Ever since it opened in 1886, Austin’s Driskill is the place to be seen or not seen – depending on whom you’re with. We’re not here to judge, but we do think it’s one of the best places in Texas to take in holiday festivities like the lighting of the big tree or a swig of nog in the infamous bar.

Texas Xmas

Located just a stone’s throw from the state capitol, the Driskill opened five days before Christmas in 1886 making it Austin’s oldest hotel. Legend has it that owner Jesse Driskill, a wealthy cattleman, lost the hotel in a game of poker and died of a stroke in 1890. We think you should get to making your own legend at the storied flop, albeit a 4-star one.

Spending Christmas Stag

The Driskill feels so familiar we wouldn’t mind spending the holidays there alone. If this longhorn hanging above the mantle in the Driskill Bar could talk we’re sure he’d wax poetic about many a filly under the mistletoe. Just steer clear of him should you have one to many spirits. (Steer, get it?)

San Antonio River Walk

All season long there are free opportunities to have your picture made with Santa, hear live music or take in the holiday lights.

Windsor Court Hotel

New Orleans is our go-to for celebrating almost anything though we must confess Christmas hadn’t cast its shadow – until now. Thanks to spots like Windsor Court catering specifically to the traveling celebrant we’re checking things twice. Holiday guests are invited to get toasty with a "Santa’s Little Helper" specialty cocktail (Licor43, Canton Domaine Ginger Liqueur, lime juice, amaretto and cream) while admiring the twinkling lights adorning the 19 1/2 foot tree in the opulent lobby. After weeks with kids and relatives maybe it should be called Mommy’s Little Helper.

The Roosevelt, New Orleans

If tales of Sazerac-swilling politicians and hard-partying rock stars are on your short list or you just want to be naughty, get thee to the Roosevelt. Check in for a stretch or just stop by and check out the over-the-top Christmas decorations at this stunning Waldorf Astoria property. 

The Bellagio

Our quest for amazing Christmas decorations continues west to one of our all-time favorite resorts: the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Even Santa can’t resist the City of Sin decked out with snowflakes and polar bears and penguins and more twinkling lights than the desert sky. And unlike most things in town, it’s all free to see.

Bellagio Has Heart

In the 1985 comedy “Lost in America” casino mogul Gary Marshall threw Albert Brooks out of the Desert Inn for suggesting an ad campaign with Santa Claus to demonstrate that the dice joint had a heart. Call us crazy, but we’re digging the Bellagio’s classy tree and its tasteful trimmings.

San Francisco City Hall

Buddy the Elf was on to something when he said the name Francisco is fun to say – over and over and over. During the holidays it’s fun to look at, too and City Hall spreads the spirit all of December. Stroll on by.

San Francisco Hyatt Regency

The John Portman-designed Union Square Hyatt is a free photo op all year, but during the holiday season it manages to shine just a little brighter. Even those high anxiety-inducing glass elevators are illuminated in the colors of the season.

Neiman Marcus Rotunda

After riding the elevators at the Hyatt a couple of times, hop over to the Neiman Marcus and check out the gargantuan four-story tall Christmas in the middle of the store’s rotunda. Better yet, if you’re parched, grab a libation and walk in circles and drink in all the splendid. ‘Tis the season!

San Francisco Fairmont

We didn’t think it was possible to make San Francisco's elegant Fairmont even prettier, but during the holidays this jewel shines even brighter. Take a rest in the lobby and stare at the tree and if you’re so inclined book yourself a spot at the annual Gingerbread Holiday Tea or head down to the Tonga Room for cocktails served in coconut shells. Spend nothing but time or relieve yourself of some folding money. You’re worth it.

Animal Kingdom Lodge

No one does Christmas quite like the family of Disney resorts and hopping on and off the monorail to check them all out can be more fun that Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We especially love this massive fir gracing the lobby on the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando. And if your hakuna needs a little matata, adult beverages are ready for you at the Cape Town Lounge and Wine Bar or the Victoria Falls Lounge.

Grand Floridian Resort & Spa

This Palm Beach-style Disney resort features live jazz, ragtime and even old Disney standards. During Christmas it is decked out with numerous trees weighted down by hundreds of shiny ornaments. Papa will surely take delight in what’s shaking at Mizner's Lounge: Manhattan’s and Sidecars made with top shelf spirits. Thanks, Saint Nick.

New York Street Walking

It's not what you think. New York City is known for its holiday splendor and the hefty price tag that normally accompanies it. Window watching is free and gets more entertaining every year as the luxury retailers like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman try and one up each other with unique holiday displays. 

Barneys New York

Every year we can't wait to see what Barney’s creative director Simon Doonan is cooking up for the store’s Madison Avenue windows.  In 2010 he teamed up with the Food Network and created displays for a "Have a Foodie Christmas" theme. Seen here are several celebrities chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Bobby FlayEmeril LagasseGuy Fieri and Wolfgang Puck in an epic holiday food fight.

Henri Bendel

Cool New Yorker’s pretend they aren’t eager for the day when designers tear away the brown butcher paper masking store windows to reveal eclectic displays that may not make sense to Joe from Peoria. For example, Henri Bendel’s 2013 happening scene honored celebrity caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Woody, Holly Golightly, Liz, Whoopi and others were all there.

Bloomingdale's

The brown bag store brought Christmas greetings from all over the world to its 59th Street store. The 2013 display featured iconic London locations such as the London Eye and Big Ben. 

Saks Fifth Avenue

A previous holiday display at Saks Fifth Avenue was all about peace, love and understanding.

Lord & Taylor

Known to service a more conservative clientele, Lord & Taylor’s past Christmas display played a little safer than other retailers. It featured a slice of life of a Victorian family band that toured the countryside in a multi-colored horse drawn carriage.

Bergdorf Goodman

We’ve grown to expect over-the-top creations from the creative team at Bergdorf Goodman. Just when we thought promenading down 5th Avenue couldn’t be more fabulous, they roll out this Christmas creation.

Bright Lights, Big City

This Bergdorf Goodman Christmas window is presented without comment.

Linda Horn

Linda Horn recently relocated her antique shop to the Upper East Side at Madison Avenue and 93rd, which happens to be one of our favorite Manhattan secrets. Her shop, this adorable ice fishing window display and Sarabeth’s make it worth the trip.

Macy's

Home of the original Miracle on 34th Street and the real Santa Claus, no Christmas in New York is complete without a stroll past Macy’s. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Four Seasons Hotel George V, Paris

And finally, we’ll always have Paris and the jaw dropping Christmas decorations of the George V. We love you.