15 Best Places in the U.S. to Spend Thanksgiving Weekend
K.C. was a featured writer for Yahoo! Travel before joining trips to discover in 2013. She is the author of Best Travel Guide for First Time Visitors to Ireland, an Amazon bestseller every year between 2013 and 2016. She has been a featured expert on Newsweek, Travel + Leisure, Travelocity, among others.
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If you haven’t made your plans for Thanksgiving yet, and the thought of cooking up a huge meal makes you feel more weary than excited, you might want to consider spending the weekend elsewhere. Among these top destinations across the U.S., you’re sure to find something that appeals to everyone in the family.
Thanksgiving in the Smokies might be ideal if you’re looking for a mountain getaway. Gatlinburg is a beautiful gateway to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and a popular destination for families all year long. You’ll find a wide range of vacation rentals, from cozy cabins to mountain chalets as well as numerous activities and events. The Great Smoky Thanksgiving and Christmas Arts and Crafts Show is the perfect place to pick up unique holiday gifts. Winter sports enthusiasts will want to drive to the top of Mount Harrison or take the aerial tramway that departs every 20 minutes from downtown to Ober Gatlinburg. Here you’ll find an ice skating rink, ski trails and a snow tubing lane, as well as gear available to rent.
While any time of the year is a great time to go to Hawaii, November is particularly good as it tends to be less overrun with tourists, offering a quieter time while still allowing you to enjoy that fabulous turkey dinner as most resort restaurants offer special meals for the holiday. While it does tend to be a rainier month, by choosing destinations on the dry side of the islands, generally the southern or western coasts of Kauai, like Poipu, Wailea on Maui, Kailua-Kon on the Big Island or Waikiki on Oahu, you’re likely to experience more idyllic weather. If you visit Waikiki, you can even watch its holiday parade, held the Friday after Thanksgiving each year. The parade commemorates Pearl Harbor by honoring survivors and veterans in memory of the attacks on December 7, 1941, with local Hawaiian bands, marching bands from the mainland and more.
While theme parks do tend to be jam-packed during holiday weeks, including Thanksgiving, when most kids are out of school, many, like Disney World and Universal Studios, have extended hours that make it easier to enjoy the rides and shows without battling massive crowds. Plus, at Disney World, you’ll find all sorts of options for Thanksgiving meals, so you don’t have to miss out on the traditional feast. They’re typically offered at restaurants inside Downtown Disney as well as at many of the Disney resorts.
If you really want a classic Thanksgiving experience, head to the Big Apple, famous for its Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, attracting thousands of participants and over three million spectators each year, plus more than 50 million viewers that watch from home. This annual pageant is made up of massive balloons, floats, cheerleaders, marching bands, clowns, Broadway shows and loads of celebrities. If the crowds turn you off, consider staying at one of the hotels along the parade route, where you can watch the festivities from the comfort of your room. And be sure to stay for Black Friday if you like to shop – that’s when the city’s many amazing retailers begin their holiday sales. Just keep in mind that if you’d like to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner at a restaurant here, you’ll need to make your reservation now.
While you’ll have to bundle up and endure some chilly temperatures, Chicago offers all sorts of free holiday activities and attractions that make it a great place to be on Thanksgiving weekend. The festivities begin on Wednesday night when the mayor lights up the official Christmas tree. The next morning, the three-hour-long annual Thanksgiving Day Parade kicks off. One of the largest in the country, you’ll need to arrive early for a good spot as it starts early on State Street, working its way to Congress Parkway and Randolph Street, with a spectacle of giant helium balloons, award-winning marching bands, performance groups, equestrian units, dance troupes, local and national celebrities, rhythmic drum lines and more. Friday features the “Wreathing of the Lions” at the Art Institute of Chicago, and over at Millennium Park, visitors can enjoy ice skating and caroling.
New Orleans is an exciting city known for partying and fabulous food, so it’s no surprise that they do up the Thanksgiving holiday right too. Along with po’ boys, crawfish and vignettes, New Orleans gave birth to a modern Thanksgiving tradition, the turducken. This triple-poultry dish is a chicken stuffed into a duck, stuffed into a turkey, and it can be savored at a number of local eateries. Deep-fried turkey is commonly served here too. You can also take in a great parade with the Bayou Classic Thanksgiving Day Parade. The parade travels down Decatur Street, passing Jackson Square and Washington Artillery Park, ending at The French Market, where kids (and the kid at heart) can have their photo taken with Santa afterward. The next day, walk off all that food by attending the opening of Celebration in the Oaks at City Park when trees are draped with hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights, and a train traverses for two miles through 25 acres of brilliant displays.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful vacation destination in every season, with its mild, year-round Mediterranean climate. Nestled between the dramatic Santa Ynez Mountains and the glistening blue expanse of the Pacific, it’s been dubbed the “American Riviera.” Not only will you find a multitude of fantastic restaurants serving Thanksgiving dinner, but most pair them with outstanding local wines from the area’s notable vineyards, located just north of the city in the Santa Ynez Valley. Home to a diverse array of wines, made from grapes near the ocean in Lompoc up to the inlands of Happy Canyon, you can take a short scenic drive to Los Olivos to visit more than a dozen wine-tasting rooms and even more in places like Solvang and Buellton. In town over the weekend, be sure and take a walk down State Street to visit the Funk Zone for wine tasting and gallery browsing too.
While most places across America focus on Pilgrims at Thanksgiving, in Santa Fe, you can learn more about Native American culture through its world-renowned museums and art galleries. Attend the annual three-day Winter Indian Market, held Friday, Saturday and Sunday on Thanksgiving weekend each year. It features over 200 artists, as well as native dance groups and music. During the afternoon, locals gather at the historic plaza to enjoy entertainment and watch the Christmas tree lighting. If you’re up for a day on the slopes, head to Ski Santa Fe, which opens on Thanksgiving Day.
Celebrate Thanksgiving where the first historic gathering happened, by heading to Plymouth, Massachusetts, about a 45-minute drive south of Boston. Here, you can truly experience history brought to life. At Plimoth Plantation, explore outdoor living exhibits, including a 17th-century English village, the Mayflower II, the Wampanoag Homesite and the Plimoth Grist Mill. In the town of Plymouth itself, an entire weekend of festivities takes place every year, with Pilgrims, soldiers, patriots and Native Americans all climbing out the pages of history books and onto the streets to bring stories of the founders to life.
Colorado is world-famous for its perfect slopes and abundance of sunshine that makes for some of the best skiing on the planet. And, here, Thanksgiving means the start of the ski season. If you’d like to bring your whole family, Keystone is a great option, as kids ski free all season long with qualifying lodging reservations. On the holiday weekend, get up early and head to the slopes, where you’ll often find wide-open runs and lines that are pretty much non-existent, with so many others spending the day cooking and watching sports inside. While Keystone boasts a multitude of condos and private homes with kitchens for those who want to cook, many restaurants will be serving up Thanksgiving dinner.
In another one of America’s most historic towns, you can watch history come alive. In Colonial Williamsburg, costumed characters act out the details of life in the early years of America, and for the holiday, it offers a host of spectacular events. You can enjoy the annual tradition of bountiful feasts, which features southern delicacies and a bounty of family favorites in a unique garden-to-table feast. Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center feature a special Thanksgiving event in which visitors can learn more about 17th and 18th-century cuisine during Foods & Feasts of Colonial Virginia.
While Las Vegas doesn’t seem like the most family-friendly spot, many people head to Sin City to get away from it all over the Thanksgiving weekend, including families with children. These days, Vegas isn’t just for adults, with its multitude of amusement park-style attractions, indoor skydiving and zip line that soars high above downtown. Of course, there’s also the Shark Reef Aquarium, the Blue Man Group and all kinds of exciting shows geared toward audiences of all ages. Of course, the food, the shopping and the betting all call many to the city for Thanksgiving. Fantastic holiday buffets are available for just about every budget, from New York-New York’s buffet to the extravagant Bellagio 5-course meal.
Lake Tahoe is a magnificent destination all year-round, and with the ski season starting here in mid-November, it offers another outstanding place to hit the slopes over Thanksgiving weekend. After enjoying the snow, you can take a break from this breathtaking winter wonderland to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at one of many different spots. In fact, many resorts offer special holiday packages that include accommodations and dinner, like Granlibakken, an upscale lodge occupying a historic location on Tahoe’s northwest shore. It includes tableside turkey carving with all of the trimmings, as well as vegetarian options and a variety of desserts.
Another great warm Thanksgiving destination,The Phoenician in Scottsdale, offers a fabulous place to escape and enjoy Thanksgiving brunch or dinner. Both are just as mouthwatering, including traditional items like turkey as well as Thanksgiving-themed cocktails. You can burn all of that off, or at least some of it, by hiking nearby trails, running in the 5K Turkey Trot or perhaps even taking advantage of the Black Friday shopping shuttles. All of that shopping ‘til you drop has got to count for something, right? Plus, this family-friendly resort has multiple pools to lounge next to and a golf course.
Washington D.C. is a family-friendly destination throughout the year, but Thanksgiving offers its own unique charms. The kids will love taking a spin at the ice skating rink at the National Gallery of Art while surrounded by large-scale sculptures. You can also explore America’s history on Georgetown’s cobblestone streets lined with old Victorian homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, then dig into turkey and pumpkin pie at 1789, an old Federal house that was converted into a restaurant, or admire the fall foliage in Georgetown or the National Mall.