Towns In The U.S. That Are Worthy Of A Hallmark Christmas Movie

In Norwegian, there's "kos." German has "gemütlichkeit," and Danish has "hygge." They all mean something slightly different, but they get at something English can't quite wrap into a single word: a deep coziness, both physical and mental, you get from the right combination of simple pleasures, like warmth, friendliness, and togetherness.

Kos is nebulous but oh, so nice. Maybe that's what makes it and its cousins so alluring. You can search for them perpetually. They're easy to grasp and difficult to pin down all at once. In America, there's a whole company dedicated to capturing those feelings: the Hallmark Channel, with its parade of Christmas movies. For the uninitiated, if you find the Hallmark Christmas movie for you, you'll feel like how a cup of hot chocolate or a cold snowflake on your nose makes you feel.

The stories vary somewhat, but there's a common thread through each: the setting. Every Christmas tree is full and festive, every snow-packed street is dotted with twinkling lights and glittery-eyed couples walking mitten-in-mitten, and every hall is decked so thickly you could wear it as a coat. And while the feeling is difficult to pin down, the towns that exude it are not. From Washington to Georgia, there are towns across America that hold you close and open your eyes to that extra Hallmark twinkle.

Kimmswick, Missouri

Kimmswick is a simple grid of streets that's a five-minute walk from the Mississippi River. Unlike St. Louis 25 miles upriver, this town is about a quarter of a square mile, and a lucky 133 residents call it home. The town flickered to life in the late 1850s with the establishment of a post office. Though the original post office is one of the few buildings not preserved in the Kimmswick Historic District today, the 100-year-old post office still operates at the corner of Front and Market.

Try to visit Kimmswick at Christmas — it's special. If you visit during the Kimmswick Christmas Festival in early December, you'll feel like you're in a snow globe dense with garland and red-cheeked Santa figurines. Each historic door opens to reveal a unique collection of jolly goods and provide a refuge from the cold. Horse-drawn carriages, which you can pay a small fee to ride, clop down the road most years. Carolers bring Christmas cheer to the streets. The Christmas Haus on Elm, which brings holiday joy throughout the year, is especially joyous. Bring someone special, grab some food at the Dough Depot on Market, and enjoy.

If you bring little ones, consider going during an Elf on the Shelf weekend (typically the second and third weekends of December). Grab your book of rhymes at the visitor center, then head out to find the elves. And while you're in town, why not mail a letter to Santa from the 100-year-old post office?

Leavenworth, Washington

From Kimmswick, glide up the Missouri River, hop over the Rockies and the Cascades, and you'll land in the Bavarian-style village of Leavenworth. It's unbelievably picturesque, with a backdrop of snowy mountains lending the finishing touches. Though just over 2,000 people reside here year-round, thousands more visit at Christmastime to bask in the town's atmosphere, which is almost indistinguishable from a European Christmas market

Expect Leavenworth's storybook Bavarian architecture to be lined with lights, every hard edge softened with snow, for the bulk of winter. The flurry of activity starts with the Christmastown festival in late November — marked by music and Christmas characters in the gazebo in Front Street Park; crafts, gift wrapping, and photo ops at the Leavenworth Festhalle; and carolers adding a joyous soundtrack to downtown. If you can't let the coziness go, come back in January for Winter Karneval. The lights stay up, the snow keeps falling, and winter activities abound.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Though it's a bit of a jolt to the senses, there's something undeniably special about this Smoky Mountain town. Gatlinburg sits in a nook at the mouth of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its main tourist drag is full of all the familiar faces — mini golf, wacky museums, bright merchandise, and lollipops aplenty — but serenity somehow flows through the chaos like a network of mountain streams. The Ober Mountain Aerial Tramway guides wide eyes up into the Smokies. Offshoot streets lead to mountain-view cabins and hotels. And the unfettered wilderness of the national park keeps silent watch, day and night.

Now take all of that — the humanity, the joy, the mountains — and make it Christmas. Can't you see how it becomes a Hallmark-y town? Gatlinburg's glow grows during the holiday season, with streets and storefronts alight with decorations and laughter. The Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade rolls through town in early December; the Gatlinburg SkyPark, a mountainside attraction with a massive sky-bridge, extensive boardwalk, and an observation area, is completely laden with Christmas lights through January; and quietude awaits, as always, in the national park. If you want both extravagance and solitude at a whim, spend time in Gatlinburg this Christmas season.

Mackinac Island, Michigan

Mackinac Island, a surreal smudge of earth in northwestern Lake Huron, is atmospheric any time of year. The ferries from mainland Michigan take you to an alternate dimension — a place where the automobile never caught on and relaxation proliferated in its place.

The most iconic images of Mackinac Island are of sunkissed historic architecture and the vast green lawn of the Grand Hotel. But if you can brave the Michigan winter, consider visiting in December. The island takes on a new, Hallmark-like face as Christmas draws near, with a tree lighting on Main Street kicking off the season. The annual Christmas Bazaar, which benefits the local hospital and churches, takes place the first weekend of December. Why not ring in the season of giving with raffles, crafts, and ice cream?

Winter is undoubtedly the offseason on the island, and as such, you should expect fewer open shops and lodging options than during the bustling summer. But if you're looking to relax on an island steeped in history and flush with outdoor winter activities, there are few better places than Mackinac Island.

Bentonville, Arkansas

Bentonville, like the rest of Northwest Arkansas, will surprise you. This artsy city hides among the undulating mini-mountains of the Ozarks, and coming to Bentonville is worth it anytime. Art galleries dot the predominantly brick downtown, ice cream-eating citizens populate Bentonville Square, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sits north in the woods from downtown. Not far away, architectural wonders like Frank Lloyd Wright's Bachman-Wilson House and the skyward Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel also await. 

But the town has a dreamy atmosphere at Christmastime, especially downtown. Bentonville Square dons lights on every inch of green after the annual Lighting of the Square, and just a block away, you can skate The Rink at Lawrence Plaza throughout the holiday season. The surrounding shops offer warmth and gifts for those you love. Take that all in and then retire to a cozy Airbnb — what's better?

Breckenridge, Colorado

If anywhere outside of the North Pole qualifies as a winter wonderland, it's Breckenridge, Colorado. Snow falls here for the majority of the year, drawing countless adventure (and kos) seekers up into the mountains to experience its splendor. There's skiing, snowboarding, dog-sledding, and more in the town's five mountains; at the base, you'll find a figurine-pretty downtown, an arts district, and plenty of places to warm your hands fireside.

Oh, and during the Christmas season, Breckenridge has about as many things to do as it does Christmas lights. After the Lighting of Breckenridge in early December, that's 250,000 lights (and things to do). The afternoon before the lighting, visitors and townsfolk are treated to a dog parade, a holiday market of homemade gifts, and the legendary Race of the Santas. That's where a jingling group of St. Nicks dash down Main Street to Blue River Plaza to join the masses when the lights turn on. Not long after, the wild three days of Ullr Fest aim to appease the Norse god of snow — through races, ice skating, bonfires, and plenty of Breckenridge Bourbon.

Throughout the season, shoppers can enter narrow lanes of boutique shops and emerge with gifts for those they love. Up mountain, you'll find the legendary Breckenridge Resort, which offers thrills and relaxation alike. A December in Breckenridge will leave you with years of memories.

Apex, North Carolina

The Raleigh suburb of Apex is growing and growing, but downtown Apex is still quite small — and it still has that railroad-town charm that explains why so many keep putting roots there. Stroll down Salem Street on a Christmas season night, and it'll be even harder to resist. You'll pass the lovely year-round fixtures — craft stores and art galleries, tap houses, and sidewalk dining — but this time of year, every lamp post and several storefronts are tastefully lit to strike a delightful mood. 

Make that night the first Saturday in December, and you'll catch the Apex Rotary Christmas Parade coming through. When you're all downtown-ed out, stroll your way to Hunter Street to take in the lit-up Christmas tree outside Apex Town Hall. Any time during December, pick up a map for the Holiday Tour of Lights, a dazzling townwide display where each participating home and business tries to outshine the last. It makes for an enchanting winter drive.

Santa Claus, Indiana

If you want to mail Santa a letter, don't fret. You can drop it at the Santa Claus Museum & Village in Santa Claus, Indiana — or even write it at the town's original post office. Every letter gets a reply from the man himself in December. The big guy has been answering letters mailed to this Southern Indiana town since 1914 after the postmaster took note of how many letters to Santa showed up there. 

The town, originally called Santa Fe, got its festive name in the mid-1850s under circumstances steeped in various legends — think the Christmas Star, townwide meetings on Christmas Eve, and everyone coming to joyous agreement at once. Today, Santa Claus is filled with Christmas-themed attractions and street names like Prancer Drive, Dancer Lane, and Sled Run.

There's no shortage of things to do in this little town in December. At the museum and village, the original post office and the 1880 Santa Claus Church are still intact and explorable on the property. You can find treats galore at Santa's Candy Castle, toys at Santa's TOYS, and over a mile of delights in the drive-through Santa Claus Land of Lights. Elsewhere, you can meet live reindeer, sit down for Storytime with Mrs. Claus, and literally roast chestnuts over an open fire. And, if you look at the town's calendar of events, that's hardly the first layer of snow. To note, Santa Claus is also home to an unforgettable amusement park called Holiday World & Splashin' Safari, which pays homage to Christmas and several other holidays with themed thrills.

Winterset, Iowa

You're walking on a snowy winter morning on the Great Plains. All that was green is white, and that white is whipping through the air now, too, so you take shelter under the hard timber of a covered bridge. The storm calms, and just after it gives way to muffled silence, you hear the sound of cars crackling down snowy roads, as kids choose sides in a snowball fight that's already beginning. You emerge into Winterset City Park, dodge a wayward snowball, and overhear excited chatter among the warriors' parents about the Winter Solstice Market on the square, where local artisans sell their creations. 

The conversation shifts to the Winterset Festival of Lights, with its music, lighted parade, and darling window displays, and how this year managed to top the last. One parent has family in town, and she thinks she might drive them through Holiday Lights on the Hill at the Madison County Historical Society — or maybe the classic trip to all six historic covered bridges in Madison County. "No, no!" one spirited parent yells. "Take them to 'It's a Wonderful Life' at the Iowa Theater!" Maybe it's settled — or maybe they'll do it all. Your to-do list has surely grown. Either way, you know your Christmas season is in good hands in Winterset, Iowa.

Jekyll Island, Georgia

The gem of coastal Georgia does it big any time of year. On a given Jekyll Island day, you might stumble onto a festival, a fireworks display, or an island-wide treasure hunt. You'll find sunny beaches, breathtaking resorts, and a vast historic district. Come to Jekyll Island from late November to early January, and you'll see Christmas on a scale you didn't know possible — but with warmth and individuality that can compete with any city on this list. They call it Holly Jolly Jekyll.

The Jekyll Island Historic District comes alive with well over 1.5 million lights and 350-plus displays, and you can hop on a trolley or, new this year, a vintage Model T to take it all in. The Holly Jolly Jekyll Light Parade enraptures spectators all over the island on a select night in December. Holiday-focused tours flow through several historic landmarks throughout the season. And yes, fireworks burst overhead before and after Christmas.

A warm-weather Christmas destination, Jekyll Island is beachy and subtropical. It doesn't offer the typical Christmas experience. But like the perfect Hallmark movie — and like Kimmswick and Winterset and kos and hygge — the island welcomes those who embrace its holiday spirit.