In most places, you can easily find the heart of holiday celebrations. In Asheville, North Carolina, it’s at Biltmore; in San Antonio, it’s at the River Walk. In smaller places, such as my hometown of Thomasville, Georgia, everyone knows to go downtown for parades, decorated store windows, and shopping. In Dallas, however, Christmas is everywhere you turn.
Because of its size and metropolitan makeup, there are seemingly endless ways to ring in the season, from taking in a massive tree in East Dallas to experiencing The Adolphus Hotel’s legendary downtown parade to all of the decked-out parks, stores, and restaurants in between. It’s dazzling—and sometimes dizzying—but I learned that if you organize your days by neighborhood, you can experience nearly everything the city has to offer.
Start at the Arboretum
Whether you’re traveling with friends, family, or solo, the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden is a must-see. Locals refer to this 66-acre showplace as the city’s “crown jewel” because it is, in true Dallas fashion, flashy. Decorated with over 1 million LED lights, a 50-foot-tall Christmas tree, and a quaint German village, it will quickly put you in an enchanted state of mind.
The arboretum’s 12 Days of Christmas outdoor exhibit is made up of 25-foot-tall glowing glass gazebos that look like snow globes come to life. Each depicts a scene from the classic carol—4 calling birds, 9 ladies dancing, 12 drummers drumming—with detailed figurines that twirl, float, spin, and look real thanks to costumes and sets designed by The Dallas Opera. The installation is a 3⁄4-mile loop, so grab a cup of hot cocoa from one of the many drink carts—adults can add a generous pour of Baileys to theirs—and enjoy the view.
The path is well lit and walkable with magnolia trees wrapped in twinkling lights and Christmas music playing throughout. On my most recent trip, I watched kids dance and sing along to the tunes—that is, when they weren’t left speechless by the magic of it all.
At the end of the exhibit is the Christmas Village, a cluster of 12 chalets that children can go inside and explore on their own. Volunteer vendors act as pretend shopkeepers, handing out candy and baked goods and helping them mail letters to Santa at the post office. There is also a scavenger hunt map for animals hidden in the small buildings’ facades. (And if you’re not traveling with youngsters, the nearby biergarten is worth a stop.) Don’t miss the arboretum’s newest addition, a spectacular tree that glows to the beat of music and overlooks White Rock Lake and the lights of Dallas.
Discover Traditions Downtown
Just 6 miles from there, you’ll find The Adolphus Hotel, which many people call the “capital of Christmas.” Inside the 22-story Beaux Arts-style structure built in 1912 is an impressive 25-foot-tall balsam fir surrounded by gifts wrapped in Stetson hat and boot boxes. The hotel has a rich history, including hosting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1991, but it’s best known for founding the Christmas parade in 1988.
At the annual event (this year’s takes place on Saturday, December 2), more than 450,000 spectators flood the streets to officially kick off the season. At the end of the parade, pastry chefs from The French Room, the hotel’s restaurant, come out on the balcony in their toques for a show that rivals a coronation or royal wedding. No matter the date, The French Room is a destination of its own for afternoon tea. (Reservations for holiday dining open the first Tuesday of October, so be sure to mark your calendar for next year.) Other notable favorites at the hotel include the Cocoa Lounge hot chocolate bar and the rooftop patio, where eggnog is served fireside in mini cabanas around the pool.
While downtown, check out a screening of a classic holiday film—like Elf, It’s a Wonderful Life, or A Charlie Brown Christmas—at The Majestic Theatre. Or visit the flagship Neiman Marcus, where you can experience the store’s famous buffet (advance reservations required) in The Zodiac restaurant, let the kids visit Santa, and pose for a photo in front of the Baccarat-embellished tree.
Window Shop in Highland Park Village
For fashion lovers, no trip is complete without a stop in Highland Park Village. The open-air retail-and-dining center is best known for its designer storefronts—such as Ralph Lauren, Carolina Herrera, Dior, and Hermès—but you can enjoy the views without buying a thing. The brick-paved area, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 2000, is festooned with more than 1.5 million lights that turn on just before sundown.
Admire designs by Texans at La Vie Style House, Lela Rose, and Lele Sadoughi. St. Michael’s Woman’s Exchange, a Dallas institution that has been in the same location for over six decades, is a non-profit boutique selling gifts, coffee-table books, and entertaining essentials to benefit those in need. If you work up an appetite while you browse, Honor Bar, Mi Cocina, and Bird Bakery are all good spots for grabbing quick bites. After dark, reserve a patio table at Fachini for a bird’s-eye view of the lights—and don’t miss chef Julian Barsotti’s 100-layer lasagna.
Whatever you decide to do in Highland Park Village, stick around for the lights. Book a ride with Threejays Carriages for a horse-drawn guided tour, or drive through the neighborhood to see the stately homes all dressed up.
Enjoy a Meal in Harwood
For a dining experience as memorable as the food itself, head to the Harwood District in Uptown. A relatively new development surrounding the Rolex Building, this walkable 19-block area is home to 16 restaurants, including the indoor-outdoor Dolce Riviera, the British pub Harwood Arms, and Poco Fiasco (a martini bar meets pizza parlor). Visit Mercat Bistro for French cuisine and an atmosphere that rivals the menu, with small tables nestled inside a wonderland of enormous flocked trees that are so grand I almost didn’t believe they were real. (They were.) Or treat the kids by reserving a table for a “musical performance” by animatronic polar bears playing instruments. Afterward, you can stop by Marie Gabrielle Restaurant & Gardens to see the biggest tree in Uptown—it’s 80 feet tall and adorned with 3,000 ornaments and 10,000 lights.
Shop Like a Local in Park Cities
For a break from the crowds, drive to Park Cities to check out some under-the-radar spots in the retail centers along Lovers Lane. The Toy Maven on Lovers, one of three locations of the store, is brimming with Hot Wheels, Lego blocks, wooden stick horses, and kid-size cowboy hats. The Sample House is a one-stop shop for gift wrap and presents like scented candles and dish towels. A few doors down, Interabang Books is stocked with current bestsellers alongside Texas-inspired reads for all ages.
Also in this area is the original Hudson House restaurant, which is lined with garlands of ornaments along the ceiling. Settle into a cozy leather booth for a cheeseburger and an ice-cold Stone Fruit Martini, which has notes of peach, orange, and cranberry. (Martinis, and oysters, are cheaper during happy hour.) For a quieter option, go to Rise, an intimate French restaurant serving sweet and savory soufflés. Don’t miss out on the Marshmallow Soup, which has a tomato-carrot base topped with goat cheese marshmallows, and order the raspberry soufflé for dessert. Grab a table on the patio to hear carols sung in French on the overhead speakers.
The beauty of December in Dallas is that, while it may be impossible to see everything the city has to offer in a single long weekend, there’s always next year and plenty of new traditions still left to be discovered.
Best Places to Stay
From family-friendly hotels to buzzy boutique spots, there’s a great choice for every type of traveler:
For those who prefer a trendier place, check into this downtown newcomer that was the first Thompson hotel in Texas. During the 12 Days of Thompson, they have a gift market in the lobby and offer unique programming such as a “Dallas Cowboys Holiday Brunch.”
Opened in June 2023, Harwood’s first hotel is ideally suited for couples or friends who are looking for boutique service, cool restaurant concepts, and stylish interior design.
Omni Dallas Hotel
Located downtown, this spacious 1,001-room spot is an affordable pick that’s also kid approved and convenient to the interstate.
While it doesn’t offer walkable access to local attractions, the amenities still make it a good option for families during this busy time of year.
The Adolphus Hotel
This iconic location books up seasonally, so we recommend reserving your room now for next December.