Folks in the Old Dominion have been celebrating Christmas for centuries, and they still know how to throw a party when December rolls around, from Richmond’s city sparkle to Middleburg’s fox hunt parade.
As the holiday season becomes increasingly crowded with fake trees, subpar mall Santas, and—gasp!—soy eggnog, it’s impossible not to yearn for some authenticity this time of year. Sure, you don’t have to venture far to find a lovably low-budget small-town Christmas parade, but we got to thinking: Where in the South can you find true regional character? It turns out that Virginia is chock-full of destinations that don’t feel cookie-cutter, from Middleburg’s quaint fox hunt fervor to Williamburg’s ye-olde yuletide. If you’re lucky, you might even stumble across some real, bona fide snow.
Why you’ll love it: Usually reserved the rest of the year, Richmond fills with glitz and giddiness when the holidays roll around. Christmas lights illuminate acres of trees, flowers, and walkways at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. And all around the area, homeowners in neighborhoods and small towns try to outshine each other for the “Tacky Light Tour.”
Get in the spirit: Start at a free “Music at Midday” concert in The Jefferson Hotel Monday-Friday at noon (through December 21), as local choirs and string ensembles offer seasonal songs in the soaring Rotunda. Afterward, set out for an afternoon of shopping in Carytown. The neighborhood is packed with locally owned boutiques and shops, especially along its stylish West Cary Street. The boutique Pink (804/358-0884) carries clothing from designer lines such as Cynthia Vincent and Elizabeth and James. Down the street, Janet Brown Interiors offers linens from Vera Bradley and Peacock Alley, and World of Mirth stocks toys for all ages—from classic wooden blocks for kids to gag gifts for the older set. (We picked up a Ryan Gosling coloring book for $15.) As the sun goes down, head to the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden for the Dominion Garden Fest of Lights. This year’s event features an “East Meets West” theme that includes origami sculptures from Japan and China in the conservatory and more than a half-million glittering lights illuminating garden paths lined with trees and shrubs. End the day by getting an even bigger glow on a Tacky Light Tour. Homeowners in dozens of Richmond neighborhoods and nearby towns flip switches on displays ranging from modestly lit mansions along Monument Avenue to one “probably seen from space” yard in neighboring Henrico County that features 250,000 lights.
Eat, drink, and make merry: Downtown’s dining scene got a boost this summer with the opening of 525 at The Berry Burk, where chef Taylor Hasty and restaurateur Tom Haas turned a men’s clothing store into an upscale eatery specializing in small plates such as vegetarian spring rolls ($8). If you feel like kicking up your heels, try the Can Can Brasserie in Carytown. The combination restaurant, patisserie, and late-night bar features classic French dishes such as rib-eye steak frites ($24.50). True to its name, the restaurant also offers performances by French cancan dancers. (Visit the website to see when the high-kicking shows are scheduled.)
Visions of sugarplums: Give yourself an early Christmas gift by checking into The Jefferson Hotel. The elegant 1895 Beaux Arts-style building features 261 rooms and suites (rates from $295, special holiday packages from $235). For more affordable stays, the Hilton Garden Inn Richmond Downtown offers rooms from $129, while the Commonwealth Park Suites near the State Capitol has suites from $129.
Why you’ll love it: Year-round, it’s hard to imagine a prettier town than Middleburg, an 18th-century village in the heart of Virginia’s Hunt Country, a premier wine region, and a haven for antiques and restaurants. The town rings in Christmas on the first Saturday in December with a grand Hunt Review Parade led by mounted riders in red and 80 frisky hounds. There’s also a family-friendly parade with carolers, marching bands, and Santa in a horse-drawn carriage. The rest of the month, a quaint downtown aglow in lights, historic inns, and cozy pubs promise an enchanting winter weekend.
Get in the (shopping) spirit: Perk up at Middleburg Common Grounds, the latest spot for a creamy cappuccino, before starting your marathon. Washington Street is loaded with antiques stores. You’ll find the most variety at Middleburg Antique Emporium, a two-story, multi-dealer store specializing in fine antique English, American, and French furniture, sterling, porcelains, linens, and more. Change eras at The Outpost (540/687-4094), a new boutique with Hemingway-esque treasures from around the globe. Locals love Olio, an olive oil and vinegar tasting room. (Dark chocolate balsamic vinegar makes a great stocking stuffer.) Stitch is a needlepoint shop with a modern edge (e.g. funky canvas designs and cool shoulder bags). For the meat lover on your list, mosey to Home Farm Store, a sustainably minded shop with naturally raised meat from nearby Ayrshire Farm and such gifts as Cheese and Homemade Charcuterie on a custom cow-shaped wooden farm board ($55-$75).
Eat, drink, and make merry: Have a drink with two foxes, the first being The Red Fox Inn & Tavern, the oldest continuously operating inn in the U.S. (The taproom once served as a hospital for Confederate soldiers.) A short walk away, The Fox’s Den Tavern is a hunting-themed pub that features local wine and farm-to-table pub grub. For French classics done right, hoof it around the corner to The French Hound for steak frites ($25) or a boeuf bourguignon ($24). Save room for holiday profiteroles filled with peppermint stick ice cream and chocolate sauce ($9). For a true Hunt Country brunch experience, visit The Ashby Inn, a gorgeous refuge in nearby Paris. Chef Tarver King’s Chicken and Waffles with smoked bacon caramel (three courses for $45) is so delicious you won’t miss hearing a bugle call.
Visions of sugarplums: Follow the low winding stone walls to the Goodstone Inn & Restaurant, where you can frolic in an elegant guest cottage, take brisk walks on a gorgeous, rolling 265-acre estate, and then warm up with a glass of Virginia wine by the Carriage House fireplace (rates from $285).
Why you’ll love it: At first, Christmas celebrations in the re-created colonial capital of Virginia may seem subdued compared to the way we typically welcome the season. Apparently, folks in the 1700s weren’t into a lot of lights and glitter. But residents of the “Revolutionary City” sure liked to eat, drink, and party, as visitors soon discover when they dig into a bowl of Brunswick stew at Chowning’s Tavern and share a bottle of wine with Thomas Jefferson.
Get in the spirit: Start your 18th-century holiday by strolling Williamsburg’s decorated streets, browsing shops, sampling tavern fare, and watching craftspeople at work. For a behind-the-scenes look, take a Christmas Decorations Walking Tour ($15, tickets available at the Lumber House). The one-hour guided tour gives you the chance to see Williamsburg’s more than 2,500 all-natural wreaths that decorate nearly every building in town. Afterward, head over to Merchant’s Square, a collection of more than 40 shops and restaurants adjacent to the historic area. Find fashions from modern-day designers such as Milly, Tibi, and Tory Burch at the Closet Envy boutique, and baskets, hand-bound books, and more made by Williamsburg craftspeople at the Prentis Store.
Eat, drink, and make merry: With its collection of restaurants, taverns, and specialty meals, Williamsburg offers more than 300 years of Virginia cuisine. For lunch, try Chowning’s Tavern. Originally opened in 1766 by Joseph Chowning to serve the “ordinary sort” of people, the re-created rustic alehouse now offers bowls of meaty Brunswick stew ($11), plates of cheesy Welsh rarebit ($9.50), and more. December also brings a menu of celebratory meals to town, such as the Thomas Jefferson Wine Dinner at King’s Arm Tavern ($130; December 1, 22, and 29). The four-course dinner, hosted by the President himself (as portrayed by actor Bill Barker), features dishes such as roast of beef tenderloin made from Monticello recipes paired with some of Jefferson’s favorite European vintages.
Visions of sugarplums: Live like a Rockefeller at The Williamsburg Inn (rates from $440). Conceived by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (who also oversaw the re-creation of Colonial Williamsburg in the 1920s and 1930s), the luxury hotel features 62 spacious guest rooms. If you’d rather save a little, the Williamsburg Woodlands Hotel and Suites offers more basic, but still comfortable, accommodations from $145.