Have you ever wanted to visit one of those incredibly festive towns from every Hallmark Christmas movie? Leavenworth, Washington, a tiny Bavarian-themed town nestled in the Cascade mountains that’s bursting with Christmas cheer, may just be the town for you. Here’s everything you need to know to have the most magical Christmas in Leavenworth this holiday season.
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I love all things Christmas, so, when I moved to Seattle a few years ago, it quickly became my family’s annual tradition to make a pilgrimage to Leavenworth to take in all the twinkly lights, holiday cheer, and gluhwein our bodies can handle. Over the years, I’ve picked up several tips and tricks to make the most of our Leavenworth Christmas visits and I wanted to share them with you, in hopes that your experience there will be that much merrier.
What is Leavenworth?
Leavenworth is a teeny town, of less than 2,500 residents, approximately two and a half hours east of Seattle, that is sought out by visitors around the world for its Christmas and Oktoberfest festivities and adorable Bavarian architecture. But while the town currently looks straight out of the Sound of Music, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the town does not really have any German roots at all!
Short history lesson: The Leavenworth area was originally home to the Yakama, Chinook, and Wenatchi tribes, with European settlers arriving here in 1890. Once a train line was built here around the turn of the century, the area’s logging and sawmill operations exploded and the town thrived. But around 1930, the railroad was rerouted and, over the next few decades, Leavenworth shrunk to be little more than a ghost town.
Fortunately, in the early 1960s, local leaders hatched a plan- what if they gave the town a giant makeover and hosted a series of festivals throughout the year to attract tourists? A couple of themes for the town were proposed- “Western”, “gay nineties”, and “alpine”. Residents voted on and chose “alpine” and over the next decade, the entire downtown area was renovated, with Bavarian facades and decorations adorning each building. Now, everything from the town’s gas station to the Starbucks, looks like it would fit right in on the Alps (it’s literally required under Leavenworth’s building code)!
To call this wacky plan a success would be an understatement- Leavenworth sees over 200,000 visitors for its Christmas festivities alone and over a million visitors throughout the entire year!
When is Christmas in Leavenworth Celebrated?
Leavenworth usually kicks off its Christmas celebration the day after Thanksgiving, with roasted chestnuts, carolers, a downtown festooned with over 500,000 Christmas lights (!!!), and even Santa himself. While most of the town’s holiday events are scheduled between Black Friday and Christmas Eve, shops and stores in downtown Leavenworth usually leave up their decorations all the way through Valentine’s Day weekend.
How to Get to Leavenworth from Seattle
Located 117 miles east of Seattle and 288 miles northeast of Portland, Leavenworth is easily accessible for most folks that live in the Pacific Northwest.
While there’s public transit options, most visitors make the trek from Seattle along US-2, which will take you through the heart of a mountain pass, called Stevens Pass. This area can get a ton of snow in December (receiving an average of 460 inches of snow per year!), so road conditions can get a bit dicey. Check road conditions before you head out and make sure you have tire chains in case you run into any gnarly snow or ice.
Don’t want to worry about the weather? Consider taking a train instead- there’s one daily Amtrak train departing from Seattle around 4 pm and arriving in Leavenworth around 8 pm (with two daily return trains to Seattle). Not only do you not have to worry about the weather, but you can also partake in as much yummy German beer as you want!
Plus, is there any public transport option more Christmas-y than a train? I’ll wait.
Tips for Enjoying Christmas in Leavenworth
1. Book accommodations way in advance.
If you’re coming from Seattle or Portland, it’s honestly a bit of a trek to drive back and forth to Leavenworth as just a day trip. Plus, with so much to see and do around Leavenworth to get in the Christmas spirit, it’s a shame to go all that way for just a few hours. So, I’d highly recommend considering making your visit to Leavenworth a full-blown weekend getaway.
That being said, Leavenworth at Christmas is an extremely popular destination- people literally come from all over the world to celebrate Christmas here- and accommodations in this already tiny town book up months and months in advance. So be sure to book accommodations waaay earlier than you’d think.
I’d recommend checking out the following hotels (all of which take their Bavarian themes very seriously!):
Bavarian Lodge: My go-to recommendation for those staying in Leavenworth, thanks to its awesome location downtown, on-site German-style pub, and two outdoor hot tubs to take in those snowy mountain views.
Linderhof Inn: Located on the edge of the downtown area, this Bavarian-themed inn has excellent perks, like a hot breakfast buffet and free cross-country ski rentals.
Enzian Inn: Situated right next to the Linderhof, this family-run hotel offers many of the same benefits as the Linderhof, but has some additional quirky touches, like a morning alpine horn performance. How can you say no to that?
2. Parking can be kind of a nightmare.
The town has a few paid lots that seem to fill up pretty early and can be quite pricey (costing up to $30 for all day parking). If you get here early enough, my husband, Justin, and I have had success finding street parking (for free!) in the residential areas southeast and northwest of the downtown area- just make sure to keep your eye out for “No Parking” signs!
Alternatively, Leavenworth offers a couple of free Park and Ride locations, including the Willkommen Park & Ride, behind Leavenworth’s Safeway (which, yes, looks a bit Bavarian!). There’s a free shuttle, operated by Link Transit, that will take you from this lot to downtown Leavenworth.
3. If you don’t like crowds, arrive early.
It’s generally pretty common travel advice to arrive places early to avoid the masses. But for Leavenworth at Christmas, it’s, like, REALLY true- the town becomes exponentially more crowded in the afternoon and after dark, when the Christmas lights twinkle to life. In fact, it’s not unusual for there to be a line of highway traffic a few miles long waiting to get into Leavenworth in the early evening.
If sitting in hours of traffic isn’t your idea of Christmas magic, come early in the day- you can browse the stores in relative peace, you’ll be able to get things like food, drinks, and bathrooms way quicker, and you can admire the cute Bavarian architecture and the surrounding Cascades in the daylight.
4. Know what festivities to expect.
As mentioned above, Leavenworth’s over-the-top Christmas decorations stay up and twinkling from Thanksgiving weekend through mid-February, but you’ll have different experiences depending on which part of the holiday season you come.
The holiday season usually kicks off Thanksgiving weekend with Christkindlemarkt, a Christmas market with lots of local arts and crafts, Christmas music, and all the Bavarian food your body can handle.
Afterwards, throughout December, you can expect the town to be theatrically lit up each evening with the aforementioned half a MILLION Christmas lights.
On weekends and certain weekdays, you can also see carolers, folks dressed up like Christmas characters, and fun activities for the kiddos, like writing letters to Santa.
Throughout the month of January, Leavenworth switches gears to celebrate Winter Karneval (based on the old German tradition called “Fasching”), with live ice carving, tons of ice sculptures, the only annual fireworks show that Leavenworth puts on, and plenty of wacky ice-centric games, like ice cube scramble and snowball toss.
The Timbrrr! Music Festival is usually on the last weekend of January, with indie artists, like The Thermals and Ra Ra Riot, playing at both outdoor and outdoor venues.
Unsurprisingly, Leavenworth sees the vast majority of its Christmas visitors the first three weeks of December, which brings me to…
5. Consider coming after Christmas.
If you’re going for maximum Christmas cheer, roasted chestnuts and all, it’s worth heading to Leavenworth and battling the crowds in those early weekends of December to see the town at its most merry.
But if you’re just looking to enjoy the adorable Bavarian architecture, all dolled up with twinkling lights and against the snowy mountains, it can be just as lovely (and arguably even more so) to visit once Christmas and the corresponding crowds have come and passed. Plus, I think Fasching is seriously under celebrated in the United States, amirite?
6. Know where the bathrooms are.
Going to Leavenworth for Christmas goes hand-in-hand with slurping down a cozy cup or three of hot cocoa or mulled wine. But between the fact that most shops don’t have public restrooms and there’s long lines at seemingly every bar and restaurant, it’s good to have a game plan when nature calls.
There’s three public restrooms with flush toilets sprinkled throughout the town: at the Leavenworth Festhalle, Front Street Park, and 8th and Commercial Street. In recent years, they’ve also started putting more porta potties outside of these restrooms, so you should have options, if you need it!
7. Try local food and beer.
While you’re in Leavenworth, you gotta try all the Bavarian and other local grub in town! Some of my personal favorite spots include:
Danish Bakery for cherry and raspberry strudel. They usually sell out pretty early and are cash only.
Icicle Brewing Company for some yummy microbrewed winter ales, stouts, and porters and cozy outdoor fire pits to warm up at.
Bergdorf Cellars for a glass of gluhwein and yet another outdoor fire pit.
8. Don’t miss the Nutcracker Museum.
Most of your time exploring Leavenworth will be spent moseying around shops and restaurants, but you can take your Christmas cheer one step further by visiting the quirky Nutcracker Museum.
For just $5 per person, you’ll get to explore over 7,000 different nutcrackers, from all different eras (with one dating back to Roman times!) and from around the world. For the kiddos, there’s also a nutcracker themed scavenger hunt to get them in on the nutty fun.
9. Dress warmly.
With average lows dipping down into the low 20s in December and an average annual snowfall of 90 inches, it’s fair to say you’ll definitely be in a winter wonderland when you’re visiting Leavenworth at Christmas.
Given the fact you’re going to be spending the majority of your time wandering around in the quite literally freezing outdoors of Leavenworth’s downtown, it’s important to dress warmly. I’d recommend bringing along a waterproof parka (like this one for men and this one for women), waterproof boots with decent grip for icy sidewalks (I love these for women), and a base layer (like this top and these bottoms for men and this top and these bottoms for women).
10. Don’t forget to explore Leavenworth’s outdoor activities.
While Leavenworth’s Bavarian-themed downtown gets all the love, you should absolutely spend some time exploring the gorgeous mountains and alpine forests surrounding the town. Luckily, there’s a ton of wintery outdoor adventures to choose from!
Snowshoe at Icicle Road, Little Wenatchee Road, Colchuck Lake, or Eagle Creek.
Nordic ski at Lake Wenatchee State Park or any of the area’s four Sno-Parks, including South Park, North Park, Nason Ridge, and Chiwawa.
Go snow tubing at the Leavenworth Ski Hill, complete with a rope tow and a lodge dishing out hot cocoa.
Snowmobile along the Sugarloaf and French Corral Loop
With that, I hope you have the merriest Christmas in Leavenworth. Do you have any questions about visiting or the festivities? Let me know in the comments below!