Holidays in Bethlehem: There’s a Reason They Call it “Christmas City USA”

From a live advent calendar to an open-air German gift market to an actual Star of Bethlehem, no one does the holiday like they do it here.

Christmas huts line Bethlehem’s Main Street. / Getty Images

If there’s any city where the holiday spirit conquers all, it’s “Christmas City USA,” founded and named by Moravian settlers on December 24, 1741. In this Lehigh Valley burg, Christmas music serenades pedestrians, and cobblestone streets provide old-world charm.

Everyone you meet seems plucked from a “Countdown to Christmas” feature — from a museum employee who writes mystery novels to the Mr. and Mrs. Claus who are married in real life to the jubilant hotel staff stringing 35,000 lights every year so that guests and townspeople alike can experience the magic of the holidays.

Where to stay The Historic Hotel Bethlehem (from $269 per night) is home to an authentic Hallmark-worthy storyline. In 1998, the landmark property was on the brink of being demolished when two Lehigh University alums began working on a plan to build a partnership with other alumni and friends to save the beloved hotel. Thanks to them, the property is thriving and as grand as it was in the 1920s. Folks love it so much that some even stick around after they die — just ask management about the friendly ghosts.

Most festive activities Bethlehem is the only place in the United States where you can experience the joys of a Live Advent Calendar. It’s like a tree lighting, but more exciting: Hundreds of residents gather each night leading up to Christmas, and a child is selected from the audience to knock on the Advent calendar door. Everyone leaves with a treat in this free celebration. The Moravian Museum houses replicas of the first documented Christmas tree in the nation, which, naturally, was recorded in Bethlehem. The Bethlehem Garden Club, along with Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites, decorates more than 25 trees with a different theme annually — this year, it’s classic Christmas movies. And don’t leave without buying an authentic German ornament at the open-air Christkindlmarkt.

Best spot for a selfie On a Bethlehem by Night Bus Tour, a guide in period dress will take you to the Star of Bethlehem on the city’s South Mountain and point out historic buildings along the way, including spots where George Washington and John Adams are known to have stayed.

What to do after If you’re staying at the hotel, it’s perfectly positioned on Main Street, across from the Chocolate Lab, where you can snag hot cocoa to go, and the Moravian Book Shop, the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world. Dine on the heated patio at Zest Bar + Grille for New American bites overlooking the Star of Bethlehem. Then step back in time for Jazz Age cocktails and small plates at the romantic Bookstore Speakeasy. Social Still, a distillery and restaurant built inside a Prohibition-era bank building, is a must for small-batch bourbon lovers. And be sure to try Rude Elf’s Reserve, a deep chestnut ale with gingerbread notes created at Fegley’s Brew Works.

If you’re there on New Year’s Eve Family-friendly PeepsFest is a seasonal sugar rush featuring a 400-pound marshmallow creature that drops well before midnight, so the littles can get in on the fun.

Published as “Know-it-All Guide: Joyful Jaunts” in the December 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.