Austin offers plenty of places to get in the holiday spirit

By Shelley Seale

The winter holidays are a magical time of year for most people; a time when many businesses, cities and other organizations host special events to celebrate. Whether your interest is in parades and magnificent light displays; the performing arts; shopping; or outdoor excursions such as skating or riding an old-fashioned steam train with Santa – or a mixture of these – our holiday list for special attractions, festivities and events in Austin is sure to offer something for everyone. The city is hopping with events and festivals all year round, but winter holidays are a favorite time for many, and the time to find so much going on around our city. And when it comes to those parades and light displays, Austin does it in true big Texas style. From the romantic to family-friendly, get your calendars ready because we have your 10 Best list of Austin's top holiday attractions.

10. Armadillo Christmas Bazaar
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Ramos

Hot music, fine art, and cold beer make the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar the place where Austin shops in the giving season. The show is actually two events in one: an art fair and music festival with a vibrant community-driven vibe. Visitors can explore an amazing array of handmade items from 160+ artists while enjoying live local music and sips from a full bar. On exhibit will be everything from statement-making collectible pieces to modestly priced stocking stuffers. While Texas artists predominate, there are a select few carefully chosen from around the country. The Armadillo stage showcases some of Austin's favorite musical talent, with live, intimate performances at least three times a day. Featured musicians range from new and emerging stars to local legends, to Grammy winners.

9. Blue Genie Art Bazaar
Photo courtesy of Blue Genie Art Bazaar

The Blue Genie Art Bazaar is a unique holiday art show returning for its 15th year this Nov. 27th – Dec. 24th at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre. The Bazaar features handmade artwork & gifts from over 200 local & regional artists – with a portion of proceeds going to Make-A-Wish® Foundation. The annual four-week holiday shopping exhibit will run seven days a week from 10 am to 10 pm during those times (except closing at 6 pm on December 24). All items featured at the bazaar must be handmade, resulting in unique paintings, photography, prints, jewelry, clothing and other gifts. Free Art Sweepstakes that give customers a chance to win special artwork, and Tote Tuesdays that provide customers with a free tote with purchase each Tuesday (while supplies last) are just some of the offerings this year. Parking & admission are FREE of charge. Full bar with snacks. Cash & cards accepted.

8. Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa
Photo courtesy of Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa

Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa invites merrymakers to start the holiday season with festive fun the whole family can enjoy. With the resort's Eighth Annual Gingerbread Competition and Sixth Annual Holiday Lights & Ice, families will be creating memories that will last throughout the holidays and years to come - both benefiting Make-A-Wish® Central & South Texas. This year's gingerbread competition features a classic "Winter Wonderland" theme. From spun sugar snowflakes, candy icicles or powdered snow-covered trees, every gingerbread house will be adorned with ornate, wintery decorations.  Gingerbread enthusiasts interested in cooking up their best creations are encouraged to submit an entry form to win grand prizes. With a portion of proceeds benefitting Make-A-Wish Central & South Texas, the Holiday Lights & Ice event features a 4,000 square foot ice rink and a special "Winter Wonderland on Ice" kick-off production on Dec. 18 by Ice Couture, starring international dancers, show skaters and Austin's very own Chaparral Ice Skaters. Local Austinites, resort guests and Barton Creek Country Club members are invited to skate on the resort's indoor ice rink overlooking scenic hill country views and a display of twinkling lights. Holiday-inspired treats and hot beverages will be served along with ornament and gingerbread cookie decorating in Santa's Workshop.

7. Hill Country Galleria
Photo courtesy of Hill Country Galleria

The Hill Country Galleria comes alive during the winter holidays, with a calendar of events for everyone. There are Meet and Greets with Santa every day through Christmas, as well as Holiday Sing-A-Longs, Gingerbread House workshops and more. The Sing-A-Long will be held with the Vintage 15 and their big band sound. Enjoy live music, meet Santa, and bring a blanket to sit back and sing along. Bring the kids to The Candy Jar and let them create their own gingerbread house masterpiece with mounds of candy at their disposal. Light bites & refreshments will be served. One of the things people like most is the Galleria's winter Snow Days. Every Saturday through December 19, snow production turns the place into a winter wonderland. Toss a snowball, build a snow man, make a snow angel, and take fun family photos.

6. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Photo courtesy of Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Luminations at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a magical place. Thousands of luminaries and twinkling lights turn the center into a holiday wonderland during this Austin holiday tradition. Held on Saturday and Sunday, December 12 and 13, 2015 from 6 pm to 9 pm, the event costs $5 for adults and $3 for youth ages 5-17 (free for ages 4 and under). The gardens of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin will be ablaze with thousands of twinkling lights and luminarias the second weekend in December, with visitors enjoying live holiday music, indoor kids' activities and more. Activities include live music, visits with Frosty the Snowman, children's crafts, holiday tree activity, warm kettle corn and more.

5. Austin Steam Train
Photo courtesy of Austin Steam Train

The Austin Steam Train has long been a fun thing to do with kids – but just wait until they experience the North Pole Flyer! This two-and-a-half hour excursion features Santa and Mrs. Claus, storytelling, hot cocoa and a signature Christmas cookie. Each car is decorated for the season and the North Pole Flyer story is read live on board. While under way a Story Teller Elf will come to your car to read the story of the North Pole Flyer. Copies of the book are available for $5. Santa Claus is also on board every North Pole Flyer, walking through each car, greeting passengers young and old. Every child has an opportunity to visit with Santa, and receive special a gift. Mrs. Claus also walks through each car serving Christmas cookies and hot chocolate to all passengers. The North Pole Flyer departs from Cedar Park and travels to Bertram. The train does not de-board in Bertram, but only stops long enough for the crew to uncouple the locomotive, run it around the train on the scale track, then couple up to return to Cedar Park.

4. Long Center for the Performing Arts
Photo courtesy of JD Hancock

The Long Center for the Performing Arts hosts the beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker, each year. Performed by Ballet Austin, The Nutcracker is the longest-running production of the seasonal classic in Texas. Stephen Mills' take on this timeless tale features a cast of hundreds of dancers, including the charming and talented students from the prestigious Ballet Austin Academy who share the spotlight with our professional company of artists. Celebrate the magic of the holidays by experiencing this sweet treat with your family and friends, featuring live accompaniment by Austin Symphony Orchestra. The Nutcracker runs from December 5-23, 2015. The Long Center is also the place to see other holiday performances such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Musical (playing November 27-29) and Conspirare Christmas with Matt Alber (December 7).

3. ZACH Theatre
Photo courtesy of ZACH Theatre

If you love the performing arts, ZACH Theatre is the perfect place to spend some of your holiday season. For 2015, the hilarious, long-running Santaland Diaries is back, playing through December 27. Martin Burke stars as the ever-irreverent elf Crumpet in this outlandish and true tale penned by David Sedaris. Crumpet shows what it takes to juggle tiny tots and staggering Santas during a painfully festive time of the year. And to kick off the evening, chanteuse Meredith McCall and Martin take you on a sensational sleigh-ride of an all-new cabaret show created especially for ZACH. This merrily subversive and laugh 'til you cry evening will delight any adult audience. Also this season at ZACH is the classic A Christmas Carol, also running through December 27. Appropriate for ages five and up, this is the most popular show in ZACH's over 90-year history. ZACH's fresh take on A Christmas Carol features three soulful Ghosts making a joyful noise, while moving our hearts with the Cratchit family's love and Ebenezer Scrooge's miraculous transformation. ZACH's inspired adaptation of Charles Dickens' beloved classic juxtaposes a traditional Victorian setting and gorgeous period costumes with a modern musical score that spans genres and eras.

2. Chuy's Giving to Children Parade
Photo courtesy of Chuy's

This annual parade will be held on Saturday, November 28, 2015. Starting at 11 am at the State Capitol and marching down Congress Avenue, the Chuy's Giving to Children Christmas Parade collects toys for Operation Blue Santa. Bring a toy to give to the marchers in the parade and enjoy big inflatable balloons, holiday floats and children's characters. At a designated time during the Parade Procession, all units will stop to collect the toys. Santa's Helpers will line the parade route and help spectators give their toy. All toys will be distributed by the Operation Blue Santa Program to another child just in time for the holidays. Highlights of the parade will include giant inflatable balloons, festive holiday floats, famous children's characters, spectacular marching bands, cool classic cars and of course, Santa.

1. Austin Trail of Lights
Photo courtesy of Trail of Lights

The Austin Trail of Lights, powered by H-E-B, puts on its magnificent display by utilizing more than two million lights. More than 400,000 people visit the 50-plus displays and exhibits, and the event is made possible with the help of a thousand volunteers. This year the two-week event will continue past traditions from its 51-year history, as well as several new features. For the first time ever, attendees will find a classic carousel in Zilker Village, along with a new and improved Groovy Grove. Favorites will also return, including Santa's Workshop, the North Pole, the Yule Log, Candy Land and the Ferris Wheel (which will have a new home on Lou Neff Road). Each night will feature a different special event, such as turning the iconic Trail of Lights globe Longhorn burnt orange. The Zilker Tree Lighting will take place on Sunday, November 29. Some of Austin's favorite food trucks will be on the scene, from East Side King and Mighty Fine Burgers to Amy's Ice Cream and Funtastic Funnel Cakes. Additional fun can be had at the arts and crafts station, the Community Performance Stage which will feature more than 60 local performance groups, or by letting the kids write letters to Santa at the North Pole. H-E-B is sponsoring a Read 3 train to promote literacy, and will be giving every child who stops by the train a free book to take home. The official start to the Trail of Lights kicks off December 8 and runs through December 22.