The year's final month offers plenty of fun-filled vacation opportunities in the Lone Star State. While Texas certainly has its fair share of holiday-themed events — including massive bazaars, holiday wine trails, and millions of Christmas lights — the state's mild winters make it a great destination for all types of winter vacations. From Victorian-themed festivals to stargazing to bird-watching, these are the best things to do and places to see when vacationing in Texas in December.
"Holiday trails" are prevalent across Texas during December. Virtually every corner of the state features an illuminated holiday-themed trail, from tiny Jefferson in East Texas to Texarkana on the Texas/Arkansas border to the scenic Texas Hill Country. Among the best known and most popular is the Hill Country Regional Lighting Trail, which includes the central Texas towns of Bandera, Boerne, Burnet, Dripping Springs, Fredericksburg, Goldwaite, Johnson City, Llano, Marble Falls, New Braunfels, and Wimberley.
Another popular trail located in the Texas Hill Country is the Texas Holiday Wine Trail. Central Texas is known for its award-winning wineries, and every December, the various wineries and vineyards host events and deck their tasting rooms with elaborate holiday-themed lights and decor. While you can easily attend tastings at any one of the many area locations, those wanting the full experience can take part in a ticketed Holiday Wine Trail. This self-guided event takes place the first two weeks in December, when guests can enjoy complimentary tastings at each of the nearly 50 participating locations, complete with Christmas treats and carols.
One of the year's most unique events in Texas is Galveston's Dickens on the Strand. This annual event sees Galveston's historic strand filled with costumed characters right out of Charles Dickens' novels. This holiday festival takes visitors back to the Victorian Era as street vendors with push carts work amongst carolers and street musicians, while children busy themselves at the Royal Menagerie Petting Zoo. As a bonus, visitors showing up dressed as a Dickens' character or in Victorian apparel receive half-price admission to the Dickens on the Strand festival. The festival typically takes place the first weekend in December and includes a whole host of accompanying events like a traditional English breakfast and meet-and-greets with Dickens' descendants.
In addition to the numerous holiday-themed or related events held across Texas during December, there are also a number of sporting events. One of the most popular running events of the year, the BMW Dallas Marathon, is always held during the twelfth month. There are also a handful of college football bowl games held in Texas during December, including the Valero Alamo Bowl (San Antonio), Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl (Ft Worth), Texas Bowl (Houston), and the Brut Sun Bowl (El Paso). As an aside, two more college football bowl games are held in Texas just after New Year's — the Heart of Texas Bowl (Dallas) and AT&T Cotton Bowl (Arlington).
Wintertime in Houston is an exciting affair. The Houston weather — often warm and wet — is typically dry and cool with highs in the mid-60s, making outside excursions more enjoyable. And with hundreds of acres of green spaces and bike trails, there is plenty to do outdoors. Visiting in December provides more comfortable opportunities to explore its urban parks like Discovery Green, meander through the Museum District, and enjoy any one of the city's many patio bars and restaurants.
Despite its warm temperatures, however, Houston embraces the winter holidays with gusto. The Houston Zoo's Zoo Lights is one of the most popular events of the year, with thousands of people sipping hot cocoa as they stroll through the dazzling light displays near the animal enclosures. Discovery Green converts its roller rink to an outdoor iceskating rink, and visitors can ice skate outside regardless of how high the heat index rises. And the gardens and mansion of Bayou Bend turn into a winter wonderland, complete with fake snow and reindeer. It's a magical time in the city.
Austin is legendary for its epic festivals and vibrant live music scenic — so it should come as no surprise the city rings in the holidays with a flurry of over-the-top events.
The biggest December attraction is the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. For nearly two weeks leading up to Christmas, the Palmer Events Center is converted into a massive market/art and music festival. Tens of thousands of shoppers flock to the event every year to purchase handmade gifts, dance to some live music, indulge, and imbibe. Artwork and crafts on sale are included from more than 175 different artists, and musicians — including some Grammy-award-winning artists — play on the main stage all day long.
If you don't get your fill at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, you can also swing by the Blue Genie Art Bazaar. The annual shopping event takes place from Black Friday to Christmas Eve and features a highly curated selection of paintings, sculptures, crafts, jewelry, and other works of art from local and regional artists. Admission to the Blue Genie Bazaar is free, and kids and strollers are welcome.
San Antonio's iconic riverwalk is a favorite destination during Fiesta and summer months, but no time is it more fun to visit the riverwalk than in the month of December. From Thanksgiving to the first week in January, the waterway is lit with more than 122,000 holiday lights, draped and dripping from the many bridges and bald cypress trees.
While the big holiday parade down the riverwalk happens over Thanksgiving weekend, you can still tour the lights via a boat tour or taxi, or simply make your way on foot on the paths along the water's edge. For the true San Antonio experience, start your self-guided tour at the Alamo, where the centuries-old fortress is illuminated by myriad holiday lights. Make your way down to the riverwalk on any one of the nearby staircases to stroll the streets or pause to enjoy some brisket nachos.
While the rest of the country shivers, this south Texas island stays a temperate paradise. Every December, "Winter Texans" descend on the beach to spend three to four months in the sunshine.
The biggest draw this time of year is the bird-watching. Birds — like humans — fly south to seek warmer temperatures in the winter, causing in the bird population on the island to nearly double. The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center hosts guided nature bird walks every day, where visitors can learn more about the island's feathered inhabitants. Periodically, the nature center also offers photography workshops to help amateur and seasoned bird-watchers capture the various coastal wildlife.
With more than 300 days of sunshine on average each year, El Paso is one of the best places in Texas to beat those dreary winter days. While slightly cooler than east Texas — average temperatures can dip between 30 and 60 degrees in the winter — the city gets less than 10 inches of precipitation a year (compared to Houston's 45+), providing a nice, dry reprieve from sleet and slush that plagues northern states in December.
El Paso is also a great destination for those who enjoy rich history and authentic beauty. The city's centuries-old missions, surrounding desert, and towering nearby mountains are Instagram-worthy — especially after a rare snowfall. For a deep dive into El Paso's rich cultural history, take a self-guided tour along the "Mission Trail." The trail starts in beautiful San Elizario and takes you to some of the best eateries, historic sites, and small shops in the area.
With San Antonio, Austin, and Houston all within reasonable driving distance, Corpus Christi is a central Texas coastline hot spot for any winter vacation. The city's near-constant temperate climate and vicinity to some of the region's best shorelines — including Padre Island and Port Aransas — make it a great beach destination even in December.
A favorite winter pastime for locals and tourists alike is the fishing. Corpus offers both salt- and fresh-water fishing year-round, and you can often reel in an impressive catch straight from the beach or fishing pier. Texas Parks & Wildlife publishes a weekly fishing report, so you can always find out what's biting during your stay.
This positively massive national park sits along the Rio Grande River and includes more than 200 miles of hiking trails. Daytime offers no shortage of breathtaking views and photo ops, but the real treat at Big Bend in December is the stargazing.
Big Bend National Park has some of the darkest skies in the United States and is one of only about a dozen parks in the world to have a gold-tier certification from the International Dark Sky Association. Every December, the Geminid meteor shower passes through the sky and peaks around the middle of the month. One of the best spots to catch the meteor shower is the Hot Springs Canyon Trail. During the heat of the summer, this unshaded trail can be pretty brutal, but December's cooler weather makes it quite a pleasant trek, and the lack of cover provides clear views for star-gazers.
Several campgrounds are located throughout the park, as well as mountain lodges with more of the "creature comforts" for those who don't want to brave a cold snap.
Robyn Correll contributed to this article.