A worthy destination any time of year, the picturesque Gold Country town of Nevada City is perhaps at its best in December. Step into its historic downtown, your hands in mittens and your cheeks exuding a ruddy glow, for the most traditional holiday scene Northern California has to offer: the annual Victorian Christmas, taking place Dec. 5–16 on Wednesdays 6-9 p.m. and Sundays 1:30-6 p.m. The streets are lined with holiday flags and decorated gaslights, and twinkling lights outline rooftops and windows. Horse-drawn carriages amble by, while wandering minstrels and Santa Claus mingle with visitors, who nibble on chestnuts (roasted on an open fire, naturally) or on foods from the many street vendors. Dozens of restaurants and shops decked out for the season invite you inside, where you’ll likely spot workers dressed up in Victorian finery.
Throughout the year, Nevada City charms with an authentic Gold Rush feel. Founded in 1849, the town celebrates its past even as its citizens embrace a modern, politically progressive worldview. Whenever you time your visit to Nevada City, just 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, you’re certain to discover gold here.
Attractions: Nevada City has a rich performing arts scene. Through Dec. 30, The Foothill Theatre Company (401 Broad St.) presents Joe Landry’s imagining of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play in the Nevada Theatre, a venerable playhouse dating to 1865. Off Broadstreet (301 Commercial St.) serves up Baby-Boomer Christmas through Dec. 29. On Dec. 7 and 14, peek inside some of the area’s loveliest lodgings—including the authentically Victorian Red Castle Inn—during the Candlelight Inn Tour. (Tickets are $10.)
Shopping: Holiday shopping is a delight in Nevada City’s festive atmosphere. Asylum Down (300 Broad St.) sells colorful, natural-fiber clothing and accessories. Harmony Books (231 Broad St.) has an impressive collection of travel guides. Spirithouse Import Gallery (315 Commercial St.) beckons with Buddha statues and gorgeous Asian textiles, jewelry and clothing. Julie Baker Fine Art (246 Commercial St.) contains an edited mix of fine contemporary art and accessories. All downtown employees are asked to dress in holiday duds during December; at Broad Street Furnishings (210 Broad St.), they make a special effort. Tanglewood Forest Gallery (313 Broad St.) transforms into a fairy-tale land during the holidays. And J.J. Jackson’s (244 Commercial St.) offers entertainment throughout the month and a tempting assortment of home and garden accessories, books, silly toys and edgy greeting cards year-round.
Eating: Take a break from the shops by tucking into one of Nevada City’s many eateries. For the consummate holiday experience, dine by kerosene lamplight in the rosy dining room of The National Hotel (211 Broad St.), a Victorian classic on the National Register of Historic Places. Friar Tuck’s Restaurant & Bar (111 N. Pine St.) has a dark, cozy interior and is known for a hearty menu highlighted by fondue. Cirino’s Bar and Grill (309 Broad St.) is authentically Italian, while Citronee Bisto and Wine Bar (320 Broad St.) flaunts a French flair, presenting an “un-deux” punch of an upscale bakery/deli up front and an intimate dining area in back. New Moon Cafe (203 York St.) spotlights seasonal, regional ingredients in its California cuisine. Ike’s Quarter Cafe (401 Commercial St.) serves up New Orleans-inspired fare and vegan options in a bustling, Big Easy-esque interior and a welcoming patio. And for a sweet treat, Confectionary Mine (236 Broad St.) has dreamy ice-cream drumsticks and handmade chocolates.
Drinking: Treat yourself to tea at Shaw’s Antiques & Top Floor Tea Room (210 Main St.), where “costuming and decorations and an English tea are fantastic” during December, according to Cathy Whittlesey of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce. Or have your tea leaves read at Gold Mountain Tea, Rarities and Finds (312 Broad St.). Get buzzed on the bean at artsy Broad Street Bistro & Gallery (426 Broad St.) or Cafe Mekka (237 Commercial St.), whose black-clad clientele slouch over coffee concoctions on secondhand sofas. Tickle your Wild West fancy and pickle your liver at any of these dark and mostly male-infested bars: The Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.), McGee’s Annex (315 Broad St.), Chief Crazy Horse Inn (230 Commercial St.) and Cooper’s Ale Works (235 Commercial St.). For those more interested in sipping than chugging, Indian Springs Vineyards (303 Broad St.) and Nevada City Winery (321 Spring St.) offer complimentary tastings in warm and welcoming spaces.
Park and Ride—One of the best things about Victorian Christmas—vehicle-free streets—presents a parking challenge. The Nevada City Chamber encourages visitors to ride a free shuttle bus into downtown from the Nevada County government center at 950 Maidu Ave. Take Highway 20 past the Broad Street exit to Highway 49 north, then follow signs to the lot.
How to get there: Head northeast on Interstate 80 about 35 miles to the Highway 49 exit in Auburn, go north about 30 miles to the Broad Street (historic district) exit, then turn left and start looking for a parking spot.