If a Williamsburg Christmas is on your bucket list, save some money and head to Old Salem instead. This painstakingly restored 18th-century town in Winston-Salem has 107 historic buildings, 73 of them original to the Moravian colonists, who founded this theocracy in 1766. All year, costumed interpreters lead tours and ply trades such as shoemaking, pottery, and hand stitching. At Christmas, the aroma of ginger and cloves, the glow of candlelight, and the sound of carols drifting out of St. Philips Moravian Church transport visitors to a simpler era—when a child’s holiday gift was an orange, and “sustainability” was a way of life.
Where to stay
The Historic Brookstown Inn, in a 19th-century mill, is nearby. With its pencil-post beds and curtains of cotton ticking, it’s quaint if a bit faded. From $119. The Graylyn Estate and Conference Center, the early 1930s estate of a tobacco family, is like a mini castle, complete with a suit of armor, spiral staircase, and Moorish paneling. Pro: Freezers of free ice cream bars. Con: Walls can be thin. From $209. (FYI, the Williamsburg Inn starts at around $500 in December.)
Where to eat
In the historic district, the Tavern in Old Salem offers creative cocktails, craft beers, and updated, locally sourced fare inspired by Moravian traditions. Be sure to visit Winkler Bakery for sugar cake pulled fresh out of 200-year-old wood-fired ovens. For a change of pace, browse the galleries of Winston-Salem’s Downtown Arts District, and dine on Southern favorites like fried chicken and catfish at the jazzy Sweet Potatoes cafe.
What else to do
Don’t miss the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, with the nation’s finest collection of its kind. Near Wake Forest University is Reynolda House Museum of American Art, the restored 1917 home of a tobacco mogul. Find a collection by masters such as Georgia O’Keeffe, Mary Cassatt, and Frederic Church, as well as expansive gardens and a shopping village. Enjoy candlelight tours with period decorations the first weekend of December.
Self-guided and candlelight tours are available through December, with many giving visitors a taste of treats like ginger cookies and spicy hot chocolate. On the second Saturday of the month, a brass band plays on the square as candles are lit on a giant pyramid—an open, triangular structure that holds nativity scenes and is the German forerunner to a Christmas tree. All are welcome for Love Feasts at St. Philips, the state’s longest-standing black church, or other area Moravian churches. These are candlelit holiday services, where congregants share cardamom-spiced buns and sweet coffee.
Illuminated 26-point stars originated as a Moravian symbol of Advent but have become popular fixtures year-round. Shops at Old Salem offer star-shaped lanterns as well as ornament-sized versions.
Good to know
An all-access ticket to Old Salem attractions, which includes the decorative arts museum, is $23 for adults and $11 for children. Holiday events such as tours, visits with Santa, concerts, and teas are ticketed separately. Candlelight tours sell out early.
This article originally appeared in our December 2014 issue.