We all love those holiday-themed made-for-television movies that we secretly binge watch, where there is a predictable montage of a couple falling in love, lights twinkling behind them as they toss fistfuls of fluffy snow and giggle at each other. The titles are cliché, and the plots are hokey, but we allow ourselves to be charmed because holidays are a time for nostalgia, hot cocoa, and fairy-tale endings. But what if you could actually vacation in a town that feels like those movies? When winter rolls around, the town of Leavenworth, Washington, lights up with holiday cheer worthy of the sappiest of cable television rom-coms.
Leavenworth wasn’t always a mistletoe-scented wonderland. It was some of the most beautiful hunting and fishing grounds of three Native American tribes—the Yakima, Chinook, and Wenatchi—who coexisted on the land. Pioneers, in search of gold, timber, and furs, settled the land, and by 1890, a town was built on the Icicle Flats. When railroad construction finished in 1893, the town’s population blossomed, and the small timber community became a headquarters of the Northern Railway. When the railroad was rerouted to Wenatchee in the 1920s, the sawmill closed down, and Leavenworth went from a bustling hub to a limping community. The town hobbled along for more than thirty years this way.
In the 1960s, the Project LIFE (Leavenworth Improvement for Everyone) Committee was formed in partnership with the University of Washington to brainstorm ideas for how to bring the ghost town back to life. The idea to remodel the entire town to resemble a Bavarian village was the brainchild of Ted Price and Bob Rodgers, two Seattle businessmen who began the city’s overhaul with the Chikamin Hotel, later renamed the Edelweiss after the state flower of Bavaria. On top of the complete transformation of the city, community leaders conceived of seasonal festivals that would entice tourists, among them Oktoberfest, Maifest, and the ever-popular Christmas Lighting Festival, which spans the first three full weekends in December and illuminates the village in over a half-million lights. The Bavarian overhaul was a complete success—close to two million tourists visit Leavenworth each year. And now my friend and I were here to take in all that this magical town has to offer.
The alpine-themed Enzian Inn, being less than a five-minute walk to town, is a perfect home base. The women at the check-in were appropriately outfitted in tasteful Bavarian garb and were quite welcoming. The center of the lobby housed a huge sleigh, perfect for photo ops. It didn’t take long to understand why a lot of tourists make the Enzian Inn an annual pilgrimage with their families. With its cozy charm and slow pace, it’s an ideal place for a reunion—a few living room areas are set up for lounging and gathering, and board games provide entertainment for cold days. Around the perimeter of the second floor gathering space were tables of miniature villages, meticulously set up on beds of fake snow. A tree with gold and red ornaments sparkled near the balcony overlooking the lobby. Next to the piano in the lobby were rows of chairs for the nightly caroling sing- along. The room at the end of the hall was affectionately aged but luxurious, with a working fireplace, a canopy bed, and two comfortable armchairs.
With our stomachs rumbling, it was time for us to explore the town and find food. The recently renovated Mozart’s, with its dimly lit nooks to hide and dine in, sits above the beloved Andreas Keller Restaurant. To the right of our table sat a young man serenading patrons on the piano, his face lighting up shyly each time bills were placed in his tip jar, as if each offering was unexpected praise. His rendition of one of the Gymnopédie pieces was enchanting. The Bavarian salad sampler, as an appetizer, was the perfect segue into German cuisine, with dollops of several tasty salads made with carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, and cabbage. The Idaho red trout with chardonnay and mustard cream was heavenly, as was the beef goulash. There were two kinds of schnitzel available, too, for carnivores who wanted to dive into the Bavarian tradition.
Outside Mozart’s, a handful of people strolled back to their hotels. Leavenworth is a pretty sleepy town past 9:30 p.m. or so, with most people opting to return to their hotels and sprawl onto couches with their families or go to bed. Plus, breakfast time at the Enzian Inn is crowded later in the morning, so it pays to go to bed at a decent hour and wake up early for the breakfast buffet. The fourth-floor Continental Room houses the dining room of the Enzian Inn and caters to the hundreds of lodgers who line up on two sides to pile their plates with roasted potatoes, fresh fruit, an assortment of pastries and breads, and, of course, the made-to-order omelets. The efficiency is impressive, and the dining room looks like a banquet hall with its circular tables decked out in white tablecloths and handcrafted light blue chairs with cutouts in the back. Bob Johnson and his son, Rob, built the Enzian Inn, and evidence of their talents can be seen everywhere in the inn. If that talent wasn’t enough, they also learned how to play the alphorn. Twice each morning, Bob or Rob, dressed in lederhosen and a hat, walks through the double doors onto the balcony, climbs atop the balcony rail, where he perches precariously with the very large alphorn, and lets the mellow sounds reverberate through the village. Set against the backdrop of the Cascade Mountains, it’s quite a sight.
With bellies full of Enzian Inn breakfast, we could now begin our daytime exploration of Leavenworth. At the entrance to the town is a cute little shack of a coffeehouse—perhaps kiosk would be more fitting—called Argonaut. Chalkboard menus, a red awning, and a smattering of chairs draped with red-and-gray-striped blankets to cozy up in pack a lot of adorable into a small space. Offerings for the day included peppermint mocha, eggnog latte, and homemade toaster pastries. Further along Front Street is the popular Hat Shop, with endless opportunities for kids and adults to play dress up with their headgear. Fedoras and winter hats line the shelves and racks at the front of the store, while the back is a silly paradise, with wizard hats, furry white panda hats, tiny bowler hats in green and red, and stuffed animal pigs and cows that bobble while perched on your head. In the other half of the space is the Wood Shop, with puzzles, games to play by the fire, and all kinds of dice, from miniature dice to pastel dice to round dice with weights in them.
Just a few doors down from the Wood Shop is the famous Nutcracker Museum. Founded by Arlene Wagner and her husband, George, in 1995, it now contains over six thousand nutcrackers. After we watched the optional fifteen-minute video on the history of nutcrackers, which is highly informative, if not a bit dated, we and the other patrons were let loose to tour the cases and shelves full of every kind of nutcracker, from the traditional wooden toy soldier to the antiques dating back to Roman times, and everything in between. Names like Steinbach and Ulbricht, famous nutcracker makers, will start to mean something. There is an alcove with all sorts of mechanical nutcrackers: nutcrackers that take on the personas of Elvis, past presidents, astronauts, farmers, and gnomes; and even a six-foot-tall nutcracker named Karl. It was a great place to wander through on an especially frosty winter day in Leavenworth. Before we left, we stopped in to the Nussknacker Haus on the first floor to check out the collection of nutcrackers and felt ornaments (the latter of which were shaped like acorns and leaves) that were for sale.
Overwhelmed with nutcracker history and memorabilia, our brains said, “Time for lunch!” Fresh Burger Café is a great spot for a nonfussy but delicious lunch. From the outside, it looks like a cute house with a porch, and it only has a handful of tables. A professional football game was playing when we entered, which made seats inside a hot commodity. Juicy burgers, fluffy rolls, and a proprietary sauce called Fresh Sauce all contributed to the success of this gem on Commercial Street. For a sweet treat, we headed to the Gingerbread Factory for giant, fluffy snickerdoodles.
With our hunger satisfied, it was off to Kris Kringl, a quintessentially Leavenworth store, filled to the brim with ornaments, miniature villages, lighting, tree toppers, snow globes, Santas, nutcrackers, and everything one could possibly need to deck his or her halls like a rock star. Regardless if you celebrate Christmas, it’s a fun place to wander around. The variety of ornaments is off the charts. (The miniature cupcake ornament came home with me.) There is a Santa Claus and his sleigh suspended from the ceiling in one room of the store, making the whole experience feel like a ride at Disney World.
Just down the street is Der Sportsmann, a haven for outdoor sports enthusiasts and people who like fun winter hats. Falling into the latter category led to a solid twenty minutes of hat shopping, as I debated between a soft white hat with earflaps and a more Bavarian-looking embroidered hat with earflaps. The flannel hat showed promise as well, but the embroidered hat spoke to me. Leavenworth is almost two-and-a-half hours east of Seattle and requires you to go through Stevens Pass or Snoqualmie Pass (which translates loosely to “Brrr . . .”), and we experienced blustery wind and several inches of snow falling that day—so a cozy hat with earflaps was welcome warmth for my icy ears.
After some downtime back at the inn, we headed to Visconti’s Italian Restaurant for dinner. The cute corner table for two had windows on both sides that overlooked Front Street and the Bavarian Ritz Hotel. Our waitress willingly engaged us in a discussion about spumoni and stracciatella, the latter of which I struggled to remember the name but knew it was vanilla gelato with ribbons of chocolate. She suggested Google, and we solved the debate quickly with some laughing. The Visconti’s spaghettini came highly recommended, with good reason, as it features handmade, gluten-free linguine, paired with prawns and broccoli in a light olive oil–butter sauce, topped with pesto, tomatoes, and a delicate sprinkling of Parmesan. I could have eaten this for all three nights we were there!
An early dinner meant the gazebo and the hill along Front Street buzzed with children plodding in the snow, toting plastic discs for sledding behind them as parents looked on. Because of the density of children, sleds, and icy pathways, the grounds looked like something of a plastic disc graveyard, with evidence of broken sleds scattered around. This did not deter the fun being had or the magic of the gazebo set among the trees all lit up in their seasonal splendor. It was a real-life winter wonderland.
After another omelet and fruit breakfast, set to the tunes of the alphorn, more wandering into shops ensued. Though we didn’t eat there during our trip, the Leavenworth Sausage Garten was often filled with cold revelers, warming their hands by the outdoor heat lamps and chowing down on
various wursts. This popular spot always had a line, which must mean something, given that the seating is outdoors—even in the dead of winter.
Front Street was becoming a very familiar stroll at this point, and though we had passed it the day before, the famous Cheesemonger’s Shop beckoned us down its narrow stairs today. The first sample was Toscano salami, and then came the out-of- this-world Vlaskaas Gouda from Holland. A chunk of that began our food stash to take back to the inn for post-nap noshing. The food stashing continued at Almond Blossom, with its maple chipotle almonds. A stop at Schocolat—where they were handing out samples of this divine pear caramel sauce on a wooden stick, as well as chocolate with almonds—rounded out the snacks reserve. The fill-your-own nine-piece box was an absolute steal at thirteen dollars. Chosen flavors included raspberry Chambord, hazelnut, Earl Grey, and a pear brandy caramel. Schocolat shares a retail space with Ganz Klasse, a home-furnishing boutique which sells, among many other items, à la carte cheese knives and forks with colorful, slightly translucent handles. Leavenworth is basically one huge souvenir shop, except you will be really happy with what you bring back home.
Another favorite store was Black Swan, a somewhat irreverent shop with “Barf Vader” onesies, bacon mints, and a book entitled How to Survive a Garden Gnome Attack. Posy was the most Seattle-feeling shop, with quality handmade goods with a Bohemian bent. I drooled over a jewelry line made with abacus beads, and the “Believe in Mountains” shirt and onesies suited Leavenworth perfectly. I wished I’d had more time to spend in The Bubblery because the owner was so welcoming and eager to talk about the soap-making process. She highly recommended, with good reason, as it features handmade, gluten-free linguine, paired with prawns and broccoli in a light olive oil–butter sauce, topped with pesto, tomatoes, and a delicate sprinkling of Parmesan. I could have eaten this for all three nights we were there! An early dinner meant the gazebo and the hill along Front Street buzzed with children plodding in the snow, toting plastic discs for sledding behind them as parents looked on.
Good Mood Food was the lunch destination du jour, and it was just far enough out of the main downtown area to feel less touristy and more local. Employees recognized lunchtime regulars, and the atmosphere was familiar and friendly. We ate our turkey wraps among displays of artisan wares from local artists.
After a lengthy nap and much-needed thawing, we wrapped up the trip at the Watershed Cafe, a farm-to-table, locally sourced dining establishment. The decor was warm and eclectic but streamlined with tiny bud vases on each table and artsy snowboards hung on one wall. Inventive food abounds here, and I enjoyed a particularly delectable appetizer consisting of a bakery crostini with fresh dill cream cheese, Siri and Son Farms pea shoots, pickled red onion, and house-smoked cod. The Tahitian vanilla bean crème brûlée was the harmonious note to end our Leavenworth adventure.
We took a final stroll through the night streets to marvel at a town that managed to take itself from the brink of ruin and launch a complete reboot. With multicolored lights twinkling and reflecting off store windows and a dusting of snow piled into triangles in the corners of the sills, we felt warmed by this quirky village and all its inhabitants.
For more info, visit leavenworth.com.