The holidays are the most magical time of year, with cozy hotel packages, snow-dusted towns, and charming markets galore. But when you pile on dazzling light displays with millions of LED bulbs? Then you have a spectacle worth planning a trip around. These aren’t your average neighborhood Christmas decorations. We’re talking 80-foot trees, illuminated ice skating rinks, and twinkle lights so impressive that they set actual world records. As 2020 – a particularly trying year for most of us – finally comes to an end, seeing cities spring to life with light is more uplifting than ever. What follows are the 22 of the world’s best Christmas light displays, including nine you can experience stateside. (Always double check the logistical details before setting out. We’re reporting on how COVID-19 impacts travel on a daily basis; find all of our coronavirus coverage and travel resources here).
Oxford Street, London, England
London has no shortage of stunning Christmas decorations, but you should move Oxford Street to the very top of your itinerary. The West End thoroughfare is known for its no-holds-barred light displays year after year – and its impressive line-up of restaurants and shops doesn’t hurt either (hello, Selfridges). Oxford Street has a shimmering, new look this year: 27 LED curtains of lights – a total of 222,000 individual bulbs – draped down the length of the street.
Rockefeller Center, New York City, New York
A must-see for every Christmas fanatic, the 77-foot-tall Norway spruce at Rockefeller Center is wrapped with a whopping five miles of wire decorated with some 45,000 lights. The first tree was lit in 1933, and now more than half a million people walk by the tree daily, stopping en route to skate on the famed ice rink. The date for 2020’s epic tree lighting ceremony will be announced in the coming weeks.
Canyon Road Farolito Walk, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Holiday lights needn’t be LED to be dazzling. Santa Fe’s annual Canyon Road Farolito Walk consists of farolitos (paper bags filled with sand and topped with a votive candle) lining the streets and walls of adobe buildings. You’ll also see luminarias (small wood bonfires) spaced along the street. The walk takes place at dusk on Christmas Eve and lasts until late evening – show up early if you want a shot a nabbing a coveted parking space.
Luci d’Artista, Salerno, Italy
Each year, the streets and squares of Salerno light up for Luci d’Artista, a festival of light installations and Christmas activities. Displays this year include a LED replication of the night sky, an illuminated zoo, and lemon tree-shaped lights serving as a tribute to the nearby Amalfi Coast. Another can’t-miss attraction? The 60-foot ferris wheel, which provides a bird’s eye view of the striking displays.
Amsterdam Light Festival, The Netherlands
Starting Thursday, December 10, Amsterdam will launch its Amsterdam Light Festival, an annual event in which international artists decorate the city center with light installations. This year’s theme, “When Nature Calls,” tells a story about light art, the city, and its history. The dialed-down show will take place as a theatrical walking experience, an alternative to the traditional viewing by boat, in order to allow for social distancing. The festival lasts until January 3, so you have more than enough time to see Amsterdam at its flashiest.
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark
Ever since it opened in 1843, Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens have been a holiday tradition for both locals and tourists. And extravagant light shows are part of the festivities: In addition to a Christmas light display, which illuminates Tivoli Lake, there are fireworks and even more lights during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.
Village de Noël, Nice, France
Yet another French wonderland, Nice’s Village de Noël boasts a massive program of yuletide events. Expect to find an impressive Christmas market with 60 chalets, a large ice skating rink, and, of course, twinkling lights. For the most stupendous displays, head to Place Masséna along the Promenade du Paillon, where hundreds of LED strands add more fairytale whimsy to this already-enchanting city.
Symphony of Lights, Hong Kong
Hong Kong’s yuletide urban offerings rival that of New York City, with holiday markets, window displays, and concerts galore (they even have SantaCon, in normal years). Then there are the lights. The Symphony of Lights show – held nightly at 8 p.m. – will leave you breathless thanks to an extravagantly choreographed neon display splashed across more than 40 of the skyscrapers edging Victoria Harbor.
Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, New York
Prepare to be thoroughly overwhelmed (in a good way!) by the Christmas spirit in this Brooklyn neighborhood, which goes all out on the decorations each year. Lights go up after Thanksgiving and last through the New Year, so there’s plenty of time to take in wall-to-wall displays of life-sized nutcrackers, glowing Santas, and lawn-ornament reindeer.
Cathedral Square, Vilnius, Lithuania
Designed each year for the national Christmas tree lighting, this storybook tree is actually a metal frame covered in carefully cut branches. In recent years, trees stood more than 88 feet tall and were covered with 70,000-odd bulbs – a spectacle so bright, it can be seen from the windows of planes landing at Vilnius Airport. Visitors can also enjoy the surrounding market, a Christmas train operated by elves, and 3D shows projected onto the side of Vilnius Cathedral.
Luztopía, Monterrey, Mexico
Looking for a warm-weather Christmas celebration? Head to Monterrey in northeastern Mexico for Luztopía, an annual display of 15,500 lights and 200 massive illuminated figures. The festival runs through January and takes up nearly two miles of canal-side real estate along the city’s Paseo de Santa Lucía.
Floating Christmas Tree, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
December in Rio is all about enjoying an icy caipirinha on a spectacular beach (who says Christmas has to be about ugly sweaters and hot cocoa?). The city also happens to host the world’s largest display of full-sized nativity scenes during its annual Festival de Presépios (“Crib Festival”), found at Jardim de Alah between Leblon and Ipanema. But for the very best display in town, ride a bike around the Rodrigo Freitas Lagoon and enjoy views of the world’s largest floating Christmas tree from every angle.
Liberty Monument, Tbilisi, Georgia
The Liberty Monument sparkles each winter in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square, where the tower depicting Saint George slaying a dragon is decorated with lights to create a makeshift Christmas tree. The setup lasts through New Year’s and is the centerpiece of a city-wide celebration.
VanDusen Festival of Lights, Vancouver, Canada
Easily one of the best holiday displays in Canada, the annual Festival of Lights at Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden is a true winter wonderland with more than 1 million bulbs. Reimagined for 2020 with a one-way path and extra space, and running from November 27 through January 3 (save for Christmas Day), the garden’s 15 acres are stuffed to the brim with glittering trees, a carousel, and eight-minute light shows occurring every half hour.
Winter Illuminations, Tokyo, Japan
Tokyo’s winter illuminations see districts around the city trying to outdo each other with their sensational displays. Travelers have taken advantage of the jolly competition—the illuminations are so popular, that lights remain up in the city until February. You can’t lose at any location, but we’re particularly fond of Ao no Dokutsu (Blue Cavern) in Shibuya, an electric version of the blue grottos you’d find in the Mediterranean.
Medellín Christmas Lighting Festival, Colombia
It may be known as the City of Eternal Spring, but Medellín celebrates the winter holiday season pretty darn well. The Colombian city puts Christmas into overdrive with its annual Alumbrados, a festival of lights dating to 1967. The event is known for its massive displays featuring 27 million LEDs, primarily in the Parque Norte amusement park and Parques del Río. Bonus: Admission is free.
Night of Lights, St. Augustine, Florida
St. Augustine may be the oldest city in the U.S., but it sure looks all new and shiny when it’s lit up once a year. The city’s distinctive Spanish architecture sparkles in the bright glow of 3 million tiny white lights. You can see them reflected on the water by boat, above your head by trolley, or romantically by carriage. In non-pandemic years, this famous Christmas town celebrates with events throughout the holiday season, including boat parades, concerts, and festivals.
Celebration in the Oaks, New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans’s grove of gargantuan, centuries-old oaks is spectacular just as it is. It’s the world’s largest stand of mature live oak trees, the oldest of which dates back 800 years. Some limbs are twice as long as the trees are tall. But basking in the glow of millions of festive Christmas lights, they’re a man-meets-nature masterpiece. This year, hurricane Zeta took down some of the displays, including the popular pirate ship, but park staff members are confident they can be rebuilt. Note: The 2020 celebration will be a driving tour.
Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri
Many of these light displays are in gardens, which is lovely, but Silver Dollar City brings the action and charm as an 1880s amusement theme park. More than 5 million lights revolve around one centerpiece: a four-story-high Christmas tree, whose light reflects off all the surrounding buildings. The park’s holiday celebrations include a nightly parade, live shows, feasts and concessions, and more than 60 shops to peruse.
Blossom of Lights, Denver, Colorado
A Mile High City holiday tradition in the Denver Botanic Gardens for more than 30 years, Blossoms of Light features LED lights in motion with sound effects to create an immersive winter wonderland experience. Visitor favorites include the O’Fallon Perennial Walk, the interactive light display in the UMB Amphitheater, Romantic Gardens, Japanese Garden, and South African Plaza. Treats and warm drinks are available for purchase, too.
Gardens Aglow, Boothbay, Maine
A major draw to coastal Maine, even in the winter season, is the botanical gardens. At 295 acres, they’re the largest in New England. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, the native Maine flora is strung with an awe-inspiring light display. Insider tip: The gift shop is known for its one-of-a-kind, locally made gifts and goods, including honey, soap, candles, apparel, and even a selection of the lights that set the gardens aglow. Note: This year’s show will be a drive-thru experience.
Glittering Lights, Las Vegas, Nevada
The ideal way to get your holiday party vibe on in 2020? Within the safety of your own car, of course. Glittering Lights at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway is one of the best drive-thru displays in existence, with 2.5 luminous miles of decorations that take between 15 and 25 minutes to traverse. The tunnels of string lights, including a rectangular magenta number, will have you oohing and aahing. Concessions like hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and popcorn are offered to visitors from the comfort of their cars.