America’s Favorite Cities for Christmas Lights 2016
Each city in the country has its own traditions and celebrations for the holidays, but for some, it’s a yearlong wait for their shining moment on the calendar.
In this year’s America’s Favorite Places survey, Travel + Leader readers cast their votes on which destinations they love the most for Christmas light madness. Unlike Travel + Leisure's World's Best Awards, which encourages readers to weigh in on travel experiences across the globe, the America's Favorite Places survey is a way for locals to share what their hometowns do best.
And whether it’s extravagantly kitschy home decorations or beautiful spreads rooted in hundred-year traditions, these cities draw visitors purely for their holiday trimmings and luminous charms.
As everyone can appreciate big city displays, the expected heavy-hitters showed up in the rankings. New York City (ever heard of it?) in addition to the standard abundance of LEDs, has the 94-foot-tall Rockefeller Center Christmas tree decked in 50,000 lights and a Swarovski star. Meanwhile, Midwesterners flock to Chi-town for its windswept Christkindlmarket, where Christmas lights are perhaps exceeded only by the number of sausages for sale.
On a more niche level, Virginia’s famed “100 Miles of Lights” helped three of its cities make the list. Richmond has private homes with more lights than anywhere else in the country. Norfolk’s historic waterfront beams with Christmas charm, and Virginia Beach’s boardwalk and casual whale appearances make it a perfect stop on an East Coast lights tour.
Snowy-weather cities like Detroit and Indianapolis made the cut, as did warm-weather destinations like Orlando (ahem, Disney World) and Albuquerque with its botanical “River of Lights.”
The list toppers? Kansas City comes in second, where you can take a helicopter tour just to get a stellar birds-eye view of the lights downtown. And the winner is the passionately adorned San Antonio, which boasts enough holiday traditions to fill an entire calendar year. If you’re still making plans for the holidays, consider checking out some of the country’s most dazzling lights.
Travel + Leisure’s America’s Favorite Places survey opened on 10/8/2015 and closed on 04/15/2016. It was open to everyone, and ran alongside a sweepstakes. The open-response survey asked respondents to submit their favorite place and rate it in over 65 categories, including affordability, notable restaurants, and public parks. Cities are defined as governed bodies with a population over 100,000.
No. 15 Chicago, Illinois
Christmas cheer in Chicago begins when the Chriskindlmarket fills Daley Center Plaza with the aroma of authentic German food (sausages, sauerkraut, and hot-spiced wine). Visitors will also find artisan handicrafts, and of course thousands of Christmas lights and a stunning tree centerpiece. Visit Lincoln Park Zoo for “Zoolights” or Brookfield Zoo’s “Holiday Magic,” or take a walk through the trippy lights at Morton Arboretum. Watch for the CTA Holiday Train along the loop, covered in Christmas lights and decorated from top to bottom like Santa’s workshop. Head out to Navy Pier for the indoor ice skating rink, Ferris wheel, and 400 lighted fir trees decorating the Winter Wonderfest. If you want to hit all the holiday lights spots in one go, hop aboard the Chicago Trolley Holiday Lights Tour for a 2.5-hour ride. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, (and warm enough) try the Segway version instead.
No. 14 Detroit, Michigan
Detroit’s revitalization has ignited everything from a craft beer and distillery boom to the West Riverfront Park. During the holidays, head to Campus Martius Park, in the center of downtown, to see their 60-foot spruce adorned in twinkling lights and the best ice skating in the chilly city. The Detroit Zoo holds “Wild Lights” every year that fills the front of the zoo with illuminated trees, buildings, and animal sculptures. For neighborhood lights, hop on the Detroit Holiday Lights Trolley (BYOB if you like) or take a bus tour to check out Grosse Point along Lake Shore Drive for homes with themed lights and displays set to music. Though technically located in Flint, the Crossroads Village and Huckleberry Railroad are worth the trip for the massive locomotive covered in Christmas lights. Another stop to make a little closer: Rochester’s “Big Bright Lights Show” that illuminates every building in Downtown Rochester’s Main Street. Not a bad holiday lights lineup for Motor City.
No. 13 Nashville, Tennessee
It’s no surprise that Music City’s best holiday lights would be inside the Opryland Hotel directly next to the legendary music venue, the Grand Ole Opry. The interior is covered with two million bulbs and decorations that easily rival New York’s Macy’s Herald Square. Take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the grounds past illuminated trees. For more festive scenery and an experience in the heart of the city, walk through Downtown Nashville underneath the glowing neon signs on Honky Tonk Row for the best fried chicken and biscuits, jazz music venues, and throwback record stores. The city is back in the spotlight for good reason, and its Christmas lights make it shine even brighter.
No. 12 Virginia Beach, Virginia
The first stop on the “100 Miles of Lights” in Virginia (which also includes Norfolk and Richmond), Virginia Beach’s boardwalk is a key point of interest for those seeking a driving holiday light tour. Flip your radio to the right frequency and listen to coordinated music while viewing McDonald’s Holiday Lights at the Beach, full of sea-life and Christmas themed light sculptures between 2nd and 34th Streets. Like every good holiday-loving city, there is a parade each year to ring in the season complete with floats and live entertainment for onlookers. A bonus? It’s whale season in winter, so you’ll need to keep a lookout on the water during the day for pods of humpbacks making the big migration. They probably just want to see those lights, too.
No. 11 Indianapolis, Indiana
Indianapolis’s centerpiece, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument at Monument Circle, is adorned with strings of lights to form a giant Christmas tree (technically the world’s largest) in the heart of downtown. And the Indianapolis Zoo was the first zoo to hold a lights event: Nowadays Christmas at the Zoo is one of their biggest attractions. Sip hot chocolate and stroll through the zoo to see the displays (and the hardier cold-weather animals, of course). It stays open until 9:00 p.m. for the holiday season.
No. 10 Wilmington, North Carolina
Wilmington is a coastal city with small town charm, and a Christmas lights scene to match. Christmas By the Sea decorates the boardwalks along Carolina Beach from Thanksgiving through Christmas, though visitors can see plenty of holiday spirit simply strolling through Historic Downtown or taking a tour by candlelight. Head down to Wrightsville Beach for the North Carolina Holiday Flotilla, where the daytime festivities include a tree-lighting and holiday shopping, followed by the water parade and fireworks at night. For something on a smaller scale, check out the Island of Lights Festival flotilla at Kure Beach. If you’re hoping to stay indoors, check out the Railroad Museum on the weekends for its Christmas Light and Train Spectacular, complete with a reading of the Polar Express and 20,000 lights covering the miniature sets and trees. But our favorite way to view Wilmington’s lights is a boat tour through the waterways.
No. 9 Knoxville, Tennessee
Downtown Knoxville does the holidays up by turning itself into a “Peppermint Trail” for the holidays, with every shop and restaurant committing to peppermint specials through January 8th. Market Street is strung up with lights, adjacent to Market Square’s seasonal ice skating rink and Krutch Park’s 42-foot tree. Outside of downtown, the Southern Market has the best of artisan design products for the season. Private home light shows are also abundant here: Check out spots like the West Knoxville Light Show, or head to Historic Old North Knoxville for Victorian style lighting displays and home tours.
No. 8 Norfolk, Virginia
Every year things kick off in Norfolk with the Grand Illumination Parade and the lighting of the skyline. For six weeks after, there is a full line-up of festivities in Norfolk and Olde Towne Portsmouth. The Richmond Ballet has regular performances of the Nutcracker; you can shop at a local holiday farmer’s market every weekend between attractions like Dickens’ Christmas Towne (with performances by musicians, classic Christmas movie screenings, and an enchanted Christmas tree forest). Norfolk Botanic Garden’s Dominion Garden of Lights should be a stop on the holiday tour to see the best of the city’s light attractions, as is a walk through the heart of downtown to the three-story Beaux-Arts Monticello Arcade.
No. 7 Richmond, Virginia
If you’re looking for fantastically tacky Christmas displays, Richmond takes the cake with its “Tacky Lights Tour.” Starting December 2nd, the city and its most enthusiastic families swallow an unfathomable electric bill to impress locals and visitors alike. The Richmond Times-Dispatch publishes a list every year to pinpoint the best homes to tour. There are 65 on the list, but a few you should take note of include 9604 and 9060 Asbury Court (the most lights at a staggering one million), 9215 Venetian Way (the prettiest, seen from across the lake), 8720 River Road (best for car viewing), and the whole stretch of Monument Avenue (traditional, classic-style lighting). Book optimal viewing for your party via limo tours of the biggest neighborhood attractions, or if you’re driving aim for weekdays to avoid traffic jams. For more lights and a little more zen, head to Dominion GardenFest of Lights at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.
No. 6 Orlando, Florida
Outside of the magical world of Disney, Orlando sports some amazingly kitschy Christmas attractions. Check out Downtown Orlando’s 72-foot Christmas tree next to Lake Eola for its on-the-hour light show synchronized to your favorite holiday tunes. Drive out to the suburban Winter Park and Baldwin Park communities for plenty of stunning light displays to drive past: Garden Grove subdivision has the biggest concentration of spirited decorations. Plenty of homes farther out also go light-crazy for the holiday (see Cross Christmas). Unfortunately, the most famous Orlando suburban display Christmas in the Shire is on hiatus for 2016 (the owner moved to a new home and is still getting up and running) but you can drive through Moss Park’s “Light Up the Wild” instead.
No. 5 Albuquerque, New Mexico
The ABQ BioPark’s “River of Lights” is the go-to spectacle in the city’s Botanic Garden. It takes eight miles of extension cords and two million bulbs (40 percent of which are energy saving LEDs) to construct New Mexico’s largest walk-through light show. Here, you can admire some 400 light sculptures including animated and 3D animals and characters. The Garden’s Rio Train Line turns into a “Polar Bear Express” serving hot chocolate while taking visitors through the park from the station to the beginning of the River of Lights (remember to buy tickets ahead of time). Albuquerque also sports the traditional southwestern luminarias (paper bags lit with votive candles) that line the streets during the holidays. Take a tour through Old Town to see the best and the brightest.
No. 4 Salt Lake City, Utah
The smallest city on the list packs in twice the Christmas spirit. Downtown Salt Lake City gets plenty of gorgeous holiday lighting treatment from Main Street to Broadway Boulevard, but the focal point is easily the 35-acre Temple Square. Take in the lights while sipping hot cocoa in the Garden, eating potpie at Nauvoo Cafe, or strolling along to take in the view of Salt Lake Temple itself. Six different music venues across downtown have choirs and bands playing holiday music throughout December, but the most popular performance is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas Concert (it sells out each year). Hop on the Jingle Bus to get a tour of downtown’s best decorations and explore the city from the Gateway’s shopping district to Gallivan Plaza. Too cold to leave your car? Check out the drive-through holiday lights at Thanksgiving Point, just outside of the city.
No. 3 New York City, New York
New York City is something of a mecca for Christmas light enthusiasts; with its perpetual (some might say exorbitant) luminescence everywhere you turn. There’s the quintessential Rockefeller Center Tree, Macy’s flagship Herald Square facade, an LED tree above the flashing marquees of Radio City Music Hall, and Bryant Park’s Winter Village and ice rink. You’ll find that every street has some manner of lights or giant decorations from Thanksgiving through early January. If Manhattan isn’t quite your speed, head to Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza for the World’s Largest Menorah and stroll past beautiful lighted brownstones in Park Slope. Hop on the train to explore the kitschy brilliance of Dyker Heights in lower Brooklyn. When you’re done with both boroughs, head up to the Bronx with the kids for the New York Botanical Garden lights and Holiday Train Show. There’s even an adult version complete with spiked holiday drinks.
No. 2 Kansas City, Missouri
Kansas City’s Christmas lights are nearly as famous as its ribs (Check out No. 1 on America’s Best Cities for Barbecue). The city starts its holiday celebrations with a literal bang on Thanksgiving evening. The Country Club Plaza—a shopping district spanning 15 blocks in South Kansas City—sports a show of fireworks as a switch is flipped to illuminate every building in jewel-colored lights, complete with live music. The 87-year-old tradition keeps the Plaza festive from Thanksgiving until mid-January: And you can book a helicopter tour to view it all from above, too. Fireworks are also in order when the city’s mayor, Sly James, helps turn on the 100-foot Kansas City Mayor’s Christmas Tree at Crown Center downtown. Seasonal market areas like Zona Rosa in North Kansas City have revived old Kansas City traditions like the enormous illuminated crowns strung up across the neighborhood.
No. 1 San Antonio, Texas
When it comes to Christmas festivities, this Texas city is bursting with tradition, and its lights are unmatched (there’s a reason it was ranked number one). Decorating begins as early as November 19th, when the University of the Incarnate Word flips the switch that lights their entire campus (an event inspired by the famously light-crazed Windcrest area nearby). Feel the city’s true holiday pulse the day after Thanksgiving when the Ford Holiday River Parade & Lighting Festival kicks everything into gear. The River Walk and its adjacent streets are illuminated by tens of thousands of string lights, and crowds converge to view the four-hour nighttime river parade brimming with decorated floats carrying lights and carolers. If that weren’t enough, San Antonio’s oldest tradition—the Ford Fiesta de las Luminarias—brings thousands of glowing candles in sand-filled bags to line the riverbanks every weekend after dusk, matching the twinkling trees and surrounding sparkling facades. After wandering the city’s stunning Spanish missions and eating renowned tamales in the trendy Pearl neighborhood, visitors and locals view the 55-foot tree in the Alamo Plaza (yes, that Alamo) and stroll the candlelit River Walk.