These Holiday Light Shows Are Merry and Extra-Bright
There’s no sighting of the Grinch at these glowing locales where the season shines bright with elaborate displays and entertainment for the whole fam
The West embraces winter in all its forms—and that’s especially true when it comes to the holidays. One of our favorite features of the season are all the twinkling lights, in displays big and small. Sure, you can do the Disneyland thing for large-scale dazzle. But Christmas lights also shine bright in places like Newport Beach, home to a hundred-plus-year-old illuminated boat parade, and Albuquerque, where glowing traditions endure. It’s a jolly time to make it to the California Sierras, where Gold Rush towns come alive with decorations and fairs; or if you’re over in Colorado, you can join the drivers that cruise through tunnels of lights that dance in unison to classic tunes. ‘Tis the season to gather your clan and follow the LEDs to the most spirited towns in the region.
Venice Canals, Venice, CA
One of the prettiest places to walk in L.A. gets even more charming when the Christmas lights go up. The artsy Venice area hosts events throughout the season, including a lighting ceremony when the city’s sign turns red and green and a quirky boat parade with irreverently decorated SUP boards and rowboats. But the entire month brings plenty of photo ops along the illuminated bridges that look out to winding waterways and glowing bungalows.
Old Town, Albuquerque, NM
Back in the 1500s, New Mexicans lit bonfires to lead the way home or to illuminate the path to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. A few centuries later, they started using paper lanterns like the kind seen today during the holidays in towns throughout the Southwest. The luminarias present a whole different type of Christmas lights show—the soft glow coming from tiny votives inside weighted paper bags instead of vivid LEDs. Albuquerque has one of the most spectacular setups with various neighborhoods playing along. To be transported, stroll through the Old Town area (home to the 1793 San Felipe de Neri Church; pictured). Another standout hood for luminarias viewing is within walking distance of the church in the Country Club area.
Newport Bay, Newport Beach, CA
Here’s a light show for the ages. Since the early 1900s, Newport Beach (a stellar California winter getaway destination) has welcomed the season with decorated boats filling the bay for five days. Participants go all out, spending as much as $50k to trick out their rides. Homes along the water get decked out, too—a spectacular sight if you opt to see the show from aboard a cruise. Those with weak sea legs can watch from viewing spots along the harbor, or from a waterfront restaurant, like Waterline at Balboa Bay Resort.
Idaho Botanical Garden, Boise, ID
Boise’s 14-acre plant sanctuary turns into a legit winter wonderland with more than 500,000 tiny bulbs and interactive displays to walk through during Winter Garden aGlow. Hope for snow—the lights shine even brighter against the white-covered grounds. But even on a clear night, the view is magical from the elevated Lewis and Clark Native Plant Garden, which looks over the gardens and downtown.
Nevada County, CA
Gold Rush towns throughout this area do it up with their Christmas lights. A solid self-guided driving tour can hit Nevada City, Grass Valley, and Penn Valley—all of which put up gorgeous displays and recurring holiday fairs throughout December. The best one is in Nevada City on Wednesdays and Sundays. Join carolers wearing bonnets and top hats for this old-timey celebration in the idyllic (and affordable) Sierra small town.
Mission Inn Hotel & Spa, Riverside, CA
Riverside sets the bar on over-the-top Christmas lights celebrations. For proof, just look at the Festival of Lights opening party, which was headlined by Robin Thicke this year. The anchor for the event—which runs through the first week of January with rides, displays, and 5 million-plus LEDs—is the Mission Inn. The 1900s hotel stuns with its illuminations; oversized figurines of Dickens characters, elves, and other holiday characters; and a 12-foot gingerbread house made by the in-house pastry chef. Though tours of the hotel’s grounds are available, you have to book a room or dinner to get a peek inside during peak times (it’s totally worth the splurge).
Shore Acres State Park, Coos Bay, OR
Set on a cliff above the crashing waves of the Pacific, the formal English-style gardens that once belonged to a lumber and shipping tycoon dazzle in their winter best with light sculptures forming shapes of orcas, hummingbirds, dahlias, and other figures paying tribute to the area’s natural beauty. It’s only $5 for parking to get into one of the prettiest holiday displays in Oregon at Shore Acres State Park. Arrive early enough to catch the other light show from the enclosed (read: warm) Simpson Reef Overlook as the sun sets over the sea. Afterward, spend the night in one of the modern cabins at Bay Point Landing, a 2019 Sunset Travel Awards winner for its sleek design that emphasizes the wild, jaw-dropping views.
Temple Square, Salt Lake City, UT
Salt Lake’s Temple Square rolls out several standout features for the holidays. There are wondrous nativity sets—including an illuminated one atop a reflecting pool and a life-size version on a lawn near the visitors’ center; the 70-foot Cedar of Lebanon tree, which gets dressed in red; and million of LEDs throughout the 35-acre square. Families look forward to this Utah tradition that kicks off after Thanksgiving and runs into the new year with an NYE choir concert taking place at midnight. Make it a goal to go this year. Though it won’t go away, the display is expected to be smaller over the next four years as the anchoring Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints undergoes renovations. Plus, SLC is the perfect jumping-off point for a Utah winter national park adventure.
Christmas in Color, Denver, CO
Drive through a technicolor dream at this Denver pop-up holiday event. As you cruise, more than 1.5 million lights twinkle in unison with the sounds of classic holiday tunes streaming in your car through an FM radio station. A little more than 10 years ago, a Utah man started an animated holiday display in his home; now it’s a full-fledged event with part of the proceeds benefitting children’s charities. The drivable show is also replicated in Morrison, Colorado, and South Jordan, Utah.
Downtown Victoria, B.C.
This British Columbia town may just take the Christmas cookie for most spectacular Christmas lights. The city ups the ante this year with the new Lights of Wonder festival that takes over downtown. Expect to see a 40-foot tree, carolers, and peddlers trading in hot cocoa and other treats throughout the charming, village-like downtown. Horse-drawn trolleys circulate through downtown so you can squeeze in more sightseeing, leaving plenty of time to make it to other classic Victoria holiday happenings. Don’t miss the iconic light show at The Butchart Gardens with its ice skating rink, magnificently lit gardens, the Christmas Ferris Wheel at Centennial Square, and stately buildings like the Parliament (pictured) in full glow.