We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
The sight of twinkling lights in the dark sky is almost guaranteed to get folks in the holiday spirit. With shorter days and chilly nights to contend with, holiday light displays lift our spirits and kick off seasonal festivities. Across the world, communities come together to mark the occasion. Stores unveil lavish, whimsical window displays and town squares showcase Christmas trees adorned with baubles.
In recent years, holiday light displays around the world have gotten more creative and high-tech, featuring imaginative projection mapping that uses buildings as a backdrop for artistic expression and colorful LED displays that depict waving Santas and other merry characters. If you’re keen to see some for yourself, here are 14 epic holiday light displays around the world and the unique history behind these mesmerizing installations.
Rockefeller Center (New York City)
The sight of white angels framing the view of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in New York is as iconic as the adjacent ice rink. But how much do you really know about the Big Apple’s world-famous holiday nexus? It all began in 1931, when the very first tree, a small balsam fir decorated with garlands of dried cranberries, paper chains, and a few tin cans, stood in front of what was once a construction site. Since then, a 75-foot-tall Norway spruce typically from upstate New York or other nearby states has been unveiled — although the 1966 tree came from Canada and the 1999 tree measured a whopping 100 feet tall.
In 2020, the tree hosted a tiny, dehydrated owl that was rescued and nursed back to health at a wildlife center in the Hudson Valley. Once the lights on the tree go dark, the Rockefeller tree is salvaged. In 1971, it was recycled for the first time — mulched and spread across nature trails in upper Manhattan. Since 2007, the tree has even featured energy-efficient LED lights, and has been cut into lumber, which is donated to Habitat for Humanity to build homes.
Tivoli Gardens (Copenhagen, Denmark)
This historic theme park first opened its doors in 1843, and its decorative lights have become a winter tradition in Copenhagen. Tivoli is especially magical during December, and once you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to imagine the holiday season without it. The scent of pine hangs in the air and a million LEDs glitter throughout the park. At Tivoli’s Christmas market, charming wooden huts sell handmade ornaments, trinkets, toys, cocoa, delicious Danish pastries, and other treats.
Sip a glass of gløgg — what Danes call mulled wine — as you take in the scene. Over a thousand Christmas trees with twinkling lights and baubles line the snowy park pathways. The garden is decorated with søblades, or “sea leaves” (lily pads), that resemble hearts.The largest of which is a 115-foot-tall glowing søblade on which projected images tell our favorite Christmas stories.
Galeries Lafayette (Paris, France)
Though the tradition of setting your Christmas tree upside down is actually an ancient one, it’s a current custom at Galeries Lafayette. The upscale Parisian department store has displayed a decorated tree for more than a century, but it wasn’t until Christmas 1976 that the store decided to hang the tree from its signature dome ceiling. The original hanging Christmas tree was constructed out of aluminum, measured 75 feet in length, and adorned with silver baubles.
In 2014, however, the store unveiled an upside-down tree that bewildered and enchanted shoppers in equal measure. “A Monstrous Christmas” quickly became the store’s most talked about display.
Macau Light Festival (Macau, China)
A more recent addition to global celebrations, the Macau Light Festival has been mesmerizing holiday shoppers since its first show in 2015. The annual displays feature creative projection mapping, which turns local landmarks such as the Chapel of St. Francis Xavier, Largo dos Bombeiros stadium, Macao Science Center, and Barra Pier into stimulating works of art.
Each year’s displays are themed; in 2021, the concept is “Travelers from Mars.” There are plenty of interactive exhibits, as well as stands, selling cotton candy and decorations, making this a great night out for the entire family.
Alumbrados Navideños (Medellín, Colombia)
The eagerly awaited Alumbrados Navideños, or El Alumbrado, lights up the Colombian city of Medellín each December. Though the first lights dazzled in Plaza Mayor back in 1851, it wasn’t until 1955 that one of the greatest Christmas displays in Latin America was unveiled by local utility company, EPM, to mark December 7, the Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles).
The display grew larger, and at its peak, an estimated 37 million bulbs illuminated the city. The stunning installation is at its brightest along the Medellín River, where the colorful LEDs reflect on the water.
Fête des Lumières (Lyon, France)
The tradition of the Fête des Lumières (Festival of Lights) in Lyon has roots that trace to the winter of 1852. It had been a turbulent year with social unrest, so when rain threatened the unveiling of a statue of the Virgin Mary at a church on Fourvière Hill, determined locals marked the occasion by placing candles in their windows instead.
That tradition has continued ever since but has evolved into an extraordinary festival that takes place each December. The event embraces creativity and encourages originality with an array of mesmerizing light shows that use the city’s many historic buildings and traboules (hidden covered passageways) as a stage.
Luci d’Artista (Salerno, Italy)
Luci d’Artista in Salerno is one of the most highly anticipated seasonal festivals in Italy. The coastal city goes all out, putting on a themed display which illuminates every downtown street and piazza. At sunset, locals switch on their lights, and don’t dim them until late at night.
Throughout the city, you’ll also find the traditional figures of the Nativity alongside Bobbo Natale (Santa Claus) and his reindeer, in addition to a ferris wheel. Salerno is a quick train ride from Positano and Amalfi, so you can spend your day exploring the beautiful coastline after a night under the twinkling lights.
Luminarie (Kobe, Japan)
Luminarie was born out of tragedy, but the beautiful light display is the perfect way to remember beloved friends and family during the holiday season. In January 1995, the Great Hanshin Earthquake devastated the Japanese city of Kobe. Over 6,000 people lost their lives and thousands were left homeless. Still, more had to adapt to a lack of electricity and water. That December, a memorial service took place centering on a spectacular display consisting of over 200,000 hand-painted lights donated by the Italian government.
Italian Valerio Festi partnered with Hirokazu Imaoka from Kobe to design a fitting tribute to the city, which symbolized hope and recovery. The event was intended to be a one-off, but the citizens of Kobe had other ideas. This poignant commemoration has taken place every year since, with the exception of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Casino Square (Monte Carlo, Monaco)
The tiny principality of Monaco sure impresses when it comes to glitz and glamour, and that’s particularly true during the holiday season. The Monte-Carlo Société des Bains de Mer pulls out all the stops to transform the Place du Casino. A massive tree decorated with roughly 4,000 gold and white baubles creates a stunning centerpiece for a fantastic winter grotto. Expect everything from glittering stars to glowing igloos as you sip your champagne and take in the magical scene.
Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)
Each December, residents of Rio de Janeiro eagerly await the lighting of the city’s iconic Christmas tree, which floats on Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. The tradition began in 1996, and was the brainchild of Roberto Medina, a Brazilian entrepreneur best known for staging the Rock in Rio concert. In 2007, the tree earned a Guinness World Record as the world’s largest floating Christmas tree, measuring an impressive 278 feet tall and covered in almost 3 million individual lights.
Trafalgar Square and Regent Street (London)
London’s famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway, is the star attraction in Trafalgar Square each December. A tree has been felled and shipped across the North Sea since 1947, as a present that expresses Norwegian gratitude for Britain’s help during World War II. Impressive though this is, the most stylish and sophisticated lights in the British capital can be found a mile away on Regent Street.
This street was the first place in central London to put on such a display — the first lights were installed back in 1954. In 2021, nearly 300,000 individual bulbs light up 45 angels as part of the street’s largest ever display, entitled “The Spirit of Christmas.” If that’s not enough, the dazzling gold stars of Oxford Street and the kaleidoscopic neon butterflies of Carnaby Street are only a short stroll away.
Christmas Wonderland (Singapore)
As night falls year-round, colored lights accentuate the dramatic beauty of the Supertrees at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay. These artificial, tree-shaped structures act as vertical gardens and host thousands of succulents and bromeliads. Unveiled in 2012 as part of Marina Bay’s redevelopment, the trees quickly became one of Singapore’s most recognizable and most photographed landmarks. So, it’s only fitting that the display becomes the backdrop for an additional nine magical light displays that comprise “Christmas Wonderland.”
The centerpiece is the Spalliera. Standing almost 70 feet tall, the structure was inspired by the Gothic-style cathedrals of Europe. A spectacular light tunnel called the Walk of Stars and the dazzling Enchanted Bridge further enhance these beautiful gardens. While you’re there, take a ride on a Venetian carousel, shop for gifts at Mistletoe Alley Market, and grab a selfie with Santa.
VanDusen Botanical Garden (Vancouver, Canada)
From late November to early January each year, more than a million twinkling lights transform Vancouver’s 15-acre VanDusen Botanical Garden. One of the highlights of the display is a wintry version of the hibernating Rose Garden, allowing these colorful blooms to shine as they do in summer. The purple Grotto a Glow, trippy PrisMagic Maples, and illuminated stream with its underwater lighting are also sure to enchant visitors who descend on the garden for this event.
Amsterdam Light Festival (The Netherlands)
Artists from around the world are invited to submit ideas for Amsterdam’s annual Light Festival. For nearly a decade, the festival has incorporated the selected designs into light displays that often use water to produce exquisite reflections and illuminate the city’s historic canalside buildings. While it’s possible to walk or bike along the art trail to view these illuminated pieces, the displays are best appreciated via boat tour, which allows you to listen to commentary about the artists’ objectives.