Spring -- when most flowers bloom -- may be the busiest time for botanical gardens, but this time of year can also draw very high numbers of visitors. That’s because many botanical gardens are known for their elaborate displays of holiday lights.
Botanical gardens and holiday light shows are well suited for each other. First of all, botanical gardens have large, open areas tailor-made for walks. Secondly, bright, twinkling lights are appealing, especially during the shortest and darkest days of the year. What’s more, seeing holiday lights can even improve your mood.
This year, perhaps more than ever due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, everyone can use additional holiday cheer. But, like most other things this year, going to see holiday lights at botanical gardens will be different.
Some botanical gardens, unfortunately, were forced to cancel their light festivals. The gardens that do have holiday light displays are generally operating at limited capacity. With that in mind, be sure to check with your favorite botanical garden to learn about their guidelines and other pertinent information when planning your trip. That said, here are our 10 picks for beautiful botanical gardens to visit during Christmas.
1. Atlanta Botanical Garden
Located in Midtown Atlanta, Atlanta Botanical Garden’s 30 acres really shine during the holidays. This is the fourth year Garden Lights, Holiday Nights has been named the best holiday event in metro Atlanta by readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The exhibit, with new safety protocols in place, features lighted, larger-than-life sculptures from Alice’s Wonderland Reimagined. Alice, the Red Queen, and even the White Rabbit are there. Be sure to check out the popular Ice Goddess, with colors running through her hair, and Nature’s Wonders, featuring choreographed lights, sounds, and music.
2. Chicago Botanic Garden
After its sold-out debut last year, Lightscape is back at the 385-acre Chicago Botanic Garden. The garden has partnered with both local and international artists to create a unique experience. The mile-long trail, which is new this year and built with safety precautions in mind, takes visitors through a 110-foot-long lighted tunnel and an illuminated forest while they enjoy artistic installations. Along the way, attendees can listen to the “choir of singing trees” and admire the Cathedral of Light, made of thousands of twinkling lights. There’s also a fire garden where you can warm up.
3. Missouri Botanical Garden
St. Louis, Missouri
Although the annual Gardenland Express Holiday Flower and Train Show will not take place this year, the Missouri Botanical Garden is celebrating the season with its Garden Glow exhibit. Featuring more than 1 million dazzling lights, the Garden Glow path is a little over one mile long, and it takes approximately 1.5 hours to enjoy the experience. Light installations are interspersed throughout the garden. Along the way, you can even stop for photo opportunities. You should also make plans to stop at the s’mores pit. You can even walk the path more than once, if time allows.
4. Boerner Botanical Gardens
Hales Corners, Wisconsin
Winter Wonders, just 16 minutes outside of Milwaukee, is a nearly 1.5-mile holiday light experience. What’s different, is that visitors stay in their cars and drive the route, which winds through the gardens, Whitnall Park, and the Root River Parkway. While looking at 2D, 3D, and animated displays made of theatrical LED colored lights, attendees can listen to an accompanying radio broadcast of holiday music. There’s even a mini drive-in theater where you can watch a singalong and cartoon video. Note: the theater has a 20-vehicle capacity and is only repeated four times each hour.
5. New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, New York
Designed with plenty of space for social distancing, Glow at the New York Botanical Garden features the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory as a centerpiece. The reflecting pool and surrounding gardens are lit up as well, with colorful and energy-efficient LED lights. Visitors can also watch artistic ice sculpting displays and check out performances by The Hip Hop Nutcracker. There also are roving musicians and dancers who provide a unique experience.
6. Desert Botanical Garden
Las Noches de las Luminarias at the Desert Botanical Garden has become a holiday staple for many in the Phoenix area. Visitors walk the trails, where more than 8,000 luminarias, or paper lanterns, light and guide the way. This year, the garden has even added more lighting as well as more lighting displays to highlight its plant collection. This year, due to capacity restrictions of venues and trails, all accompanying music and sounds have been pre-recorded.
It’s also worth noting that on Monday, December 21, the Winter Solstice, the walk will be silent so visitors can walk the luminaria-lit trails for an evening of quiet self-reflection.
7. Dallas Arboretum And Botanical Garden
At Holiday at the Arboretum, visitors can walk through the garden while looking at 25-foot-tall Victorian-style gazebos decorated to represent the 12 Days of Christmas. At night, the display is illuminated by more than 1 million lights. This year also marks the introduction of a Christmas Village, inspired by European Christmas markets, or Christkindlmarket. The village features 12 shops, including a bakery, a candy shop, and Santa’s House. Volunteers dressed as shopkeepers are in the stores in the evenings and during weekends.
8. Denver Botanic Gardens
Blossoms of Light has been an annual tradition at the 24-acre Denver Botanic Gardens for more than 30 years. While it may be different this year, the holiday lights are still illuminating the garden’s flora and naturalistic landscapes. If you feel like having a snack or drink, the Hive Garden Bistro will -- safely -- be serving holiday treats and hot drinks. Visitors should plan to allocate between an hour and 75 minutes to see the entire display.
9. Cheekwood Estate And Gardens
Holiday LIGHTS at Cheekwood is a holiday favorite in Nashville. The one-mile trail through the 55-acre garden is lit by more than one million lights. Visitors can see the Children’s Wonderland of 17 tall, colorful cones and two of Santa’s reindeer, who visit during the daytime. The Garden’s TRAINS! exhibit is even decorated for the holidays. Finally, don’t forget to visit Cheekwood’s beloved Poinsettia Tree. It’s a great place for a family holiday photo.
10. Longwood Gardens
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
Longwood Gardens, just an hour outside of Philadelphia, presents A Longwood Christmas. More than 500,000 lights are used to illuminate more than 100 trees and special displays throughout the Gardens. Lights that sparkle are used to mimic the fountain jets of the Main Fountain Garden, while the trees bordering the Large Lake serve as the backdrop for a light show set to holiday music. Visitors are also able to walk through a 140-foot-long tunnel of light and exit to see a grove illuminated with colorful lights. Finally don’t forget to check out the Wildlife Tree, which is decorated with hundreds of handmade ornaments that feed birds and wildlife.
As with everything this year, it’s important to be aware of a venue’s safety measures, even if the event is outside. Be sure to check with the individual botanical garden you intend to visit to learn how they are handling ticket sales as well as any restrictions on capacity.