America's favorite cities for Christmas lights

By Megan Soll
December 23, 2016, 11:02:56 AM EST

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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