Just don’t wait too long to look (and book). These holiday-light displays sell out fast.
Winter’s cold, dark nights are when botanical gardens sparkle—quite literally, through seasonal light shows beginning in late November and stretching through late December or early January. More elaborate than wrapping strung lights around towering trees, and more immersive than a drive-through tour, these shows create immersive lightscapes.
Don a warm sweater and pack a hat and gloves—in other words, bundle up—for a brisk walk post-sunset through glowing arches, lit tunnels, and illuminated plant life in a new twist on outdoor gardens this holiday season. From tropical foliage in Naples, Florida, to New York City’s The Bronx, here are 12 of the country’s best, with some folding in cups of hot cocoa, fire pits, or live music for further festive fun. Just be sure to book your reservation ahead of time as many sell out in advance. Many of the gardens’ gift shops rotate their merchandise to include holiday-themed items such as ornaments for the tree.
Top Picks for You
Desert Botanical Garden
WHERE: Phoenix, Arizona
Every December the 140-acre garden hosts “Las Noches de las Luminarias,” a nod to Southwestern and Hispanic cultures during the winter holiday, and a tradition since 1978 when volunteers lit 700 tiny lights and placed them in paper bags along the garden paths for one night only. Now it’s a month-long event. This year, there’s another reason to visit the garden: “Chihuly in the Desert,” an exhibit of glass artist Dale Chihuly’s large-scale works debuting in early December, features nighttime slots (between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.) through June of 2022.
WHERE: Indianapolis, Indiana
Tucked into Indy’s 52-acre museum complex, “Winterlights” is quite a spectacle, with 1.5 million lights aglow in the Gardens at Newfields, in addition to a light-and-shadow sculpture (in the Four Seasons Garden) and projection-mapped rock show. Craft-beer fans, take note: Sun King Brewery’s Electric Reindeer, a beer exclusive to Newfields, will be on tap. Families—and “kids” of all ages—will love the make-your-own s’mores station.
Atlanta Botanical Garden
WHERE: Atlanta, Georgia
Walk among oversized, neon-lit flowers; illuminated tunnels; and water features all a-glow at “Garden Lights, Holiday Nights.” New this year at the 30-acre Midtown garden are a Glowing Grove along the Flower Walk and, if you missed the summer 2021 show “SUPERNatural: Glass Art by Jason Gamrath,” or want to see it again, the works are on exhibit during this show, too. Last year, Atlantans—specifically, readers of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—voted this show the city’s best holiday event.
Missouri Botanical Garden
WHERE: St. Louis, Missouri
Founded in 1859, the Missouri Botanical Garden is the nation’s oldest botanical garden in continuous operation and a National Historic Landmark. For “Garden Glow,” expect to see roughly a million lights. If you still need the perfect backdrop for your holiday card, there are several spots throughout the garden where visitors are encouraged to take snaps, including standing inside larger-than-life frames. For a warm, gooey treat, s’mores fire pits are set up on the “Garden Glow” path.
Bellevue Botanical Garden
WHERE: Bellevue, Washington
This 53-acre garden goes an extra mile with the design by creating, out of 500,000 lights, neon sculptures shaped like birds, animals, waterfalls, and plants as a focal point of the “Garden d’Lights” show. One of the country’s newer-established gardens, it was established in 1992, with several expansions that followed. While it’s always free to explore the gardens during daylight, this special event remains equally affordable ($5 per person).
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens
WHERE: Sarasota, Florida
Come mid-December, this 15-acre garden in downtown Sarasota flips on 2 million lights for its “Light in Bloom” event. (Note that this is not at the gardens’ Historic Spanish Point campus.) This former home of Marie and William Selby, in an urban setting along Florida’s Gulf Coast, makes for some stellar photographs. Family-friendly arts and crafts, music, and other activities are also offered.
Denver Botanic Gardens
WHERE: Denver, Colorado
Denver’s Botanic Gardens hosts such a stunning light show that many couples decide to get engaged here, inspiring the gardens to launch a Merry & Bright engagement package. “Blossoms of Light” has been lighting up the 23-acre York Street park for three decades. (Note that this is different than the gardens Chatfield Farms in Littleton.) It’s also a popular birthday-party location. New this year is the O’Fallon Perennial Walk, a 17-foot-tall tunnel of lights that’s 200 feet in length.
WHERE: La Canada Flintridge, California
Imagine walking through a glowing one-mile forest, only 12 miles north of bustling downtown Los Angeles. The gardens’ “Enchanted: Forest of Light” show is accented by a local artist’s stained-glass houses that were built in the Rose Garden, a new addition this year. Like previous years, Flower Power on the Promenade and HYBYCOZO installations on the Main Lawn are true highlights, as are fun lighting effects in the Ancient Forest.
Naples Botanical Garden
WHERE: Naples, Florida
At “Night Lights in the Garden,” the subtropical setting’s 170 acres tilt in a new direction once a thousand lights are flicked on for this annual event, now on its 12th year. This year, an added activities area at the gardens, on the Performance Lawn, celebrates camping and outdoor life, with an illuminated campground tent. Bonus: as the exhibit is sponsored by Johnsonville, you can grill your own brats (real and faux).
WHERE: Kansas City, Missouri
What’s unique about Powell Gardens’ “Festival of Lights” is that the walking path is a maze that shows off 20 miles of lights wrapped around the gardens’ trees and existing architecture. Warm-up with cider and spiked hot chocolate shouldered by palm trees at the Tiki bar, new this year, in the glass-domed conservatory. Another new arrival is a light and sound show called Quixotic Fountain of Light, casting a blue glow over the Fountain Garden.
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
WHERE: Richmond, Virginia
Virginia’s capital city gets to shine during Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden’s “Dominion Energy GardenFest of Lights” show, when millions of lights are spun into fun installations. Each year embodies a theme: this year it’s Naturally Connected. This includes the new Orlosky Studio’s “Poems of Positivity” light installation, where crowd-sourced words—in answer to the question of “What is something that makes you feel positive?”—were cut into black acrylic and are illuminated on three towers.
New York Botanical Garden
WHERE: The Bronx, New York
The country’s (not to mention the Western Hemisphere’s) largest botanical gardens, spanning 250 acres in the Bronx, hosts “NYBG Glow.” This 1.5-mile walking experience is a colorful montage of LED lights artfully framing trees, plants, and other installations. The show also utilizes the garden’s Haupt Conservatory and Mertz Library Building as an after-dark canvas. Tack on a ticket to the gardens’ Holiday Train Show, with miniature versions of iconic New York City-area monuments, such as the Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty, alongside trains that travel on a half-mile track.