During a typical December, California shimmers with countless twinkling lights—on boats bobbing in bays, along cityscapes, or at classic attractions. While COVID-19–related concerns have meant that many holiday festivities are cancelled this year, several classic events will carry on during the 2020–21 holiday season—and many of them are nicely free,
Some traditional favorites were socially distant to begin with; others have added safety measures or reservations-only systems to maintain safe numbers. A few canceled events have even gone totally online, like Stockton’s Tree of Lights and the Festival of Lights at Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens—a reminder that it’s always smart these days to check the website of any event, along with the latest travel alerts, before you attend. Either way, finding light in the darkness has always been a theme of the winter holidays, and here are 10 special ways to keep the tradition going this year.
Dec. 12–13: Huntington Harbour Boat Parade, Huntington Beach
Orange County’s Huntington Beach launched this boat parade in the 1960s with just 12 vessels, and today there are more than 75. Parking at Seabridge Park and the Huntington Harbor bridges will be more limited this year, so organizers suggest another way to see the show: Enter your own boat for the best view.
Through Dec. 19: Marina Del Rey Holiday Boat Parade
Walk, bike, or paddle along the waterfront of this L.A. County town to see decorated boats docked at Fisherman’s Village, Burton Chace Park, and the Marina Promenade on Admiralty Way. Afterward, vote for your favorite decorated boats via Marina Del Rey’s social media.
Through Dec. 21: Visions of Holiday Glamour on Rodeo Drive, Beverly Hills
Beverly Hills is bringing some haute couture to its holiday lights display: Ten lights-and-fashion-adorned giant mannequins stand on a runway of sorts, spanning three blocks of Rodeo Drive from Santa Monica Boulevard to Wilshire Boulevard.
Sunday Nights in December: Holiday Nights on the Bay, San Diego
This year won’t bring the usual boat parade on San Diego Bay, but the city skyline affords its own twinkling lights. Take this socially distant dinner cruise from Flagship Cruises on a decorated yacht and enjoy the lights alongside a full dinner that includes short ribs and pumpkin cheesecake.
Through Dec. 25: Christmas Tree Lane, Fresno
Drive this two-mile stretch of Fresno’s Fig Garden neighborhood, which has been decorating almost every year since 1920. One change for this year: There will be no stroll-only evenings, so plan to buckle up and experience it from your vehicle.
Through Dec. 27: Redding Garden of Lights, Redding
At Upstate California’s famed Turtle Bay Exploration Park, 10 acres of the McConnell Botanical Gardens are lined with illuminated pathways, dotted with wildlife- and nature-themed displays. Stop along the route for the hot cocoa stands and fire pits for s’mores. Open Wednesdays through Sundays.
Through Dec. 31: Snowy Nights and Holiday Lights, Los Angeles
Just outside downtown Los Angeles, Citadel Outlets is famous for its enormous tree. This year, the festivities each evening include a light show, “snow flurries,” and the voices of previous tree-lighting performers including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Victoria Justice.
Through Jan. 3: Dana Point Holiday Lights
The Orange County town of Dana Point tweaked its annual boat parade for 2020: Every evening, the harbor will light up with illuminated trees and themed light exhibits such as Candy Cane Lane and a “Merry Kiss Me” arch. Wednesdays and Thursdays bring carolers or live music. Download the map to walk or drive the festive route.
Through Jan. 6: Christmas Lights at the Inn, Riverside
The Mission Inn Hotel & Spa in downtown Riverside typically celebrates the season with sprawling displays featuring more than four million lights. This year, only hotel guests will have free range to explore the hotel grounds’ pathways and festooned interiors (including a life-sized gingerbread house). The hotel does offer some tempting packages, such as the Eat Drink & Be Merry special, which starts at just $289/night with a $25 dining credit. Check packages for availability.
Through Jan. 23: Illuminate SF Festival of Light, San Francisco
For holiday lights superfans, it’s hard to beat this citywide event of light art installations that runs well into January. More than 40 works stretch from the Castro to Yerba Buena neighborhoods—check out the map of the installations, or browse the 11 featured on the Light Art Trail.