Updated: Dec 11, 2020
This has been a tough year. But just because you’re on a tight budget, doesn’t mean you have to skimp on holiday fun. Here are some phenomenal light shows that are FREE. Plus, each place is paired with a nearby restaurant where you can get a hot drink, if saving a lot (on admissions) inspires you to spend a little (on hot chocolate). It’s a great way to top off the evening and create happy holiday memories.
The highlight of the holiday celebration at Franklin Square, one of the five original squares included in William Penn’s brilliant design of Philadelphia, is the Electric Spectacle Holiday Light Show. This free, nightly show features more than 100,000 lights (the most ever) seemingly dancing to holiday music, some recorded by the Philadelphia POPS ®. There will be two alternating shows every half hour starting at 5 p.m. daily and running until 9 pm on weekdays and 10 pm on weekends. With seven acres, there’s lots of run to social distance.
Adding to the festivities are two playgrounds, a snowy square stroll for little ones, individual fire pits and old fashioned carousel (not free).
New this year is Chilly Philly Mini Golf. The miniature golf course that features mini Philadelphia icons (think the Liberty Bell, Love Statue and Elfreth’s Alley) as obstacles are decorated for the holidays with lights, inflatables and holiday music. It is a uniquely-Philadelphia holiday experience (not free).
Pair with: Before hitting Franklin Square, stop for Hot Chocolate at Ray's Cafe & Tea House in nearby Chinatown. Dress it up by adding a flavor like peppermint or salted caramel and whipped cream.
Start your evening on South Smedley Street, a looped street connecting Moyamensing and Oregon, between 16th & 17th. The neighbors have been decorating the houses on the outer edge of the loop and the grassy area in the middle for more than 55 years and the display has become especially elaborate in the last 20 years with lights, inflatables and a creche. This year they’ve added a ferris wheel (for decoration, not riding). It’s so over-the-top that you’ll likely be tempted to go around the circle twice just to take it all in - once looking at the houses on the outer ring and then again taking in the display in the middle.
Next, head to Miracle on 13th Street. The houses on South 13th Street between Tasker and Morris have been going all out for the holidays for 20 years. It’s like Christmas on steroids and every year it gets bigger and better. The block is lit from 5 pm until midnight.
If you drive, be patient, if you decide to park near each block and walk, the residents request that you social distance and wear a mask.
Pair with: A Chocolate Volcano, thick rich, hot chocolate drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauce at Rim Cafe. Sit by the space heaters at this French coffee shop in the Italian Market. Or try a Créme Brûlée Volcano and watch them roast the marshmallows with a tiny blow torch. Or Rim's new Hot Chocolate Bomb.
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Rittenhouse: Rittenhouse Square & Addison Street
Rittenhouse Square has a different, more romantic vibe, especially during the holidays, when it’s filled with 5,000 lights and white globes hanging from the trees. It’s nearly impossible not to smile. Even if no one can see your smile under your mask they’ll see it in your eyes. After you take in the Square, head south to the 1700 and 1800 blocks of Addison Street, between Pine and Lombard. The trees arching over the little street are draped in white lights year-round. But, it’s so charming that it’s still a don’t-miss whenever you’re nearby in the evening and especially when you’re out appreciating the holiday lights. Addison is one of the most Instagrammable spots in the city.
Pair with: Hot Chocolate at Gran Caffe L’Aquila. It’s like a love child between hot cocoa and chocolate pudding. You can add caramel, vanilla, hazelnut, mint or liquor to any of the restaurant's hot drinks and top with whipped cream too. This authentic Italian restaurant is on Chestnut between 17th & 18th. Enjoy it at an outside table or across the street by the fountain in charming John F. Collins Park. It's not open late, but it's getting dark early these days.
In just a couple of years, Winter at Dilworth Park has become a beloved holiday tradition. This outdoor activity returns in 2020 with some new social distancing protocols in place. Masks are required.
The Deck the Halls Holiday Light Show has been redesigned so it doesn't draw crowds. The remarkable illumination of the west side of City Hall will be continuous throughout the evening. Watch as City Hall is transformed into a giant pinball machine, Christmas sweater, gingerbread house and more. It runs on Fridays & Saturdays from 5 - 11 pm and until 9 pm on other days.
And don’t miss the massive Christmas tree, topped with a Liberty Bell, or the Wintergarden, an open air garden with whimsical reindeer topiaries, festive twinkling lights and a new rustic arbor and the fire pits. There's also an ice skating rink and carousel (not free).
Then head across the street to Love Park to take in Christmas Village. This charming holiday activity, which is modeled after traditional Christmas villages in Germany, is back this year with a new safety protocol.
Pair with: Snowshoe at McGillin's Olde Ale House, the oldest continuously operating tavern in Philadelphia and one of the oldest in the nation. This delicious concoction is hot chocolate and your choice of butterscotch liquor, Kilebeggan Irish Whiskey or Rumple Minze Peppermint Schnapps topped with whipped cream. Or opt for the Hot Cider with Fireball whiskey and a cinnamon stick or one of the other warm drinks on the historic bar’s holiday drink menu.
West Chester: Griswolds Christmas
The city doesn’t have a lock on amazing Christmas displays. This display is the Plummer family’s nod to the National Lampoon movie. They say you can see the display, with lights controlled by computer, from outer space (although I’ve personally been unable to confirm that). The family has been decorating different houses for Christmas for 20 years and has been in the current location for 4 years. One highlight is the mailbox for letters to Santa.
Pair with: A warm S'mores-tini at Bar Avalon on East Gay Street in charming downtown West Chester.
Philadelphia’s iconic Boathouse Row will be lit in Chanukah colors through December 17, Christmas colors from December 19 through 25 and Kwanzaa colors from December 26 through January 1. The best place to take in the lights and snap a few pictures is from the Fairmount fish ladder off the Schuylkill River Trail just off MLK Jr. Drive.
Pair with: Before hitting Boathouse Row, grab Hot Apple Cider from Lancaster Farm Fresh or Hot Chocolate at Cosmic Cafe. Adults can add a shot to either drink.
Enjoy these safe, outdoor activities that prove you don't have to spend a lot of money to enjoy the holiday lights.
by Irene Levy Baker, author, 100 Things To Do In Philadelphia and Unique Eats & Eateries of Philadelphia. Both books are full of tips. For even more tips, visit www.100ThingsToDoInPhiladelphia.com. Planning a staycation? Need a gift? Go to the website for signed copies of books. For free shipping, use promo code TheCityPulse. Click here for more blog postings by Irene Levy Baker including two posts with holiday activities, tips for how to help restaurants survive, photos of Philly-centric masks, a list of some of the area's best warm cocktails and more.