Best Places to See Holiday Lights by Car in the Bay Area

Don’t miss these 8 drive-through displays in Northern California.

San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge lit up at night.
The world's largest light art installation makes the Bay Bridge shine at night.
Renet / Shutterstock

Looking for a little illumination this season? You're in luck. From Petaluma to San Jose, the San Francisco Bay Area is bringing on the cheer (not to mention brightening up the nights) with an array of drive-through holiday light displays. Not only do they provide socially-distanced fun, but they're also guaranteed to thrill, delight, and uplift the whole family.

Illuminate SF, Festival of Light, San Francisco

This creative show brightens the city's skies from Thanksgiving through January 23, 2021 with more than 60 works of public art that shine and sparkle. An online map shows their locations throughout the city, including favorites like the permanent Bay Lights of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and Hope Will Never Be Silent in the Harvey Milk Plaza. The dedicated Light Art Trail showcases 11 distinct art works that can be seen from the road, including the luminous Buckyball outside the Exploratorium and the changing hues of the Moscone Center’s Point Cloud, made up of 858 steel rods and 28,288 LED bulbs that switch colors every 30 seconds.

City of Lights Driving Tour, Petaluma

Once the sun goes down, the lights come on along this self-guided driving tour through picturesque Petaluma, in Sonoma County. About 20 or so homes go all out for the holidays, with festive décor ranging from candy cane–lined walkways to trees decked out in bright lights and baubles. Simply download this year's map on Visit Petaluma's website and set out at your convenience. Lights typically run December 1 through December 31.

Christmas Tree Lane, Alameda

The spectacular yuletide pageanty of Alameda's Christmas Tree Lane (located along the city's 3200 block of Thompson Avenue) continues to delight hundreds of onlookers with wondrous lights, decorations, and ornaments early December through January 1. Visitors are encouraged to take in the lane's magical décor, which typically includes handmade wooden cutouts like The Grinch and Rudolph's Abominable Snow Monster, and kids can also drop letters into Santa's mailbox and, with a legible return address, even receive a reply from the man himself.

Vista San Ramon Luminary Night, San Ramon 

Marvel at the ethereal glow of hundreds of luminaria, or small candle-lit paper lanterns, lining the streets of the Vista San Ramon community beginning at dusk on December 17. While this in-car event is one night only, most of the neighborhood's 161 homes feature holiday lights and décor throughout the bulk of December. Alcosta Blvd. and Woodland/Overlook Drives.

A car drives through a purple light display at San Jose's Christmas in the Park.

See downtown San Jose in a new light.

Courtesy Christmas in the Park

Fantasy of Lights, Los Gatos

Each evening between December 4 and December 30, Santa Clara's Vasona Lake County Park springs to life with more than 50 illuminated displays featuring everything from fantastical dinosaurs to an all-new camping Santa. While the Fantasy of Lights’ annual walk-through portion is open December 3-4, all size vehicles are welcome along its 1.5-mile drive-through route, which includes a spectacular tunnel of lights and a dedicated radio station for drivers to tune in to, replete with holiday tunes, December 6-30 (closed on Christmas). Tickets must be purchased in advanced, from $20 per vehicle.

Christmas in the Park: A Drive-Thru Holiday, San Jose 

For more than four decades, the heart of Silicon Valley has drawn wide-eyed wanderers to its annual Christmas in the Park, with hundreds of community-decorated trees and whimsical animated light displays. A companion drive-through event at Lake Cunningham Park in San Jose adds to the festivities. The light show is set to music and you can expect to see delights like a colorful pixel forest and leaping reindeer arches. The holiday spectacle runs from November 26 to January 1. Tickets from $30 per car.


Holiday Lights, Watsonville

Embark on an enchanted holiday cruise through the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds, taking in everything from giant Christmas trees that glisten and glow to twinkling displays of Santa and his reindeer. The three-quarter-mile-long route culminates with a selection of drive-through food stands, perfect for rounding out the evening with some festive eats. Holiday Lights takes place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings from November 25 through December 25. Advance tickets are $20 per vehicle.

Bright elves glow in the front yard of a home on Palo Alto's Christmas Tree Lane.

Bright elves glow in the front yard of a home on Palo Alto's Christmas Tree Lane.

yhelfman / Shutterstock

Christmas Tree Lane, Palo Alto

For more than 80 years, Palo Alto's Fulton Street, off Embarcadero Road, has dazzled passengers with a seemingly endless array of lights, decorations, and good ol' holiday cheer. You might spot a plywood Santa making his way into a chimney, see a row of hand-drawn snowmen, and marvel at a life-sized horse-drawn carriage display illuminated in white. The nightly event on Christmas Tree Lane shines between 5 and 11 p.m. from December 10 through December 31.

This article was first published in December 2020 and last updated in November 2022.