As Charlotteans we often boast about being close to both the coast and mountains… come the holidays we are also uniquely positioned for some truly awesome memory-making light displays that really warrant the drive. Here’s our Top 3 Holiday Lights experiences that are worth loading up the kids in the car and are a manageable one-day trip or an overnight stay; the Holidays are already bearing down upon us — these Scoop-worthy Picks and Tips will make sure you fit a lot of magic into your day.

Lights Before Christmas (Columbia)

Where: Riverbanks Zoo, Columbia, SC – approx. 1.5 hr drive

When: Nightly, 5:00 – 9:00 p.m.

How Much: Free if you’re a member, $11 adults, $9 ages 2- 12.

What: 30 years of tradition and a nighttime experience at the Zoo. Though don’t expect to see too many animal friends, most are off exhibit and sleeping. However there are some nocturnal friends ready to wish you a Happy Holidays along with more than one million twinkling lights, countless animated light displays, the Holly Jolly Christmas Parade, talking Story Tree, a bonfire, Santa, and hot cocoa, s’mores and other festive foods available for purchase.

Scoop Tip: Buy Tix in advance and skip the Box Office line – you can go directly to the gate. Speaking of gates, double check your GPS — entering on the Zoo side versus the Garden side is generally better if you have kids. Oh, and one other tip – bring a stroller or a wagon even if your kids are on the older side – the Zoo is a manageable landscape but at night all distances seem farther. Stroller rentals are also available.

Also Make Time To: Drive downtown to see the State Capitol Tree, and pick up a tasty treat for the trip home from Cupcake DownSouth.


Roper Mountain Holiday Lights (Greenville)

Where: Roper Mountain Rd, Greenville, SC – approx. 1.5 hr drive

When: Nightly, 6:00 – 10:00 p.m.

How Much: $15 per car – Scoop Tip: cash and check only!

What: This is the last year – so if you’ve been putting this one off each year now is the time to do it. It’s a drive-thru display, but there’s also a Winter Wonderland which we recommend you do first. Park and (wear out the kids) with a visit with Santa, the balloon artists, pose with giant holiday cards, enjoy festive snacks and more. There’s also a lighted walking trail nearby.

Scoop Tip: Don’t miss Candy Cane Lane and the Caterpillar on the drive-thru.

Also Make Time To: Drive downtown, Greenville is lovely any time of year but they take it up a notch during the holidays. If you can fit in a quick visit before the Roper Mountain Lights, the kids will enjoy stretching their legs in Falls Park along the river, or take them into M.Judson Booksellers & Storytellers (it’s everything you want Barnes & Noble to be), or if some holiday gifts are still needed (bribe for the drive home?) O.P. Taylor’s Toy Store is just a block or so down and is quaint and packed to the rafters with the hottest toys from the past and present.


Holiday Festival of Lights (Charleston/ James Island)


Where: James Island County Park (Charleston) – approx. 3.5 hr drive

When: Nightly, 5:30 – 10:00/11:00 p.m.

How Much: $15 – $20 per car (depends on day)

What: OK, so this one is a bit of drive and would require an overnight stay but it’s well worth it. Featuring more than 700 animated light displays and two million lights, the Holiday Festival of Lights is a great place to capture the magic of the holiday season.

Scoop Tip: Park and get out at Santa’s Village & Winter Wonderland. This Tip is a bit of a toughie because the lights drive-thru is more than enough… it’s a 3-mile tour, but you really just can’t miss the sand sculptures made from more than 50 tons of sand, or taking a ride on the train or the Victorian carousel. You can also take pics with Santa, and somewhat unbelievably toast your own marshmallows…

Make Sure To Also: It’s Charleston. What more do we need to say… though some quick picks for holiday family fun include photos with Santa at the SC Aquarium, the off-the-charts train/ village display in the lobby of the beautiful Charleston Place hotel, Elf Chasing at Wild Dunes or simply strolling around the magical streets that transport you to another time during the holidays.


Other Top Contenders:

Winter Lights at The North Carolina Arboretum (Asheville, NC)
Meadow Lights (Benson, NC)
Lights on the Neuse (Clayton, NC)
Anderson Christmas Lights (Anderson, SC)
Christmas in Hopelands (Aiken, SC)
Florence Festival of the Lights (Florence, SC)

*Photos sourced from Facebook pages of experiences listed and instagram