I have, over the past couple of years, made it a point to take one evening and just drive around St. Paul and look at the lights. It started a few years ago, when I was house-sitting for a relative and would be spending Christmas night with the dog and cat after a day of travelling from house to house and family to family (I was engaged at the time). I decided to wind down with a rambling drive through St. Paul, driving only where I figured the Best Lights in the City are. I will now share my route with you.
(If you've got your own route already planned, it's all good! Skip down and check out my music recommendations!)
Coming in from the southeast suburbs (as I often do), it's best to approach downtown St. Paul from Warner Road. The view of the city itself is just gorgeous, and gives you a taste of what's ahead on the lighting tour. Warner changes its name at Sibley, so abandon it there and take a right into the city. Go straight a couple blocks and you'll see Mears Park in front of you - take a right on 5th Street (another one-way) and take rights all the way around the park. I'm a big fan of Mears Park because it's a very compact and dense little space of green in the midst of Lowertown, and they've done a great job with lights the past couple of years. When you round out the northwest edge of the park, stay the course on 6th into and through the bulk of downtown.
The roads get a little awkward here - no, not because of drunken Irishman, because of the curve of the river and the preservation of some of the oldest roads and buildings in the city. Sixth meets up with Jackson - take that down to Kellogg (not as far as Sheperd), and turn towards the Xcel Energy Center. From there, you'll see the whole of the Wabasha/Kellogg waterfront park area lit up for the season. And by "season" here, I just mean "winter." I've seen these lights left on until the trees start getting leaves in the spring. It's actually quite spectacular.
From Kellogg, follow down until you're almost to the X. Take a right onto Washington, and there ahead of you will be Rice Park. This is usually the part of the tour where I circle a few times - there's a lot to take in here. The James J. Hill Public Library, the Ordway Theater, the Landmark Center and the St. Paul Hotel directly border the park, with a view of Lawson Commons and its annual candle. (You'll know the candle when you see it!) This year, Xcel Energy has upgraded to all LED lights throughout the park. Rice Park, while smaller than Mears Park, feel bigger because of the smaller buildings around it, and the views are a lot more Currier & Ives than the Battery Park feel of Mears. If you're lucky, the skating rink is still open when you do the drive, and you'll see families with skates on shoulders, heading home for some hot cocoa, or making a stop at one of the many restaurants in downtown.
Not you, though; you'll continue the tour. Right?
From Rice Park, head back out the way you came and on to Kellogg again, taking the awkward turn onto Exchange Street (it's an exit in the middle of Kellogg). Follow Exchange to Walnut and take a left into Irvine Park, one of the oldest neighborhoods in St. Paul, having been donated to the village of St. Paul by John Irvine in 1849. It's home to some of the oldest houses, and the most famous haunted restaurant in the city: Forepaugh's. Head back out on Walnut up to 7th, and back out to Kellogg. Check out the huge jumbotron on the corner of the X and take a left to head up the hill.
This is the part that Irvine Park will have wet your appetite for - a trip down Summit Avenue. Summit Avenue and its historic districts are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, along with several Summit Avenue landmarks. As you drive down the gorgeous road, you'll pass:
The Cathedral of St. Paul
The James J. Hill Mansion
F. Scott Fitzgerald's house
The Governor's Mansion - pay close attention to the tree in the yard here. That's your tree! The governor does not live in the mansion, but there is a decorated tree on the lawn nonetheless for all Minnesota taxpayers.
Once past Snelling Avenue and Macalester College, the driver does have the option to leave the tour at Cretin and head out to 94. Still with me for the final leg? Here we go.
The final part of this journey has more to do with winter and the river than the lights along it. Summit Avenue's western terminus is Mississippi River Boulevard. From here, take a left onto River Road and enjoy the view of the University of St. Thomas as you go past. As you go, you'll notice tastefully and wonderfully lit houses to the left, and a view of the Mississippi River and Mississippi Gorge Regional Park to the right. One note here, though: drive with caution. River Road is not to be taken lightly. The section of road nearest to St. Thomas is relatively straight, but as you go, you'll find that the road twists, turns, pitches and rolls quite a bit. You'll pass many beautiful houses on this stretch, and combined with the magnificence of one of the largest rivers in the world, it's a great way to wrap up the tour.
Mississippi River Boulevard meets up with Ford Parkway, which you can take into Minneapolis, or stay the course until it meets up with Highway 5 or 35E to head out.
Can you remember all that? No worries if you can't - here's a Google map for you. The tour is broken up into three sections: Downtown, Summit, and Mississippi River Boulevard.
View Holiday Lighting tour in a larger map
Total mileage according to Google Maps is 14.4 miles. Even if you drive the worst kind of vehicle for snow, it's $2.50 for about 45 minutes of pure wintry entertainment and joy.
I don't know many people who can drive, look at Christmas lights, and not listen to Christmas music. In fact, I do not recommend it. As for music, there's always the classics, which for me are Vince Guaraldi Trio and Amy Grant's Tennessee Christmas album, preferably on audio cassette if I can get it. This year, I'll do some advocacy in the form of music. Go to Target or Amazon, and get your hands on a copy of "Home for the Holidays: A Minnesota Christmas" - a collection of 15 classics as performed by Minnesota artists such as Tim Mahoney, G.B. Leighton, Ari Herstand, Roster McCabe and Katie McMahon. Each of these artists has carved out their very own niche here on the Twin Cities music scene, and they each bring their own sound to these classic songs. And, as if that wasn't good enough, proceeds go to charity. Everyone wins!
So there you have it:
$2.50 for one gallon of gas (average)
$10 for "Home for the Holidays" from your local Target ($15 online)
$4 for a cup of coffee or cocoa from your favorite local coffee shop (check out Brewberrys or Cafe Amore)
A night in a warm car, looking at lights and listening to wonderful music, creating a new tradition with your family and friends, or building on an old one: you know what they say. Priceless.
I also highly recommend this drive in the spring to see the leaves start to wake up, in autumn to see the colors change, and midday Saturdays in the summer for people-watching.