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Duluth Lights Up for the Holidays

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Bentleyville Tour of Lights in Duluth / John Heino

Duluth Lights Up for the Holidays

By Lisa Meyers McClintick

In Minnesota, heading to Duluth for the holiday season is a cherished annual tradition of many families. From Christmas parades through downtown to awe-inspiring holiday light displays and European-style winter markets, holiday cheer in Duluth awaits. 

Christmas City of the North Parade

Duluth officially kicks off the season with the Christmas City of the North nighttime parade through downtown the Friday before Thanksgiving. The parade is followed by the Christmas City Express train, the warm glow of decked-out Victorian mansions, and the bustle of holiday events ranging from comedy reviews and ballet to fairs featuring locally made gifts.

Because of the pandemic, plans for this year's Christmas City of the North Parade route have not been announced yet, but the event is still scheduled for Friday, Nov. 20. This longstanding holiday tradition has occurred annually for the past six decades, featuring marching bands, visiting royalty, 70 organizations and businesses, and two dozen dance groups who join Santa on his march through downtown Duluth. Things are sure to be a bit different this year, but there's still plenty of Christmas cheer to go around. 

Holiday light displays at Bentleyville Tour of Lights Duluth

Bentleyville Tour of Lights, Duluth

Bentleyville Tour of Lights

In Minnesota, you know the holiday season has begun when Bentleyville Tour of Lights opens. Bundle up and go early to join the nightly countdowns, chanting, “Five…four…three…two…ONE!” before the lights go on with a whoosh and a cheer. Lighted tunnels and pathways lead visitors past themed displays depicting Split Rock Lighthouse, an ore ship, the Aerial Lift Bridge and everything from the Nativity to the Island of Misfit Toys lit up by more than 4 million lights in a carnival of color.

To help minimize public health risks, this year Bentleyville will be a drive-through experience. Admission for the tour is just $10 per vehicle, paid at the gate (no presale). And while some Bentleyville standbys like bonfires, popcorn and hot cocoa are hitting pause this winter, children 10 and under will still receive a free knit hat and packaged bag of cookies upon entry. 

Duluth Christmas Train with Lights at Night

Christmas City Express in Duluth / Dave Schauer

Christmas City Express

A vintage train wrapped in holiday lights rumbles and chugs into view in front of Fitger’s in Duluth  from late November through December. Its lights brighten an inky night along Lake Superior as families eagerly climb up the steps and a conductor hollers, “All Aboard!”

The seasonal ride on the North Shore Scenic Railroad’s Christmas City Express travels to Duluth’s 1892 Depot, which houses the Lake Superior Railroad Museum. Kids gather for a reading of the book, “The Christmas City Express,” watch Lionel model train sets whir around their tracks, explore full-sized trains and hear a full-sized steam engine chug to life, as it spews smoke and blows its whistle. 

The Christmas City Express will be operating at 25% capacity this winter, so make your reservations early if you'd like to attend. Tickets can be purchased online or in-person at The Duluth Depot.

Holiday Decorations at Glensheen Mansion Duluth

Holiday decorations at Glensheen Mansion in Duluth

Christmas at Glensheen

Glensheen opens for self-guided holiday tours through the former Congdon home, which is decorated with 25 Christmas trees and other glittering decor that add to its rich and historic surroundings. The Glensheen Estate was completed in 1908. The Congdon family's rich history and wealth date back to the influential iron mining industry in the north. Visit in early December for the outdoor Winter Village, a holiday shopping event reminiscent of Europe's Christmas markets.

Many of Duluth’s grandest mansions were built during lumber boom years when the city claimed more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the United States. Visitors can savor the craftsmanship and architectural details of that period, along with seasonal decorations and hospitality, at one of five other historic mansions converted into bed-and-breakfasts.

Woman shopping at Duluth Winter Village

Winter Village at Glensheen Mansion, Duluth

Holiday Shopping

Besides serving as a pickup spot for Bentleyville and Christmas City Express, the Fitger’s shopping complex in a former brewery brings in Santa and live reindeer on weekends in December. Families can get photos with Santa, check out the unique shops or enjoy a meal or overnight stays with views of Lake Superior.

Other popular spots for unique and regionally made products include Canal Park and downtown Duluth along Superior Street.

Lisa Meyers McClintick

Lisa Meyers McClintick is a prolific travel writer for outlets including USA Today, Midwest Living, the Star Tribune and her website lisamcclintick.com. A mom of three, she especially enjoys family travel, hands-on learning vacations, local food and farms, living history and outdoor adventures.