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With so many unexpected adventures right here in Wisconsin, this series helps you discover great places to visit throughout the state.

Dazzling La Crosse holiday lights display draws crowds and creates community

There’s a lot of traveling that happens around the holidays but you don't need to just travel to visit your in-laws. You could plan a trip just for fun this holiday season! In this month's Wandering Wisconsin we'll help you plan a trip to the La Crosse area where there's lots to do to celebrate the holidays.

The La Crosse Rotary Lights display kicks off it's 29th year Friday, November 24. It's a display of over three million lights all set up in Riverside Park in Lacrosse along the Mississippi River.

Pat Stephens is the president of the La Crosse Rotary Lights. "We have 75 animated displays. We have a live nativity scene. We have reindeer. We have nightly entertainment. Throw in some free s'mores for people that are visiting and even have two fire breathing dragon ... We've got a nice ice skating rink down there which is free to use as well as free skates that we provide for the people," Stephens describes.

Family takes in the Rotary Lights from a carriage ride.
Travel Wisconsin
La Crosse Rotary Lights
Family takes in the Rotary Lights from a carriage ride.

The display is set up so you can either walk or drive around to take in the lights. There are also carriage rides and even an option to see it from the air!

"If you want to be a little more adventurous there are helicopter rides over the display, which has become very popular over the years. I've done it twice and it's a great way to see the light display in a little different format going up over the river and over the park and so on. People really do enjoy that," Stephens says.

The lights are free to check out but there is a charitable mission to feed the hungry. People who attend are encouraged to bring a cash donation or a non-perishable food item.

"The very first year of Rotary Lights we collected 13,000 food items and gave it all to the Salvation Army. Last year, we collected 341,000 food items and stocked 14 area food pantries, so it really has become a major player in feeding the less fortunate," Stephens says.

La Crosse Rotary Lights
Travel Wisconsin
La Crosse Rotary Lights
La Crosse Rotary Lights

Stephens says the Rotary Lights are only possible because of the help of thousands of volunteers and the support of non-profits.

"I think most people would agree that it really brings the community together, not only the greater La Crosse area, but we have visitors from five or six different states that make it a point to come to this each and every year," Stephens explains.


If you're looking to shop local for the holidays Anne Sayers, the Tourism Secretary with Travel Wisconsin says there's lots of good options in the La Crosse area. She recommends Drift Mercantile which is a short walk from the Rotary Lights.

"Drift Mercantile stocks all sorts of locally made and inspired gift options. So you're going to find apparel that's designed and screen printed in house, Wisconsin made products like candles, artwork, and crafts and so much more," Sayers explains.

She says if you have a person in your life who loves antiques to check out the Antique Center in La Crosse. It's 20,000 square feet with 75 booths on three floors. Sayers says you can find just about anything you can think of there.

Finally, she recommends Larson's General. They sell everything from baby clothes, to candles to soap and they have an in-house skin care line that focuses on low waste and reusable products.


If you're looking for places to eat in La Crosse Sayers recommends Lovechild. The chef and co-owner was a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. Sayers says it's a great spot if you're looking for a romantic dinner.

"[The] elegant atmosphere kind of compliments Lovechild's fine food. The interior is this mix of brick and timber and then shimmering velvet and soft lighting. It actually landed on Food & Wine's list for most romantic restaurant in every state, so that's pretty cool." Sayers says.

She also recommends Uno Venti Pizzeria for their homemade Italian-style pizzas.

More Holiday Events

If the Rotary Lights aren't enough, you can take a short trip to Sparta where every Saturday starting November 25, they host the Kriskindlmarkt.

"This is one of Wisconsin's best outdoor Christmas markets. It replicates the traditional German-style markets full of local artisans. You can shop for handmade gifts. There's 27 different huts," Sayers says.

If you still need a Christmas tree Sayers says Second Nature at Reads Creek Nursery is a good place to stop. The nursery has pre-cut trees, a gift shop and they do special events and workshops including one that teaches you how to keep your Christmas tree alive after the holidays so you can plant it in the spring.


Becky is WUWM's executive producer of Lake Effect.
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