Vivid Sydney is an annual festival that features light sculptures and installations throughout the city. Vivid Sydney is an annual festival that features light sculptures and installations throughout the city. Vivid Sydney is an annual festival that features light sculptures and installations throughout the Australian city. (Photo: Mark Kolbe / Getty Images)

Cities aglow: Light festivals around the world

Skylines are transformed by light art at these magical festivals. And if you can't visit, we've got virtual tours below.

The light festival phenomenon has fast been gaining traction. Major cities all across the globe now host large-scale light festivals, showcasing installations that combine art and smart lighting technology. Holographic creatures race around urban streets, drab gray-scale buildings are rendered Technicolor, skyscrapers become canvases for eye-popping art, and thousands upon thousands of shining LEDs breathe new life into old public spaces. And as most light festivals are free to enter and open to all, all you need do is hit the streets to see them.

Here are just a few of the radiant displays to treat your corneas to in 2016.

Light City, Baltimore, March 28-April 3, 2016

While light festivals have been a fixture on European calendars for several years now, cities in the U.S. have been a little slower to catch on to the trend. Baltimore is making its first foray into the genre this year with the Light City Baltimore, an event that will have Charm City glimmering and gleaming for almost a week. There will be interactive light towers that respond to the movement of people around them, animated projections and a collaborative light mural that festival-goers can contribute to using fluorescent-ink markers. The festival will also exhibit Jen Lewin’s “The Pool,” an interactive work that has already wowed audiences at light festivals in Prague, Sydney and Montreal. Lewin’s pool is made of glowing pads, each activated by human touch. Stepping on a pad causes it to light up, creating a ripple effect with the other pads around it. Baltimore’s installations are more than just eye candy; many pieces touch upon important environmental topics as well as other issues such as education and housing.

Light in Jerusalem, May 25-June 2, 2016

Few other cities can boast such a beautiful canvas for light displays as Jerusalem. The ancient structures of Israel seem to lend themselves particularly well to the medium, with this annual event casting them in a whole new light. During the 2015 edition of the festival, children’s drawings were projected onto the Damascus Gate, a psychedelic glowing “garden” sprung up on Jaffa Gate Plaza and hypnotic jellyfish wiggled in the air above one public square. Among the standout pieces was a field of mesmeric “light flowers” whose ever-changing patterns and rhythms responded to the ebb and flow of the accompanying music – a truly transfixing sight. Besides the enviable setting, Light in Jerusalem has another ace up its sleeve: the temperate Mediterranean climate makes it one of only a few light festivals that won’t require you to wrap up and brave the winter nights.

Luminale, Frankfurt, March 13-18, 2016

While other light festivals are aimed squarely at the general public, Frankfurt’s Luminale, which accompanies the city’s Light + Building trade fair, is designed to impress lighting professionals, too. Pros use the event, which happens once every two years, as a platform to showcase their latest ideas and innovations to their industry peers, though the extraordinary installations are bright enough to impress amateurs as well. During the week-long festival, visitors to the city will see Frankfurt transformed into one big art exhibition – its buildings adorned with flurries of flashing bulbs and impressive light projections. There will be glowing paper ships “sailing” through the crowds in the lobby of Frankfurt’s main train station, interactive installations that respond to stomping, clapping and screaming, and pieces that showcase the perspectives offered by different lighting. Boosting the illumination and light sculpture offerings are guided tours, talks and performances.

Signal Festival, Prague, Oct. 13-16, 2016

Though it’s only been staged three times so far, the Signal Festival is already the Czech Republic’s most well-attended cultural event. Prague, with its uniform red roofs, soaring spires and cobbled lanes, is one of Europe’s grand old beauties. And it’s the juxtaposition of the city’s classic good looks with ultra-modern lighting technology that makes Signal so very special. Among the most scene-stealing projects to have featured in Signal are video-mapping projections, which transform headline monuments such as Kinský Palace, and interactive light pieces that guests can manipulate, causing them to flicker and change color. Other shape-shifting pieces morph depending on the viewer’s position or perspective. In 2015, Signal included a dark tunnel with LED light tubes that could only be switched on by noise from participants and an interactive installation that involved projecting a three-dimensional images of visitors’ faces onto Šítkovská Tower.

Vivid Sydney, May 27-June 18, 2016

With gigs and concerts aplenty, Vivid Sydney is as much a music festival as it is a light festival. Though it’s the irresistibly Instagrammable light installations that make the biggest splash with the crowds. As Australia’s premier light festival, Vivid is a pretty big deal. The event is enormously popular, attracting in excess of a million visitors. Sections of the city are temporarily closed to traffic in order to make way for attendees to march through the light-flooded streets. Big bright displays are dotted around town, with the most photographed attractions typically found around Circular Quay – among them the Sydney Opera House, whose iconic sails are bathed in animations to jaw-dropping effect.


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