Light Matters: Europe's Leading Light Festivals

In mid autumn, when the nights get longer in the northern hemisphere, we encounter numerous light festivals. And indeed, within the last ten years, more and more light festivals have globally emerged. The reason for the success of light festivals is simple, as the German curator Bettina Pelz concludes: “It’s actually fairly easy, because whenever you do something with light in cities in the night, then people do come. If you do it good, they come twice.” 

As Pelz points out, light is an apt medium for evening events, since it easily attracts people. Communities have discovered the potential of lighting for city marketing, and the closer they plan their date to Christmas, the more they merge their illumination with the festive blinking lights of commercial Christmas markets.

Join us on a tour through some of the leading light festivals in Europe. Read more about their different backgrounds, artistic concepts and future trends after the break...

Light Matters: Europe's Leading Light Festivals - More Images+ 25

"On dirait que" / Spectaculaires - Fête des Lumières 2008. Image Courtesy of Ville de Lyon - Muriel Chaulet

The most famous light festival today, “Fête des lumières” in Lyon, is derived from a 17th century Catholic procession. However, some towns have developed their light festivals due to a strong technical history with local lighting manufacturers; for example, the city of Eindhoven with Philips and the city of Lüdenscheid with ERCO. Other cities have connected their light festivals with trade shows of the lighting industry, such as the Luminale in Frankfurt. Other festivals have started as educational events like „Light in Alingsås“. And then there are the cities that have just picked up the idea as an attractive initiative for tourism. Of course the concept and aesthetic quality varies depending on whether the tourism board, a technical team or a curator selects the artists and designers. More light is rarely better light.

For understandable reasons the tourism division looks for spectacular, colourful and dynamic projections on buildings to gain wide attention and media coverage. LUCI, or Lighting Urban Community International, an association that promotes light festivals as economical and cultural benefits for cities, states: „The overall impression is that light events and festivals have a positive effect on their host city, attracting additional visitors and generating publicity.“ 

Vivid Sydney 2013 – Chromatic Motions light installation. Image Courtesy of Vivid Sydney

Nevertheless some organisers like Lyon are aware of potential negative effects on businesses asked to switch off their lights during the festival, as they may suffer from a lower level of patronage. Another negative effect occurs when the festival projects create light pollution. To address these challenges and add quality to light installations, the role of the curator has become more important - especially with the increasing numbers of light festivals competing with each other. 

I’d now like to take a closer look at four cities with different models: 1. Lyon – the capital of light festivals with a long history; 2. Frankfurt – an open lighting platform for a trade show for a financial centre; 3. Alingsås – the result of an educational event for a small town; and 4. Lüdenscheid – a curated forum for light art.

"Les Chrysalides de Saint-Jean" / Damien Fontaine - Fête des Lumières 2012. Image Courtesy of Ville de Lyon - Muriel Chaulet

The origins of the Lyon “Fête des lumières“ go back to 1643. The city was struck by plague and, as an expression of gratitude to Mary, a procession to the Basilica of Fourvière took place with lighted candles. People also light up their windows for the ceremony by placing a candle on their windowsills on 8 December. 

Over time the light ceremony has developed into a professionally organised festival, which has become a benchmark for other light festivals. Numerous and impressive projects with large-scale installations, including coloured and dynamic lighting, have attracted vast numbers of tourists; the estimated average visitors per night was listed as 1.000.000, according to a 2010 report by LUCI.

Luminale. Frankfurt, 2012. Image Courtesy of Messe Frankfurt Exhibition / Jochen Günther

The German “Luminale” in Frankfurt is a stage for lighting enthusiasts that displays everything from student projects to professional installations by famous light artists. It has been held every two years since 2002, alongside the Light+Building, the largest trade fair for lighting, and puts in the same room anyone who is anyone in the sector, from manufacturers to designers to artists. The concept focuses more on being an open platform for various light installations than being a carefully curated fine art exhibition for Frankfurt and its surrounding Rhine-Main region.

The evening programme attracted about 140.000 visitors in 2012. An intense public relations programme has contributed to its international media coverage.

Gerdsken. Lights in Alingsås, 2002. Image © Alingsås Kommun

The Swedish „Light in Alingsås“ event started in 2000 as an educational programme where students had the opportunity to learn about outdoor lighting from leading lighting experts. Here the public can discover the results of a one week workshop where the teachers support the students to achieve a good aesthetic quality. The festival includes guided tours for the public, performances, as well as classes in garden and home lighting.

The light festival has become an important element for urban development as Thomas Braedikow, Managing Director for the Professional Lighting Designers’ Association, explains: „When Lights in Alingsås started in 1999 the town of Alingsås had around 20.000 inhabitants, today we count around 40.000 residents. Furthermore the structure of the inner city changed and lots of good cafés and restaurants settled during the years, with the Festival in October as their most successful month every year.” 

Cagna Illuminations, 2012. Design: De Cagna . Light Festival Ghent. Image Courtesy of City of Ghent

The light event also reveals the technological transformation towards LED lighting, as Thomas Braedikow points out: “The development of technologies changed the structure and content slowly over the years, coming from incandescent light bulb to reflector halogen to LED lighting, from analogue to digital and last but not least the content broadened from architectural lighting to telling a story. ”

In this way Alingsås has become an intriguing example of the way a light festival can naturally grow over years, from a workshop in the beginning to a sophisticated community-wide initiative that has even helped to increase the city’s population.

The small German town Lüdenscheid has a long tradition of lighting due to several local lighting manufacturers and a lighting institute. Since 2002 the city has asked two curators to select high-quality, artistic light-based installations and interventions for their “LichtRouten” forum. The mix of large-scale projects for public squares and small installations in private rooms offers visitors the chance to encounter reinterpretations of familiar spaces and to discover less known sites in the city. By including historical light installations, the forum has also started to present and document the development of light art over time.

With a large group of local volunteers, who undergo intense training, the curators have been able to provide well-founded information for visitors via the installations and guided tours. To maintain a high technical quality, the organisers also involve the local lighting manufacturers. The LichtRouten has thus established a tight network between the municipality, companies and citizens.

Tunnel of love by Vollaerszwart. Glow 2011. Image Courtesy of GLOW Eindhoven

Thanks to collaboration with world-renowned light artists, the curators have alsobrought an international flair to the provincial town that has attracted visitors from far beyond the region. For Bettina Pelz, curator of LichtRouten, the festival is part of a cultural mission: “People walking the LichtRouten here, many of them wouldn’t go in a normal museum. And if they go here and if they spend time with the artworks they start to deepen their visual understanding of things.“

A challenge for upcoming and new light festivals will be to find the right identity, whether as an economically-orientated tourism event or an ambitious fine art exhibition or something in-between. With a rising awareness of the need for energy conservation, festival organisers will also need to prove the necessity of excessive light gestures or prove that luminous interventions can be realised with as little energy as possible. Bettina Pelz expects that the diversity of light festivals will also change in the next five years: “The variety will change… I think, we will have more festivals that go further for lighting design, for art and maybe even for technology. Others will be just for city marketing reasons.”

Interested in more? Discover one of these worldwide light festivals:


  • Alingsås, Sweden: Lights in Alingsås
  • Berlin, Germany: Festival of Light
  • Brussels, Belgium: Festival des Lumières – 31.10.-03.11.2013
  • Chartre, Fance: Chatres en lumières
  • Durham, England: Lumiere – 14.11.-17.11.2013
  • Eindhoven, Netherlands: Glow – 09.11.-16.11.2013
  • Frankfurt, Germany: Luminale – 30.03.-04.04.2014
  • Ghent, Belgium: Light Festival Ghent
  • Helsinki, Finland: Lux Helsinki – January 2014
  • Lüdenscheid, Germany: LichtRouten
  • Lyon, France: Fête des lumières - 06.12.-09.12.2013
  • Tallinn, Estonia: Valgus Biennaal – 24.11.-01.12.2013
  • Turin, Italy: Luci d'artista – 01.11.-12.01.2013
  • York, England: Illuminating York – 30.10.-02.11.2013
  • Asia:

  • Singapore, Singapore: i Light Marina Bay – 07.03.-30.03.2014
  • Beijing, China: Switch on light
  • Osaka, Japan: Hikari Renaissance – 01.12.2013-19.01.2014
  • North America:

  • New York, USA: New York’s Festival of Light
  • Montreal, Canada: MONTRÉAL EN LUMIÈRE – 20.02.-02.03.2014
  • Middle East:

  • Jerusalem, Israel: Lights in Jerusalem
  • Vivid Sydney lights the Opera House. Image Courtesy of Vivid Sydney


  • Sydney, Australia: Vivid Sydney – 23.05.-09.06.2014
  • Vivid Sydney 2013. Image Courtesy of Vivid Sydney

    Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting, works for the lighting company ERCO, has published numerous articles and co-authored the book „Light Perspectives“. For more information check or follow him @arcspaces

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    Cite: Thomas Schielke. "Light Matters: Europe's Leading Light Festivals" 29 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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