Urban Enchantment: Illuminights at Zoo Atlanta

November 23, 2021

Our mood at this point in 2021 can be best described as Aggressively Festive.

We did our best to make, well, the best of the holidays last year, and all things considered, we think we did pretty well. But between vaccines, boosters, and a better understanding of the plague’s whole deal, we are THRILLED to be able to sally forth and see beautiful, sparkly holiday stuff in the wild.

Stuff like Chinese lanterns, for instance.

You might already know that Sara lives in Atlanta. What you may not know is that she has kind of a weird relationship with this city. She was born in Atlanta, and lived here through the end of high school. And then she went to college in Philadelphia and lived in a billion other places, moving an average of once a year for the next decade.

A little over a year ago, she and her husband bought a blue Craftsman-esque house in the heart of the city… mid-pandemic. So she both really knows the city and doesn’t know it AT ALL.

And now she’s on a mission to re-discover Atlanta. In the last few weeks, she’s been to the Center for Puppetry Arts, the Atlanta Shakespeare Tavern, the Botanical Gardens, and, of course, the Zoo!

The fabulous Atlanta Zoo is less than two miles from her house, and they have PANDAS (and a red panda, i.e. the cutest animal in the known universe), so she spends a lot of time there having hysterics outside the environments and telling the animals how perfect and good they are.

And through January 16th, the zoo also has a lantern festival running in the evenings, and it is SPECTACULAR.

To bring the festival to life, the Atlanta Zoo partnered with an organization called Hanart Culture, which facilitates and produces exhibits, theatrical productions, and basically any of kind event that wants to incorporate traditional Chinese lanterns into their art.

According to a lovely zoo educator that Sara chatted with, Chinese artisans in Zigong hand-painted the lanterns, and Hanart has producers stationed at the zoo daily for repairs, maintenance, and general zhushing.

And they really did a beautiful job of placing the lanterns into the landscape – some of them were floating on water or floating magisterially dozens of feet above the giant tortoise environment.

It’s hard to convey a sense of scale here, but some of these lanterns are more than 20 feet tall!

Seriously, the way these lanterns glow is just pure magic. You can see why this has been a traditional art form in China for nearly 2,000 years.

Ok, these jellyfish lanterns? At least 4x Sara’s height. They are MASSIVE.

The exhibition also featured some beautiful lighting and atmosphere. Who doesn’t want to walk through a glowing bamboo forest at night? No one!

A weird but crucial thing to know about Sara – she’s absolutely obsessed with carousels. She will seek them out in every city she visits, like a disturbed but very determined homing pigeon. And then she drags everyone with her onto them, too, while cackling wildly the entire time. Ask Brittany how many carousels she’s been on with Sara, we dare you.

The Atlanta Zoo has a beautiful historic carousel, and it’s like at least half of the reason why she has a zoo membership.

The absolute showstopper. This dragon lantern had to be over 100 feet long…and it’s tail moved!

Are there any sights or shows that you can’t wait to see this holiday season? We’d love to hear about them in the comments!

[All photos credited to Jared Jones!]


  1. Linda+M+Willson

    I love Atlanta and lived there for a while. I visited the Botanical Gardens many times and the Zoo was vast and spectacular. And especially so now! I felt that Atlanta was not like any other city and I still feel that way. Sara, I am so happy you are living in Atlanta and enjoying its many delights!

  2. Annette+Pateman

    These Chinese lanterns are truly magical.
    I really can’t choose a favourite.
    The lion is very emblematic.
    The rhinoceros was wonderful surprise.
    The zebra a real delight.
    Thanks for sharing these lovely pictures

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