As they round the corner to Mankato's Sibley Park, reactions ripple from preschoolers scrambling ahead, then stopping in their tracks. "Whoooa!" yells a little girl.

Adults are known to blurt the same thing when they first see the explosion of color from Kiwanis Holiday Lights. It outshines a July 4th grand finale, with an estimated 1.5 million lights. Red, green and blue bulbs shaped into deer seem to trot up the park's hillside. Other lights tightly coil around tree trunks or zigzag like Lite-Brite scribbles through towering branches, creating an almost Seussian wonderland.

The event, in its sixth year, requires about five intense weeks to install, plus plenty of bucket trucks and volunteers who aren't afraid of heights or surprised squirrels, said Kyle Mrozek, vice president of the Kiwanis.

Visitors arrived by the hundreds on a Saturday night, in a steady flow of cars doing a drive-through tour. Others arrived on foot for a more leisurely stroll, a chance to visit with Santa, watch four reindeer in temporary residence, and walk a loop that includes a 55-foot-tall Christmas tree, a tunnel of lights, a skating rink, a farm-themed playground and more than 75 themed trees decorated by local nonprofits.

Mrozek said he was looking forward to a blanket of fresh snow, which adds an element of magic to the display, where almost a dozen wedding proposals occurred last year.

"[With snow] it looks entirely different," he said. "It brightens it up and looks amazing."

Things to do

Sibley Park sits at the confluence of the Blue Earth and Minnesota rivers and also offers a stellar sledding hill. Kiwanis Holiday Lights opens from 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday through Dec. 31. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged (

Several boutiques dotting Mankato's Old Town on Riverfront Drive reported their best Small Business Saturday ever last month. Curiosi-Tea pours tea samplers and sells loose teas such as the popular pistachio shortbread, while Mary Lue's Yarn and Ewe draws knitters to its shelves of soft skeins near the Nicollet Bike Shop. Gallery 512 sells women's fashions, Arizona Oil Co. mixes oils, vinegars and sauces, and Salvage Sisters brings together local art, home decor and baby clothes and accessories. Newcomer Whimsy & Weathered opens extra weekends in December to sell creative upcycled decor.

Refuel at Friesen's Bakery and Bistro with "Spokato" soup (potato, kale and sausage), sandwiches on homemade breads, and desserts including killer moon pies, berry scones and over-the-top slices of pie baked into a cake (1-507-345-4114; For a sweet coffee break with home decor and gifts, head to North Mankato's Neutral Groundz ( with a stop at the shiny metal "Godzilla," a people's choice winner on the CityArt Sculpture Walking Tour (

The Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota invites kids to climb up a giant treehouse with a tree-trunk slide; pretend to farm, garden and take produce to market; quarry the area's iconic Kasota limestone; and send parachutes up a wind tunnel. They can also roam a new winter-themed exhibit (1-507-386-0279;

Meanwhile, in New Ulm

For more holiday spirit, drive 30 miles west to New Ulm. Don't-miss shops include Domeier's, where Black Forest cuckoo clocks ticktock between a ceiling plastered with vintage postcards and shelves lined with nutcrackers, wooden figurines that "smoke" with incense, glass-blown ornaments and everything from seasonal chocolate to spaetzle makers. The Guten Tag Haus also offers a wealth of German Christmas ornaments and decor, including carved wooden Schwibbogen (arches), collectible wooden figurines, sweet treats such as imported chocolate and Lebkuchen, and a small section for Norwegians. Other shops such as A to Zinnia and Inspired, sell home decor, clothing and gifts.

Beer lovers can tour Schell's Brewery, including its Museum of Brewing chronicling 157 years in business, or say hello to the deer and free-roaming peacocks at its picturesque spot above the Cottonwood River. Look for Grain Belt and Schell's mugs, logo wear and snarky T-shirts at the gift shop (1-507-354-5528; Prefer wine? The Great Prairie Wine Trail includes Chankaska Creek Ranch and Winery ( near Mankato and Morgan Creek Vineyards and Winery in New Ulm (morgan­

Hit New Ulm on a Friday or Saturday night to maximize nightlife options, which include live music and a small menu at Grand Kabaret, a historic arts hub, or the Starkeller Brewery, which opened in a pole barn on the north end of New Ulm last spring. Starkeller visitors order flights of fruity sour-style Berliner Weiss beers with names such as Electrik Empress and Tidal Disruption and flavors of plum and blackberry. They're aged in rare floor-to-ceiling cypress tanks flanking the taproom, which is creatively styled with rustically repurposed pipes, parts and barn board (

The Retz 227 speakeasy opened two months ago at 518 Center St., Suite E, using an alley door where a single purple light signals when it's open on weekends. It has a sleek, artsy vibe with comfy couches for sipping craft cocktails (1-507-276-4868;

Where to sleep

The timberwork on the Best Western Plus adds to New Ulm's German ambience; the hotel offers a nice-sized pool and courtyard (1-507-359-2941; Mankato's Hilton Garden Inn rises above the Minnesota River and Verizon Center within walking distance of Front Street restaurants and bars (1-507-344-1111;

Where to eat

In New Ulm, visitors can sit beneath vintage murals of Germany while dining on burgers, sandwiches or a brat sampler in Turner Hall, a historic community gathering spot (1-507-354-4916; Fans of Thanksgiving will love the slow-roasted pulled turkey commercials and sandwiches at Mankato's Pub 500, which serves more than 75 beers and piles a signature burger with homemade potato chips (1-507-625-6500;

Getting there

Mankato is about 80 miles southwest of the Twin Cities on Hwy. 169. Take Hwy. 68 another 30 miles west to New Ulm, with an easy detour to Minneopa State Park.

More info

Visit Mankato: 1-800-657-4733;

New Ulm Chamber of Commerce: 1-888-463-9856;

St. Cloud-based freelance writer Lisa Meyers McClintick ( wrote "Day Trips From the Twin Cities" and "The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path."