When the Sun Goes Down, the Best Outdoor Solar Lights Turn On
We asked landscape designers to weigh in.
Updated Mar 8, 2023 3:59 PM
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Indoors and out, lighting is everything. Just as you use candles or the soft radiance of a nearby floor lamp to set the tone at a dining table, the best outdoor solar lights can provide your patio or porch gatherings with the perfect ambient glow. Softer than their hardwired counterparts, solar lights are often synonymous with sustainable design, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be incredibly beautiful or functional. Our list encompasses a range of options—including those with smaller panels and integrated LED bulbs—plus expert advice from landscape architects that’s sure to add a little extra something to your balcony or backyard. From modernist lamps to paperlike globes, here are seven of the best outdoor solar lights to complete your exterior space.
- Best tabletop: Les Jardins Kalysto Solar-Powered Lantern
- Best string: Brightech Solar-Powered Outdoor String Lights
- Best pack and go: LuminAid Solar Lantern
- Best solar or USB: Ballard Designs Solar LED Lanterns
- Best wood: Gloster Ambient Ray Outdoor Light
- Best fabric: Allsop Soji Stella Market Outdoor Solar Lantern
- Best rattan: Target Smith & Hawken Solar Chunky Rattan Lantern
- Best metal: Pearlstar Solar Outdoor Metal Hanging Lamp
Best Tabletop: Les Jardins Kalysto Solar-Powered Lantern
Type: Portable lantern | Material: Aluminum | Hours of light: Varies
What we like:
- Lightweight (just 2 pounds)
- Subtle statement maker
- Promises long-lasting light
- Pricey for small size
Why we chose it: A small but bright light to take you from happy hour to post-dinner aperitifs without intermission.
You don’t have to head back inside once the sun has set if you have a solar-powered light nearby. This small, cone-shaped lantern has just enough lumens (200 to be exact) to seamlessly allow your evening happy-hour drinks to transition to nightcaps, and the ambience it brings is next level. The sleek white aluminum tower, finished with mesh sides, is the perfect statement maker to add a sculptural look to your evening patio or porch gatherings, but looks just as good when not in use. Park it on a bench or your tabletop, or pick it up by its pivoting top handle to take along on a walk.
Best String: Brightech Solar-Powered Outdoor String Lights
Type: String lights | Material: Rubber | Hours of light: 6
What we like:
- Fully sun powered
- 2-year warranty
- 2 long lengths
- 6 feet between the panels and first bulb
Why we chose it: Whether you decide to hang these from the ceiling of your enclosed porch or the trees, enjoy string lights without the limitations of a power outlet.
No list of outdoor lighting would be complete without string lights. “They create a relaxed environment and are very moody,” shares New York–based landscape architect Evan Lai. “I love using these in trees over a dining table or lounge area.”
Backed by a commercial-grade weatherproof technology and shatterproof bulbs thanks to a silicone encasing, Brightech’s lights can withstand rain, sleet, snow, and winds as strong as 50 mph, so you almost never have to take them down, even in less than ideal conditions. But reviewers reveal that these perform best when charged for six hours in direct sunlight, lasting just as long when turned on. Choose between the standard all black, or up the luxe vibes with brass casings for a few dollars more to turn your backyard into a Paris bistro.
Best Pack and Go: LuminAid Solar Lantern
Type: Portable lantern | Material: Aluminum | Hours of light: Up to 24 on low mode
What we like:
- 3 different colors/designs
- Floating, waterproof
- Weighs 5 ounces
- Can take up to 12 hours of sunlight to fully charge
Why we chose it: A small but mighty light source that floats and fits in your tote.
Great for dusky beach or park hangs, kiddo play dates, or even to stock your no-electricity emergency pack, these pint-size lanterns come in three light styles—each waterproof, float-friendly, and weighing in at a mere 5 ounces. The Nova (crisp white) and Firefly (warm white) both have an output of up to 75 lumens and can run up to 24 hours on low mode. The Spectra (multicolored) has nine color modes. We like the Firefly’s five modes for different lighting effects, including one that mimics the movements of a lightning bug, but they all twist down into an easily transportable size—think: backpack or glove compartment. Each takes just an hour to recharge via USB, but needs 12 hours of sunlight to do the same.
Of the 975 5-star reviews, this tiny, mobile lighting option has a reputation for being durable, versatile, and simple to charge and use. “Reliable and easy-to-store size,” writes one satisfied shopper. “Much better than a flashlight. It’s easier on the eyes, too, as compared to flashlights and other battery-operated devices.”
Best Solar or USB: Ballard Designs Solar LED Lanterns
Type: Portable lantern | Material: Plastic | Hours of light: 6 to 8
What we like:
- Frosted, ripple exterior
- Choose between tall (14 inches) and short (11 inches)
- Ships with charger and reusable battery
- Charges more quickly via USB (4 hours versus 12 hours in the sun)
Why we chose it: For a soft, warm glow on the go, reach for this bulbous silhouette.
We’re seriously feeling the Noguchi vibes of these beehive lanterns by Ballard Designs. If charged in direct sun or via USB, the frosted white exterior radiates light for up to eight hours on days when the clouds roll in; plus the neutral design blends into any color palette or style. Incredibly bright and lightweight, the lamp is easily transportable thanks to a sturdy leatherlike handle, whether you’re using it to guide friends on a moonlit stroll or illuminate a patio during an alfresco dinner. The only con: You’ll need to bring them indoors during heavy rain.
Best Wood: Gloster Ambient Ray Outdoor Light
Type: Portable lantern | Material: Teak | Hours of light: 8
What we like:
- Natural material
- 5-year warranty
- Long-lasting light
- Protective cover sold separately
- Teak requires a bit more TLC (sanding, cleaning, sealing, etc.)
Why we chose it: A luxe wood lantern trusted by professional landscape designers.
Both Lai and landscape designer Julia Driscoll of Katherine Field and Associates tap Gloster’s Ambient collection to elevate all kinds of outdoor spaces, from small New York City rooftops to huge backyards. According to Driscoll, the best part of the teak-paneled design is that there’s no visible light source, so you can brighten up your patio or porch with an ethereal glow that feels like a midsummer night’s dream. “We also like the architectural shape that creates interesting light patterns on the pavement,” she adds. “We have yet to find a similar product from any other designers that charges well, is made of high-quality material, and is beautiful to look at.” The only downside: With great beauty comes an even greater price tag.
Best Fabric: Allsop Soji Stella Market Outdoor Solar Lantern
Type: Hanging lantern | Material: Fabric | Hours of light: 4
What we like:
- Patterned design inspired by Mediterranean markets
- Ships with a rechargeable battery
- Automatically turns on at dusk
- May need a bit more hardware than the metal hanger to keep it put
Why we chose it: A weatherproof paper lantern that won’t disintegrate in the rain.
Handcrafted with Tyvek—a lightweight yet durable fabric that looks like paper but won’t dissolve when doused with water or rip in the wind—these lanterns feature a delicately cut pattern akin to crochet. Encasing two LED lights that fully illuminate the 12-by-12-inch globe for four-plus hours when fully charged, this option boasts both weather- and UV resistance, so you can use them to decorate your backyard with abandon. Hang them from a pergola, the fence around your garden, a tree, or anywhere else without the restrictions of a cord.
Best Rattan: Target Smith & Hawken Solar Chunky Rattan Lantern
Type: Portable lantern | Material: Rattan, plastic | Hours of light: Varies
What we like:
- Natural, woven look
- Weather resistant
- Comes in 2 sizes
- 1-year limited warranty
For an option that blends with many a relaxed patio look, we recommend this portable rattan lantern from the in-house Target brand Smith & Hawken. An attractive addition around a pool or mixed in with planters, the timeless light comes in two sizes, with versatile automated functions: If the power button is turned on, the larger size automatically switches on as light diminishes. The smaller version doesn’t have a switch and automatically remains on all night unless exposed to light. Should you want to place it in a different location or if inclement weather is incoming, the sturdy top handle makes moving it a cinch. But leaving the lantern out isn’t a deal breaker—it’s designed to fare well in the elements. Case in point: A shopper who left one out overnight in the rain reported no operational issues.
Best Metal: Pearlstar Solar Outdoor Metal Hanging Lamp
Type: Hanging lantern | Material: Metal | Hours of light: Up to 8
What we like:
- Hanging design
- Automatic light sensor
- Brushed copper exterior
- Output of 10 lumens
Why we chose it: It’s water- and heat-proof with a side of vintage charm.
For modern farmhouse enthusiasts, this brushed copper lantern is a shoo-in. While it’s vintage-inspired, the lamp has an automatic switch that keeps it on at night and off during the day. A full charge gets you eight hours of light, but some reviewers say it requires direct sun to keep the warm white Edison bulb illuminated. One purchaser who used the lanterns to spruce up wrought-iron plant poles writes, “They are perfect! A nice warm light, just enough to show walkways, and enhance the gardens at night.” To note: The Pearlstar has an output of 10 lumens and a design made for downlighting, so consider purchasing more than one depending on your coverage needs. “These are only an accent light, I would call it ambient, certainly not a security light,” notes another 5-star reviewer. “It adds a nice, warm, soft light to the yard.”
How We Chose These Products
The best outdoor solar lights never let sunshine go to waste. We looked for products to fit a range of needs, whether to bring the same ambience as a tabletop lamp—we even found hanging lanterns and classic patio string lights to allow your dinner parties to carry on from sunset to sunrise—or help guide a midnight stroll along a dark path. Then for good measure, we included recommendations from landscape architects and designers who rely on these products for more than just a residential upgrade. We made sure our list of the best outdoor solar lights will provide you with a minimum of four hours of glow, can deal with most weather conditions (a few should be brought in when a storm rolls through), and won’t require consistently direct rays to charge.
Our Shopping Checklist
“For obvious reasons, solar is great for the environment,” says Lai. Among them are reduced energy consumption, longer life span, and an often more affordable price tag than the electric alternative. But in addition to being sustainable, solar-powered lights are crazy convenient. Since they don’t rely on a connection to a power grid, you can place them anywhere you want (aside from the shade) and keep your energy bills down.
In most instances, solar lighting doesn’t put out enough lumens for way finding or stair lighting, but it’s not completely out of the question. “Most have a maximum battery life that’s based on the brightness (eight hours of light at the brightest setting when fully charged), but it’s not at the same level of hardwired landscape lighting,” explains Driscoll, noting that the latter pumps out 300 lumens consistently, while most solar lights average 30.
It all depends on the individual product. Check the manufacturing specs for an exact number, but do keep in mind that LED bulbs provide longer-lasting light compared to incandescent or fluorescent options. If the sunlight available to you isn’t enough for a quick charge, there are a few options on our list that can be powered up via USB.
Q: Do outdoor solar lights need direct sunlight?
It’s not 100% necessary for LED solar lights to soak up direct sunlight throughout the day, but without continuous rays, you may notice a slower charging time or a shorter span of illumination. In general, most require three to four hours of solid sun to properly function. And while a cloudy day won’t put out the light, the shade of a neighbor’s house or nearby dense tree branches likely will.
Q: How long do outdoor solar lights last?
According to Lai, this all depends on the individual fixture. However, a good baseline to follow is that the larger the solar panel, the more energy it can absorb. Unfortunately, LED solar lights simply aren’t as durable when compared to hardwired landscape lighting, which is built to endure a variety of climate conditions—rain, snow, wind. And solar panels are much more susceptible to breaking, adds Driscoll. That’s why these are best as a decorative touch rather than a permanent lighting solution.
The Last Word
After charging all day and soaking up the sun, the best solar lights turn on to up the atmosphere and keep the party going all night long. Add the right touch of ambience, illuminate a walking path, or reach for a portable lamp—and then grab another round of drinks or replenish snacks without tripping over cords or fumbling with batteries.