Published on September 8, 2021

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One of the easiest, fastest ways to amp the atmosphere at any gathering is with outdoor string lights. Whether enjoying a tête-à-tête at a bistro table on a balcony, sharing a casual meal on a patio, or relaxing with friends under a pergola, the illumination of these little lights can make an alfresco space feel more intimate. Not only are they less harsh than blinding overhead lights at night, the small twinkling bulbs go a long way toward establishing a memorable and—okay, we’ll say it!—magical ambience.

String lights allow you to set the mood, so arrange them in ways that enhance your space: Wrap them around a pillar, allow them to dangle like icicles from an overhead beam, or drape them loosely for a soft, dispersed glow. On the practical side, go with something that will stand up to the elements in your area. Also pick string lights that won’t burn so brightly that they’ll max out your electric bill (or, better yet, opt for a solar design). Read on for shopping pointers, as well as our top picks for some of the best outdoor bulbs on the market.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

Weather resistance: Outdoor lights should be durable enough to last through rain showers and stand up to an onslaught of sunlight—so Alyssa Stone, a spokesperson for American Lighting, advises buying strings with UV protection. This will help prevent the stringer from cracking and water getting in, thus destroying the light. She also recommends removing them during the winter if you live in an area where heavy snows could weigh them down.

Bulb style and shape: Outdoor string lights are available in a variety of shapes and styles, with retro Edison bulbs, globe bulbs, and fairy lights among the most popular, according to Stone. In areas such as Colorado that impose dark sky restrictions, she suggests putting shades over the outdoor bulbs for an extra dimming effect. As for size, there are mainly three from which to choose: G30 (30 millimeters), G40 (40 millimeters), and G50 (50 millimeters), with the smaller being less bright but easier to maneuver and set up.

Brightness and color temperature: Most people appreciate string lights for their cozy quality, so Stone recommends no more than 5 watts or 100 lumens per bulb. Otherwise the look will be glaringly bright and use far too much energy. For ideal warmth, aim for color temperatures between 2.5 million and 4 million kelvins.

Wire length: For residential applications, Stone believes you shouldn’t need more than 50 feet of string lights. “Often you’ll find either 24 feet or 48 feet, and they’re usually connectable,” she says.

Our Top Picks

Best Overall: Hampton Bay 24-Light Indoor/Outdoor String Lights

“People often associate cost with quality, but that’s not always the case when it comes to these string lights,” says landscape architect Andy Smith, who swears by this under-the-radar option. “I’ve used this set on a high-end rooftop garden in New York City’s NoHo neighborhood; you’d never be able to tell that they’re from Home Depot.”

Each 48-foot strand has 24 twinkling 40-lumen LED lights. The bulbs are impact-resistant, meaning they won’t shatter if accidentally dropped, and the weatherproof string can keep on glowing despite harsh storms and beating sun. A word of warning for those with an exposed terrace: Smith recommends anchoring the wire with a steel cable and zip ties to make sure they don’t blow away.

Best Value: Brightown Outdoor String Lights

Brightown’s 25-foot option costs less than $20 and has an excellent cost-to-quality ratio (50-foot and 100-foot lengths are available as well). These incandescent bulbs emit 5 watts each, are dimmable for greater energy efficiency, and are estimated to glow for 1,000 hours. The weatherproof lights are UL certified, meaning they meet rigorous safety and sustainability standards.

Best Solar: Brightech Ambience Pro Solar Powered Outdoor String Lights

To add illumination to your backyard without ramping up your electric bill, check out these solar string lights from Brightech. This option boasts antique-y Edison-style LED bulbs that are powered by a solar panel that’s easily staked into the ground. Six hours of direct sunlight will fully charge the strings, which have 12 bulbs each, and give you six hours of gorgeous glow. Each shatterproof 1-watt  bulb boasts 20,000 hours of runtime, and the solar panel has a 1,000-charge life span, which should last about two and a half years.

Best LED: Pottery Barn Indoor/Outdoor LED String Lights

Pottery Barn’s café-style Edison bulbs offer a soft glow that shines just enough to suit any season or occasion. The UL-listed string lights boast shatterproof bulbs made of commercial-grade acrylic instead of glass for durability. They’re available in 12-, 24-, and 48-foot options with six bulbs per 12 feet, and you can connect multiple strings for up to 750 feet of light.

Best Colored: Stargazer Garden Lights Color Story Bulbs

If your idea of atmosphere is whimsical and colorful, these beautiful bulbs from Terrain should be at the top of your list. They’re individual LED bulbs sold in sets of 21 that you can swap in for your current string lights to create a striking look. We particularly appreciate the color palette; they’re available in crimson, bronze, and emerald tones with six different shades per set—collect them all to change the hues to suit the season, event, or simply your mood.

Best Extra-Long: Addlon 96-Foot Outdoor String Lights

A seriously large patio calls for some seriously long string lights. Rather than fiddle around attaching multiple stands together, go with this 96-foot option, which should offer plenty of illumination, no matter the square footage. There are 30 incandescent antique-looking Edison bulbs for 11 watts in total. The durable designs are UL listed with a weatherproof commercial rating. And talk about easy install: These lights simply clip on, a huge benefit for a string this long!

Best for Balconies: West Elm Simple String Lights

Smaller spaces need love—and light!—too, and this option from West Elm provides the perfect glow-up for your tiny balcony. Each string is only 11 feet long and features 10 little orbs in brass or dark bronze finishes. The short strings mean no ugly exposed cord or tangling during setup, which is one less thing to stress about when decorating your place for a party.

Best Moroccan Inspired: Allsop Copper & Silver Solar String Light

These decorative bulbs, inspired by the glittering bazaars of Fez and Marrakech, may be the perfect touch. They’re available in two metallic color options, copper and silver, and provide a subtle glow through small perforations in each bulb. There’s even a setting to make the delicately dazzling lights blink like stars. The solar lights power up in direct sun to shine for up to 12 hours and take you all the way to the break of dawn.

Ask Domino

Q: What is the brightest wattage of outdoor solar lights?

Solar lights will range between 100 and 300 lumens. But to create the right mood with string lights, you ideally won’t want to go above 100 lumens, or it will be too bright.

Q: Can you leave solar string lights on all night?

Solar lights are relatively maintenance-free and can be kept on all night long. To maximize the life span, it’s best to turn them off when not in use for long periods of time.

Q: How do you fix outdoor solar lights that stop working?

Typically solar panels stop working when they become too dirty to absorb enough sunlight. Wiping them down with a clean cloth should do the trick, but consult the manufacturer or a solar lighting professional if not.

Q: Can you leave string lights out in winter?

Depending on the weather in your location and the quality of your string lights, you may be able to leave string lights out through the winter. Quality string lights are durable enough to withstand the elements, but if you experience frequent heavy snowfalls, strings could get weighted down and break.

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