* WHAT: The "Miracle on 34th Street," the Christmas-light-strewn 700 block of West 34th Street in Baltimore's Hampden neighborhood. If you've seen the Maryland Lottery commercial featuring the display, you know it's a dazzler.

* WHY: Tired of tasteful white-light displays? This may be just the ticket, and it's free. Plus, those "It's Happening in Hampden" bumper stickers put out by area merchants have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The neighborhood's mini-renaissance means holiday shopping and eating options abound.

* BACK STORY: About 12 years ago, Bob Hosier strung some lights from his house on 34th Street to a pole across the way. His neighbors followed suit, and the rest, he says, "is history." Today, countless bulbs illuminate the block, drawing thousands of gawkers who amble up and down the sidewalks to the accompaniment of holiday recordings. Others drive sloooowly down the street.

The activity cranks up on the weekend before the official lighting (the Saturday after Thanksgiving), when the decorating begins in earnest. Displays include Patsy Dailey's bicycle-wheel snowpeople, a gift from neighbor Jim Pollock -- an artist whose own house features a lighted tree built of more than 100 hubcaps. Steps away is "Ava's Garden," a Technicolor bed of night-blooming flowers.

There's "no break on electric, no break on taxes," Hosier says. "We're just a bunch of people who put up lights. . . . We can't help it if the whole world comes out to see."

Maybe it's not the whole world, but 25,000 are expected at Hampden's annual Mayor's Christmas Parade, today at 2 p.m. Participants include the Baltimore Ravens' marching band, Mayor Martin O'Malley and "200 Christmas hogs" -- Harleys, that is.

* EATING: You don't have to stroll far to find a fine meal. Cafe Hon (1002 W. 36th) offers good food in a lively setting. Mamie's Cafe (911 W. 36th) offers just-right comfort cooking in a homey setting. For delicious light fare with a Southwestern flavor, consider the Golden West Cafe (842 W. 36th). Really hungry? At $2.95, it's hard to beat the stomach-filling, table-topping capacity of the "World's Largest Pizza Slice" (18 inches of abondanza) at Angelo's (3600 Keswick). For a java fix, head to A Common Ground (819 W. 36th) or the Coffee Mill (3522 Chestnut), or grab a danish and joe to go at the New System Bakery (921 W. 36th).

* SHOPPING: There's no shortage of shop ops in this former mill village, and many are within a snowball's throw of 34th.

Mud and Metal (813 W. 36th) offers crafts, jewelry and hardware. Oh, Said Rose (840 W. 36th) hawks glad rags and accessories, while Hometown Girl (1001 W. 36th) has an ample supply of pink flamingoes and '50s-era toys. Perhaps the oddest shop in an admittedly odd lot is Ma Petite Shoe (832 W. 36th), which deals in women's footwear . . . and Parisian chocolate.

Consignment and vintage shops are plentiful. David's (914 and 1021 W. 36th) has two shops; Hampden Junque (1006 W. 36th) squeezes lots of stuff into a small space; and the Turnover Shop has two locations (3549 Chestnut and 3855 Roland Ave.). Fat Elvis (833 W. 36th) offers vintage paraphernalia -- linens, kitchenware, etc. -- under the wide-eyed gaze of a stuffed, scarf-wearing beaver.

* GETTING THERE: Take I-95 or the Baltimore-Washington Parkway north to Pratt Street; travel east to President Street and turn left. President becomes I-83, which you take north to Falls Road (Exit 8). Turn right at the first light onto 36th Street; at the second light, turn right again. The Miracle is the first block on the left.

A caravan of vehicles makes its way down 34th; it's glacial the weekend before Christmas. Parking can be tight; if all else fails, try the post office on 34th Street two blocks down. On weekdays, you can take a MARC train and hop on the light rail to the Woodberry stop; the Hampden Shuttle Bug will take you around Hampden for 50 cents. A $3 Baltimore Metro day pass is good on the light rail and the Shuttle Bug (as well as buses and Metro).

* INFO: The Hampden Village Merchants Association offers a guide that lists shops and eateries at www.hampdenmer chants.com. Also check Live Baltimore's calendar at www.livebaltimore.com and the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, 877-BALTIMORE, www.baltimore.org.

-- Donna Peremes

In Baltimore, the Hampden neighborhood switches on the holiday spirit.