Christmas in Chicago: 10+ Festive Things to Do In and Near the City

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Don't miss Christmas in Chicago with holiday tours.
Holiday tours in Chicago. Choose Chicago Photo Courtesy of Ranvestel Photographic

Chicago is magical at Christmastime. The city is a winter wonderland adorned with twinkling lights, soaring Christmas trees, bustling crowds and enough family-friendly holiday experiences to put even Scrooge into the holiday spirit.

Here are the ways my family has celebrated Christmas in Chicago — from the time I was a little girl and later with my own kids.

Read More: Top Places to Visit in December

Christmas in Chicago - the city tree in Millennium Park
Chicago’s Christmas tree in Millennium Park. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

1. Chicago’s Christmas Tree

The city’s Christmas tree stands along Michigan Avenue in Millennium Park, just waiting for visitors to come by and take a selfie, organize the kids for a Christmas card photo or simply stand and marvel at the beautiful lights.

Check the date for the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony at Millennium Park in November. It draws thousands to the park.

SheBuysTravel Tip: It can be cold walking around the Loop at night in December. Book a room at the Fairmont Hotel across the street from Millenium Park. That makes it easy to go back and warm up when you need a break, or to tuck into one the Fairmont’s comfy beds for a long night’s slumber at the end of the evening.

Celebrate Christmas in Chicago on the Magnificent Mile.
The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. Choose Chicago Photo Courtesy of Ranvestel Photographic

2. The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival and Parade

The BMO Harris Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is the centerpiece of Christmas in Chicago. It includes a parade down Michigan Avenue, fireworks over the Chicago River, beautiful floats, live performances and giant balloons. As the parade makes its way down the Magnificent Mile (that’s Chicago’s premier shopping district), it turns on the Christmas lights along the way, block by block.

It’s a magical event that has been blessed with reasonably warm weather the in past, but check the weather forecast before you go. It’s Chicago, which means it can be very, very cold!

SheBuysTravel Tip: Stay at a hotel on the Magnificent Mile and you might even be able to watch the parade from the comfort (and warmth) of your room. My favorite Mag Mile hotel is the InterContinental Chicago. The Chicago Marriott Downtown is another great option.

Lincoln Park Zoo Lights.
Lincoln Park Zoo Lights. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

3. ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo

The charming free Lincoln Park Zoo dresses up for the holiday with 2.5 million lights from November 17, 2023, to January 7, 2024.

ZooLights is a ticketed event that is free on Mondays – but you still have to make a reservation. It feels as though even the animals are excited about Christmas as you walk among the giant 3D light displays, musical light shows, ice carvings and strolling carolers.

SheBuysTravel: My favorite hotel close to the zoo is the boutique Hotel Zachary near Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. It’s an Uber ride away, but well worth it.

Light Up the Lake at Navy Pier.
Light Up the Lake at Navy Pier. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

4. Light Up the Lake at Navy Pier

From late November through early January 2024, Chicago’s Navy Pier is home to Light Up the Lake. This display of Christmas lights has one big advantage over most holiday lights show in Chicago: It’s indoors and heated!

Skating on the indoor rink is included in the admission price — bring your own skates or borrow a pair for free. A ride on Navy Pier’s 200-foot Centennial Ferris Wheel also is included in the ticket price. It’s a great way to get those iconic shots of the gorgeous Chicago skyline.

SheBuysTravel: Definitely stay at the Sable Hotel right on Navy Pier. The views of the Chicago skyline alone are worth the price!

Christmas trinkets for sale at Christkrindlmarket in Chicago
Christmas trinkets for sale at Christkrindlmarket in Chicago. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

5. Christkindlmarket Chicago

A holiday tradition since 1996, Christkindlmarket attracts vendors from all over the world who come to Chicago to sell German-inspired food, hot chocolate and one-of-a-kind holiday gifts. From handmade items like knit hats and cuckoo clocks, to foods like strudel and sausage, the sights and smells of the Christmas market are the stuff that Christmas dreams are made of.

Held November 17 through Christmas Eve at Daley Plaza, Christkindlmarket is rich in warm German tradition and flair. It is very crowded and busy here, especially in the evenings, so this may not be the best activity for little ones. There’s a second location in Wrigleyville, a north side neighborhood, and another in Aurora, a suburb of Chicago.

Read More: Best Chicago hotels for families.

Celebrate Christmas in Chicago by ice skating at Millenium Park!
Ice Skating in Millennium Park. Choose Chicago Photo Courtesy of Ranvestel Photographic

6. Ice Skating

Ice skating is one of the best things to do in Chicago in the winter, The big rink is the McCormick Tribune rink at Millennium Park, just below the Bean. There’s also skating at Maggie Daley Park, just across the BP Bridge. There, it’s a skating ribbon that snakes around the climbing walls.

Don’t know how to skate? Take a free ice skating lessons on the weekends. Skating is free if you bring your own skates. Rentals are available at both locations.

Read More: theWit Chicago Hotel Review: Fab River Views in the Windy City

7. Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry

My favorite Chicago museum is the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park. At the holidays, MSI hosts Christmas Around the World. The museum’s giant rotunda is transformed into a forest of perfectly decorated Christmas trees. With the 45-foot Grand Tree in the center, more than 50 trees and holiday displays represent different cultures and traditions from around the globe.

The Christmas tree at Macy's on State Street in Chicago
Having lunch around the Christmas tree in Macy’s on State Street is one of the traditional highlights of Christmas in Chicago. Photo credit: Cindy Richards

8. The Great Tree at Macy’s Walnut Room

Visiting Macy’s on State Street is a nostalgic and festive addition to your Christmas in Chicago experience. Start by admiring the gigantic holiday window displays outside of Macy’s before making your way into the department store to dine in the historic Walnut Room adorned by a giant 60-foot Christmas tree.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Make reservations before your visit or risk waiting in line for three hours or more on the day your visit. 

Christmas in Chicago is a perfect time for shopping.
Shopping in Chicago at Christmastime. Choose Chicago Photo Courtesy of Ranvestel Photographic

9. Holiday Shopping

What is more festive than holiday shopping? Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is the place to find high-end shops like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Burberry and Neiman Marcus. It’s the Midwest’s equivalent to Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive or New York’s 5th Avenue! Kid-friendly stops include American Girl Place.

Neighborhoods like Lincoln Square, Andersonville and Bucktown offer boutique finds for a truly one-of-a-kind gift.

10. Ride the CTA Holiday Train and Bus

Each year, the Chicago Transit Authority decks the halls of a train and a bus and sends it out to surprise riders in downtown Chicago and on all of the train lines and 15 bus lines.

On the train, Santa waves to riders from his sleigh on an open-air flatcar carrying his reindeer and decorated holiday trees. Each car of the train is wrapped with holiday images and thousands of twinkling lights outline the shape of the train and windows.

The 60-foot Holiday Bus plays holiday music and Santa Claus yells a jolly “Ho-ho-ho!” from the roof hatch of the bus.

Both the train and the bus run on a schedule you can find here.

Tunnel of lights at Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo
Brookfield Zoo’s tunnel of lights. Photo courtesy of Brookfield Zoo

11. Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo

Brookfield is the bigger Chicago area zoo, located in the southwest suburb of Brookfield. At Christmas, the zoo shines with 2 miles of lights, a 41-foot-tall Christmas tree, a 600-foot Tunnel of Lights, an ice skating rink and a scavenger hunt to find the hidden gnomes.

Some of the animal houses are open during the lights festival, which makes it easy to duck inside and warm up. The festival begins on November 24 and runs on select nights through December 31.

12. Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Gardens

This dazzling Christmas light show replaces Wonderland Express, which delighted my family for years. But the new show, complete with singing trees, is a feast for the eyes. It runs November 10 – January 7, 2024.

The Chicago Botanic Garden is in north suburban Glencoe and is most easily reached by car.

13. Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum

The 50 acres of the Arboretum are transformed into a spectacle of color, light and sound, including 150 colorful lanterns. Walk along a one-mile paved path to hear festive music and see the thousands of lights. Stop along the way to warm up by a fire and roast marshmallows for s’mores, or stop in one of the concession tents for a snack and beverage.

The Morton Arboretum is located in the western suburb of Lisle.

Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of She also is the mom of two now grown kids who have traveled with her since that first, fateful plane ride when one preschooler discovered a barf bag in his seat pocket and his sister, finding none in hers, demanded, “I want a barf bag too!” She has been a reporter, editor and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, an editor at Chicago Parent and Catalyst Chicago and an instructor in the graduate school at Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism.
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One response

  1. Christmas in Chicago is truly a magical experience! I highly recommend this experience and in using this post as a family guide! Happy holidays to all!

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