Get in on the holiday cheer in downtown Chicago, where spirits soar to skyscraper heights.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year—especially in Chicago. And not just because of those bright, colorful lights (more than one million on North Michigan Avenue alone!). From beautiful parks to major museums and bustling city streets, extravagant decorations are just part of the story. Here are the best places to celebrate, Chicago style.
Oompah bands play on as revelers clink mugs of hot cider at Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza, a re-creation of a traditional outdoor German Christmas market. The main attraction, however, is shopping. Vendors set up shop in timber cabins. New this year, visit the second location at Naper Settlement in Naperville. Don’t leave without saying “guten tag” to Santa.
There are plenty of masterpieces inside the Art Institute of Chicago. But for the holidays, the biggest eye candy is just outside its doors. In mid-November, gather round to see the museum adorn its bronze lion statues with lush evergreen wreaths. The annual Wreathing of the Lions is the picture-perfect moment to kick off Chicago’s holiday season.
Two different yet equally impressive ice skating rinks will get you spinning in the heart of downtown. The McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park lies in the shadow of the beautiful, mirror-like Cloud Gate sculpture and has great views of the Loop. Do some loops and warm up afterward with hot chocolate inside the adjacent Park Grill.
For an elevated experience, head to the fourth-floor Sky Rink at The Peninsula Chicago hotel. Soak up the sights and sounds of Michigan Avenue below as you perfect your figure eights surrounded by pine trees decked in glittering lights. Stop by the rink-side Chalet for a glass of spiced German wine and warm pretzels.
A 45-foot-tall spruce steals the show year after year in the Museum of Science and Industry’s historic Rotunda. Around it are more than 50 smaller trees, each decorated in the style of a different international culture. It’s all part of the Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibit, an annual tradition since 1942. Stay to frolic in flurries of faux snow, which fall every half hour.
Feast your eyes on the Great Tree in the Walnut Room at Macy’s State Street. Then, enjoy a great feast. Tradition here in the heart of the historic nine-floor department store calls for savory chicken pot pie, a favorite for decades. The tree is no mere side dish. Every table has a great view of it soaring all the way to the mezzanine, lights twinkling. Also not to miss: Macy’s legendary holiday window displays along State Street.
Make sure to be there when the curtain rises on timeless holiday shows. The annual production of A Christmas Carol at The Goodman Theatre is a must for its miserly yet lovable Scrooge, heartwarming children’s choir, and gorgeous costumes and set design.
Another traditional favorite is the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s The Nutcracker. The crowd-pleasing production keeps the legendary troupe on its toes as an all-new spin on the classic is introduced this year. Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon imagines the story through the eyes of a child at Chicago’s famous 1893 World’s Fair.
In the season of joy, go on a joyride. You’ll find plenty at Navy Pier’s Winter WonderFest. An annual celebration with 24 rides, including an indoor Ferris wheel. With attractions ranging from an obstacle course to a carousel to a full-size ice skating rink, the fest is a great way to conquer cabin fever. Join the fun from early December to mid-January.
Chicago officially flips the switch to start the holiday season with the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. The event’s main attraction is a parade helmed by Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. Along the way more than one million lights flicker on while huge balloon characters drift overhead.
After the big event, one way to view the shining lights is by taking a carriage ride along North Michigan Avenue. Beautifully groomed horses maneuver their way down the famous shopping avenue, as you relax under a cozy blanket in the backseat. Schedule your ride through Chicago Horse & Carriage, which picks you up for your Cinderella moment in front of the Historic Water Tower.
Lincoln Park Zoo already has the cool factor: it’s one of the nation’s only free-admission zoos. Add to that its incredible annual ZooLights attraction. Throughout the zoo paths are brightly lit with musical light displays, plus there are nightly ice sculpture carvings and photo ops with Santa.
For a smaller neighborhood lights celebration that will leave you just as glowing, head north to Andersonville. Every December, the historically Swedish enclave hosts the St. Lucia Festival of Lights, a procession led by “Lucia girls” wearing long white robes and crowns of candles. It’s a tribute to the Swedish festival that takes place during winter solstice, the darkest time of the year. Everybody is welcome to walk the parade, holding a candle and caroling until the procession culminates at the Swedish American Museum for an evening of family entertainment.
The holiday spirit is contagious outside the city limits, too. Check out these celebrations within an hour’s drive of downtown.
Miniature trains chugga-chugga past pint-sized re-creations of Chicago landmarks at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Wonderland Express in Glencoe. Famed attractions such as Willis Tower and Navy Pier have been created from natural materials, making this a can’t-miss.
Nearly 550 trees decorated by community organizations bring the sparkle to Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo, held weekends in December and during the entire week of Christmas. Admire the display, and don’t leave without caroling to the animals and catching professional ice carving demos.
The twinkling and blinking is interactive at Lisle’s Morton Arboretum, thanks to the annual Illumination attraction. Walk on a mile-long paved trail and see dazzling projections and tree lights that respond to your touch and voice. The displays are synchronized to music recorded especially for the show by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived, and did some of his most important work, in west suburban Oak Park. Throughout December, the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio springs to life with seasonal decorations and live entertainment during its special Holiday Tours. Learn about Wright’s life and legacy, and see the season’s beauty reflected in his famous Prairie Style.
In Rosemont, the NHL-sized Chicago Wolves Ice Rink is the setting for Skating in the Park—a seasonal mix of outdoor ice skating and brilliant light displays. Kids will also want to take it inside to the massive bowling alley and movie theater in the park, while parents have plenty of restaurants and late-night entertainment options to extend the fun.