Spending Christmas in Chicago – 20 Amazing Must-dos

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Updated On: November 27, 2023 by   Courtney AugelloCourtney Augello

Although Chicago winters can be extremely cold and full of snow, the city truly comes alive during the holiday season. Long-standing traditions fill the Windy City with festive cheer and create the perfect atmosphere full of joy and adventure.

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Chicago is a great destination for a winter holiday.

There are tons of things to do during Christmas in Chicago. Between amazing dining experiences and light shows, there is something for everyone in the city. To showcase the limitless options, we’ve listed 20 of the best things to do when spending Christmas in Chicago.

1: Zoolights at Lincoln Park Zoo

Spending Christmas in Chicago - 20 Amazing Must-dos

Lincoln Park Zoo is an amazing place to visit year-round. The zoo becomes even more spectacular during Christmas in Chicago as it puts on the Zoolights event, a tradition for many years. The lights are powered by wind energy to promote the use of sustainable and renewable energy.

Zoolights illuminates the exhibits and pathways in a festive glow. A Ferris wheel, light tunnel, and other seasonal attractions and shows are also featured at this event. Although warm seasonal food and drinks are available, make sure to dress warmly for this outdoor event. 

2: Ice Skating at Millennium Park

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Ice Skating at Millennium Park is perfect for date nights.

Ice skating at Millennium Park is one of the most popular attractions for a fun date night or day out with family. The rink has been opening each winter for over 20 years, attracting tourists and locals.

Admission to the rink is free; however, online booking is required due to the attraction’s popularity. Ice skating lessons are also provided on weekends at no extra charge. Lacing up at Millennium Park is a must for anyone spending Christmas in Chicago.

3: Candlelight Concert

Candlelight concerts are held throughout the year at different theatres in Chicago. However, they become more festive during Christmas in Chicago. These intimate concerts are perfect for a date night in the Windy City.

Well-known Christmas classics are played by award-winning string quartets and orchestras, bringing holiday cheer to the theatre district. These concerts are extremely popular with limited holiday showings and sell out quickly.

4: Light Up the Lake

Light Up the Lake is an annual event held at Navy Pier. It is the largest indoor display of Christmas lights in Chicago. More than 600,000 colourful lights create sculptures and displays.

The event also features an indoor ice rink, meet and greets with Santa and Mrs. Claus, a beer garden, and more. Seasonal food and drink are available, and each admission ticket also includes a ride on the Centennial Wheel on the pier.

5: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum

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Over 50 acres of trees are lit up at Tree Lights.

For over 10 years, the Morton Arboretum has held Tree Lights to bring festive cheer to the Windy City. Over 50 acres of trees are adorned with colourful lights. Some of the trees are even interactive and react to hugs or touches from guests.

An adult-only version of the event is hosted nightly, with alcoholic beverages in addition to the hot chocolate and s’mores offered. Music and light displays are also part of the evening festivities. It is a perfect way to embrace the spirit of Christmas in Chicago.

6: Christkindlmarket

Inspired by German markets, the Christkindlmarket in Chicago is one of the best attractions during the holiday season. The outdoor market has been a tradition since 1996 and is free to visit. The market has a wonderful, festive atmosphere.

Vendors from around the world set up at the Christkindlmarket to sell hot spiced wine, roasted nuts, hot pretzels and more. Shopping and live music are also available at the market, making it a must-do for anyone spending Christmas in Chicago.

7: Winter Wonderland celebration at IO Godfrey

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Christkindlmarket has been a tradition since 1996.

Rooftop dining is very popular in the Windy City as it gives guests a stunning view of the iconic skyline. However, the cold winters make outdoor dining hard to bear. That’s why the IO Godfrey began their annual Winter Wonderland event, which provides heated igloos on their rooftop.

The Winter Wonderland Celebrate menu at IO Godfrey has an incredible selection of wines and spirits. Food on the menu includes Wagyu sliders, seafood dishes, and hors d’oeuvres.

Experiencing rooftop dining from a personal igloo is a great way to spend Christmas in Chicago with family and friends. Smaller igloos hold 6 people, while larger ones can seat up to 10. The rest of the space is covered in lights. Outdoor firepits, hot cocktails, and seasonal snacks complete the experience.

8: The Santa Hustle

The Santa Hustle is a 5k race that begins in Soldier Field. The race is held to raise money for the American Cancer Society. The 5k circles around the museum district, then follows the lakefront and returns back to Solider Field. A kid’s course is also available for children 2 to 10 years old.

Runners are encouraged to dress up as Santa Claus, complete with beards, red suits, and other festive apparel. Cookie and candy stations are located throughout the route to keep you motivated. It is a fun way to spend Christmas in Chicago and support a great cause.

9: New Year’s Fireworks at Navy Pier

After spending Christmas in Chicago, there’s no better way to ring in the New Year than by watching the fireworks at Navy Pier. This firework display is the largest held in the city, and it comes with a huge party on the pier.

The fireworks can be seen all across the city, but there are also ticketed events with stunning views. These galas feature food and drinks, entertainment and live music, and party favours to take home.

10: Amaze Light Festival

Christmas in Chicago is turned into a real-life storybook at the Amaze Light Festival in Tinley Park. One million lights transform the area into a winter wonderland full of adventure and Christmas spirit.

The festival comes with two larger-than-life mascots: Zing and Sparky. They guide guests through the park and displays. In addition to the trail, there are other attractions for all ages. Food trucks, train rides, and shops for toys, candy, and artisan gifts help make the festival a must-do during Christmas in Chicago.

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The Polar Express captures the magic of Christmas in Chicago.

11: Chicago Polar Express

Riding the Polar Express is one of the best ways to experience the magic of Christmas in Chicago. Union Station is transformed into a scene straight from the Children’s book. Guests then board a train that takes them to meet Santa Claus.

The train ride is made to replicate the animated film, with dancing chefs that bring hot chocolate and golden tickets for each rider. Guests are encouraged to wear pyjamas and fully immerse themselves in the holiday spirit.

The entire experience lasts about 2 hours, from boarding the train to the meet and greet with Santa. At the end, each guest receives a sleigh bell to take home as a souvenir. It is perfect for families that are spending Christmas in Chicago.

12: A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre

The Goodman Theatre has put on a seasonal production of A Christmas Carol for nearly 50 years. The show runs from November through December and is a must-see during Christmas in Chicago.

Nearly 2 million people have seen the show over the years. It is highly acclaimed for its special effects, costumes, and amazing musical performances. It is a perfect event for families who are spending Christmas in Chicago.

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Christmas trees decorate the city during the holiday season.

13: Lightscape at the Chicago Botanic Garden

The Chicago Botanic Garden hosts the stunning Lightscape event every year from November to January. The path takes approximately 20 minutes to walk and takes guests through a display of lights, fire, and festive cheer. 

The Winter Cathedral and fire garden are just 2 of the amazing sections at Lightscape. Singing trees, warm food, and other artistic works welcome guests as they wander through the illuminated path. This event sparks the festive spirit of Christmas in Chicago.

14: Christmas Around the World at the MSI

The MSI is one of the best Museums in Chicago any time of the year, but it is extra magical in December. Christmas Around the World began at the MSI in 1942 with one tree. Over the years, the event has grown to include more than 50 trees that feature holiday traditions from cultures around the world.

The display features one of the tallest Christmas trees in Chicago: a tree that is 4 storeys tall. Live music performances and other entertainment add to the festive atmosphere at the museum. It is a must-see for anyone spending Christmas in Chicago.

15: Chicago Jingle Bell Run

Another great way to support a good cause during Christmas in Chicago is to participate in the Jingle Bell Run. The Jingle Bell Run is a 5k that raises money for the Arthritis Foundation. 

Runners are encouraged to wear festive apparel and even include bells in their outfits. The race begins at the Chicago History Museum and follows the shores of Lake Michigan. For the fastest male and female runners, medals and prizes are awarded.

After the race, food and drinks are available along with entertainment. A costume contest is also held with prizes for the best individual and team festive attire.

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Trains are used to bring donations to local charities during Christmas in Chicago.

16: CTA Holiday Train

For over 30 years, CTA has been bringing Christmas in Chicago to new heights with the elevated holiday trains. The tradition started in 1992 when trains began bringing food baskets and donations to charities throughout the city during the holiday season.

Today, the trains are more decorated than ever before. The outside is covered in lights, and Santa can be seen in his sleigh waving to anyone who passes by. The interior of the cars features lights, garlands, and handrails that look like candy canes.

17: Art on theMart

theMart is the largest privately-owned commercial building in the United States. It hosts showrooms and storefronts for multiple businesses and designers. It spans across 2 blocks and is 25 storeys tall. Over 30,000 people visit theMart each day.

Art on theMart is hosted year-round. In fact, it is the largest permanent digital art projection in the world. During Christmas in Chicago, the art projected turns from contemporary and abstract to full of seasonal cheer.

18: Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo

In November and December, Brookfield Zoo hosts Holiday Magic, the longest-running lights festival in Chicago. The entire zoo is illuminated with over 2 million LEDS that guide visitors through the exhibits.

In addition to the lights, the zoo also sets up magnificent statues, a music gala, and a light tunnel. Warm treats like hot chocolate and funnel cakes are also available during the event. It is a must for any Christmas in Chicago.

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The Bean is one of the most popular attractions in Chicago.

19: Carolling at Cloud Gate

Cloud Gate, commonly known as The Bean, is one of the most iconic art pieces in Chicago. It is a huge tourist attraction that brings visitors from all over the world to the Windy City. In November and December, The Bean becomes even more popular.

Carolling at Cloud Gate invites locals and tourists to participate in a Chicago holiday tradition. Different choirs and groups host sing-alongs of festive music that are free to attend. It is a great way to embrace the festive cheer of Christmas in Chicago.

20: Winter Flower Show at the Garfield Park Conservatory

The Garfield Park Conservatory is one of the largest in the USA. It opened in 1908 and promotes the importance of nature and conservation. The conservatory has over 10 acres of outdoor gardens and multiple indoor sections.

The Winter Flower Show takes place in the conservatory’s Show House. Flowers create the illusion of a snow-covered garden that guests can walk through. The main attraction of the event is a nearly 4-metre-tall Christmas tree made of poinsettias, pansies, geraniums, and other flowers.

The conservatory is a perfect place to relax and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city during Christmas in Chicago.

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There is much to do during Christmas in Chicago.

Christmas in Chicago is a Beautiful Time of the Year

The Windy City is a wonderful destination year-round, but spending Christmas in Chicago makes the city even more alive. There are endless attractions for all ages that will make everyone feel festive.

Whether you’re planning a family holiday or a romantic winter getaway, Christmas in Chicago will not disappoint. From intimate shows to bringing storybooks to life, Christmas is one of the best times of year in Chicago.

If you’re planning to visit the Windy City, check out this list of 13 amazing things to do in Chicago.

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