‘Tis the season to be merry and bright! Celebrate this magical time of year with Chicago’s most luminous traditions. Here are 13 of our all-time holiday favorites.
Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago becomes a bustling mini village filled with red-and-white huts covered in twinkling lights and garlands. This tradition — which celebrates 24 years in 2019 — is inspired by the Nuremberg Christmas Market in Germany. Browse the stalls to shop for handcrafted holiday gifts (ornaments, knit caps, cuckoo clocks, and more), while enjoying spiced wine, strudel, sausage and other traditional treats.
2. Christmas around the World
Each year, the Museum of Science & Industry’s 45-foot Grand Tree takes center stage in the main hall decked out in 30,000 lights. Surrounding it are more than 50 smaller trees beautifully decorated by volunteers from Chicago communities to represent their various cultures and holiday traditions. The occasional shower of indoor “snow” adds to the fun.
3. The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
See one of Chicago’s most famous streets light up for the holidays during The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. The weekend includes two days of family-friendly activities, with a nighttime parade as the grand finale.
The procession is led by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, followed by festive floats and Santa himself. During the parade, the surrounding Mag Mile lights up in a glorious display of more than one million lights, adorning the street’s 250 trees. A fireworks display over the majestic Chicago River is a magical end to the evening.
Friday, Nov. 22:
4 – 8 p.m.: Lights Festival Lane, featuring family-friendly activities
Saturday, Nov. 23:
11 am – 4 p.m.: Lights Festival Lane continues, with free concerts begin at 11:30 a.m.
5:30 – 7:30 p.m.: The parade marches down North Michigan Avenue
6:55 p.m.: Fireworks begin over the Chicago River at North Michigan Avenue
4. City of Chicago Christmas tree lighting ceremony
This year marks the City of Chicago’s 105th anniversary of Christmas Tree Lighting, taking place at Millennium Park. This highly anticipated event draws people of all ages to see the lights adorning the 60-foot evergreen switch on for the season. Festivities begin at 6 p.m., with the tree lighting at Michigan Avenue and Washington Street officially happening at 6:30 p.m. The evening includes live carolers and special performances.
5. Zoolights at Lincoln Park Zoo
This spectacular holiday celebration transforms Lincoln Park’s free lakefront zoo into a breathtaking winter wonderland. More than two million lights illuminate the grounds, including larger-than-life animal designs and light shows set to music. Holiday crafts and activities, and, of course, sweet treats, round out the fun. Be sure to swing by the Helen Brach Primate House for a visit with Santa Claus, take a ride on the Lionel Train Adventure through the snowy birch forest, or go ice skating past ponies and goats at the rink at Farm-in-the-Zoo.
6. Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier
The 17th annual festival is Chicago’s coolest and biggest indoor holiday playground. There’s an ice skating rink, Ferris wheel, carousel, and huge inflatable slides for hours of kid-friendly fun. Massive snowflakes and thousands of icicle lights dangle from the ceiling, over 400 evergreens in all their trimmings add more holiday glitz, and giant candy canes, gingerbread houses, and snowmen border the rides.
7. Holiday magic at Brookfield Zoo
Chicagoland’s largest lights festival features more than one million twinkling lights throughout the sprawling 216-acre suburban zoo. Select animal exhibits will remain open into the evening, as will zoo restaurants and gift shops. Enjoy a full schedule of live entertainment, including professional ice-carving demonstrations, visits with Santa and Mrs. Claus, magic shows, a friendly 38-foot talking tree, costumed characters, and a model train display.
8. St. Lucia Festival Of Lights
Drawing on its Swedish roots, the north side neighborhood of Andersonville conducts a candlelight procession along Clark Street, kicking off at the Swedish American Museum. Look out for the specially chosen “Lucia Girls” leading the crowd. Dressed in long white robes and adorned with beautiful crowns of candles, they sing “The Lucia Song” and invite children and adults to join in their walk. Afterward, celebrate at the museum with family-friendly entertainment. The night kicks off at 4:45 p.m. at 5211 N. Clark St.
9. Menorah lighting
Celebrate the start of Hanukkah with menorah lighting ceremonies across the city. The largest will be downtown at Daley Plaza in December. There are plenty of local neighborhood gatherings hosted by local Chabad groups, like the Annual Menorah Lighting in Mary Bartleme Park. Families can enjoy a craft hour, balloon artist, live music, cocoa and latkes, and more.
10. CTA Holiday Train
There’s no better way to get around the city than the CTA Holiday Train. The ‘L’ train is elaborately decorated with lights, bows, and candy-cane stripes, complete with Santa and his elves handing out candy to passengers. You catch a ride from late November through December on various ‘L’ lines. Check the CTA website for a current schedule.
11. Macy’s holiday window exhibits
Macy’s on State Street is an essential holiday destination. Inside, you’ll find floors upon floor of gift shopping and the Great Tree inside the historic Walnut Room. Outside, however, is even more holiday magic. The storefront windows are imaginatively decorated to tell a whimsical holiday story as you move from one display to the next.
12. Lightscape: a multisensory experience on State street
This one-of-a-kind light and sound installation creates vivid patterns of color, choreographed to music along the sidewalks of State Street. The displays are programmed to change with every season, offering visitors a new and festive experience with each trip to the Loop shopping district.
13. Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanic Garden
The Chicago Botanic Garden hosts their annual Wonderland Express, featuring toy trains that wind their way through plants, overhead bridges, and past more than 80 miniature versions of Chicago’s most famous landmarks, from Cloud Gate (aka The Bean) to Wrigley Field. The occasional shower of indoor snow adds to the enchanting atmosphere.