There’s no time like Christmas in Chicago. While this year’s celebrations might look a little different this year, there’s no stopping the holiday spirit. And no matter what holiday you observe, you’ll find plenty of ways to celebrate — like twinkling lights displays, ice skating rinks, holiday shopping, and more beloved traditions.

Here are a few favorite holiday events and activities in Chicago.

Explore the zoo at night

It’s not the holidays in Chicago without dazzling light displays around every corner. Check out ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo starting Nov. 21, 2020, when the historic zoo is illuminated by more than 2.5 million colorful lights. Don’t miss special events like a festive pop-up bar, an adults night out, live music, and more.

In the nearby suburbs, Brookfield Zoo their annual Holiday Magic display. Zoogoers can stroll along the many pathways, lit with more than one million twinkling LED lights, including through the 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights, featuring thousands of colored lights all synchronized to music.

See the holiday lights

Lightscape at Chicago Botanic
Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden

Just outside the city, Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden (starting Nov. 13, 2020) and Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum (starting Nov. 20, 2020) are two immersive lights experiences.

You can also see Chicago’s most famous streets light up for the holidays during The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival on Nov. 22, 2020 (catch the virtual broadcast this year).

Explore more: Check out all our favorite spots to see Christmas lights in Chicago.

Lace up some skates

Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon
Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon

On winter days, lace up your skates and hit one of the city’s free outdoor ice rinks. Maggie Daley Park is known for its one-of-a-kind skating ribbon, which curves through the park’s whimsical landscape. Admission is free — all you need to do is make an online reservation, pick up your skates, then hop on the ice! The rink opens on Nov. 20, 2020.

There are also charming neighborhood rinks, like the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, or the Gallagher Way rink in Wrigleyville. Check back for 2020 details.

See the official Christmas Tree

Don’t miss one of Chicago’s biggest and brightest holiday traditions — the City of Chicago’s official Christmas Tree, now in its 107th year. The massive tree, which will light up the heart of iconic Millennium Park beginning Nov. 20, 2020, is adorned in twinkling lights and makes the perfect holiday photo opp. Make sure to stop by the magical Skating Ribbon while you’re there.

See a drive-in movie

Get nostalgic at an old-fashioned drive-in theatre, where you can enjoy holiday movies from the safety and comfort of your own car. Catch Christmas classics like Love Actually, Elf, The Polar Express, and more at ChiTown Movies in Pilsen. Or see A Christmas Story, Home Alone, Die Hard, and more at the Lincoln Yard Drive In.

Do some holiday gift shopping

Pick up some gifts for loved one (and maybe something for yourself) in Chicago’s many shopping districts. The Magnificent Mile, one of the world’s most iconic shopping destinations, is a good place to start. You’ll find famous department stores, luxury showrooms, and favorite retail chains. A few blocks away, State Street is another shopper’s paradise.

And if you’re looking for something truly unique, don’t miss Chicago’s many neighborhood boutiques. That’s where you’ll find a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind gifts, like custom-made leather goods, vintage finds, artisan goods, and locally crafted denim. Check out these top neighborhoods for boutique shopping.

Explore more: Our guide to holiday shopping in Chicago’s neighborhoods

Get a taste of Christkindlmarket  

The beloved Christmas market, typically held in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, is going virtual this year. Shop the online market in the comfort of your own home from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31. You’ll find all the classic Christkindlmarket favorites, including artisan-made gifts, ornaments, candles, sweets — even the fan favorite mulled wine. And it can all be delivered right to your door.  

If you’re looking for an in-person event, stop by Dmen Tap in Avondale. They’ll be hosting a pop-up Christkindlmarket experience from Nov. 27 through Dec. 23. Guests will be able to order classic German foods from a food truck, plus hot mulled wine to go from the bar. They’ll even be selling vintage Christkindlmarket mugs, so you can stock up on your favorites from year’s past.

Explore more: Shop online and in person at these Chicago holiday markets

Experience The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker is a beloved holiday tradition. And this year, some of Chicago’s most acclaimed institutions are putting their own spin on the classic Christmas tale.

The Ruth Page Center for the Arts will be hosting a unique, socially distant event. Visions: A Nutcracker Experience is an immersive spectacle that takes small groups inside the world of The Nutcracker to meet Clara, the sugar plums, the Mouse King, and more from Dec. 4 – 20, 2020.

The world-renowned Joffrey Ballet is offering a fresh glimpse into classic ballet with Pulling Back the Curtain: The Nutcracker on Nov. 7. The virtual celebration includes behind the scenes footage, interviews with dancers, and more surprises that will delight viewers of all ages.

Finally, see The Nutcracker come to life at Art on theMARTbeginning Nov. 12, 2020. The world’s largest digital art display will debut a larger-than-life program from the Joffrey Ballet, featuring production images from The Nutcracker set to Tchaikovsky’s famous score.

Visit the Walnut Room

It doesn’t get much more festive than a meal from the Walnut Room. Located inside Macy’s on State Street, the historic restaurant is now open for take-out and viewing of the Great Tree. And don’t miss the famed holiday window displays that line the exterior of the historic building.

Spot the holiday train

A beloved Chicago tradition, the CTA holiday train will make its way through the city this December. While you won’t be able to hop on board, you can still wave to Santa and marvel at the six-car train decorated with holiday scenes and thousands of sparkling lights. There’s also a holiday bus that will traverse the streets.

Warm up with hot cocoa

Bombobar hot chocolate
Photo Credit: Morgan Scofes, DineAmic Hospitality

Chicago has plenty of spots to indulge in a cup of cocoa. Head to Katherine Anne Confections to try their decadent drinking chocolate, or pick up a hot chocolate kit from Mindy’s Bakery to make the perfect cup at home. Try a mug of Mexican hot chocolate from Kristoffer’s Café & Bakery in Pilsen or XOCO in River North. And don’t miss the over-the-top, Instagram-worthy cups at BomboBar, a popular walk-up window with locations in the West Loop and River North.

Explore more: Check out more of the top spots for hot chocolate in Chicago.

Explore a holiday exhibit

Chicago museums love to take part in the holiday fun. The Museum of Science and Industry hosts their annual Christmas Around the World, with 50 elaborately decorated trees that represent holiday traditions from across the globe. Along with the annual Wreathing of the Lions, the Art Institute of Chicago transforms one of their most beloved exhibits, the Thorne Miniature Rooms, with pint-sized festive decorations.