There’s no time like the holidays in Chicago, where you can’t help but feel the magic of the holiday season. Each winter, the city is full of bustling excitement and seasonal celebrations, from The Magnificent Mile to Millennium Park to our vibrant neighborhoods.

And no matter what holidays you observe, you’ll find plenty of ways to celebrate. You can admire twinkling light displays, go ice skating with skyline views, shop for gifts in a charming neighborhood boutique or pop-up market, catch a holiday show in a stunning downtown theatre, or sip hot cocoa while strolling our snow-dusted streets.  

Here are just a few of our favorite holiday events, including festive light displays, family-friendly activities, and beloved traditions this winter season in Chicago.

See the holiday lights

It’s not the holidays in Chicago without dazzling light displays around every corner. Check out ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo, when the historic zoo is illuminated by millions of colorful lights, including moving displays set to music. Don’t miss special events like holiday concerts, a sensory-friendly evening, an adult’s night out, and more.

In the nearby suburbs, Brookfield Zoo hosts its annual Holiday Magic display, a local tradition for more than 40 years. Zoo-goers can stroll along the many pathways lit with more than two million twinkling lights, including the 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights with thousands of colored bulbs all synchronized to music.

Just outside the city, Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden is an immersive nature-inspired experience that allows visitors to explore the scenic garden grounds after dark. Walk the illuminated trail and admire the various light installations that transform the natural landscape into a dazzling wonderland.

And in nearby Lisle, Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum is another breathtaking outdoor experience. The one-mile paved path winds through the sprawling arboretum and offers views of captivating lighting designs. Afterward, cozy up by the fire to make s’mores and head to the concessions tent.

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

Explore a charming Christmas market

Photo by Abel Arciniega

Experience the magic of an authentic German Christmas market at the always-buzzing Christkindlmarket. This annual, free-admission event in the heart of downtown features vendors selling beautiful glass ornaments, wooden cuckoo clocks, hand-knit gloves, and other gifts and crafts. Make sure to get a taste of traditional German treats and fill up your keepsake souvenir mug with mulled wine or hot chocolate.

Other Chicago holiday markets include a miniature version of Christkindlmarket in Wrigleyville, the local artisan-filled Renegade Craft Fair, the Kwanzaa Market at Africa International House, and more charming markets popping up in every corner of the city.

Explore more: Shop for gifts at all the top Chicago holiday markets.

Lace up some skates

Millennium Park Ice Skating
Millennium Park Ice Skating; photo by Abel Arciniega

On winter days, lace up your skates and hit one of the city’s scenic ice skating rinks. A classic holiday activity in Chicago, skating at the Millennium Park ice skating rink offers panoramic views of Cloud Gate (aka “The Bean”) and the surrounding city skyline dusted in snow. 

Nearby, Maggie Daley Park is known for its one-of-a-kind Skating Ribbon, an icy path that curves through the park’s whimsical landscape. 

Chicago’s ice rinks are typically open from November through March, weather permitting. Skate rentals are available, or you can bring your own. There are also charming neighborhood rinks throughout Chicago, like the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, or the Gallagher Way rink in Wrigleyville. 

See the official Chicago Christmas Tree

Don’t miss one of Chicago’s biggest and brightest holiday traditions — the City of Chicago’s official Christmas Tree, a local tradition for more than 100 years. Don’t miss the annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in November, which includes live performances and a fireworks display.

The massive tree, which will light up the center of iconic Millennium Park, is adorned in twinkling lights and makes the perfect holiday photo opp. The tree shines brightly near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street through January. Make sure to stop by one of the magical ice skating rinks while you’re there.

Celebrate the holidays at a museum

Chicago museums love to take part in the holiday fun. The Museum of Science and Industry hosts their annual Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light, with 50 elaborately decorated trees that represent holiday traditions from across the globe. The exhibit also honors the traditions of Chinese New Year, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Visakha Puja Day, St. Lucia Day, and more.

Share in the joy of art with family and friends at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum’s beloved lions receive the holiday treatment each November during the annual Wreathing of the Lions celebration on the museum steps, a tradition for more than 30 years. Enjoy a live musical performance, complimentary hot chocolate, and an art-making activity inside the museum. 

Catch a festive live show

The holidays are the perfect time to plan a memorable night out on the town to experience the thrill of live musicals, dramas, ballets, and more. Whether you’re drawn to our bustling downtown theatre district (home to Broadway in Chicago) or more intimate neighborhood venues, there’s a holiday show for you.

Grab your seats today for limited-time productions, including:

Do some holiday gift shopping

Pick up some gifts for loved ones (and maybe something for yourself) in Chicago’s many shopping districts. The Magnificent Mile, one of the world’s most iconic retail destinations, is a good place to start. You’ll find famous department stores, luxury showrooms, and favorite chains — plus tons of holiday lights twinkling from the trees that make the whole area feel merry and bright.

A few blocks away, State Street is another shopper’s paradise where you’ll find the iconic Macy’s on State Street. Stroll around the building to admire their annual Holiday Windows, adorned with intricate themed displays, and step inside to dine beneath the Great Tree at the historic Walnut Room.

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, artisan crafts, vintage finds, and locally crafted clothing. Check out these top neighborhoods for boutique shopping.

Visit the Walnut Room

It doesn’t get much more festive than a meal at the Walnut Room. Located inside Macy’s on State Street, the historic spot is the the first restaurant ever opened in a department store and an essential holiday destination. The stately interior is adorned with elegant decor and sparkling chandeliers, with the towering Great Tree in the center of it all. Make sure to try Mrs. Hering’s chicken pot pie, an original recipe from the 1890s. And don’t miss the famed holiday window displays that line the exterior of the landmark building.

Spot the holiday train

A beloved Chicago tradition for more than 30 years, the CTA holiday train will once again make its way through the city this December. Marvel at the six-car train decorated with holiday scenes and thousands of sparkling lights, then hop on board to meet the elves handing out candy. Don’t forget to wave to Santa, whose sled replaces the head car. There’s also a holiday bus that will traverse the city streets, bringing holiday cheer to neighborhoods throughout Chicago.