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The BEST Festive Things to do in Chicago at Christmas (From a Local!)

I think that Christmas and the holiday season is one of the best times of the year to visit Chicago. Many festive events and activities take place in Chicago during the holiday season in November, December and early January, from tree lightings, holiday lights, holiday shopping, christmas markets and more. If you are thinking of visiting Chicago for the holidays, here are the best things to do in Chicago at Christmas that are guaranteed to get you into the holiday spirit!

Things to Do in Chicago During Christmas

Below are the best things to do in Chicago during the Christmas holiday season. I suggest bookmarking this blog post as I plan to update it regularly with any new information or updates.

Visit an Outdoor German-Style Christmas Market

christmas things to do in chicago

Christkindlmarket is an authentic German-style outdoor market.  Visitors can shop for Christmas ornaments and products from around the world and try various German food and drinks such as roasted nuts, fresh pretzels, bratwurst, and hot spiced wine. You can purchase a limited edition souvenir mug to remember your trip. 

The market will be in 2 locations in Chicago in 2021: Daley Plaza in downtown Chicago and Gallagher Way in Wrigleyville.

Where: 50 W Washington Street and 3635 N Clark St

When: November 19 – December 24, 2021 (Daley Plaza); November 19 – December 31, 2021 (Wrigleyville)

Hours: Hours vary see the website for more details

Cost: Admission is FREE.

See the City of Chicago Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree at Millenium Park in Chicago

The City of Chicago puts up a large Christmas Tree annually at Millennium Park.

Where: Millennium Park near the intersection of Michigan Avenue & Washington Street.

When: You can see the Christmas Tree from November 19, 2021 — January 9, 2022 from 8am to 9pm daily. The Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony will be held on November 19 at 6pm (with the actual lighting at approximately 6:30pm).

Cost:  Free.

Millennium Park Holiday Sing-Along (previously “Caroling at Cloud Gate”)

The new Millennium Park Holiday Sing-Along (previously “Caroling at Cloud Gate”) will invite Chicagoans and visitors to sing out and celebrate Chicago’s diverse holiday traditions on Fridays at 6pm, November 26 – December 17. This series has been reimagined to be more inclusive of Chicago’s many faith backgrounds, cultures and holiday music traditions. Millennium Park winter programming will also include pop-up performances through the Park in November and December. A full schedule will be announced soon.

Where: Cloud Gate at Millennium Park

When: 6–7pm on Fridays, November 26, December 3, 10, 17, 2021

Cost:  Free.

Go Ice Skating Near the Bean

One of the best and picture perfect spots to go ice skating in Chicago is McCormick Tribune Ice Rink right in front of the Bean. Admission is free, but online reservations will be required. Reservation, skate rental and other details will be announced soon.

Another another option is the skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park which has a path twice the length of a lap around a traditional skating rink.

Skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park in Chicago

Here is a list of the outdoor ice skating rinks in Chicago with hours, prices and other information.

Dine at the Walnut Room

large Xmas tree at the Walnut Room in Chicago

Having a meal at the Walnut Room is a Chicago holiday tradition. Located on the 7th floor of Macy’s State Street (formerly Marshall Fields), the Walnut Room was the first restaurant ever opened in a department store. During the holiday season diners can enjoy the view of the Macy’s “Great Tree” in the middle of the restaurant while dining on holiday classic dishes.

This season’s menu will showcase traditional Walnut Room items such as Mrs. Hering’s 1890 Original Chicken Pot Pie, cider glazed slow roasted breast of turkey, meatloaf, spice rub salmon and carrot cake, among others.
Reservations are now open and available on OpenTable here for the holiday season, as well as for brunch events. For parties over 16 people, the Walnut Room asks that guests make a reservation using an online form.

Where: 7th floor at Macy’s State Street at 111 N. State Street, Chicago, IL

When: The Walnut Room is open for the holidays from November 6, 2021 – January 9, 2022 (closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Hours vary by day – see their holiday hours here

Drink Glogg at Simon’s Tavern

Drinking Simon’s Tavern signature glögg (mulled wine) is a holiday tradition for Chicagoans.

The long standing neighborhood dive bar in Andersonville is packed every year in December.

Where: Simon’s Tavern at 5210 N Clark St, Chicago, IL

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo

ZooLights Presented by ComEd and Invesco QQQ at Lincoln Park Zoo is a cheerful, family-friendly holiday event in the heart of the city. Zoolights features hundreds of luminous LED displays and seasonal experiences, all under the glow of millions of lights.

Where: Lincoln Park Zoo, 2400 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL

When: 4–10 p.m. on select dates from November 19, 2021–January 2, 2022. Reservations are required and tickets to the general public will be available October 28.

Cost: Monday and Tuesday nights are free and Wednesday-Sunday tickets are $5.

Watch Digital Art at Art on the Mart

Art at the Mart light show during the Christmas holiday season

Art on theMART is the largest permanent digital art projection in the world, projecting contemporary artwork across the 2.5-acre river-façade of theMART.

When: 30-minute program of projections are shown nightly at two times every evening.

Where: The Merchandise Mart, 222 W Merchandise Mart Plaza, Chicago, IL 60654. Spectators can watch the show from the jetty section of the Chicago Riverwalk on Wacker Drive between Wells Street and Franklin Street.

Cost: Free.

Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light at the Museum of Science and Industry annual celebration began in 1942 and features a four-story, floor-to-dome Grand Tree, surrounded by a forest of more than 40 trees and displays which represent the holiday traditions from cultures around the globe.

When: November 17, 2021 – January 9, 2022

Where: Museum of Science and Industry at 5700 S Lake Shore Drive.

Cost: Included in regular museum admission.  Here is a link to the official website for prices, times and more information.

Light Up the Lake at Navy Pier

Light Up the Lake at Navy Pier is Chicago’s newest holiday adventure. The indoor, temperature-controlled experience features a sprawling light garden of large-scale sculptures comprising more than 600,000 twinkling lights; a massive Alpine ice rink; authentic holiday beer garden; kiddie train rides; Santa’s Merry Main Street and gift market; and other family-friendly and date-night activities. Public ticket sales begin October 25, 2021.

Where: Festival Hall at Navy Pier, 600 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611

When: November 26, 2021 through January 2, 2022.

Cost: Tickets start at just $13.50, including a ride on the iconic Centennial Wheel, offering inspiring views of the city all decked out for the holidays.

Watch Classic Holiday Movies at Gallagher Way

Watch classic holiday movies outside in December as part of the annual Winterland at Gallagher Way festivities. The movie schedule is as follows:

• December 2: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
• December 9: Home Alone
• December 16: Elf
• December 23: A Christmas Story

While you are Gallagher Way you can also go ice skating or visit the Wrigleyville location of Christkindlmarket.

Where: Gallagher Way, 3635 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60613

When: Thursdays from December 2-23 starting at 6 p.m.

Cost:  Free.

Spot the CTA Holiday Train and Bus

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The CTA Holiday Train is a holiday tradition unique to Chicago. As the train pulls into each station, Santa waves to riders from his sleigh on an open-air flatcar carrying his reindeer and decorated holiday trees. Each car of the train is wrapped with holiday and seasonal images. Thousands of twinkling lights outline the shape of the train and windows, with even more lights running across the tops of the cars.  (The video above is from one of my favorite Chicago photo spots.)

The CTA Holiday Bus is 60-foot bus turned into a winter wonderland with holiday music playing and Santa waving and from the roof-hatch of the bus. The exterior of the bus features Chicago’s skyline one snowy evening with “Ralphie the Reindeer” leading the way, his nose aglow and Santa’s sleigh in tow. Festive strings of lights outline the bus and its windows, along with sparkling snowflakes that light-up at night.

Last year both the CTA Holiday Train and CTA Holiday Bus traveled out-of-service, meaning that customers were not able to board.

When: The CTA Holiday Train and CTA Holiday Bus run from Friday after Thankgiving until Christmas Eve. See https://www.transitchicago.com/holidayfleet/ for full details on days and routes. Unlike past years, the CTA did not release exact times for the holiday train last year but many Chicagoans post on Twitter when they spot it so you can track its progress.

Cost: Regular CTA fare to enter the platform and see the train. See transitchicago.com for prices. You can see the bus for free from the street.

THE POLAR EXPRESS Train Ride

THE POLAR EXPRESS™ Train Ride is a re-creation of the classic children’s story on board a real train. Passengers are served hot chocolate and a treat by dancing chefs, enjoy a reading of the book by Chris Van Allsburg, and receive the first gift of Christmas after Santa boards the train to greet families. Performers engage passengers in caroling and fun holiday activities on the return trip to Union Station. The train ride lasts an hour and passengers are encouraged to wear pajamas. 

Where: Train leaves and returns from Chicago Union Station at 500 W Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60606.

When: Select dates and times from December 3, 2021 to January 1, 2022. Tickets are on sale now.

Cost: Pricing varies by date. Visit their website for pricing and to buy tickets.

Go Holiday Shopping (or Window Shopping)

Chicago is a great city for shopping with every type of store you can imagine.  Many shopping centers and departments stores have holiday decorations and attractions to put you in a festive mood.  Make sure not to miss Macy’s State Street (formerly Marshall Fields) – the building is a National Historic Landmark and it is known for its holiday window displays.

The major shopping areas in downtown Chicago include State Street (where you can find Macy’s, Target and many smaller stores) and The Magnificent Mile (where you can find three shopping centers, luxury designers and labels, several departments stores and popular brands).

If you are looking for something more unique, check out the One of a Kind Show and Sale (December 2-5, 2021) for handmade items.

Take a Holiday Tour

If your time in Chicago is short, there are a few tours that focus on Chicago’s holiday attractions.  For some history with your holiday tour, check out this walking tour or this Segway tour.

 

See a Christmas Show

Get in the holiday spirit with a Christmas show. There are many holiday shows you can see in Chicago this year, including:

This is a great list of all the holiday shows in Chicago.

Walk the Illuminated Light Trail at Lightscape

Sparkling tunnel of light at Lightscape Chicago Botanic Garden

Lightscape is an after-dark, illuminated trail with thousands of twinkling lights at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Ok so this is technically not in Chicago but it is in the suburbs only a 30 minute drive from downtown. Tickets are already on sale and the best dates and times sell quickly!!

When:  November 12, 2021 – January 2, 2022 (select dates).

Where: Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe, IL 60022 (24 miles north of downtown Chicago)

Cost: Price varies depending on date. Tickets for adults start at $24 and tickets for kids 3-12 start at $12. Children under 3 are free. See https://www.chicagobotanic.org/lightscape for prices and to purchase tickets.

Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum

Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum is a one-of-a-kind, interactive spectacle of color, light, and sound that has been delighting audiences since 2013. Be surrounded by color as you walk a one-mile paved path amid interactive lighting effects that highlight the beauty of trees in winter. Tickets are on sale -advance purchase is recommended as many nights will sell out.

When: November 20, 2021 – January 2, 2022 (select days)

Where: Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL 60532 (28 miles west of downtown Chicago)

Cost: Tickets range between $7-$19 for members, $13-$24 for guests. See their website for more information and to purchase tickets in advance.

READ: Best Places to See Christmas and Holiday Lights Around Chicago for more Christmas holiday light shows in and around the Chicago area.

Christmas and Holiday Events in Chicago

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival

 

 
 
 
 
 
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The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, a popular family tradition, is returning this year. One million lights are illuminated on the trees along The Magnificent Mile.

When: Saturday, November 20, 2021.

Where: North Michigan Avenue from Oak Street to Wacker Drive.

Cost:  Free.

Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony

The City of Chicago has a Lighting Ceremony for their annual Christmas Tree at Millennium Park.

Where: Millennium Park near the intersection of Michigan Avenue & Washington Street.

When: November 19, 2021 starting at 6pm (with the actual lighting at approximately 6:30pm).

Cost:  Free.

As you can see there are many things to do in Chicago during Christmas and the holiday season.


Planning a trip to Chicago? Check out my Chicago guides and itineraries:



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Things to Do in Chicago Christmas

savvyglobetrotter

6 Comments

  1. wow, I didnt know that Chicago is so much fun in Christmas season, my friends were mostly always complaining how cold it was in Chicago 😉

    • It definitely gets cold in Chicago in the winter but it varies day by day and sometimes it is not that bad. I’ve lived here most of my life so I am used to it plus I dress pretty warmly.

    • Chicago can be cold in the winter but not always. We had a really warm Christmas this year.

  2. Wow! Chicago looks fantastic at Christmas! I would love to visit the Chistkindlemarket and see the Cirque du Soleil show. Thank you for creating this post. I guess I better start travel planning for next year!

  3. It is great that there are so many things to do in Chicago even this year. I always visit Millenium Park to see the tree, but will try to see a light show this year as well.

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