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 (both in person and virtual) that are guaranteed to get you into the holiday spirit!
Things to Do in Chicago During Christmas
- Things to Do in Chicago During Christmas
- See the City of Chicago Christmas Tree
- Ice Skating at Maggie Daley Park
- Dine at the Walnut Room
- ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo
- Watch Digital Art at Art on the Mart
- Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light
- Spot the CTA Holiday Train and Bus
- Go Holiday Shopping (or Window Shopping)
- Walk the Illuminated Light Trail at Lightscape
- Drive Through the Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum
- Drive Thru Holiday Light Show at Northbrook Court
- Virtual Chicago Christmas & Holiday Events
Below are the best things to do in Chicago during the Christmas holiday season. Due to current events, a few popular activities have been cancelled or changed this year. I suggest bookmarking this blog post as I plan to update it regularly with any new information or updates.
Please note that exact 2021 dates for some events and activities have yet to be determined but they will likely be pretty close to 2020 dates.
See the City of Chicago Christmas Tree
The City of Chicago puts up a large Christmas tree annually at Millennium Park.
When: November 20, 2020 — January 7, 2021. Millennium Park is open daily from 8am to 9pm.
Where: Millennium Park near the intersection of Michigan Avenue & Washington Street.
Ice Skating at Maggie Daley Park
One of the best and picture perfect spots to go ice skating in downtown Chicago is the skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park which has a path twice the length of a lap around a traditional skating rink. Here is a list of all outdoor ice skating rinks in Chicago.
When: The skating ribbon is open daily (weather permitting) from mid November through mid March. Reservations are required and can be made up to 2 weeks in advance. See the official website for hours and to make a reservation.
Where: 337 E Randolph St., Chicago, IL 60601
Cost: Skating costs $5 if you bring your own skates. You can rent skates for $16-$20 depending on date.
Dine at the Walnut Room
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 you can enjoy the view of the Great Tree in the middle of the restaurant while dining. Make sure to order Mrs. Hering’s Chicken Pot Pie, a staple on the menu since 1907. Take Out Walnut Room Holiday Family Meals will be available for online delivery through Grubhub or contactless pick up in store.
When: The Walnut Room is open November 7, 2020 – January 3, 2021 (see their holiday hours). This year reservations are required and can be made through OpenTable. Update: Indoor dining is temporarily suspended.
Where: 7th floor at Macy’s State Street at 111 N State St., Chicago, IL
Cost: The holiday menu features a three-course, fixed-price meal for $49.95 (per person) for adults with a variety of choices. A kid’s menu is available for $19.95 for kids 12 and under.
ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo
ZooLights Presented by ComEd and Invesco QQQ at Lincoln Park Zoo is a one-of-a-kind, festive holiday experience in the heart of the city. Zoolights features hundreds of luminous displays and incredible seasonal activities, all under the glow of millions of illuminated lights. The entire event is outdoors. Animal buildings will be closed but animals may be visible in their outdoor habitats.
When: 4–10 p.m. November 21, 2020 through January 3, 2021 (select dates)
Where: Lincoln Park Zoo, 2400 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, IL
Cost: This year, Lincoln Park Zoo is requiring all guests to purchase a timed entry ticket for $5 (but there are five free nights).
Watch Digital Art at Art on the Mart
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. The nightly program features images from The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker, the Art Institute of Chicago’s current exhibitions “Monet and Chicago” and “Bisa Butler: Portraits” as well as Arts of Life, a nonprofit working with individuals with physical and intellectual disabilities.
When: 30-minute program of projections are shown nightly at 7:00 and 7:30 p.m. from November 12 through December 30, 2020.
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.
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 50 trees and displays which represent the holiday traditions from cultures around the globe. On the weekends, you can also enjoy live holiday performances.
When: November 13, 2020 – January 3, 2021
Where: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago at 5700 S Lake Shore Drive.
Cost: Included in regular museum admission. There are discounts for buying tickets online. Here is a link to the official website for prices, times and more information.
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.
This year, both the CTA Holiday Train and CTA Holiday Bus will travel out-of-service, meaning that customers will not be 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 this year but many Chicagoans have been posting 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.
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 State Street, 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).
Walk the Illuminated Light Trail at Lightscape
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 sell out very quickly so sign up for their e-newsletter and be the first to hear when tickets go on sale for 2021.
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.
Drive Through the Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum
Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum is a tunnel of lights, an awe-inspiring magical woodland filled with dazzling color and starlike light, and a landscape filled with thousands of lights dancing to a musical soundtrack, that you can see from the warmth of your car. This year’s driving experience (30–40 minutes long) features an unparalleled spectacle of color, light, and music. You will see returning favorites reenvisioned, including Symphony Woods, Woodland Wonder, and Crystal Promenade, and five newly designed sights displayed along a two-mile road among the Arboretum’s trees. Tickets are time and date-specific and must be reserved in advance.
When: November 20, 2020–January 10, 2021
Where: Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle, IL 60532 (28 miles west of downtown Chicago)
Cost: $49 peak night, $39 standard night for non-members. See their website for more information and to purchase tickets in advance.
Drive Thru Holiday Light Show at Northbrook Court
Let It Shine is a new holiday drive thru light show set to launch at Northbrook Court. Guests are invited to stay in their cars and immerse themselves in a wonderland of light displays that are synchronized to holiday classics. Drive past dazzling archways, sparkling candy canes, glowing snowmen and more illuminated installations. In spirit of the holiday season, a portion of proceeds will benefit NorthShore’s Kellogg Cancer Center. Tickets are time and date-specific and must be reserved in advance.
When: 4:30 to 10:00 pm on weekdays and 4:30 to 11:00 pm on weeknights from November 15, 2020 – January 9, 2021.
Where: Northbrook Court, 1515 Lake Cook Road, Northbrook, IL 60062 (24 miles northwest of downtown Chicago)
Cost: Time slotted tickets range in price from $29.99 on weekdays to $39.99 on the weekends per car with an added “fast pass” option to bypass the line. See their website for more information and to purchase tickets in advance.
Virtual Chicago Christmas & Holiday Events
Due to current events, a few popular Christmas events and festivities will be virtual in 2020:
From November 1 – December 31, 2020, people will be able to enjoy the beloved tradition of this Christmas market from home through the first-ever virtual Christkindlmarket “Home for the Holidays,” featuring an online marketplace (where you can buy Chicago themed gifts and other holiday items), family-friendly events, and fun interactive activities.
City of Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
The City of Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony can be seen online starting November 19 at 6:30pm at YouTube.com/ChicagoDCASE.
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:
- 3 Days in Chicago Itinerary + Travel Tips From a Local
- The Perfect Itinerary for One Day in Chicago (According to a Local)
- Most Instagrammable Places in Chicago
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