December is a magical time to celebrate the holidays in Chicago as the city puts its best foot forward. There are traditions aplenty throughout Chicagoland, if you know where to look. Everything kicks off of Saturday, November 19th with the 25th annual Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, a tree-lighting parade along Michigan Avenue. Grand Marshals Mickey and Minnie Mouse lead characters from Disney World, beautiful floats, and marching bands from along the route. Once the tree is lit, the rest of the city rolls out the holiday finery. Here are some of the best events to celebrate the holidays in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs.
10 Best Events to Celebrate the Holidays in Chicago
1. Skating, caroling, and being festive at Millennium Park
The city’s Christmas tree spends the holiday season dazzling visitors in Millennium Park. Here the tree is in good company with the McCormick Tribune ice skating rink. Skating is free, so you can either bring your own skates or rent skates at the rink. When you’re finished, you can enjoy food and drinks at the café or any of the restaurants on Michigan Avenue. Right next door at the Cloud Gate, there is caroling every Friday night by various choirs. These free performances make for a festive holiday evening. Santa will also make a stop at Millennium Park this year, but check the schedule before you go. You must take your own photos, but what child wouldn’t want a visit with Old Saint Nick?
2. Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden
Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Garden is a railroad garden with trains chugging through a miniature Chicago decorated for the holidays. The gardens come alive at night with over 750,000 lights decorating the trees and plants along the garden path. Various activities throughout the month include concerts, breakfast with Santa and Mrs. Claus, and caroling. It’s essential to reserve tickets in advance. You can read more about Wonderland Express here.
Having just returned from two weeks in Germany and exploring multiple Christmas markets, I can say this market is about as authentic as you can get. There are stalls filled with ornaments, food, and cuckoo clocks throughout Daley Plaza. This market includes vendors from all over, including Germany, Nepal, and Poland. The event is free, but it can be very crowded on weekends. If you want to know what a real Christmas market is like, read World Traveler In Training’s guest post about the Christmas market in Hamburg, it will make you want to explore the real thing.
The Joffrey Ballet brings a new version to the stage this year from choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. This show has been a Chicago tradition since the 1980s and families return year after year to see the amazing costumes, performances, and brilliant storytelling. Over one hundred local children are cast as dancers in the performance, making it a true Chicago production.
Now in its 75th year, the Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light is one of our favorite family traditions. The museum is decorated with more than 50 trees and displays representing countries and traditions from around the world. Every year a majestic 45 foot tree is the centerpiece of the exhibit (in the past, there has been a Peanuts themed tree and a Disney tree). This year’s tree will be inspired by LEGO. Every half hour snow falls from the ceiling making the museum magical. On the weekends there are dance and music performances from around the world. This is definitely worth a visit during the holidays.
6. Having afternoon tea or a holiday lunch in the city
There are many hotels offering holiday tea, and what a better way to celebrate with friends and loved ones than spending a special afternoon together? Some of our favorite places for holiday tea include the Drake Hotel, The Peninsula, The Langham, and Russian Tea Time. All of them have something that makes them unique in our book. Many families enjoy a holiday meal at the famous Walnut Room (a Chicago staple since 1907) inside Macy’s department store, enjoying the beautiful Christmas tree and holiday windows to celebrate a day on the town.
Illumination is a magical spectacle at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, about 35 minutes southwest of the city. The trees and plants of the Arboretum come alive at night, decorated with thousands of interactive dazzling LED lights. Visitors wander along a mile long trail, while music from the Chicago Symphony provides the accompaniment. Some nights feature live musical performances. Fire pits and warming tents along the way help keep visitors toasty on cold December evenings. Purchase tickets online before heading out.
8. Experience It’s A Wonderful Life Live at the Greenhouse Theater
I grew up watching It’s A Wonderful Life every year with my family and this theater production is something special. The show is performed as a “live” 1940s radio broadcast, complete with commercials, holiday carols, and telegrams from the audience read live on stage. A truly interactive experience, the audience is even invited to enjoy milk and cookies with the cast after the show. This is definitely a unique production that shouldn’t be missed this holiday season.
The Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic includes a holiday light show (Polar Lights), animal encounters, and photos with Santa and Mrs. Claus. The Lincoln Park ZooLights features light shows, ice carving, animal encounters, ice skating, and visits with Santa. The Lincoln Park Zoo has free admission, Brookfield Zoo does not (but does offer free admission for military). Both events can be very crowded, so my advice would be to choose a colder weeknight and dress warm.
10. See the Christmas lights in the Lincolnwood Towers neighborhood
One of my favorite family moments as a kid was piling in the car and driving around to see holiday lights in our neighborhood while the stereo played Christmas music. The Edgebrook/Sauganash neighborhood (essentially Pratt Avenue on the north, Edens Expressway on the east, Devon Avenue to the south, and Cicero Avenue on the west) has taken this to the next level, creating a neighborhood Christmas light experience like no other. It’s the perfect family event and no one will complain they’re cold.
Chicago at the holidays is something special, as I’m sure it is where you live. Do you have a favorite holiday activity you enjoy with your family?
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*This post originally appeared in December 2015, but was updated in November 2016.
(This post contains affiliate links but opinions are 100% my own.)