The holiday season will be here before you know it. Have you started planning your winter vacation to Chicago, IL yet? With the crisp air, snow flurries, and the entire city blanketed in twinkling Christmas lights, it’s a sight to behold. Plus, with the superb shopping, entertainment, and abundance of Christmas activities in Chicago, you’re guaranteed to make lifelong holiday memories.
Discover all there is to do this Christmas in Chicago with our guide. From festivals to tree lighting ceremonies, everyone will love spending this holiday season in the Windy City.
Christmas Events in Chicago
Chicago hosts multiple holiday events each winter. For ongoing fun, add these festive Christmas events to your Chicago itinerary.
Chicago’s Official Tree Lighting Ceremony
The city of Chicago knows there’s nothing more magical than watching a gigantic tree light up for the holiday season. Each year, the Official Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony kicks off the winter festivities around Chicago. Everyone gathers in Millennium Park to watch as the city lights up with twinkling lights, Christmas decor, and the holiday spirit. Best of all, admission to the annual ceremony and park are free!
This year’s tree lighting ceremony will be held at 6:00 pm on November 16, 2018.
ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo
During the holiday season, Lincoln Park Zoo transforms into ZooLights each night. Filled with holiday decor, activities, and food, Chicago locals and tourists alike flock to this attraction each winter. Plus, a few of your favorite animal friends might come out to say “Happy Holidays!”
In addition to the multitude of lights, ZooLights also offers:
- More than 100 Christmas light and decor displays
- Photos with Santa Claus
- Free crafts for kids
- Winter Wonderlawn featuring musical light displays
- Holiday shopping
- Live ice carvings
- And so much more
ZooLights runs from November 23, 2018 to January 6, 2019. Did I mention this holiday festival is free, too? With the endless Christmas activities in Chicago, you don’t have to drain your savings account to feel merry!
Chicago really loves their Christmas light displays, including Lightscape: A Multisensory Experience on State Street. Along State Street, you’ll notice dozens of light fixtures situated in approximately 18 planters. Each day from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, the light installation’s speakers play holiday music selections and announcements paired with light changing patterns synchronized to the notes and phrases of each song.
On top of being a holiday must-see in Chicago, Lightscape utilizes low-energy LED lights to conserve energy in comparison to the temporary displays that eat up energy costs for the city. The Grinch isn’t the only thing that’s green this Christmas!
Illumination: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum
Head to Morton Arboretum this Christmas season for Illumination. This dazzling winter experience is a one-mile long outdoor walking trail through Morton Arboretum’s 50 acres of various tree collections. Throughout the trail, you’ll see the trees light up like never before, creating a magical Christmas feeling. Guests can also check out the warming and concession tents, fire pits, and numerous photo opportunities for additional fun.
Illumination: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum is open from Friday, November 16, 2018 to Monday, January 1, 2019. Guests must purchase tickets for a specific time and date to enter the festival.
Be sure to bring your camera and that special someone. This is the perfect opportunity to capture your annual Christmas photo!
Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
Of the Christmas activities in Chicago, the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival may be the most popular choice among visitors and locals alike. Each November, the Magnificent Mile kicks off the Christmas season with a festival unlike any other. With two full days of non-stop activities, this is a winter festival you do not want to miss. This year’s festival is scheduled for Friday, November 16th and Saturday, November 17th, 2018.
Festival activities and happenings include:
- Lights Festival Lane featuring holiday activities and food from Chicago eateries.
- Holiday promotions at Magnificent Mile retailers.
- Live music performed daily.
- Visits from Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.
- The annual Tree Lighting parade led by Mickey and Minnie Mouse and friends.
- Fireworks over the Chicago River.
Start your Christmas season off on the right foot with this over-the-top festival and parade.
For the ultimate Christmas shopping experience, do not miss Christkindlmarket Chicago. From November 16 to December 24, 2018, this traditional German American market boasts craftsman, products, and gifts from local vendors and around the world. Also, this winter shopping event is Chicago’s largest open-air Christmas festival. Bring a jacket and explore this festive Christmas village, pick up a few gifts along the way, and sample food and beverages from around the world. Once you experience the Christkindlmarket in Chicago, it’ll become a family tradition for years to come.
Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier
For more Christmas activities in Chicago, make sure Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier is on your list. This indoor festival packs in the holiday fun with a Chicago Blackhawks ice skating rink, Christmas decor, massive slides, family-friendly rides, and so much more.
Winter Wonderfest is open from December 1, 2018 to January 6, 2019 this season. Since this is a prominent winter festival in Chicago, you’ll want to purchase your tickets ahead of time. This will allow you to skip the line and head right to the festive fun.
Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry
Each year, the Museum of Science and Industry hosts the Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light festival. With over 50 trees decorated to represent how various countries celebrate Christmas, this family-friendly festival is a must. On the weekends, guests are treated to live holiday performances from various groups from around Chicago and the world. This holiday festival is open from November 15, 2018 to January 6, 2019 and includes a four-story tree!
The event is included with museum admission, so go early make a day out of it.
Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Gardens
Do you or your kids love model trains or miniature replicas of cities? If so, go to Wonderland Express at the Chicago Botanic Gardens this Christmas. On top of the trains and miniature landmarks, the event offers caroling, ice carvings, Christmas movies (select times and dates), a holiday market, and snow falling inside!
To enter this event, you must purchase a ticket for a specific time and date. Wonderland Express runs from November 23 to December 21, 2018 from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm, and December 22, 2018 to January 6, 2019 from 10:00 am – 7:00 pm.
Christmas Activities in Chicago: Things to Do
For a jolly Christmas vacation, be sure to check off each of these Chicago winter activities during your trip.
See a Christmas Show
When visiting Chicago for the holidays, you must get your tickets to see a Christmas show. The historic theaters around Chicago put on classic holiday shows each year, including:
- A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theatre Chicago
- The Nutcracker Ballet performed by the Joffrey Ballet at Auditorium Theatre
- Handel’s “Messiah” by the Apollo Chorus at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park
- ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas at the Broadway Playhouse
Of course, this is only a handful of the Christmas performances throughout Chicago. If you’re not in the mood for a holiday show, Chicago also is home to a multitude of Broadway shows and entertaining productions such as the Blue Man Group!
You can’t help but sing along whenever someone plays holiday music. Take your tunes to the streets and join in the many caroling opportunities throughout the city like Caroling at Cloud Gate in Millennium Park. This caroling event is free to attend, but bundle up—it’ll be chilly!
Take a Stroll through Chicago
You don’t need to spend a fortune or attend multiple celebrations to get into the Christmas spirit in Chicago. All you have to do is walk down Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile and through Millennium Park. From window shopping to Christmas decorations lining the streets, Chicago is decorated for the holiday season everywhere you look.
Don’t forget your camera. The city is filled with photo opportunities this time of year! To make your holiday stroll more festive, grab a cup of hot chocolate or coffee (with a dash of peppermint for the season) to keep you warm while you explore Chicago.
Finish Up Your Christmas Shopping
If you’re like me, you might have waited until the last possible moment to do your Christmas shopping. Fortunately for you, the Magnificent Mile and Oak Street in Chicago are lined with stores for you to visit. Be sure to shop at Chicago’s small businesses too. You never know where you’ll find the perfect holiday gift.
Ice Skating at Millennium Park
If you haven’t caught on, Millennium Park hosts a myriad of Christmas activities in Chicago each year. Lace up your skates and head down to Millennium Park for free ice skating! If you don’t own a pair of ice skates, you can rent some for only $10. What’s the Christmas season without ice skating under the stars anyway?
Christmas Tours Around Chicago
During the Christmas season, you can learn more about Chicago’s history, culture, and neighborhoods on a holiday tour. Tours include:
- Holiday Lights, City Lights Architecture Tour with Big Bus Chicago
- Holiday Dinner Cruises from Odyssey Cruises and Spirit of Chicago Cruises
- Chicago Holiday Lights Tour from the Chicago Trolley
- Holiday Segway Tours from Absolutely Chicago Segway Tours
Holiday tours are a terrific way to maximize your time in Chicago. While touring the Christmas decorations and lights, you can also see top landmarks and learn about the city’s history at the same time.
Have Breakfast with Santa
If you’re traveling to Chicago with children this Christmas season, meeting the big man in red is a must. At Shedd Aquarium, your family can even eat breakfast with Santa! In addition to breakfast, activities include photos with Santa Claus, the Polar Express 4-D Experience, holiday activities, and an aquatic presentation featuring the aquarium’s underwater species.
This event requires advance reservations, so act fast—spots will fill up.
Visit Chicago this Christmas
With all of the Christmas activities in Chicago, you’ll be filled with the holiday spirit the moment you step foot in the city. Jump start your winter vacation by booking your hotel and activities with Reserve Chicago for extra savings. After all, who doesn’t like saving money during the Christmas season?