‘Tis the season to explore the best Chicago spots for the holiday season. The city offers a variety of shows, shopping opportunities, lighting displays and active endeavors to fill you with the Christmas spirit, whether you live here or you’re just visiting. Check out these 12 ideas when you want to know how to spend Christmas in Chicago.
1. Christmas Tree Lighting
Chicago’s Christmas spirit kicks off each year with the official Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in November. The annual event takes place in Millennium Park, home of the famed bean sculpture. A huge tree serves as the centerpiece of the event. The 2016 tree stands 69 feet high and features 48,375 multi-colored lights. It’s tough not to feel the holiday spirit the moment you see all those lights glow in brilliant colors.
If the sight of all those twinkling lights isn’t enough to inspire your holiday spirit, the event also includes holiday performances and classic Christmas songs from the Chicago Community Chorus. Santa and Mrs. Claus also make a special appearance for the young and young at heart. If you miss the official tree lighting, though, you can stop by the park any time during the holiday season to see the lit tree.
2. The Christkindlmarket
When looking for Christmas events in Chicago, you can’t miss the Christkindlmarket. This open-air Christmas market is modeled after a market in Nuremberg, Germany, with many nods to German heritage at the various stands. Located in the Loop, this event is free to attend and serves up various gift options, European-inspired food, lights and entertainment. A trip through Christkindlemarket makes you feel like you’re in a different world — a world oozing with Christmas spirit.
This Christmas market is a great place to find unique holiday gifts for everyone on your shopping list. Handcrafted Christmas ornaments are popular from many vendors. Christmas pyramids, nutcrackers, beer steins and cuckoo clocks also make the list of popular gift options at the market. Expect to find many German and European gifts.
Show up hungry when you visit Christkindlmarket, too. You’ll find many German specialties, including wiener schnitzel sandwiches, leberkaese, sauerkraut and potato pancakes. Warm yourself with a boot-shaped mug full of Gluhwein, a warm spiced wine drink.
Christkindlmarket is worth a visit, even if you don’t have a need for a cuckoo clock or hand-blown glass ornaments. The atmosphere generates Christmas spirit and Old World charm.
3. Morton Arboretum Holiday Lights
See Morton Arboretum in a new light at the annual Illumination event. An array of holiday light displays brings the arboretum to life. A one-mile walking trail brings you up close to the lights, with multiple interactive light displays along the way.
Don’t rush through the display, either. Take your time to discover all the little surprises that go into the event. Fire pits along the path give you a chance to warm up before continuing to enjoy more lights.
The path weaves through the trees and around a small lake. Expect to climb a few hills along the way. Don’t forget lots of warm layers so you can take your time enjoying the lights, music and interactive displays. You dictate the pace of the trip through Illumination, but allowing at least an hour gives you a chance to fully explore all of the little hidden treasures.
The Arboretum Store offers special illuminated gifts as a memento of the night or as a Christmas gift. Food and beverages are available for your enjoyment as well. On certain nights, you can also enjoy live music and roaming carolers for even more holiday spirit.
If you want more light display fun, head to a Chicago Christmas tradition at Lincoln Park Zoo called ZooLights. This free event features lighted displays throughout the zoo grounds. Other highlights of the event include photos with Santa, crafts, educational snacks, holiday shopping, ice carving demonstrations and musical light shows. Arrive early to get special 3D glasses for an extra dose of the Christmas spirit in Chicago.
4. Outdoor Ice Skating
Lace up your skates and head to one of the many outdoor ice skating rinks when you don’t know what to do for Christmas in Chicago. Skating outdoors lets you catch the holiday spirit and gaze at the amazing views of Chicago’s skyline. You’ll feel like you’re in the middle of a Christmas card as you whiz over the ice.
Skate at one of these outdoor Chicago ice skating rinks this holiday season:
• McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park: Enjoy free skating in Millennium Park at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink when you bring your own skates. You can also rent skates for a small fee. More than 100,000 people skate at the rink each year, making it a popular holiday tradition for locals and visitors alike.
• Maggie Daley Skating Ribbon: Try the ice ribbon at Maggie Daley Park for a racetrack feel. The skating ribbon weaves through the landscape for a total length about twice that of a lap around a traditional skating rink.
• Lincoln Park Zoo: The Farm-in-the-Zoo at Lincoln Park Zoo gives you a unique setting for ice skating outdoors. Check out the farm animals as you whiz by on the skating rink set up in the area. The barn gives you a spot to warm up and buy concessions. Bring your own skates or rent a pair from the zoo.
• Other City Parks: Several Chicago parks offer outdoor skating rinks to spark your Christmas spirit. Locations include McKinley Park, Riis Park, Warren Park, Midway Plaisance Park, Mt. Greenwood Park, Rowan Park and Wentworth Park.
5. Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker and Other Christmas Shows
The Nutcracker is a classic, and the Joffrey Ballet puts on an unforgettable performance each year in Chicago. The Chicago Philharmonic provides the live music for the performance, stirring up even more excitement and Christmas spirit as you watch the dancers float across the stage.
Chicago hosts a variety of other beloved Christmas shows and performances. Explore this list to find the perfect performance to stir up your Christmas spirit:
• A Christmas Carol: This classic Dickens tale comes to life each year at the Goodman Theatre.
• It’s a Wonderful Life: Travel back in time with the annual performance of “It’s a Wonderful Life” based on the 1940s radio broadcast. The vintage vibe continues with local sponsor commercials presented in 1940s ad style and telegrams from audience members read on stage. A milk and cookie reception with the cast after the performances leaves you with a warm feeling.
• Handel’s Messiah: Experience a powerful performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Apollo Chorus if you want to get blown away with Christmas spirit.
6. Specialty Toy Store Visit
There’s something magical about stepping inside a toy store at Christmas time, even if you don’t come out with a big bag of shiny new toys. A toy store lets you act like a kid again and connect with your own children. Chicago offers several locally owned and unique toy stores, with several different types of toys depending on what you want. Whether you bring kids along or wander the aisles yourself, Christmas in Chicago takes a fun turn at your favorite toy stores.
Check out these Chicago-area toy store options to discover something new this Christmas:
• Toy de Jour: If you grew up in the 1980s, you definitely want to add this toy store to your list. You’ll find lots of nostalgic toys and items in the aisles.
• Rotofugi: This Chicago toy store features designer toys from around the world. Popular toys include vinyl figures, plush toys, capsule toys and pop culture toys. The vintage building gives the toy store a unique vibe, and low display shelves create an open feeling.
• The Toy King: Explore more than 4,000 square feet of toy shop at The Toy King. You’ll find a mix of popular modern toys, retro toys, European toys and interactive toys like puzzles and magic kits.
• Play: Located in Logan Square, Play is a small toy store offering toys, books and gifts for kids.
• Building Blocks Toy Store: This Chicago toy store focuses on educational toys with high value and high quality.
Find your favorite toy store and make it a tradition to go every year at Christmas time. It may turn in to a tradition your children do with their own kids some day, and isn’t that what the Christmas spirit is all about?
7. Ugly Sweater Run
Get extra mileage out of your ugly Christmas sweater while burning off a few of those Christmas cookies at the Ugly Sweater Run. The 5K distance makes this race approachable for people of all fitness levels. Festive Christmas music fills the starting line area, along with inflatables, photo opps, a life-sized snow globe, games and a mechanical reindeer ride. You can even run through fake snow — if the Chicago winter doesn’t provide the real thing. The run also includes awards for best sweater, best pet attire and best mustache or beard.
8. Cut Down a Tree
Nothing lifts your spirits like the fresh smell of pine. Instead of choosing a precut tree, venture out this holiday season and cut down your own. You won’t find many pine trees within the city limits, but you can take a short trip close to Chicago to get that perfect Christmas tree.
Try one of these Chicago-area Christmas tree farms:
• Ben’s Christmas Tree Farm, Harvard: With nine varieties of trees, Ben’s Christmas Tree Farm has the perfect tree for everyone. Ben’s shakes and bails your tree for you, and they provide the necessary tools to cut the tree. Don’t miss the free horse-drawn carriage ride, coffee, hot cocoa and farm animal interactions. Santa even makes appearances occasionally.
• Oney’s Tree Farm, Woodstock: Venture through the 60 acres of Christmas trees at Oney’s Tree Farm to find the one that fits your home perfectly. Free weekend activities include horse-drawn wagon rides complete with sleigh bells, pony rides and appearances from Mrs. Claus. Oney’s also shakes and nets your tree for easy transport.
• Bengtson’s Christmas Tree Farm, Peotone: Like other area tree farms, Bengtson’s grows several varieties and offers free use of saws. Unlike other farms, though, Bengtson’s amps up the Christmas spirit with live reindeer. You can see them all season long for free, even if you don’t buy a Christmas tree.
• Tammen Treeberry Farm, Wilmington: Choose from a variety of tree varieties, with options up to 15 feet tall at Tammen Treeberry Farm. The farm supplies the saws and can shake and bale your tree for an additional fee.
9. The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival
The Magnificent Mile boasts many high-end shops and boutique hotels, but it also plays host to the annual Magnificent Mile Lights Festival to kick off the holiday season. A Tree-Lighting Parade, with none other than Mickey and Minnie Mouse as parade marshals, travels down Michigan Avenue. Floats, balloons, marching bands, musical performers and other Disney characters delight parade goers in this lighted parade.
A fireworks display held over the Chicago River caps the night. You can also get your Christmas shopping done at the many Magnificent Mile shops. Most shops stay open late that night.
If you miss the Lights Festival, you can still enjoy the magic of the Magnificent Mile throughout the holiday season. Enjoy the twinkling lights and holiday decorations along the stretch of Michigan Avenue for a dose of holiday cheer and plenty of gift ideas to complete your holiday shopping list.
10. Santa Visits
Santa is everywhere during the holidays, so choosing a special place to visit Santa makes the trip more memorable. Many popular Chicago destinations host special Santa events to turn the trip into a full event. Many of the events involve meals with Santa.
Check out these special Santa appearances in Chicago:
• Santa Lunch Cruise on Spirit Cruises
• Member Breakfast with Santa and SUE at The Field Museum
• Brunch with Santa at Pinstripes
• Holiday Breakfast at Shedd Aquarium
• Macy’s Santaland on State Street
• CTA Holiday Train
• Brunch with Santa at the Drake Hotel
11. Navy Pier Winter Wonderfest
Enter a winter wonderland inside Navy Pier when you add Winter Wonderfest to your list of must-do Chicago Christmas activities. Twinkling lights, Christmas trees and a plethora of whimsical Christmas decorations transform 170,000 square feet of winter activities, ensuring you a healthy dose of the Christmas spirit.
Inside, you’ll find a variety of activities for all ages. The activities include:
• Indoor ice skating rink
• Trackless Arctic Express train ride for all ages
• Inflatable slides
• Cookie decorating
• Multiple rides, including a Ferris wheel, tea cups and carousel
• Climbing walls
• Obstacle course
• Mini golf
• Santa and Mrs. Claus visit
• Indoor “snow” tubing hill
• Jingle Gym Jr. area for kids 46 inches and smaller
Choose from two different ticket options. The Activity Pass gives you full access to all of the rides and activities. A Mini Pass is also available with access to a smaller number of activities.
12. Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light
Each year, the Museum of Science and Industry represents more than 50 cultures with individual Christmas trees surrounding the 45-foot grand tree. The event started in 1942 when one tree underwent a daily transformation for 12 days. Each day, the new decorations represented the Allies fighting in the war.
The current display includes many more cultures, but it still embraces the same spirit of hope and an appreciation for the holiday traditions of those diverse cultures. Take some time out of your busy holiday season to travel the world without leaving Chicago when you visit the display at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Enjoy Chicago Year Round
Chicago Christmas events inspire your Christmas spirit, and you may find yourself wanting to spend even more time in the city. At 33 Realty, we can help you with all of your residential real estate needs when you decide to make Chicago your year-round home.