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Christmas Around the World exhibit at Museum of Science and Industry
Photograph: Heidi Peters

The 20 best things to do during the holidays in Chicago

Experience the holidays in Chicago with beautiful lights, festive theater productions and bustling markets.

Zach Long
Written by
Zach Long
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If last year's holiday season felt a bit empty, this year's festivities should prove to be closer to the usual onslaught of lights, skating, theater and singing. As the weather gets colder, you'll find a slew of Chicago Christmas events, from sparkling Christmas lights in Chicago to a museum exhibition featuring trees festooned with ornaments. After taking a year off, Christkindlmarket Chicago is back with markets in Daley Plaza and in Wrigleyville, along with annual local productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol. Need some inspiration as you begin to make your plans for December? We've gathered some of the most iconic events and happenings during the holidays in Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Christmas in Chicago

Time Out Market Chicago
  • Time Out Market
  • West Loop

Embrace the spirit(s) of the season while enjoying festive tropical cocktails at Secret Sand-ta, the holiday-inspired cocktail bar inside of Time Out Market Chicago. Featuring drinks from expert mixologist Paul McGee (Lost Lake, Milk Room), this speakeasy-style pop-up operates out of window on the second floor of Time Out Market Chicago. Just head upstairs and look for the festive decorations, then hop in line to order a Hot Buttered Rhum Cider, a North Pole Nog or another drink festooned with jolly garnishes. Secret Sand-ta opens at 5pm on Fridays and Saturdays. 

Chicago Christmas events

  • Things to do
  • Markets and fairs
  • Loop

After going virtual in 2020, the iconic German-inspired holiday market at Daley Plaza returns to Chicago this year for just over a month of Christmassy celebrations. Details about specific vendors are still relatively light at the moment, but you can expect stalls stocked with handmade gifts, German food and plenty of hot beverages (including spiced glühwein, though jury's out on whether we'll get to sip from one of the market's famous boot mugs). Similarly, you can expect to see more information about COVID-19 safety protocols in the coming weeks, though organizers have announced that they'll bring back a virtual component to the market. We'll keep you posted about updates, but in the meantime, we're counting down the days until this holiday tradition returns. 

  • Things to do
  • Late openings
  • Lincoln Park

To see one of the largest displays of holiday lights within city limits, you need to head to Lincoln Park Zoo, where the annual ZooLights display strings up millions of LED blubs. While most of the animals will be keeping warm inside, visitors are free to wander through the park, snapping photos of the various displays and taking part in a variety of activities throughout the holiday season.

There a some new features to look forward to this season, including a new light show on the South Lawn and a 18-foot holiday tree outside the newly-renovated Pepper Family Wildlife Center, where red pandas and snow leopards can be found. Guests will also be able to enjoy hot beverages and snacks at stands throughout the park.

Just like last year, a $5 admission fee will be charged throughout most of the week—free admission tickets will be offered on Mondays and Tuesdays. Check out the Lincoln Park Zoo website for information on special ticketed events during ZooLights, including the BrewLights beer festival and a musical tribute to “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

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  • Things to do
  • Millennium Park

Every year, Millennium Park is adorned with an epic Christmas tree that remains on display until the beginning of the new year. The larger-than-life attraction is festooned with twinkling lights and crowned with an illuminated star. Spectators can check out the festive tree near Washington Street and Michigan Avenue through Sunday, January 9th.

The annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony will return in-person this year on Friday, November 19 starting at 6pm, featuring special guests and performances ahead of the illumination of the 108th Chicago Christmas Tree.

  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions
  • Suburbs

The Chicago Botanic Garden hosts this annual (and quick to sell out) display of festive lights, giving guests a host of shimmering reasons to visit the forest preserve during the holiday season. Set along a 1.25-mile path, the after-dark experience features a series of installations to explore, including a 110-foot tunnel made up of 100,000 lights and a group of trees festooned in bulbs that "sing" holiday songs.  

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  • Things to do
  • Ice skating
  • Millennium Park

Skate under the Chicago skyline and within eyeshot of the Chicago Christmas Tree at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink in Millennium Park. Admission to the rink is free, and you can rent skates for $13–$15. Plus, take advantage of free skating lessons on most Saturdays and Sundays from 8am–9am, where you can learn both beginner- and intermediate-level skills. Note that you'll need to make a free online reservation for both regular skating and lessons this year, and if it seems too warm to skate, call ahead—this rink is open through March 6, weather permitting.

  • Movies
  • Family and kids
  • Wrigleyville

The Music Box's beloved holiday season double feature returns to the Southport movie theater this year, with nine days of screenings to enjoy. Treat your eyeballs to some seasonal cheer by following Jimmy Stewart’s path to redemption in It’s A Wonderful Life or singing along with Bing Crosby in White Christmas, playing back-to-back in the main auditorium. Each screening includes an appearance by Santa Claus and a Christmas carol sing-along accompanied by Music Box organist Dennis Scott (with lyrics projected on the screen). You can opt to see just one of the films, or spring for a discounted ticket to see both.

Tickets go on sale to the general public on Monday, November 1 at noon. Members can snag tickets on Friday, October 29 at noon.

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  • Travel
  • Transport & Travel

Passengers weren't allowed on the Chicago Transit Authority's annual Holiday Train and Bus last year, but we have good news for anyone who wants to take a ride on the festive modes of public transportation. You'll be able to get on board the CTA's holiday fleet this year, beginning on Friday, November 26 when the Holiday Train makes its first run and continuing on Tuesday, November 30 when the Holiday Bus begins rolling throughout the city. The train and bus will be running in various neighborhoods through Christmas—read on to find the complete schedule.

 

  • Music
  • Classical and opera
  • Loop

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra decks the halls of Symphony Center with the return of its popular Christmas concert, teaming up with Broadway star Jessica Vosk for an evening of holiday standards and festive arrangements of classical compositions. In addition to Christmas carols like “Jingle Bells” and “Oh Come, All ye Faithful,” this year's program features selections from Sound of Music and Babes in Toyland.

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  • Dance
  • Ballet
  • Loop

Having retired cofounder Robert Joffrey's production of The Nutcracker after nearly 30 years, the Joffrey Ballet debuted a brand-new version in 2016, set in Chicago against the backdrop of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. This year's production will be staged in the Civic Opera House (where the Lyric Opera also resides), featuring music performed by the Lyric Opera Orchestra and the stunning choreography of Christopher Wheeldon. The latest iteration of the classic Christmas will still have you humming “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” for days after you leave the theater.

  • Things to do
  • Festivals
  • Streeterville

Too cold outside? Navy Pier brings all of the winter fun indoors, filling its gigantic 170,000-square-foot Festival Hall with a regulation-size Apline ice skating rink, a holiday beer garden, kiddie train rides, Santa’s Village and a gift market. The centerpiece of Light Up the Lake (which replaces Navy Pier's Winter Wonderfest) is a collection of oversized light sculptures, including a giant Teddy Bear, 25-foot-tall deer, a 60-foot light tunnel and 40-foot tree. Boasting more than 600,000 lights, Navy Pier claims that it's "the area's largest indoor lights show." Plus, each Light Up the Lake ticket includes a ride on Navy Pier's 200-foot Centennial Wheel—don't worry, all of the gondola's are fully enclosed and heated!

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  • Things to do
  • Performances
  • Millennium Park

There's nothing stopping you from showing up in front of Cloud Gate (a.k.a. "The Bean") at any point during the year and belting out your favorite holiday songs, but you can do it with a crowd of like-minded exhibitionists at this annual series of winter concerts and sing-alongs. Previously know as "Caroling at Cloud Gate," this series will be more inclusive of Chicago’s many faith backgrounds, cultures and holiday music traditions, taking place every Friday at 6pm from November 26 through December 17. Song books will be distributed at each event.

  • Art
  • Film and video

Projecting a 25-story-tall video installation on the side of the Merchandise Mart, Art on theMart's holiday program includes works by Chicago teens, stills from the Joffrey Ballet's production of The Nutcracker and an AI-generated display from Ouchhh Studios. Take in a series of mosaics created by kids in Chicago's After School Matters before experiencing images from The Nutcracker set to Tchaikovsky’s beloved score and the Harmonic AI animations, inspired by some of Chicago's best jazz musicians.

Art on theMART's array of 34 digital projectors display the 30-minute program at 7:30 and 8pm every evening. The show is best viewed from the section of the Chicago Riverwalk between Wells Street and Franklin Street.

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  • Theater
  • Drama
  • Loop

The Goodman Theatre’s annual holiday production of the Charles Dickens classic returns to the stage, with Larry Yando taking on the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. The play has been a staple of the Goodman's calendar for more than 40 years, allowing returning attendees and new generations to see the quintessential Christmas story unfold before their eyes. Be prepared to be visited by three ghosts—and don't be suprised if A Christmas Carol's touching tale of redemption makes you shed a few tears.

  • Music
  • Folk, country and blues
  • River West/West Town

Jim Henson's holiday TV special Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas comes to life onstage at the Hideout, with an all-star cast of Chicago musicians (including Eiren Caffall, Lawrence Peters, Matt Gandurski, Ari Bolles, Seth Vanek, and Kip Rainey) performing memorable tunes like "When the River Meets the Sea" and "Brothers in Our World." The Hideout's adaptation of the production also features the original book's dialogue and narration, read by special guests. Come to the heart-warming production early to catch a kid-friendly performance from Lily Emerson and Charlie Malave, then stick around after the show to hear the band play some festive tunes.

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  • Music
  • Classical and opera
  • Loop

Ever since 1976, Chicagoans have gathered during the holiday season to belt out Handel’s classic oratorio (the one with the famous “Hallelujah!” chorus) backed by a volunteer orchestra and professional soloists. This year's event looks a bit different than usual; it will take place at the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist and the performance will be 90 minutes long, without the traditional intermission. Tickets are free, though reservations will be required and you'll be required to wear a mask throughout the performance. Make sure to show up to the event familiar with the score and ready to sing your heart—and you might also want to figure out if you're a soprano, alto, tenor or bass.

  • Things to do
  • Ice skating
  • Millennium Park

Situated in the heart of downtown Chicago, with the city's sweeping skyline as a backdrop, the Skating Ribbon at Maggie Daley Park is a winter attraction unlike any other. Skaters can lace up and wind around a winding ice-covered path that's twice the length of a lap around a traditional rink. This year's edition of the ribbon will be decorated with designs inspired by Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and "Starry Night" paintings, a collaboration between the art exhibition "Immersive Van Gogh" and Chicago Park District. 

Admission to the Skating Ribbon is free during weekdays if you bring your own skates; otherwise, reservations are $5 (with skates on weekends on holidays) or $16–$20 if you need to rent a pair. The Ribbon stays open through March (weather permitting) and even offers limited hours on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

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  • Things to do
  • Festivals
  • Suburbs

Ready to get into the holiday spirit? After switching to a drive-through format for 2020, the Morton Arboretum's annual holiday light show is returning this year as a mile-long, walk-through spectacle of LED lights and music, featuring a blend of new and returning light displays set amid 50 acres of trees. 

New for 2021 is a special light-up display of "Hallow," one of artist Daniel Popper's large-scale statues featured in the Arboretum's popular "Human+Nature" exhibition, plus a collection of 150 colorful lanterns, an "enchanted gateway" of glowing lights leading to Meadow Lake and a lit-up pasture near the top of the conifer trail, among other first-time features. You'll also find returning favorites like Ornament Hill, Enchanted Hill and the music-filled Symphony Woods. While you make your way through the show, stop to warm up and roast marshmallows at bonfires set along the path, or grab snacks from concessions vendors.

  • Music
  • Latin and world
  • Lincoln Square

Chicago-based Mariachi Herencia de México presents its A Very Merry Christmas Concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music and Thalia Hall, playing four shows over the course of three days. Expect to hear plenty of familiar holiday songs with a Latin twist, including renditions of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Los Peces en el Rio” and  “Christmas Don't Be Late.”

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  • Things to do
  • Exhibitions
  • Hyde Park

Every year, the Museum of Science and Industry puts up its 45-foot-tall Grand Tree and surrounds the towering pine with more than 50 trees that represent Chicago's various communities and their respective holiday celebrations. This year's exhibit celebrates the golden age of travel, with themed décor and a spotlight on the Pioneer Zephyr train and the 727 in the "Take Flight" exhibit.

Visitors will be able to take in even more seasonal cheer at the accompanying "Holidays of Light" exhibit, whic recognizes the traditions of Chinese New Year, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Visakha Puja Day and St. Lucia Day. Admission to "Christmas Around the World" and "Holidays of Light" is included with a regular Museum of Science and Industry ticket.

  • Things to do
  • Festivals

If you're looking for a holiday destination, Amaze Light Festival brings a twinking display, a holiday market and a tubing hill to Rosemont. Situated in Impact Field (the home of the Chicago Dogs), this seasonal attraction features light shows and seven illuminated worlds to explore, plus a variety of separately-ticketed experiences, including visits ot Santa's Workshop and Polar Peak tubing rides. Guests can also fill up on food and hot beverages before visiting a candy shop stocked with festive treats.

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