Chicago is a magical place to spend the holidays—we’re not messing around when it comes to Christmas cheer. The city comes alive, teetering with Christmas anticipation. And, of course, as Chicagoans we jump on any excuse to party more—even with our coworkers. Between delightfully fun holiday theater, special drinks at Chicago’s best dive bars and lunching on too many potato pancakes at Christkindlemarket, we’ve got our own set of traditions that just can’t be beat.
RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Christmas in Chicago
Things to do during Christmastime
Head to the Lincoln Park Zoo to see the lights (and maybe a few animals) at this annual winter tradition. The first 1000 people through the gates each night receive special glasses to view the lights with, but everyone can enjoy nightly ice carving demonstrations, hot beverages and ice skating on the zoo's rink.
Our readers recently voted Simon's Tavern the most-loved bar in all of Chicago for our Love Chicago Awards, and with good reason: Simon's is the perfect place to cozy up with pals, feed the jukebox and knock back the tavern's famous spiced wine. It's not the holidays until the neon sign in the front window of this 80-year-old Andersonville dive proclaims "It's glogg time!"
Ring in the holiday cheer with some classic, beloved Christmas films. The Music Box returns with its double features showcase of White Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life throughout December. You can see one film, or stay for the double feature and sing Christmas carols with your fellow patrons during the intermission. Even Santa will be in attendance to welcome the audience.
Chicago's largest holiday open-air market is a favorite of locals and tourists alike. Inspired by a Nuremberg, Germany, market that was founded in 1545, this market features iconic German items like nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks and beer steins, as well as hand-blown ornaments and wooden handicrafts. Authentic food (sausages, sauerkraut, potato pancakes, waffles) and drink (beer and Glühwein, a traditional hot spiced wine) are also available, along with assorted sweets.
Stoners and children of all ages alike will become kindred spirits as 50 acres of vibrant LED lights are hung on the Morton Arboretum’s vast treescape, creating a kaleidoscopic winter wonderland. Take a magical walk through the one-mile illuminated path with integrated video and sound media plus interactive elements. This year, enjoy the dancing lights of the new Symphony Woods featuring the music of the Nutcracker Suite and enjoy the Meadow Lake Magic where lights create the illusion of skipping stones.
Ice skating in Chicago is one of our favorite holiday traditions, and with so many rinks to choose from there's the perfect one out there for everyone. From the sloping curves of Maggie Daley Park's ribbon to the indoor rink at Navy Pier's Winter WonderFest, you'll want to round up your friends and family and take a spin.
The Great Tree at Macy's Walnut Room
You'll have to wait quite a while to get a table next to the tree in the Walnut Room, the seventh-floor restaurant inside Marshall Field's—Ugh, okay, fine, Macy's. But the 45-foot-tall tree, which sparkles with 3,000 ornaments and 6,000 LED lights, is also viewable from the eighth floor of the department store.
The Goodman Theatre’s annual holiday production of the Charles Dickens classic keeps coming back for a reason. Chicago heavyweight actor Larry Yando has perfected his depiction of Ebenezer Scrooge to a tee; his performance alone is enough of an excuse to spend a snowy night in the Loop.
The Joffrey Ballet's annual performance of The Nutcracker, accompanied by the Chicago Philharmonic, has been a Chicago tradition since the 1980s. This year, the company debuts a new version of the classic tale, which is transposed to the time of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.