The 10 best things to do during the holidays in Chicago

Experience the holidays in Chicago with festive theater productions, steaming beverages and a giant German market
Photograph: Neal O'Bryan

If you've ever spent the holidays in Chicago, you know that the city morphs into a magical winter wonderland as the year begins to wind down. With so many festive things to do and much cheer to spare, it's not hard to find things to do for Christmas in Chicago. Join in on the fun by getting a ticket to one of the season's top theater productions, sipping spiced wine at Christkindlmarket or admiring the dazzling holiday lights around town. Mix these 10 essential holiday activities with your own seasonal traditions for a winter you won't soon forget.

RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Christmas in Chicago

Things to do during Christmastime

Photograph: Jaclyn Rivas
Shopping, Markets and fairs


icon-location-pin Daley Plaza, Loop

You haven't experienced the holidays in Chicago until you've stepped inside this giant open-air market inspired by a similar seasonal tradition in Nuremberg, Germany. You'll be able to do some shopping at booths set up throughout Daley Plaza, where you'll find handcrafted German items like nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, beer steins and glass ornaments. It's also worth stopping by Christkindlmarket to grab a sausage and some potato pancakes, or to sip a steaming mug of Glühwein, a traditional hot spiced wine.

Photograph: Neal O'Bryan
Things to do, Late openings


icon-location-pin Lincoln Park Zoo | Chicago, IL, Lincoln Park

When the weather gets cold and most of the animals head indoors, Lincoln Park Zoo tranforms into a a field of twinkling bulbs. ZooLights decorates the beloved zoo with themed displays, perfect for a festival seasonal Instagram. Throughout the month, you'll also find ice-sculpture carvers and carolers joining the fun, as well as hot beverages available for purchase. This year, ZooLights adds several ticketed events, including a Holiday Market (Nov 27), an adults-only night (Nov 29), a live performance of music from A Charlie Brown Christmas (Dec 9) and a Zoo Year's Eve celebration (Dec 31). 

Photograph: Patrick L. Pyszka
Things to do, Ice skating

Ice Skating in Millennium Park

icon-location-pin McCormick Tribune Plaza & Ice Rink, Downtown

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, but if you don't own a pair of skates, you'll have to pay to rent some. The most popular time to hit the rink is in the evening, so show up earlier if you don't feel like waiting in line for your chance to slide around. You can take advantage of free skating lessons on Fridays at 11am and Saturdays and Sunday at 9am. If it seems too warm to skate, call ahead—this rink is open through March 10, weather permitting.

Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker
Photograph: Cheryl Mann
Dance, Ballet

The Nutcracker

icon-location-pin Auditorium Theatre, 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. Featuring stunning new choreography by 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.

The Great Tree in Macy's Walnut Room

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 Macy's (formerly known as Marshall Fields). But the 45-foot-tall tree, which sparkles with 3,000 ornaments and 6,000 LED lights, can be viewed from outside the restaurant, which means that you won't have to splurge for a chicken pot pie simply to experience one of the most spectacular holiday displays in the city.

Photograph: Courtesy Morton Arboretum
Things to do, Festivals

Illumination: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum

icon-location-pin Morton Arboretum, Suburbs

When the weather gets cold, the trees at Morton Arboretum light up in a sea of color at this popular winter event. Guests at Illumination walk down a one-mile path through the forest, admiring the magical display and seasonal music. New features at this year's edition include tree-like sculpture from artist HYBYCOZO, a tree that changes colors when you hug it and campfires stocked with hot drinks and s'mores.

Photograph: Martha Williams
Bars, Dive bars

Glögg at Simon’s Tavern

icon-location-pin Andersonville

Look for the glowing neon fish sign hanging over this classic Andersonville dive, where locals and visitors have been pumping quarters into the jukebox for more than 80 years. When the holiday season arrives, you'll want to order the bar's cold-weather specialty: a warm mug of a Swedish variation of spiced wine called glögg, served with an authentic ginger pepparkakor cookie.

Theater, Drama

A Christmas Carol

icon-location-pin Goodman Theatre | Chicago, IL, Loop

The Goodman Theatre’s annual holiday production of the Charles Dickens classic keeps its seasonal charm intact in its latest iteration. No bah humbugs here. Larry Yando returns for yet another outing as Ebenezer Scrooge, while director Henry Wishcamper is back for his sixth year, guiding the classic story of three spirits who confront Scrooge with the consequences of his miserly actions.

Movies, Family and kids

Music Box Christmas Double Feature

icon-location-pin Music Box Theatre, Wrigleyville

Ring in the holiday cheer with some classic, beloved Christmas films. Follow Jimmy Stewart’s path to redemption in It’s A Wonderful Life or sing along with Bing Crosby in White Christmas during the Music Box’s annual tribute to classic holiday cinema. Arrive early to meet Santa and belt out Christmas carols during the intermission, accompanied by the theater’s organist. You can snag tickets to one movie or both, depending on how much pure holiday cheer you can handle in the span of an afternoon.