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Photograph: Neal O'Bryan

Where to see twinkling Christmas lights in Chicago

Take a walk or a drive through the Chicago area's most stunning holiday light displays

Zach Long
Emma Krupp
Written by
Zach Long
&
Emma Krupp
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Even if you've got a bad case of the bah-humbugs, it's hard not to feel a bit of seasonal cheer when the city gets festooned with millions of twinkling bulbs as part of Chicago's best holiday light displays. Throughout December—and usually around half of November, too—you'll find indoor, outdoor and drive-through set-ups full of sparkling strings of lights, whether at Lincoln Park Zoo's famous ZooLights display or at various Christmas events in Chicago. And if you're searching for free things to do in Chicago, note that several of these displays are completely cost-free (though you might find your neighbors have some pretty cool DIY set-ups, in the event you're looking for something a little closer to home). Get a hefty dose of holiday spirit at these gorgeous displays of Christmas lights in Chicago.

RECOMMENDED: Our complete guide to Christmas in Chicago

Christmas lights in Chicago and the suburbs

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  • Lincoln Park

To see one of the largest displays of holiday lights within city limits, head to Lincoln Park Zoo, where the annual ZooLights display strings up millions of LED bulbs (though sadly, you probably won't see any animals). New features this season include a 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. FYI: 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. 

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  • Millennium Park

Every year, Millennium Park is adorned with a twinkling Christmas tree that remains on display until the beginning of the new year. Spectators can check out this year's tree near Washington Street and Michigan Avenue through Sunday, January 9—for an extra-festive time, bring a pair of skates and take a spin around the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink while soaking in the view.

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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.

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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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  • 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 Alpine 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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Each November, the Magnificent Mile rings in the start of the holiday season with a parade and other festive activities along Michigan Avenue, arguably the city's most well-decorated strip during the holidays. The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival is always nice to see, but we think you'll find there's still plenty of holiday cheer to be found in taking a stroll along the street on any random evening during the season (and best of all, it's free)! 

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  • Hyde Park

During the holiday season, 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. Plus, visitors will be able to take in even more seasonal cheer at the accompanying "Holidays of Light" exhibit, which recognizes the traditions of Chinese New Year, Diwali, Kwanzaa, Ramadan, Hanukkah, Visakha Puja Day and St. Lucia Day. 

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If you're looking for a holiday destination, Amaze Light Festival brings a twinking display, a holiday market and a tubing hill to near-suburban 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 to 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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The Rotary Club of Aurora organizes this holiday wonderland in Phillips Park, allowing visitors to drive through and take in a series of twinkling scenes, from Santa's toy factory to a series of giant snowflakes. Last year, amid the new demand for drive-through light shows, more than 50,000 cars drove through the premises. You'll need to make a timed reservation ahead of your visit, but the experience is totally free—though if you're able to make a donation online, the proceeds will go to a selection of local charities.  

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More than one million lights cover the trees, fences and structures in the Brookfield Zoo at this annual holiday event, which is open for its 40th year this season. Guests can walk through a 600-foot-long tunnel featuring colored lights synchronized to music, spot larger-than-life illuminated animal sculptures and warm up with concessions such as funnel cakes, pizza, spiced wine and hot cocoa. Plus, catch new features this year like an illuminated gingerbread house and "Sea of Lights," a mile-long display of colored lights along the zoo's West Mall. 

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Bring a thermos of hot chocolate and a cozy blanket to accompany your ride through Willow Hill's Winter Magic, a new drive-through holiday light experience in suburban Northbrook. Located at Willow Hill Golf Course, the display stretches over a mile of glittering lights with a bevy of cheerful themes, including "Snowflake Valley," "Reindeer Flight School" and a 250-foot animated video tunnel, among other attractions. Proceeds from the show benefit Erika's Lighthouse, a not-for-profit dedicated to fighting teenage depression. 

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As usual, Six Flags Great America is open for the holidays, though you won't be able to ride any of its biggest roller coasters during your visit. Instead, the amusement park strings up more than three million lights for visitors to enjoy as they walk along the midways, accompanired by seasonal entertainment, photo ops, carousel rides and s'mores roasting pits. Six Flags will also host a drive-through light show on select dates from December 3 through January 9, which showcases the same lights and seasonal music as you'd see and hear during the walkable experience. Tickets are available per person (not per car) and start at $17.99 a head.

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This drive-through light show experience has expanded to three locations in the North suburbs this year. Each features different light displays and synchronized music playlists—which you pipe into your vehicle using FM radio—giving attendees ample opportunity to "ooh" and "ahh" at the sparkling lights from inside a toasty car. 

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