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Art on theMART
Photograph: Courtesy Art on theMART

11 free things to do in Chicago for the holidays

You don't need to spend a dime to get into the holiday spirit this season— try these free and festive things to do.

Emma Krupp
Written by
Emma Krupp

As magical as Christmas in Chicago can be, it's also an undeniably expensive time of year. But if you're operating on a tighter budget this December, don't fret: There are still many ways to get in the holiday spirit without spending a dime, whether you want to tour free displays of Christmas lights in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, catch virtual holiday performances or explore festively decorated corners of the city. Bring the whole family and make new holiday memories when you check out these free things to do in Chicago this Christmas season.

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Free things to do in Chicago this Christmas

Stroll down the Magnificent Mile
Photograph: Courtesy The Magnificent Mile Association

Stroll down the Magnificent Mile

The city's thrumming shopping center isn't just for people who want to spend thousands at designer stores! Instead, bundle up and walk down the shimmering sidewalks of Michigan Avenue to take in gorgeous displays of Christmas lights. If you're up for a bit of a hike (i.e. just over one mile), the stretch between Water Tower Place and Millennium Park offers especially alluring sights, or power on a bit farther to pose next to the wreath-covered lions in front of the Art Institute. 

Gaze at the elaborate holiday windows at Macy’s
Photograph: Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images for Macy's

Gaze at the elaborate holiday windows at Macy’s

The whimsical holiday window displays on State Street have been a staple in the city for more than 50 years (back when the building housed Marshall Field's), drawing folks from across Chicagoland to "ooh" and "ahh" at their colorful details. This year, Macy's pays tribute to essential workers with "Thank You, Gracias, Merci," a multi-lingual display of gratitude to those who have worked on the frontline throughout the pandemic. 

Find gorgeous Christmas lights in your neighborhood
Photograph: Shutterstock

Find gorgeous Christmas lights in your neighborhood

Don't feel like making the journey downtown to see twinkling displays of Christmas lights? Try turning to your own neighborhood instead. There are several ways to approach this endeavor: First (and most obviously), you can go for a walk and see what you find. But for more guidance, consult resources like Facebook neighborhood groups, your local chamber of commerce/neighborhood association and community organizations. My Block, My Hood, My City decorates homes along King Drive for its "Be A Part Of The Light" initiative, for instance, and the Roscoe Village Neighbors group hosts a contest for the most impressive lights in the neighborhood.

  • Movies

New York sometimes steals the Christmastime spotlight, but don't forget: There's a lot of holiday movies that take place in Chicago, too! Many of the more famous flicks—like Home Alone and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation—are only accessible with streaming subscriptions or for rent, so head to YouTube to find free selections. We recommend Nothing Like the Holidays, set and filmed almost entirely in Humboldt Park. 

Another free way to experience the city this winter


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