Where To Celebrate the Holiday Season In Chicago

From Posh Tea Parties To Family-Friendly Events, Here's Where You Should Be

Photo courtesy of Art Institute of Chicago

December is always a magical time in Chicago, and it appeals to all. Whether you're swinging solo, hanging with a significant other or spending time with the family, there's definitely something for everyone. Plus, it's evident that the holiday is in full effect everywhere you go, so get into the spirit and celebrate. Here are our top picks.

Please Note: There are no more "parking meter holidays." Motorists who park on the street must pay at specified boxes on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.


Holiday Festivities at Art Institute of Chicago. The "Wreathing of the Lions" is a cherished holiday tradition among Chicagoans. This annual event, which happens in the morning, features live music and performances—it is the perfect start before heading into the museum for art making in the Ryan Learning Center and holiday displays in the galleries. Holiday happenings occur through January. 111 S. Michigan Ave., 312-443-3600

Christmas Around The World at Museum of Science and Industry. This annual exhibit takes a look at how various cultures celebrate the winter holiday across the globe, with performances from multiple dance and chorus groups, as well as more than 50 trees decorated by various ethnic groups throughout Chicago. The 45-foot tree in the museum's main hall is decorated with ornaments representing many of their classic exhibits. The exhibition first started in 1942 with a single tree dedicated to the Allies of World War II. The exhibition is included in the admission price to the museum. 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., 773-684-1414

Chicago Trolley Holiday Lights Tour. This customized, two-and-a-half hour trolley tour of Chicago is a great way to see all the sights in holiday splendor. Hosted by Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Co., the annual event happens throughout the season and takes passengers to various locations, including down some of Chicago's most charming neighborhood streets.

Ice Skating at Millennium Park. Located in a lovely setting below Chicago's Cloud Gate sculpture, a.k.a., "The Bean," the Millennium Park ice skating rink is a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. It's especially beautiful after dark, with the tall buildings to the west, and Cloud Gate reflecting the city lights to the east. Skating season generally begins shortly before Thanksgiving, and runs through March. Access to the skating rink is free; skate rental is $12. Here are even more places to ice skate throughout Chicago.

Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo. Chicagoland's second zoo gets into the holiday season with decorations of almost one million lights, a laser light show, carolers, storytellers and more. Many of the indoor exhibits will be open for viewing animals, plus there will be "singing to the animals" and special "zoo chats." In addition, the zoo's restaurants and food stands will be open with full menus and holiday treats, and gift shops will have hundreds of unique items. The exhibition is included in the admission price to the zoo. Also, if you're interested in sleeping at the zoo, overnight programs are available. 8400 W. 31st St., Brookfield, Ill.; 708-688-8000

Official Chicago Christmas Tree in Millennium Park. An annual tradition, the City of Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony is a highly anticipated event. The ceremony features live holiday entertainment before the official lighting of the over 50 foot high Christmas tree, which has been donated to the city. The tree is decorated with thousands of multi-colored lights and hundreds of ornaments that create quite a spectacle. Also on hand is Santa's Workshop at the base of the tree. Santa is available every day through Christmas Eve to listen to children's gift requests and for a great photo opportunity. This takes place near Michigan Avenue and Washington Street. 

WinterWonderfest. Held at Navy Pier, the WinterWonderfest is considered the city's biggest indoor winter playground, featuring 170,000 square-feet of rides, giant slides and the Chicago Blackhawks indoor ice skating rink. Visitors may purchase two different types of tickets: the general admission ticket, which is $10 at the door and includes the Jingle Jym Jr., Kringle Carousel and Reindeer Express Train Ride; or the activity ticket, which is $25 at the door and includes access to more than 25 rides such as the Blackhawks indoor skating rink with skate rental. It runs early December through mid-January. 600 E. Grand Ave., 312-595-7437

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo. The zoo spiffs up with strings of lights and bright displays, and extends its hours into the evening in celebration of the holiday season. But it is not just about the lights. The zoo provides other Christmas attractions as well such as Santa's Safari (a unique photo opportunity with Santa, as he's alongside life-like exotic animals); giant snow globes featuring holiday characters; family crafts and temporary tattoos; ice carving demonstrations; endangered species carousel; Holiday Express train (a miniature train for tots); and African Safari Ride (a simulation ride). There is no admission price but the add-on attractions are offered at a fee. 2001 N. Clark St., 312-742-2000


Annual Champagne Festival at Geja's Café. Located a few blocks from Lincoln Park Zoo, Geja's is considered one of Chicago's most romantic restaurants. Stroll through ZooLights, then head here for a little bubbly. The event occurs December through February and features champagnes and sparkling wines. 340 W. Armitage Ave., 773-969-5200.

Best Spots To Shop & Dine. Windy City shopping centers like the Fashion Outlets of Chicago, 900 Shops and Water Tower Place offer so much more than the typical mall dining experience. From prominent retail department stores to specialty boutiques, we gathered a number of well-honed eateries tucked inside that feel like an extension of each space.

The Drake Hotel. A favorite among foreign dignitaries, royalty and celebrities alike, this iconic, Italian-inspired hotel offers traditional tea service year-round. Occasionally there is live harp music and fashion shows by local designers. 140 E. Walton Pl., 312-787-2200

Holiday Tea at The Lobby at Peninsula Chicago. Guests choose from several afternoon tea menus at The Lobby, ranging from traditional to gluten-free and vegetarian experiences. Menu choices include such options as miniature crab salad sandwiches, peach financiers, vanilla panna cotta and miniature roasted eggplant sandwiches. Guests may also reserve a la carte tea service. 108 E. Superior St., 312-337-2888