The Best Christmas Displays and Lights in Chicago

Detail of The Wrigley Building during The Holidays, Chicago.
Jon Hicks / Getty Images

When it comes to major holiday celebrations, Chicago is always over the top. Over the summer, the city goes all out with major fireworks displays, and during the winter, the Windy City is illuminated with lights and the stores all have marvelous window displays for the holiday season.

From the magnificent official city Christmas tree in Millennium Park to the "Christmas Around the World" display at the Museum of Science and Industry, there are plenty of holiday highlights guaranteed to bring cheer to all.

01 of 10

Transit Chicago Holiday Fleet

Transit Chicago Holiday Fleet
Photo courtesy of Chicago Transit Authority

The spectacular six-car Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train is an amazing sight with the outside adorned with holiday seasonal images, and interiors decked out with thousands of multi-colored lights, red bows, garlands, and red and green overhead lighting.

And, as the train pulls into each station, Santa waves to boarding passengers from his sleigh on an open-air flatcar carrying his reindeer and decorated holiday trees. Also, a 60-foot bus bejeweled inside and out with hundreds of lights and holiday decoration travels through the city.

The Sprint CTA Holiday Train travels all 'L' lines in November and December as part of regular rail service. The Sprint CTA Holiday Bus travels nine CTA bus routes in December as part of regular service. Normal CTA fares apply.

02 of 10


The annual Christkindlmarket Chicago in Daley Plaza.
Jon Hicks / Getty Images
Naperville, IL 60540, USA
+1 312-494-2175

Christkindlmarket Chicago started in 1996 and has grown in popularity with more than half a million people attending each year. It's the largest German market of its kind in the country, and it aims to stay true to its German roots.

What sets Christkindlmarket apart from other shopping opportunities in the downtown area is that it offers a unique experience. Many of the items are handcrafted and unique. Wares range from hand-blown glass ornaments, nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks, jewelry, toys, clothing and more.

Many of the vendors also offer demonstrations of the making of their items. One of the most anticipated attractions of Christkindlmarket is the official Christkind, a young woman representing Nuremberg, Germany, dressed in traditional holiday attire and commissioned to serve as an ambassador for the event. She will be present throughout the duration of Christkindlmarket and is part of the grand opening festivities. That's when she'll recite a prologue translated from the original German version, to welcome visitors to the Christkindlmarket Chicago. While this role used to be played by a person from Nuremberg, the Christkindmarket have invited Chicago natives to fill the role since the early 2010s.

Location: Daley Plaza at Washington. Other locations include Naperville and even Milwaukee

03 of 10

Official Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting

Tree Lighting at Millennium Park
Courtesy of the City of Chicago
Millennium Park, Chicago, IL, USA

To kick off the holiday season, head to Millennium Park at Randolph and Michigan avenues to witness the 106th lighting of the official Christmas tree of Chicago.

The large tree is covered in dazzling lights and beautiful ornaments—as is much of the surrounding park. Santa is also on hand for photos with kids at the base of the tree, and there is an ice skating rink in the park during the season as well. 

Nearby restaurants and bars include Acanto, Chicago Athletic Association Hotel (Cherry Circle Room, Cindy's, Milk Bar, Shake Shack), Columbus Tap, The Gage, Giordano's, Mr. Brown's Lounge, Park Grill, Pastoral Artisan CheeseRemington's Restaurant, Seven Lions, and Tesori.

04 of 10

Lincoln Park ZooLights

Lincoln Park ZooLights
Flickr / cc / Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar
2001 N Clark St, Chicago, IL 60614, USA
+1 312-742-2000

Every year from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year's Day, the Lincoln Park Zoo decorates the zoo with strings of lights and bright displays and extends their hours into the evening in celebration of the holiday season.

However, it's not just about the lights at ZooLights, the zoo also provides other Christmas attractions such as Santa's Safari, ice carving demonstrations, and a holiday express train. While the event is typically open from 4:30 to 9 p.m. throughout the season, the zoo will close early on New Year's Eve.

Nearby restaurants and bars include Hotel Lincoln, Beermiscuous, J. Parker, Intro Restaurant, Mon Ami Gabi, Naoki, North Pond, and R.J. Grunts).

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05 of 10

Brookfield Zoo Holiday Magic

Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo
Courtesy of Brookfield Zoo
8400 W 31st St, Brookfield, IL 60513, USA
+1 708-688-8000

Chicagoland's second zoo hosts the largest and longest running lights festival in the area. Get into the mood for the holiday season with decorations of almost one million lights, a laser light show, carolers, and storytellers as well as the Chicago Wolves skating rink, which was added in 2018.

Many of the indoor exhibits will be open for viewing animals, plus there will be "singing to the animals" and special "zoo chats." 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. Holiday Magic runs nightly on Saturdays and Sundays in December and over the last five nights of the month.

06 of 10

Chicago Trolley's Holiday Lights Tour

This customized, two-and-a-half hour trolley tour of Chicago is a great way to see all the sights of holiday splendor in the city. Hosted by ​Chicago Trolley and Double Decker Co., the annual event happens throughout the season and takes passengers to various locations, including the Magnificent Mile, historic State Street (home to Block Thirty Seven and the famed holiday windows at Macy's on State), the Loop, Christkindlmarket Chicago and Lincoln Park Zoo's ZooLights. Tours start in late November each year.

To further the festive cheer, the Holiday Lights Tour added a new stop at 50 East Walton Street in 2018 to visit Sprinkles Cupcakes’ only Midwest retail location. Sprinkles’ handcrafted, delicious confections are brought on every holiday trolley tour and served at no additional charge to each passenger.

Tours begin and end at the John Hancock Plaza Tree (875 North Michigan Avenue).

07 of 10

Christmas Around the World and Holiday of Lights

Museum of Science and Industry christmas lights
Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry
5700 S Lake Shore Dr, Chicago, IL 60637, USA
+1 773-684-1414

From mid-November through the first weekend of January, the annual exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry 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 cultural groups throughout Chicago.

The 45-foot tree in the museum's main hall is decorated with ornaments representing many of their classic exhibits.

08 of 10

Macy's on State Street Holiday Windows

Christmas decorations on Macy's State Street Department Store, Chicago.
Jon Hicks / Getty Images
111 N State St, Chicago, IL 60602, USA
+1 312-781-1000

Marshall Field’s flagship store opened The Walnut Room, the first-ever department store restaurant in the late 1890s. Macy’s on State continues the tradition, which includes the famed chicken pot pies and elaborate holiday window displays. In addition, there's Santaland on the fifth floor and the Great Tree in The Walnut Room. Visitors can get into the holiday spirit here early November through early January.

Nearby restaurants and bars include 312 Chicago, Atwood, Berghoff Restaurant, The Dearborn, Frontera Fresco, Italian Village Restaurants, Latinicity, Lockwood Restaurant, Petterino's, Potters, Raised, State And Lake Chicago Tavern, and Staytion Market & Bar.

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09 of 10

Magnificent Mile Lights Festival Parade

The Magnificent Mile
Courtesy of The Magnificent Mile Association

The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival returns in 2019 with a full lineup of activities over the weekend before Thanksgiving each year. Free events culminate in the grand Tree-Lighting Parade down North Michigan Avenue with grand marshals Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. 

The 2019 Holiday Activity Guide includes an event map, a schedule of events, and special offers around The Magnificent Mile shopping district. Nearby restaurants and bars can be located using this guide to eating and drinking on the Magnificent Mile.

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Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier

Navy Pier Christmas Tree
Courtesy of Navy Pier
600 E Grand Ave, Chicago, IL 60611, USA
+1 312-595-7437

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 an indoor ice skating rink. The event runs annually from late November through early January, and tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

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Where to Find the Best Christmas Light Displays in Chicago