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.
Transit Chicago Holiday Fleet
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.
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.
Nearby restaurants and bars include the beverages and food at Christkindlmarket plus at 312 Chicago, Atwood, Berghoff Restaurant, The Dearborn, Frontera Fresco, Italian Village Restaurants, Latinicity, and Petterino's.
Official Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting
AddressMillennium 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Macy's on State Street Holiday Windows
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.
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.
Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier
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.