There’s no time like Christmas in Chicago, where you can’t help but feel the magic of the holiday season. The city is full of bustling excitement and seasonal celebrations, from The Magnificent Mile to Millennium Park to our vibrant neighborhoods.

And no matter what holidays you observe, you’ll find plenty of ways to celebrate. You can admire twinkling light displays in a historic zoo, lace up your ice skates and glide around beneath The Bean, catch a holiday show in a stunning downtown theatre, or sip hot cocoa while strolling our charming snow-dusted streets.  

Here are a few of our favorite holiday events, activities, and beloved traditions this winter season in Chicago.

Explore the zoo at night

It’s not the holidays in Chicago without dazzling light displays around every corner. Check out ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo, which runs from Nov. 21, 2021 to Jan. 2, 2022. The historic zoo is illuminated by more than 2.5 million colorful lights, including moving displays set to music. Don’t miss special events like a themed pop-up bar, an adults night out, and more.

In the nearby suburbs, Brookfield Zoo is hosting their annual Holiday Magic display on select dates from Nov. 26 to Dec. 31, 2021. Zoo-goers can stroll along the many pathways, lit with more than one million twinkling LED lights, including through the 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights, featuring thousands of colored lights all synchronized to music.

Get a taste of Christkindlmarket

Photo by Abel Arciniega

Experience the magic of an authentic German Christmas market at the always-buzzing Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza. This annual, free-admission event features local vendors selling beautiful glass ornaments, wooden cuckoo clocks, hand-knit gloves, hot mulled wine, and other traditional German crafts and treats. This year’s market will run from Nov. 19 to Dec. 24, 2021.

Other Chicago holiday markets include a miniature version of Christkindlmarket in Wrigleyville, the local-artisan-filled Renegade Craft Fair, the Kwanzaa Market at Africa International House, and more holiday markets popping up in every corner of the city.

Explore more: Shop all the top Chicago holiday markets.

See the holiday lights

Lightscape at Chicago Botanic
Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden

Just outside the city, Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden (starting Nov. 12, 2021) is an immersive experience that allows visitors to explore the botanic garden after dark. Bask in the glow of twinkling lights, with a different installation around every corner of this after-dark walking path.

And in nearby Lisle, Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum (starting Nov. 20, 2021) is another dazzling outdoor experience. The one-mile paved path winds through the sprawling arboretum and offers views of captivating lighting designs. Afterward, cozy up by the fire to make s’mores.

Explore more: Check out all our favorite spots to see Christmas lights in Chicago.

Lace up some skates

Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon
Maggie Daley Park Skating Ribbon

On winter days, lace up your skates and hit one of the city’s free outdoor ice rinks. The scenic rink at Millennium Park offers panoramic views of Cloud Gate (aka “The Bean”) and the surrounding city skyline dusted in snow. The rink is open daily from Nov. 19 through March 6, weather permitting. Admission is free, but online reservations are required. 

Ice Skating at Millennium Park
Ice Skating at Millennium Park; photo by Abel Arciniega

Nearby, Maggie Daley Park is known for its one-of-a-kind skating ribbon, which curves through the park’s whimsical landscape. Admission is free — all you need to do is make an online reservation, pick up your skates, then hop on the ice! The Skating Ribbon opens on Nov. 19, 2021.

There are also charming neighborhood rinks, like the Midway Plaisance in Hyde Park, or the Gallagher Way rink in Wrigleyville. 

See the official Christmas Tree

Don’t miss one of Chicago’s biggest and brightest holiday traditions — the City of Chicago’s official Christmas Tree, now in its 108th year. This year’s Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony will be in-person on Friday, Nov. 19 starting at 6 p.m. 

The massive tree, which will light up the heart of iconic Millennium Park, is adorned in twinkling lights and makes the perfect holiday photo opp. The tree will shine brightly near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Washington Street through Jan. 9, 2022. Make sure to stop by one of the magical ice skating rinks while you’re there.

Explore a holiday exhibit

Chicago museums love to take part in the holiday fun. The Museum of Science and Industry hosts their annual Christmas Around the World from Nov. 17 through Jan. 3 2021, with 50 elaborately decorated trees that represent holiday traditions from across the globe.

Along with the annual Wreathing of the Lions each November, the Art Institute of Chicago transforms one of their most beloved exhibits, the Thorne Miniature Rooms, with pint-sized festive decorations.

Catch a festive show

Live theatre is back in Chicago, and the holidays are the perfect time to rediscover the thrill of live musicals, dramas, ballets, and more. Whether you’re drawn to our bustling downtown theatre district (home to Broadway in Chicago) or more intimate neighborhood venues, there’s a holiday show for you.

Grab your seats today for limited-time productions, like beloved local favorite A Christmas Carolat the Goodman Theatre (Nov 20 – Dec 31, 2021). Hershel and The Hanukkah Goblins at Strawdog Theatre Company is an annual tradition. And catch an imaginative Chicago-based retelling of The Nutcracker by Joffrey Ballet at the Lyric Opera House (Dec. 4 – 26, 2021).

Do some holiday gift shopping

Pick up some gifts for loved ones (and maybe something for yourself) in Chicago’s many shopping districts. The Magnificent Mile, one of the world’s most iconic retail destinations, is a good place to start. You’ll find famous department stores, luxury showrooms, and favorite chains — plus tons of twinkling light bulbs that dazzle shoppers throughout the holiday season.

A few blocks away, State Street is another shopper’s paradise where you’ll find the iconic Macy’s Holiday Windows and the Walnut Room.

And if you’re looking for something truly unique, don’t miss Chicago’s many neighborhood boutiques. That’s where you’ll find a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind gifts, like custom-made leather goods, vintage finds, artisan goods, and locally crafted denim. Check out these top neighborhoods for boutique shopping.

Explore more: Our guide to holiday shopping in Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Visit the Walnut Room

It doesn’t get much more festive than a meal from the Walnut Room. Located inside Macy’s on State Street, the historic restaurant is now open for take-out and viewing of the Great Tree. And don’t miss the famed holiday window displays that line the exterior of the historic building.

See a holiday movie at the drive-in

Get nostalgic at an old-fashioned drive-in theatre, where you can enjoy holiday movies from the safety and comfort of your own car. Catch Christmas classics like Love Actually, Elf, The Polar Express, and more at ChiTown Movies in Pilsen.

Spot the holiday train

A beloved Chicago tradition, the CTA holiday train will make its way through the city this December. While you won’t be able to hop on board, you can still wave to Santa and marvel at the six-car train decorated with holiday scenes and thousands of sparkling lights. There’s also a holiday bus that will traverse the streets.

Warm up with hot cocoa

Bombobar hot chocolate
Photo Credit: Morgan Scofes, DineAmic Hospitality

Chicago has plenty of spots to indulge in a cup of cocoa. Head to Katherine Anne Confections to try their decadent drinking chocolate, or pick up a hot chocolate kit from Mindy’s Bakery to make the perfect cup at home. Try a mug of Mexican hot chocolate from Kristoffer’s Café & Bakery in Pilsen or XOCO in River North. And don’t miss the over-the-top, Instagram-worthy cups at BomboBar, a popular walk-up window with locations in the West Loop and River North.

Explore more: Check out more of the top spots for hot chocolate in Chicago.