Chicago: My Kind of Town at Christmas

A festive holiday getaway in Chicago

December, 2020 update: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, please check with individual venues about closures, restrictions, and safety measures. I have included some known updates below. Hopefully, we’ll be able to enjoy the magic of Chicago during the holidays in full again next year!

Every year, Mr. TWS and I consider where we’d like to kick off the holiday season. We’ve most often come up with a European destination as the answer. This year our minds were focused a little closer to home right here in the United States and we decided on Chicago — my old hometown and my kind of town any time of year.

Catherine Sweeney of Traveling with Sweeney on bridge over the Chicago River during the Christmas seaso

A brisk winter night in Chicago

Our top 7 things to do in Chicago at Christmas

“Zoo Lights” at Lincoln Park Zoo

While the live animal stars of the zoo are mostly out of sight in the evening, the park comes alive with 2.5 million holiday lights to enjoy at ZooLights, a tradition going back over 20 years.

Lincoln Park ZooLights, Chicago at Christmas

Lincoln Park ZooLights

Strolling through the zoo, we came across wonderful displays of lights and decorations depicting animals, wintertime characters, and festive scenes. We unexpectedly got to see live animals — two lions who were really active and lots of fun, play fighting like two kittens. Another highlight was a light show coordinated with music (such as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Carol of the Bells).

Lincoln Park ZooLights, Chicago at Christmas

Lincoln Park ZooLights

Admission is free on five select nights! For specific dates and times: Lincoln Park ZooLights

December, 2020 update from Lincoln Park Zoo:

This year, ZooLights will follow City and State guidelines to ensure a safe experience that allows social distancing.

“Christmas Around the World” at the Museum of Science and Industry

The Museum of Science and Industry is an iconic destination when visiting Chicago. When I was a little girl, my parents took my sister and me to the Museum of Science and Industry for the “Christmas Around the World” exhibit. We were thrilled by the decorations representative of other traditions and cultures and imagined life in those faraway places.

"Christmas Around the World" exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago

Christmas Around the World, Museum of Science and Industry

Museum tip: You have to buy a General Admission ticket to see the exhibit, so take extra time to see more of this amazing museum. We didn’t do any Christmas shopping while in Chicago, but if you do you’ll have no shortage of places to find what you need on Chicago’s Gold Coast. in the upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue on Michigan Avenue. It’s also really fun just to window shop and people-watch. The lights and decorations on the “Magnificent Mile” and inside and outside the stores is worth the long cold walk. Add to that the awesome architecture and the river, it makes for a great setting to put you in the Christmas spirit.

December, 2020 update from MSI:

“Our doors may be temporarily closed, but we’re bringing MSI to you: streaming holiday exhibits, sharing science activities and more. New flexible gift cards can help with your holiday shopping while helping us support science education. Science knows how to adapt, and we’re here for all of it. Even if, for now, you can’t be here.”

Window shop along Michigan Avenue

We didn’t do any Christmas shopping while in Chicago, but if you do you’ll have no shortage of places to find what you need on Chicago’s Gold Coast. in the upscale department stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue on Michigan Avenue. It’s also really fun just to window shop and people-watch. The lights and decorations on the “Magnificent Mile” and inside and outside the stores is worth the long cold walk. Add to that the awesome architecture and the river, it makes for a great setting to put you in the Christmas spirit.

Michigan Avenue shops and holiday lights, Chicago

Michigan Avenue shops and holiday lights

Sparkling lights adorn trees around the historic water tower, Chicago at Christmas

Sparkling lights adorn trees around the historic water tower

Browse in Marshall Field’s (I mean Macy’s)

Since 2006 Macy’s has owned the landmark building on State Street originally the home of Marshall Field and Company. Designed in neo-Renaissance style by famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham in the 1890s, it has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Marshall Field’s was always a special place to shop at Christmas.

Macy's, formerly Marshall Field's on State Street in the Chicago Loop

Macy’s, formerly Marshall Field’s on State Street in the Loop

Although it is now a Macy’s (and to me, isn’t quite as magical) it’s still worth a visit for shopping and to see the window displays and the beautifully-decorated Christmas tree in the Walnut Room. I’m very glad that Macy’s left the original Marshall Field name plaques on the building’s exterior.

Christmas tree in the Walnut Room of Macy's on State Street, Chicago

Christmas tree in the Walnut Room of Macy’s on State Street

Christmas Market at Daley Plaza

We love the European Christmas markets and wanted to see what the Chicago market at Daley Plaza had to offer. We were pleasantly surprised to find that there is a large number of vendor stalls selling authentic crafts from Germany, Austria and other countries. There are also plenty of food and drink booths with treats like glühwein, strudel, sausages, candy, and cookies.

Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza, Chicago

Christkindlmarket at Daley Plaza

Christmas market tip: Unless it’s the only time you can make it, don’t go on a weekend in December! We first stopped by on a Sunday afternoon and it was too packed to move around easily and really enjoy it, so we went back on Monday afternoon. It was great and had much more the feel of other markets we’ve been to in Europe.

December, 2020 update via Christkindlmarket website:

“From November 1st – December 31st, people from all around the nation will be able to enjoy the beloved tradition from the comfort and safety of their homes through the first-ever virtual Christkindlmarket “Home for the Holidays,” featuring an online marketplace, family-friendly events, and fun interactive activities.”

Feel the Christmas spirit at Millennium Park

The Bean sculpture at Millennium Park, Chicago

“The Bean” Chicago’s Millennium Park

Millennium Park is one of my favorite places in Chicago any time of year, but at Christmastime the ice rink and Christmas tree and decorations make it extra special. I never get tired to admiring Cloudgate (more commonly known as “The Bean”) the prominent and irresistible sculpture by Anish Kapoor in the park.

Christmas tree at Millennium Park and Aon Center building in Chicago

Christmas tree at Millennium Park and Aon Center building

Enjoy a performance of “A Christmas Carol”

A Christmas tradition for many is to take in a performance of Christmas classics like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The Albert Goodman Theater on Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago is a popular venue. This year we attended the play at Drury Lane Theatre in Oak Brook (a western suburb). The adaptation was very well done and it was relatively inexpensive (less than $25/ticket including fees). The performers were awesome and brought lots of energy to the play.

December, 2020 update: Drury Lane Theater is taking an “intermission”! Performances are planned to resume in April, 2021.

Tips for your trip to Chicago at Christmas:

So now that you’re looking ahead to next Christmas and a possible trip to Chicago to kick off the season, here are a few recommendations from our latest trip for where to stay and where to eat.

Catherine Sweeney in front of The Berghoff restaurant in Chicago, Illinois

The Berghoff restaurant

Where to eat: At the Original Pancake House on Bellevue Place you’ll wait in line on weekend mornings, but it’s worth it. Also on Bellevue is Lux Bar, a warm, friendly, and vibrant spot for great food, snacks, and cocktails. The Berghoff is a historic family-owned German restaurant on Adams Street in the Loop. Although renovated in recent years, it still serves hearty and authentic German comfort food in brauhaus ambiance. Of course, I can’t be in Chicago without having real Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. There are many good choices, but on this trip, we enjoyed pizza at Lou Malnati’s on North State Street (their flagship location).

Where to stay: We like the Sofitel Chicago Magnificent Mile on Chestnut Street for its great location near Michigan Avenue, the lakefront, shops and restaurants of the Gold Coast. The hotel’s bar and restaurant are a bit pricey, but there are plenty of places for food and drink nearby.

Getting around: We took Uber from O’Hare International Airport (a little higher than usual because of very heavy traffic — about a $50 ride). We mainly walked around the city each day, but Uber rides were easily and quickly available anytime we wanted a lift.

Venturing further afield: There are many holiday festivities in the suburbs to check out as well. Oak Brook Shopping Center continues to be a favorite shopping center of mine. You can take the Metra train from Ogilvie Transportation Center to many suburban towns like Elmhurst (check out the Lizzadro Museum of Lapidary Art) and Oak Park (Frank Lloyd Wright fans will especially love this near West suburb) which are nice to visit any time of year.

December, 2020 update from the Lizzadro Museum:

The Museum Shop will remain open by appointment only through 3:00 p.m. on December 24th, 2020. The Museum and Shop will be closed December 25 through January 3rd, 2021. Please check back for updates on January 5th.

Weather tip: You can normally expect the weather to be cold or even super cold in Chicago in December. Dress appropriately (hat, gloves, boots, scarves) and you won’t mind the weather at all as you get in the Christmas spirit.

9 thoughts on “Chicago: My Kind of Town at Christmas

  1. Jeff & Crystal Bryant

    We absolutely love Chicago, although we have never visited at Christmas time. We have viewed the amazing window displays along Michigan Avenue during the regular season, and can only imagine how bedecked they become for the holidays. Thanks for sharing this stroll through Chi-town.

  2. Pingback: Christmas in Europe: Dazzling Markets and Rich Traditions | Traveling with Sweeney

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