Chicago: My Kind of Christmas Town

A festive holiday getaway in Chicago

Catherine Sweeney of Traveling with Sweeney on bridge over the Chicago River during the Christmas seaso
A brisk winter night in Chicago

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. 

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

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

Admission is free! For specific dates and times: Lincoln Park ZooLights

“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.

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
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 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


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

The market is open from mid-November through Christmas Eve. For more information: Christkindlmarket

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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).

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 and Naperville has a nice Christkindlmarket in its historic Naper Settlement. 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.

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.


6 thoughts on “Chicago: My Kind of Christmas Town

  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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