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Christmas in Chicago- The Best Things to do in 2023

Christmas in Chicago- The Best Things to do in 2023

It’s the best time of the year for families. And, if you live in Chicago or are planning a visit during the holiday season, you’ll notice that Christmas in Chicago is kind of a big deal!

Whether you need to pay a visit to Santa, enjoy a peaceful ride or fun-filled walk through a lights display, or catch a holiday performance, We have the best Chicago Christmas events covered. And, who knows? You may find yourself a new annual tradition. Updated for the 2023 season!

Christmas in Chicago 2023- The Best Chicago Christmas Events

Special Light Displays in Chicago

Christmas events in Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo
Photo by: ToddRosenberg/Lincoln Park Zoo

Although the start of Christmas in Chicago officially begins with the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival on Chicago’s most famous shopping street, there are plenty of places to be dazzled by twinkling lights. This year it will take place on November 18, 2023.

This year Mickey and Minnie will be making an appearance at the kickoff! Visit Lights Festival Lane (401 North Michigan Avenue) beginning at 11am to enjoy a number of booths, family activities, and FREE photos with Santa.

Stay for the parade which begins at 5:30pm. It includes floats, giant helium balloons, exciting marching bands, celebrities, musical performances, Santa Claus, and Mickey and Minnie who will be illuminating more than 200 trees along The Magnificent Mile. 

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo

Lincoln Park Zoolights
Photo via Lincoln Park Zoo

To make it extra special, it’s best to share the moment with friends, family, and… animals! The Lincoln Park Zoo gets transformed into a winter wonderland with over 2.5 million lights, giant character displays, and lighted tunnels at ZooLights.

Santa Claus will be at the Helen Brach Primate House to hear children’s wish lists. Other fun activities include train and carousel rides, ice carvings, a musical light show.

This year’s event takes place November 17, 2023 – January 7, 2024 from 4:30-10pm. Tickets are required but they are just $7-$10. Mondays are free!

Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo

Brookfield Zoo Holiday Magic
Photo via Brookfield Zoo

Drive on over to the Brookfield Zoo for the Holiday Magic event, the largest light event in the entire Chicagoland area with over two million lights!

Last year, besides ice-carving demonstrations and a light show, you can listen to the 41-foot talking tree, learn about animals during Zoo Chats, and watch trains chug through at the model railroad display. We are looking forward to see what might be new for 2023!

Holiday Magic is a ticketed event to limit crowds. It takes place on select dates November 24- December 31, 2023 from 3-9pm.

The zoo also hosts a Reindeer Run on November 18th where you can run among the holiday lights and be among the first to see this season’s display.

Festival of Lights at Cosley Zoo

Cosley Zoo Festival of Lights
Photo via Cosley Zoo

If you prefer a smaller zoo, Cosley Zoo’s Festival of Lights will be sure to please. Grab a hot chocolate while perusing the zoo’s grounds lit up with over 20,000 lights. They are even offering free zoo admission during the festival (but donations are appreciated). This year’s event takes place November 24- December 31, 2023.

In addition to the light display, Coley Zoo will be offering Christmas trees, wreaths and greenery, hot chocolate, and eveb holiday gifts in the Wild Side Gift Shop.

Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum

 Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum is one of the best Chicago Christmas Events
Photo via Morton Arboretum

For a lights experience unlike any other, check out Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum where trees will respond to touch and sound, with vivid, electric colors displayed throughout. There will be discounted weekday tickets

If you are looking for a date night, check out “adults only” IllumiBrew featuring samples from top local breweries and Electric Illumination, a late-night experience with trance and progressive house music synchronized to the light displays. 

Illumination takes place November 18, 2023 through January 6, 2023. Advance purchase tickets are recommended because many dates sell out. Members can enjoy early bird pricing through the month of October.

Art on theMART

Art on theMART
Photo via Art on theMART

The free Art on theMART’s winter holiday lights show will delight and dazzle. As the largest permanent digital art projection in the world, the projected winter holiday images on theMART winter holiday images that will animate for a minute and a half.

Art on theMART’s Winter 2022 program will premiere November 26th and run through December 30th, with a new projection, Analog, which will be shown nightly at 7:30PM

See more holiday lights Trekaroo families rave about around the Chicago area.

Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden

Lightscape Botanic Garden

Back for 2023 is Lightscape, filled with thousands of twinkling lights on a trail through the Chicago Botanic Garden. It is sure to be a dazzling and beautiful experience. Highlights include a Winter Cathedral and a reimagined fire garden along the 1.25-mile path.

Advance tickets are required.  This year’s event takes place November 10, 2023 through January 7, 2024. Buy your parking in advance and save 50 percent!

The Immersive Nutcracker

Immersive nutcracker

In line with the immersive art experiences like the Immersive Van Gough show that has been touring for the past couple years comes the Immersive Nutcracker. Shown at various cities across the country, the Las Vegas experience will take place at Lighthouse Artspace Chicago.

This is an immersive projection show with life-sized Nutcracker props and plenty of photo opportunities.

Your family will listen to Tchaikovsky’s nostalgic music, as they are fully immersed in 500,000 cubic feet of holiday wonder. Highlights will include classics like “The March of The Toys” and “The Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy”.

This experience runs November 18, 2023 through January 7, 2024 and tickets must be purchased in advance online.

Experience Different Holiday Cultures


Christmas events in Chicago Christkindlmarket
Photo by Joanna Friedrich

At the Christkindlmarket, celebrate the holidays the way Germans do with this free outdoor market open November 17 – December 24, 2023 in Daley Plaza. Enjoy schnitzels and sip on spiced wines while trying to find perfect one-of-a-kind gifts.

Don’t forget to grab their most popular gift—a German Christmas pickle ornament! According to lore, the pickle ornament is hung last in a hidden spot on the tree. On Christmas morning, whoever finds the pickle gets to open the first present. After shopping, let the kids loose at the added Kinder Korner where kids can participate in activities, entertainment, and prizes. 

There are also Christkindlmarkets in Aurora and Wrigleyville.

Fairmont Lodge Winter Wonderland

Fairmont Lodge Winter Wonderland
Photo via Fairmont Chicago

Fairmont Chicago is once again transforming its lounge into the Fairmont Lodge which will feature festive decorations that will envelop visitors in the cozy winter spirit. In addition to a seasonal food and cocktail menu, there will be Breakfast with Santa (December 3, 2023) and several holiday packages for guests to choose from.

Visitors to Fairmont Lodge can select one of Fairmont Lodge’s three exclusive culinary packages designed to make each visit truly special. For those who wish to extend their gathering, additional guests can be accommodated for just $25 per person, with a maximum limit of 8 people.

  • The Spark: Guests can delight in a house-made dessert S’mores experience and select four signature cocktail drinks, all priced at $100 for a group of four diners.
  • The Campfire: Visitors can savor a delectable cheese and charcuterie platter, indulge in dessert S’mores, and complement their experience with a choice of four signature cocktail drinks, all bundled together for $120 for four guests.
  • The Hearth: Guests can elevate their Lodge visit with a choice of sweet or savory fondue, accompanied by a tempting array of dipping items. They can round off their culinary journey with dessert S’mores and their pick of four signature cocktail drinks, all included in the package for $140 for a group of four.

Pinkmas at Museum of Ice Cream

Christmas in Chicago- The Best Things to do in 2023 2

From November 17, 2023 through January 15, 2024, the Museum of Ice Cream will transform into a pink wonderland with a Pinkmas tree forest and life-sized snow globe as well as the iconic sprinkle pool and samples of seasonal ice cream flavors.

Christmas Around the World at the Museum of Science and Industry

Christmas in Chicago- The Best Things to do in 2023 3

One of our favorite places, the Museum of Science and Industry, highlights the city’s cultural diversity during the holidays with its Christmas Around the World and Holiday of Lights exhibit which opens November 18, 2023 and runs through January 7, 2024.

What started as a single tree dedicated to the Allies of WWII, has now become one of Chicago’s most popular traditions where more than 50 trees are festively decorated by different cultures.

MSI also boasts a 45-foot Grand Tree in the Museum’s Rotunda, adorned with over 30,000 twinkling lights and ornaments. Santa Larry—the first Black Santa hired to spread holiday cheer at the Mall of America- will help flip the switch at 11am on November 18th to light the Museum’s Grand Tree. Every 30 minutes, Museum guests can experience the magic of snowfall (note: fake snow) amid Christmas trees in the Museum’s North Court, near the Grand Tree. 

Santa will be available for photos Fridays through Sundays between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the weeks leading up to Christmas and everyday December 15-24. This year’s Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light exhibit will feature photographs of real snowflakes, taken by a physicist from Caltech, Ken Libbrecht.

Unique to Chicago

Christmas in Chicago ice skating
Photo by: Flickr/Justin Kern

Millenium Park

There is a plethora of events that are unique only to Chicago. Stop by Millenium Park  for fun holiday activities such as caroling at the famous Cloud Gate, aka “The Bean.”

Want to spend more time at the park? Don’t forget to bring your own skates and go ice skating for free at the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink.  Though skating is free, you must book online tickets before you go. No skates, no worries, you can rent them. November 17, 2023—March 3, 2024

You can also ice skate on Maggie Daley Park’s Skating Ribbon, an icy path that curves around the park. It is open November 17, 2023 through March 10, 2024 and tickets can be purchased in advance.

Macy’s on State Street

If you’re holiday shopping on State Street, it’s hard to avoid glancing at Macy’s window holiday displays all decked out in their holiday glory.  

After seeing the elaborate displays, step inside for a bite (or to escape the chilly weather) at the world-famous Walnut Room, noted for being the first restaurant opened in a department store.

One of a Kind Holiday Show

The One of a Kind Holiday Show is the place to shop if you are searching for gifts created by hundreds of talented artists selling thousands of handmade products. It will take place December 7-10, 2023.

Navy Pier- Light Up the Lake and More!

Light up the Lake

Need an escape from the cold weather? Head indoors and visit Light Up The Lake at the famous Navy Pier. Single tickets start at $15 for a child, $27 for an adult, depending on the day. Admissions includes a ride on the Centennial Wheel, access to the Roseaux interactive art installation, the stomp light activity, reflecting pond, birch tree forest, light sculptures, ice skating, skate rentals, axe thorwing, and, of course, visits with Santa.

Purchase magic wands ($10) to change the lights on more than 30 displays inside of Light Up The Lake and more than 15 more spots around the Pier.

Visitors will also certainly want to see the “crystal car”, a 1983 Rolls Royce Silver Spur is decked out in crystal bling, from Klairmont Kollections Automotive Museum on display.

If you are a huge fan of those adorable Coca Cola polar bear you will want to visit on December 17 from 6-9pm when you can take photos with the polar bear and get the chance to sample various Coke products.

Light Up the Lake takes place November 24, 2022 through December 31, 2023.

The amazing maze is turning into the Amazing HollyMaze this Christmas season November 25 through January 7, 2024. Maze-goers will enjoy holiday music as well as lots of decorations lights (which will create special images with included holiday glasses) as they navigate through the maze.

Arbor Lights is an interactive light art sculpture that happens daily at sunset on the South Dock near Margaritaville. Guests can create different parameters of color, shape, texture, and speed simply by texting the info to the Arbor Lights number! A very cool and FREE experience.

The Navy Pier also plays host to the Holiday Artisan Market which is a great place to shop for handmade gifts and during the month of December, Visitors can also participate in free Chicago artist led workshops.

Skydeck Chicago

Santa at Skydeck Chicago

Skydeck Chicago is an observatory where you can see the sights of the city lit up for the holidays from 1,353 feet above ground on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower. You can also get selfies with Santa at the Ledge at Skydeck Chicago during the two weeks leading up to Christmas in December .

In addition to the fantastic views from above, visitors can hop aboard a festively decorated full-scale ‘L’ train replica in the lower-level museum. There will also be a pass-through video displays showing off various Chicago neighborhoods.

Art Institute

Stop by the Art Institute for holiday traditions such as the Neapolitan crèche, choirs singing on the Grand Staircare, and rooms beautiful decorated with Christmas decorations. Check the Art Institute calendar for events over the holiday season. 

Check for amazing deals on family-friendly hotels in Chicago.

Holiday Train Fun

Holiday events in Chicago Holiday Train
Photo by: Flickr/YooperAnn

All Aboard! While there is no shortage of Polar Express train rides around Chicago, the problem is that most of the Polar Express rides sell out early. Don’t worry! There are plenty of train rides and activities for your little (or big) train fan!

One of Chicago’s most popular events, the Holiday Train, happens aboard Chicago’s CTA elevated train, the “El.” Even in the most frigid temps, you’ll find Santa outside on his sleigh while his elves hand out candy canes to passengers inside the train car.

I happened to catch the Santa train on my normal commute home, and I couldn’t help but leave with a smile on my face.

Not only will Santa hop aboard the train, but those on Santa’s “good list” at the Happy Holiday Railway at the Illinois Railway Museum will give gifts to children and serve treats during the 40-minute train ride. There will still be opportunities to see the trains, model train displays, and Santa. 

The Polar Express Train Ride will whisk families from Union Station to the North Pole while enjoying cookies and hot chocolate throughout the month of December. Don’t forget to wear your pajamas!

The Enchanted Railroad at the Morton Arboretum attaches a camera to its trains so you’re able to “see” through the train’s eyes.

Interested in more holiday train fun? See Trekaroo’s list of Holiday Trains in the Chicago area that will be sure to make your little train fan happy.

Special Santa Visits

Holiday events in Chicago Santa

Santa Claus is coming to town! Kids and dads won’t mind getting up bright and early for breakfast if it’s at Soldier Field. Reserve your seat at their Breakfast with Santa.

Other activities include an ornament contest, an elaborate train display, and decorating cookies for you (or Santa). The also host the Santa Hustle fun run on December 2, 2023.

The Swissotel Chicago will be hosting a Santa Suite again this year. Beginning November 16, 2023, ts 2,000-square-foot Presidential Suite into Santa’s Chicago holiday home where he will be surrounded by 17 Christmas trees. Book your visit with Santa in advance!

Want more places to see Santa? Check out where Trekaroo families are finding the jolly man around Chicago this year with this list of Santa events in Chicago.

Holiday Performances

Holiday events in Chicago Nutcracker
Photo by: Joffrey Ballet/Cheryl Mann

Get into the holiday spirit by watching a show! Come see the newly re-imagined rendition of the Nutcracker by The Joffrey Ballet. Besides watching the dancers perform beautifully, you’ll also hear local children’s choruses, and local dancers participate in this holiday classic. This year’s show takes place December 2-27, 2023.

Families interested in another classic will love watching the Dickens’ tale come to life with A Christmas Carol at the Goodman’s Albert Theatre. The show runs November 18 through December 31, 2023.

Drury Lane in Oak Brook makes everything extra special by including either a breakfast or dinner meal along with a performance of A Holiday Inn. This year they will host Elf the Musical and A Christmas Carol. Cirque du Soliel makes an appearance at the Chicago Theater with “Twas the Night Before…” December 7- 28, 2023.

Studebaker Theater is hosting Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. This fun muppet show has a musical score written by Academy Award-winning songwriter Paul Williams. It follows the story of Ma and Emmet Otter who risk what little they have to make each other’s holiday dreams come true. This is a heartwarming tale the whole family will enjoy. The show runs November 16 – December 31, 2023.

Celebrate an Old-Fashioned Christmas

Woodstock Opera House in Woodstock, IL Photo by McHenry County CVB

If you have visions of an old-fashioned Christmas, venture outside the city to Long Grove. As Illinois’ first historical district, you’ll instantly feel the charm of this small town. With Victorian building trimmed in lights and cobblestone walkways, the spirit of the season will surely be felt.

Ride on a horse-drawn carriage, find the perfect gift at one of the many quaint shops, listen to strolling holiday carolers, or even see Santa strolling through the village. Hop on the Holly Trolley to view all that this quaint town has to offer.

For more good old-fashioned fun head to the western suburb of Geneva for its Christmas Walk and House tour. Stroll by decorated holiday windows or witness chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The Ellen DeGeneres show stopped by Geneva and had nothing but good things to say about Geneva’s special holiday event.

Woodstock is also known for their Victorian-style Christmas with an annual lighting of the square, a Christmas parade, and a Christmas Tree Walk at the Woodstock Opera House. Come visit on the weekends to ride the free horse-drawn carriage rides.

Is there a Chicago Christmas event we missed? Does your business have updated information to share? Email [email protected] and tell us about it!

Find more Christmas events near you! Trekaroo has guides for dozens of cities across the country.

Check for availability of family-friendly hotels in Chicago.

Cheryl Eugenio