Updated December 2019
I have been fortunate to live in, or within an hour of, Chicago my whole life. Chicago is a great city full of amazing year round activities, but Christmas in Chicago provides some very special experiences. These are the Christmas in Chicago activities that we do year after year to celebrate the holiday season in Chicago.
Although a science museum probably doesn’t make you think of Christmas in Chicago, it should. The Museum of Science and Industry Christmas tradition began in 1942 and has grown dramatically since then. MSI celebrates the Christmas season with trees decorated in the traditional style of many nations around the world.
In the 2019 Christmas season there are over 50 beautifully decorated trees and displays. After admiring each of the beautiful trees make sure you explore the other incredible exhibits this immense museum has to offer.
The Chicago Christkindlmarket first opened in 1996, but since then has expanded and moved to its current location at Daley Plaza. There are dozens of artisan vendor booths with gifts and ornaments plus traditional German food booths.
Be prepared for large crowds at Christkindlmarket as this has become a yearly tradition for lots of Chicagoans and is a top spot for tourists, too. The closer it gets to Christmas the more crowded this market becomes, but even on extremely crowded days the hum and excitement of Christmas is like no other.
Pro tip: Have a meet-up plan in case your group gets separated. If you take small children keep them in a stroller or maintain a tight grip on their hand.
Just a short walk from Christkindlmarket is Macy’s on State Street which is housed in the historic Marshall Field’s building. This traditional department store has many things to do at Christmas and you can easily spend a couple of hours exploring all of the options.
The Walnut Room
Your first stop at Macy’s on State Street should be the Walnut Room on the 7th floor if you want to eat near this incredible Christmas tree. Join a virtual queue and receive a text when it is your time to eat. This dining experience is very popular and waits can be several hours long. The virtual queue system allows you to explore the store and surrounding nearby areas while you wait.
Macy’s Christmas Windows
Each year several windows at Macy’s on State Street get special Christmas decorations. The theme changes often over the years, but each Christmas season there is a special story that ties the window decorations together.
Macy’s Santaland is a special place for your family to share their Christmas list with Santa. Check in with a staff member and then get a text when it is time to return to meet Santa.
On a busy Saturday we waited about 20 minutes for the text and then another 20 minutes inside the decorated queue to meet with Santa. There is no fee to meet with Santa at Santaland, but professional photos are available for purchase after your visit.
Before leaving Macy’s stop on the lower level of the store. This is the place to find Frango chocolates which are a Chicago tradition. The most popular option are the Frango chocolate mints, but I have yet to find a Frango chocolate I don’t like.
City of Chicago Christmas Tree
This impressive Christmas tree is located at one of the entrances of Millennium Park. Each year the tree is donated by a Chicago area family and brought to Millennium Park to become a stunning Christmas display. After admiring the Christmas tree walk a few more feet and take a picture at one of the most photographed spots in Chicago, Cloud Gate or more commonly known as The Bean.
McCormick Tribune Ice Rink
Located inside Millennium Park, this ice rink is open and free to the public if you have your own ice skates. If you need to rent ice skates they are available for $13 a pair. There are even lockers on-site to free up your arms while you skate.
If you prefer a more unique skating experience try the Maggie Daley Park skating ribbon. Instead of skating around an oval rink the skating ribbon curves and winds through part of Maggie Daley park. One lap on the ribbon is similar to two laps of a regular rink so this is better suited for more experienced skaters. Skating is free, but skate rentals are available for a fee.
Relive the wonder and fun of this classic Christmas story. The Polar Express train ride is a fun family event taking place in Chicago each year.
The magic begins when you enter Union Station and see the model Polar Express train in the grand hall. Admire Christmas trees and snowflake lights as you excitedly board the Polar Express at the special train station platform.
The Polar Express train ride is about one hour long and you really don’t see any sights, but I wasn’t looking out of the windows anyway. There is singing, games, hot chocolate, cookies, a visit from Santa, and the Polar Express story read on board. If you are interested in taking a ride on the Polar Express in Chicago purchase tickets well ahead of time for this extremely popular event.
Seeing The Nutcracker ballet has been a beloved tradition for many families over the years. We used to go when my brother and sister were young, and now I continue this tradition with my family.
A new version of The Nutcracker choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon debuted December 10, 2016. We’ve experienced this updated version and enjoy it in a different way than the classic Clara story line.
This version of The Nutcracker seems more accessible for someone attending the ballet for the first time, but is still beautiful for those who love ballet. The new story line follows a young girl living in Chicago as the city prepares for the upcoming World’s Fair.
Zoo Lights and Holiday Magic
Lincoln Park Zoo (located in Chicago) and Brookfield Zoo (located in the Chicago suburb of Brookfield, IL) both have impressive night time Christmas light displays. Enjoy the lights and see what the animals are up to at night when the zoos are usually closed.
Final Thoughts On Celebrating Christmas In Chicago
There are an incredible number of festive indoor and outdoor activities to celebrate Christmas in Chicago. We’ve found each of these special Christmas in Chicago options is an important part of our family traditions and I hope you love them as much as we do.
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