Create big-city holiday memories with your family
A visit to Chicago is a treat for Champaign-Urbana families during any season. Over the years we have shared lots of tips and recommendations about our favorite Chicagoland destinations as well as about the logistics of travel, lodging, and — mmmmmm — eating.
To counteract the increasing chill and darkness of the rapidly approaching winter season, Chicago dials it up to 11 for the holidays. We set out to discover some big-city holiday highlights with the help of our readers.
As is the case most places these days, Chicago starts the official Christmas machine in mid-November. Multiple tree lighting ceremonies occur the weekend before Thanksgiving; two of the biggest are in front of the Wrigley Building (complete with a parade along the Magnificent Mile) and in Millennium Park. Don’t forget about the Thanksgiving Day Parade that follows its traditional route along State Street in the Loop.
In 2021, many destinations are observing capacity limits, and Chicago holiday destinations are no different. Expect to find either long lines or timed reservations (or both). Weekends in December will be pretty insanely busy no matter where you choose to go — as is Every Single Day between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day when seemingly the entire Midwest goes on vacation and converges on Chicago’s tourist destinations.
Our readers gave plenty of advice to maximize your holiday fun:
- Weekday visits to most of these destinations are going to be your best bet.
- Plan ahead for any reservations you might need.
- Look for Groupon or other deals on the more expensive options.
- “Pick an area and make that your focus or you’ll overdo it. Determine where you want to eat, or your number one stop, and plan your outing around that.”
- The ultimate mom advice — “Be safe & dress warm!”
As always, recommendations by our readers do not constitute endorsements by chambanamoms.com. We have not visited all of these locations personally. Do you have a favorite Chicago holiday tradition? Please email us.
Top reader recommendations
Lincoln Park Zoo ZooLights While the normally free zoo is charging admission for its lights this year, the cost is low ($5/person) and select dates are FREE.
Ice Skating An activity available at many destinations throughout the city and suburbs; bring your own skates to avoid rental charges. At Millennium Park the skating is FREE! Other favorite destinations are the skate ribbon at Maggie Daley Park, a rink at Wrigleyville, and an indoor rink at Navy Pier. Remember to check if advance reservations are required.
Christkindlmarket This traditional holiday market is located in Daley Plaza with a smaller one in Wrigleyville; several readers have found the Wrigleyville market to be more manageable in terms of crowds. Both markets are FREE to enter, and both offer “really cool crafts and artisan goods,” so how much money you spend on food or souvenirs is up to your family.
Museum of Science and Industry boasts a four-story, floor-to-dome Grand Tree, surrounded by a forest of more than 50 trees and displays decorated by volunteers to represent the holiday traditions from cultures around the globe. This year’s holiday exhibits, Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light, are included in Museum Entry and are open through January 3, 2022. (Photo opportunities with the Grand Tree or with Santa require a reservation and extra charge.)
Macy’s on State St. This visit can be FREE if you simply admire the window displays and decorations in this historic store. For a holiday splurge, make a reservation to eat a fancy lunch in the Walnut Room restaurant inside the store. (Remember, the Macy’s flagship store in Water Tower Place, on the Magnificent Mile, closed in early 2021 — a casualty of the pandemic.)
Navy Pier Several readers recommended the festive displays and activities here, most of which are ticketed with admission charges. The branding may change — Light Up The Lake, Winter Wonderfest — but there seems to be something for everyone, including an indoor ice rink and Santa cruises.
More offbeat recommendations
Bars in Wrigleyville Apparently many of the bars in Wrigleyville take on holiday themes during December — readers mentioned Elf’d Up, Santa Baby Bar and the Rudolph Bar specifically. The decor, wait staff, and food (and we suspect the beverages as well) are all part of the theme. We leave it to you to decide if these are family-friendly options, but perhaps a lunch or early dinner visit would go over well with your crowd.
The CTA Holiday Train and Bus Consult the CTA schedule to see when a given bus or train route will feature a blinged-up ride with lights, decorations, music, and Santa (although no photos with Santa are offered this year). This 30-year tradition is back this year from Nov. 26 – Dec. 23, and masks are required of all who ride. Regular transit fees apply.
Garfield Park Conservatory A beloved oasis on Chicago’s west side, it is one of the largest and most stunning botanical conservatories in the nation, with eight indoor display gardens open year-round as well as more than 10 acres of outdoor gardens. This year’s Winter Flower Show Serenity is open until January 9. Admission to the Conservatory is always FREE; currently timed entry reservations are required and a few rooms remain closed to the public because of the pandemic.
High Tea or Hot Cocoa Many of our readers and their families like to indulge in High Tea for the holidays: recommendations downtown include the American Girl store, the Russian Tea Time restaurant, or the Drake Hotel. One budget-conscious reader suggested buying hot cocoa at the Starbucks located in the Palmer House Hotel, and then going up to gawk at the Palmer House holiday decor in the lobby as well as the view from the second floor.
Theatre District Take in a show! This year the hot ticket is for Disney’s Frozen, playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through January 22. Some Broadway in Chicago shows are again offering same-day rush discounted tickets; read the fine print for the show you wish to see, including all vaccine requirements.
Art Institute of Chicago Check out the holiday return of the spectacular Neapolitan crèche, whose 200+ painted terracotta figures are elaborately staged to tell the Nativity story. The crèche is on display until January 9. Tickets must be purchased in advance; kids under 14 are always FREE.
(Over the past decade, and as recently as 2020, a selection of the Art Institute’s beloved miniature Thorne Rooms gained tiny period-appropriate decorations during the holiday season. Unfortunately these tiny decorations seem to be on hiatus for 2021.)
Lights and More Lights
We wouldn’t be chambanamoms if we didn’t list additional holiday lights displays. Besides the downtown Chicago lights at Lincoln Park Zoo listed above, our readers also recommend lights at these suburban locations:
- Morton Arboretum (Lisle)
- Chicago Botanical Garden (Glencoe)
- Brookfield Zoo (Brookfield)
- Six Flags Great America (Gurnee)
More city holiday fun: 10 Ideas for an Indianapolis Holiday Getaway
Everything Holiday Season In and Around Champaign-Urbana
- Where to Eat on Christmas in Champaign-Urbana
- Meals with Santa Claus in Champaign-Urbana
- Where to Find Santa Claus in the Champaign-Urbana Area
- 50+ Experience Gift Ideas for Kids in Champaign-Urbana
- Amazing Christmas Lights Around Champaign-Urbana and Beyond
- Live Nativity Displays in Champaign-Urbana
- Holiday Lights at the Zoo: Where to Drive From Champaign-Urbana
- How to Chop Down Your Own Christmas Tree in the Shawnee National Forest – For $5 (or Less)
- Home for the Holidays: Shopping and Eating Locally in Champaign-Urbana
- Botanical Garden at Lake of the Woods to Illuminate during Holidays for First Time
- 8+ Great Places to See Holiday Lights in Central Illinois
- All Aboard: Polar Express Fun (Beyond the Train) in Champaign-Urbana
- Champaign-Urbana Area Holiday Events and Activities
- Where to Buy a Live Christmas Tree Near Champaign-Urbana
- Christmas Parades near Champaign-Urbana
- German Christmas Market Returns to Riggs Beer Company in Urbana
- What You Need to Know About the Walk-Through Holiday Lights at Allerton Park