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Spending the holiday season in Chicago? Here's what to do

Spending the holiday season in Chicago? Here's what to do

December 06, 2019

Spending the holiday season in Chicago? Here's what to do

Spending the holiday season in Chicago? Here's what to do

December 06, 2019


The city seems to sparkle a bit more around this time of year. As Chicago’s Bank®, we’ve put together a list of “must-do’s” for anyone who finds themselves in the city this holiday season. There are so many seasonal traditions that make this area unique. Let’s go!

24th Annual Christkindlmarket Market  

This is a classic destination for both locals and tourists alike, and no doubt you will hear many Chicagoans refer to it with fondness. It’s a traditional German Christmas market set up in Daley Plaza that exudes all the charm and coziness of a small European village. International and local vendors in painted stalls sell everything from authentic wooden toys to roasting chestnuts. A bucket list “must” is to purchase this year’s souvenir mug and sip their tasty mulled wine, known as Glühwein, as you peruse the market. Oh, and did we mention admission is free?

The Christkindlmarket Market, put on by a subsidiary of the German American Chamber of Commerce of the Midwest, has become so popular there are also locations in Wrigleyville and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. No matter which one you visit, it’s a great outing for families and groups to enjoy. It’s open daily through December 24.

All things Macy’s (and Marshall Field's)

The Macy’s store on State Street was once the iconic Marshall Field’s department store and continues two well-known Windy City holiday traditions: the annual holiday window display and the Walnut Room Christmas tree.

“What will be the theme of Macy’s holiday window displays this year?” is a question locals have wondered through generations before the big reveal. The store’s windows are professionally decorated and follow a singular holiday story continued through each window panel for walkers to follow down the block. This year is the 52nd annual window display and the theme is “Believe in the Wonder.” It’s a delight for children and adults alike to view the 3D window scenes that often feature moving characters and special lighting, as well as a story chapter written out describing each window. The windows are up through January 5, 2020.  

In addition to the windows, Macy’s also features exterior decorations that inspire awe. Every year, large trumpets extend from the building with garland and lights that draw viewers and shoppers. Next to the iconic Marshall Field’s clock, this row of decorations is a perfect mix of old and new.   

Next, we go indoors the department store to the beautiful Walnut Room. Any Chicagoan worth their weight in Frango mints (the tasty chocolates Marshall Field’s is known for) can reference the 114-year-old Walnut Room. It’s a grand dining space featuring the 45-foot tall Great Tree in the center of the restaurant. During the holidays, it’s one of the most festive places to eat. But, if you don’t want to wait in the often hours-long line, you can see the full majesty of the tree and peek at the customers below from the lookout balcony.

Insider note: The basement of Macy’s has Chicago-themed gifts including boxes and boxes of Frango mints. It’s a mint chocolate lover’s heaven.

Chicago classics 

There are some tried-and-true Chicago classics to see each year at several locations downtown. Every spot is walkable and accessible by public transportation. During your journey, you’ll hear the Salvation Army bell-ringers collecting money on many street corners and see horse-drawn carriages offering rides through the streets. Take in the sights, sounds, and smells during this mini-tour.

“Lightscape” on State Street

Holiday lights across the city make for a festive scene that can cause even the most hard-hearted locals to melt. From giant wreaths on buildings to lighted displays in plazas, it’s a show of sparkle to take in as you walk the Magnificent Mile. Be sure to stop by State Street after you see the Macy’s windows to experience “Lightscape,” an interactive LED-light installation that includes audio and changing colors.  

The Wrigley Building’s tree

This gleaming white 1924 Spanish colonial revival building is a symbol of Chicago. It only makes sense, then, that this river-facing terra cotta structure at 400 N. Michigan Ave. would feature a tried and true classic. Under the famous architecture of the Wrigley Building stands its 30-foot Christmas tree, complete with a big red bow on top. Garland and wreaths also decorate the detailed exterior and make it an often-photographed scene, and a nice stop on the Chicago River walk.

The Art Institute of Chicago’s lions 

The beloved pair of copper lions in front of the museum are Chicago-famous. In keeping with the season, they are decked in their best with two giant Christmas wreaths around their necks. It’s a familiar site for locals, but fun for everyone to see up close. Only when you stand next to the statues do you realize the magnitude of the wreaths’ size. It’s another great photo op incorporating Chicago sites with unique holiday touches.   

Lincoln Park ZooLights

This zoo on the city’s north side is free and hosts a stunning display of 2.5 million holiday lights that draws big crowds. It’s a great choice for families, with hundreds of life-size displays, strolling carolers, and photos with Santa. Ticketed experiences include a Ferris Wheel, an endangered species carousel, and a train ride around the zoo. If you’re an animal lover or if you have little kids, this is a nice option in a contained outdoor space where it’s easier for them to run around.  

Check the calendar for more information and specific event dates. ZooLights runs through January 5, 2020.

Chicago’s 106th Christmas Tree in Millennium Park

The official Chicago Christmas tree is on display in Millennium Park, across from Cloud Gate, also known affectionately as “the Bean.” Locals may recall a time when the tree was displayed in Daley Plaza, but it has since moved to this more visible spot. This year's tree is a 55-foot blue spruce tree from Elgin, Illinois, donated by Gene Nelson and his family. The city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events chose it from more than 40 submissions, and with colorful lights, it doesn’t disappoint. The tree is up through January 6, 2020.

CTA “L” holiday train

A favorite Chicago tradition will catch you by surprise and leave you entranced. It’s the CTA holiday L train! Featuring a live Santa in a sled on an open-air flat L car, the six-car train is a sight to behold. It has an elves’ workshop car where elves greet riders with candy canes, as well as hand poles wrapped with ribbon, holiday tunes, and lights galore. Running every holiday weekend and select weekdays on all L lines, it’s a fun idea to brighten the rides of all train riders.

If you aren’t planning on riding the L soon, don’t worry: there is also the CTA holiday bus! This city bus is as equally decorated as the L and may be easier to navigate with kids. It costs the standard CTA fare, but includes a holiday-themed interior, exterior lights, and sparkling snowflakes. There is also an opportunity to take a photo with Santa in his sleigh at the back of the bus.

If you’re wondering which bus lines feature the CTA holiday bus, be sure to use the holiday bus tracker, which uses candy cane icons to indicate decorated buses in service, running through December 23.

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