Chicago at Christmastime is A Favorite Family Tradition

In our family we love all holidays and we love traditions. Just about every holiday at our house comes with a family tradition; as quirky as green milk with our cereal on St. Patrick’s Day to the more traditional Easter egg hunt on Easter morning.

Kids Looking at Skyscrapers during Chicago Christmas

When the Christmas season rolls around our family traditions raise to a new level.

We take an annual holiday light cruise around town, make chocolate covered pretzels and dozens of other goodies, visit Santa, enjoy an elaborate advent calendar, and have fondue for dinner on Christmas Eve. 

Family visits Chicago at Christmas

The list could go on and on, but kicking off the Christmas season with a family trip to Chicago is hands down my favorite family tradition. My husband and I have been doing is since before we had kids. 

After living in the windy city for a few years the trip back is now even more special.  It’s become a family favorite trip.

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How to Share the Magic of Chicago at Christmas With Your Kids

Just thinking about walking down Michigan Avenue after dark with the holiday lights glowing, street performers playing a Christmas song on a saxophone, the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers, lighted garlands and trees everywhere and store windows decorated to the max for the season gets me giddy for Christmas.

boy smiling on city bus in Chicago

Below I’ve shared my family’s top five Chicago at Christmas activities. Whatever you choose, you can’t go wrong. Chicago offers so many options that as long as you’re with your family, you are sure to have fun and make some amazing memories!

boys smiling on side of street in Chicago

The Five Things you MUST DO if You Visit Chicago at Christmas

1 – Visit the Zoolights At Lincoln Park Zoo (Free)

The Lincoln Park Zoo becomes a holiday winter wonderland as it lights up with over 2.5 million Christmas lights! It’s truly a sight to see. The display includes ice sculptures, lighted tunnels, character displays and a musical light show.

Zoolights is my kids’ favorite Christmas in Chicago activity. 

Zoo Lights sign lit up at night in Chicago

Also, all the animal exhibits are open and we’ve found the animals to be very active in the evening. 

kids smiling outside giraffe exhibit at the zoo

Insider Tips for Zooland – Get there right at dusk or try to go on a weekday. Zoolights is very popular and it can get very crowded. 

It’s FREE to get into Lincoln Park Zoo, but parking is not free. Consider public transit or a car service. 

You may want to buy “light up Christmas necklaces” for your kids ahead of time at a dollar store (see photo below) they are pricey at the zoo and every kid wants one.

2 – Skate the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink at Millennium Park

Located on Michigan Avenue in the heart of downtown Chicago, this skating experience is one your family will remember! 

ice skating rink in downtown Chicago

Surrounded by beautiful holiday decorations and skyscrapers there’s just something magical about it.

Be sure to take a family photo on the rink with “The Bean” in the background! Bring your own skates and skate for free. If you don’t want to hassle with that you can also rent skates there.

kids under The Bean in Chicago

Insider Tip – While at Millennium Park, head to Maggie Daley Park and let the kids run some energy out. My kids love it here and would probably be happy to spend an entire afternoon exploring, climbing and swinging! 

During the holidays you may find a group of carolers gathered near “The Bean” as well.

3 – Explore Christmas Around The World at the Museum of Science and Industry

This annual exhibit runs from mid-November through January. The showcase is a 45ft floor to ceiling, Grand Tree surrounded by 50 smaller trees representing Chicago’s diversity, and showcasing their holiday traditions.

The museum is amazing, with tons of kid-friendly exhibits, so plan to spend the better part of a day exploring the museum! We love it here because there are a ton of hands on opportunities for the kids.  

Insider Tip – The Museum of Science and Industry has a reciprocating membership with the Grand Rapids Public Museum. It offers two adults and all children under 18 living in their home free basic entrance to the museum. You must have your current GRPM ID card and necessary ID.

4 – Oooh and Ahhh at the Holiday Windows at Macy’s on State Street (FREE)

Mid-November through January the Macy’s storefront windows are transformed into a magical holiday display with elaborate and imaginative themed windows. Our family loves to check out each one and then we vote on the winner! 

5 – Have Lunch at the Walnut Room in Macy’s

Head into Macy’s to warm up and have lunch at the foot of the beautifully decorated 45 foot tree, with over 25,000 lights. It’s spectacular!

Walnut Room Christmas Tree

Eating lunch in the Walnut Room gets me in the holiday spirit every time. 

Insider Tip – If you plan to have lunch in the Walnut Room, making reservations in advance is highly recommended. I would recommend this for ages 5 and up.

Honorable Mentions – 2 More Great Ideas for Chicago at Christmas

Shop the Christkindlmarket (FREE)

Looking for a one of a kind gift? This is your destination. Christkindlmarket is a huge outdoor market offering treasures of all kinds, from handmade ornaments to food vendors. Be sure to find the Kinder Club; they offer activities, prizes and entertainment specifically for children. 

Ride the CTA Holiday Train

Unique to Chicago, the Chicago Transit Authority offers the CTA Holiday Train. Opt for a ride aboard the city’s elevated train known as the “L” and you may just find Santa or one of his elves handing out candy canes. Not to mention, select train cars will be decorated to the max with holiday lights and Santa may even be driving!

Insider Tip Children under 7 ride free with a paying adult on all city trains and buses. If traveling with a stroller, not all city train stations have elevators. Check their website to find station with elevators.

Date Specific Events in Chicago That are Worth the Trip

Below is a list of events that are date specific and worth planning your trip around

girl smiling on dad's shoulders while watching parade in Chicago

Trains let you Travel to Chicago With Ease

No need to worry about traffic, parking, bathroom breaks or snow covered roads. Opt to take the Amtrak or South Shore to Chicago. Not only is it stress free – it’s fun!

graphic from GRKIDS about taking the train to Chicago

Be Prepared For the Windy City

Chicago can be bitter cold. A lot of the Christmas actives are outside. Don’t forget to pack warm coats, mittens and hats. If you have younger children in strollers, blankets are always a good idea too. 

Despite the potentially frigid temperatures the stores and street will still be busy. Family events may be busy as well. We find if we plan for extra time to get places and go into it knowing that there will be crowds, we end up a lot happier.

boys smiling in winter gear on street in Chicago

I hope your family falls in love with the magic of Chicago at Christmas the way my family has! 

I’d love to hear what other West Michigan families love about Chicago at Christmas!

Ho, Ho, Ho… More Grand Rapids Holiday Fun!
The Big List of Santa Parades
Christmas Tree Farms List
Favorite Christmas Light Displays
Where To Find Holiday Trains
Where to Buy Holiday Treats & Sweets
12 Days of a Grand Rapids Christmas
Where to Visit Santa in West Michigan
Nutcracker & Other Holiday Show Schedules
Live Nativities
Meet the REAL Santa Claus, GR
Christmas Eve Activities & Church Services

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