Christmas in the City
There's magic in the air — how to get the most of the holiday season in downtown Chicago.
Photo courtesy of Choose Chicago
While towns in the western suburbs offer a variety of wonderful seasonal events, there are few experiences with as much holiday magic as a trip to downtown Chicago, where the lights are bright, spirits are high, music is in the air and world-class shopping awaits! Here are just some of the many attractions that will inspire you to bundle up warm and head into the city for a day — or night or weekend — of adventure.
Light Up the Holidays on the Magnificent Mile
N. Michigan Ave. from Oak St. to the Chicago River. Nov. 17, 4 p.m. — with Christmas shopping until December 24!
The BMO Harris Magnificent Mile Lights Festival rings in the holiday season by turning Chicago’s brightest shopping district into a dazzling winter wonderland. The Mag Mile’s shops, restaurants and hotels light up in a glorious display of more than one million twinkling lights, festooned in the boulevard’s 250 trees. A parade led by Grand Marshals Mickey and Minnie Mouse, all the way from Florida’s Walt Disney World, rolls by with spectacular floats, helium-filled balloons, marching bands and top musical performers. The finale is a fireworks spectacular over the Chicago River at North Michigan Ave.
Annual Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremonies
Millennium Park at Washington St. and Michigan Ave. Nov. 16, 6 p.m.
For the 105th Annual Christmas Tree Lighting at Millennium Park, this year’s honors go to Miguel Cervantes, the star of Hamilton at Broadway in Chicago. The tree will light up the Loop through the first week in January.
Macy's Holiday Windows
Macy’s Department Store, 111 N. State St. Nov. 3
A grand Chicago tradition since the days of Marshall Field, the famed Christmas windows are unveiled and remain on display until the first week in January. The same day will mark the 111th Great Tree Lighting in the iconic Walnut Room. Until Christmas Eve, kids can have a picture taken with Santa Claus at Macy’s Santaland on the 5th floor. A favorite with Chicago families since 1948, a Christmas visit to Macy’s invites grown-ups to relive old memories while children create new ones.
Handel's Messiah with Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., 312 294-3000. Dec. 20 – 23
Every December, Handel’s Messiah brings Chicago audiences to their feet with its triumphant choruses and dazzling arias. Witness this glorious oratorio — performed by the combined forces of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and an exceptional cast of soloists — as part of a stirring holiday celebration. Conducted by Matthew Halls, this year’s featured artists are Amanda Forsythe, soprano, Sasha Cooke mezzo-soprano, Nicholas Phan, tenor and Joshua Hopkins, baritone. Come early for a half-hour pre-concert lecture by musicologist Laura Stanfield Prichard.
If you can handle a little more Handel, join a world-class conductor and soloists, an all-volunteer orchestra and 1,500 other singers for Do-It-Yourself Messiah on Dec. 17 & 18 at 7 p.m. at Harris Theatre, 205 E. Randolph Dr.
Wreathing of the Lions
Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. 312 443-3600. Nov. 23, 10 a.m
It may only take a moment to pop a holiday wreath around the neck of The Art Institute’s iconic lions, but it’s a holiday memory that will last for Christmases to come. A holiday tradition for 27 years, this season’s event will be emceed by cast members from Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker.
Revisit the Art Institute on Dec. 9 at 10:45 a.m. and Christmas Tea awaits! The 37th Annual Holiday Treasure Hunt and Tea Party gives children a magical experience of the museum’s galleries.
Ride The Polar Express from Union Station to the North Pole
Union Station, 225 S. Canal St., 312 471-2501. www.chicagothepolarexpressride.com. Nov. 30 – Jan. 1
Believe! There’s magic in the air from the moment pajama-clad children arrive at the elaborately decorated corner of the majestic Great Hall of Union station, where a close-to-life-size steam engine and a giant tree are decked out with holiday trimmings. Attendants dispense Golden Tickets and guide guests to the festive train cars of The Polar Express. During a 45-minute train ride, passengers relive the picture-book story, complete with a conductor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom Hanks, a friendly hobo, a sceptical boy and a merry band of singers and dancers bearing hot chocolate, cookies and holiday cheer.
Chicago Metra also offers rides on decorated train cars for a cheerful commute into town as well as a visit from Santa from many western suburbs. Visit www.santainchicago.com for a schedule.
The Nutcracker at The Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. 312 386-8905. Dec. 1 – 30
Re-imagine a holiday classic as Chicago’s premiere dance company transports you through time and space to the White City of the 1893 World’s Fair. Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon teams with the Chicago Philharmonic to bring to life Tchaikovsky’s ballet score — not to mention a splendid dancing nutcracker.
Those inspired to join the dance can check into the Dance-Along Nutcracker at Chicago Cultural Center on Dec. 2. Children may take a lesson, then dance the day away under the magnificent Tiffany-esque dome in one of Chicago’s historic public buildings.
A Christmas Carol at The Goodman Theatre
170 N. Dearborn, 312 443-3800. Nov. 17 – Dec. 30
What better way to get into the holiday spirit than with a few tugs on the old heartstrings? Since 1978, the holiday classic has followed cold-hearted Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Forty-one seasons, eight Scrooges, 29 Tiny Tims and tens of thousands of “Bah, humbugs” later, more than a million theater-goers have experienced A Christmas Carol. Each year outplays the last with elaborate sets, magical special effects, gorgeous costumes and spirited song and dance. For the second time, this year’s schedule includes a sensory-friendly performance as well as a first-ever Spanish-translated show.
For something completely different, try Q Brothers Christmas Carol, a hip hop holiday treat with a bangin’ beat, playing from Nov. 20 to Dec. 30 at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre on Navy Pier, 800 East Grand Ave. 312 595-5600.
Caroling at Cloud Gate
Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St. 312 742-1168. Fridays, Nov. 23 – Dec. 14, plus Wednesday, Dec. 12, 6 - 7 p.m.
Here’s an opportunity to bundle up and belt out holiday classics — and not care that you’re off key! Show up at The Bean, where local choral groups lead hundreds of enthusiastic singers in the chilly evening air.
To hear classic holiday hymns and carols, check out Candlelight Carols, a 60-year tradition at Moody Bible Institute, 1630 N. Clark St. at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 30, and at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1. Featuring the school’s music department, the concerts will spotlight the 200th anniversary of the ever-favorite carol Silent Night.
Navy Pier Winter Wonderfest
East end of Navy Pier 600 E. Grand Ave. 800 595-7437. Nov. 30 – Jan. 6.
Step in from the cold and explore Chicago’s biggest indoor family playground. Now in its 18th year, the rides alone are worth the trip downtown — that includes the Cliff Hanger, a hang-gliding attraction that soars its passengers 40 feet into the air. Also featured are a carousel, a Ferris wheel, spinning cups, bumper cars, a train ride and an Arctic Plunge inflatable slide. The décor is breathtaking, with giant snowflakes and thousands of icicle lights dangling from the cavernous ceiling. More than 400 Christmas trees bedazzled with 25,000 ornaments, giant candy canes, gingerbread houses and snowmen border the rides. An indoor ice-skating rink brings winter thrills without the chills!
Launching from Navy Pier during December, Odyssey’s Dinner Cruises ply the icy waters of the lakefront while delivering a gourmet dining experience — with sensational views of the Chicago skyline. Another option is the Chicago River Cruise, this year featuring winterized glass-top boats and boarding from 455 N. Cityfront Plaza Dr. Both cruises offer a New Year’s Eve option that culminates with a spectacular waterfront fireworks display. For more information, call 866 391-8439.
Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St. Nov. 16 - Dec. 24
Wrap your mitts around a cup of piping hot chocolate and stroll the aisles of Chicago’s largest open-air festival, bringing a piece of the olde country to the city since 1996. Nestled in the center of the Loop, the market is a holiday must-visit for gifts, gourmet foods and street entertainment with local charm and international flair.
New this year, check out the Millennium Park Art Market, with jewelry, fashions, paintings and prints by students of the Art Institute of Chicago. The market runs from Nov. 16 – 18 inside a heated tent on the Chase Promenade North.
Skate the Winter Blues Away at McCormick
Tribune Ice Rink, Millennium Park, Washington St. and Monroe St. Nov. 16 – March
Warm up with a winter skate! New this year. Themed skate nights (mostly on Thursdays) invite skaters to put on festive costumes and skate to the beats of local Chicago DJs.
There’s more skating fun at Maggie Daley Park, just across the BP Bridge. With the city skyline as a backdrop, a ribbon of ice winds through a rolling landscape, providing an ice skating experience like no other.