If there’s just one thing that makes the bitter cold of a Chicago winter just a smidgen better, it’s just how gorgeous she is all decked out for the holidays. We’ve scoured the city to find the best events to lift your holiday spirits and fill the Insta feeds with smiles abound. Leave your grinch-y feelings at home and get out there and explore these memory-making gems with the littles.
photo: Morton Arboretum Illumination: Tree Lights fire pits
(1) Illumination: Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum returns with more lights, sights and sounds that will transform a Chicago-area wintertime walk in the woods into a colorful, inspiring experience like no other. Hot cocoa kept piping hot in food tents and fire pits offer opportunities to warm your piggies and stop for family giggle-chats along the path. New this year, become a part of the illumination experience by wearing programmed interactive pendants that light up in sync with the exhibit.
Nov. 17-Jan. 1; The Morton Arboretum, 4100 IL. Rte. 53, Lisle; Online: mortonarb.org
photo: Millennium Park Ice Rink via Maria Chambers
(2) It’s not a Midwest winter unless you’ve bruised your tailbone in the rink at least once. Might as well bite it with a great city view at Millennium Park’s ice skating rink, all prepped and ready for your figure 8 family date.
Nov. 17-Mar. 4; McCormick Tribune Ice Rink, 201 E. Randolph St., Millennium Park; Online: cityofchicago.org
photo: Christkindlmarkt via Kelly Aiglon
(3) The granddaddy of all holiday markets is a must-do at some point in your parenting career: Christkindlmarkt. Bundle up and enjoy this outdoor market that brings cherished German and European traditions to Chicago, and adds a heap of local charm, of course. You’ll see the market’s signature wooden cabins topped with festive red-and-white-striped canopies, each packed with handmade gifts, food and drinks from around the world. Shop, eat, enjoy free entertainment, repeat – and be sure to say “guten tag” to Santa Claus.
Nov. 17-Dec. 24; Daley Plaza, Between Dearborn, Washington & Clark St., The Loop; Online: christkindlmarket.com
photo: Lincoln Park Zoo ZooLights
(4) Lincoln Park Zoo and it’s lakefront locale dazzles all day everyday, but most definitely during the holidays when it’s decked out in ZooLights. Your fam can stroll through the twinkling winter wonderland created by over 2 million lights, take photos with Santa, enjoy food and drinks, watch ice carving demos, partake in carousel rides and go-’rounds on the Lionel Train Adventure. New this year, visitors can get lost (and found) in a maze of 30,000 lightbulbs at Foreman Pavilion.
Nov. 24-26, Dec. 1-3, 8-23, 26-31 & Jan. 1-7; Lincoln Park Zoo, Fullerton Pkwy. & Cannon Dr., Lincoln Park; Online: lpzoo.org
(5) Chugga-chugga, choo-choo! Chicago Botanic Garden’s Wonderland Express will transport your family into a garden paradise filled with 750,000 outdoor lights. Watch as garden-scale trains wind past miniature replicas of more than 80 Chicago-area landmarks, see intricate ice carvings and listen to the sweet sound of carolers.
Nov. 24-Jan. 7; Chicago Botanic Garden, 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe; Online: chicagobotanic.org/wonderland
photo: Navy Pier’s Winter Wonderfest
(6) If you like your lights with a side of thrill, get your fill at Navy Pier’s Winter Wonderfest, which has rides for all ages. Being Chicago’s biggest and best indoor winter playground, it features 170,000 square feet filled with rides, giant slides, Chicago Blackhawks indoor ice skating rink and holiday decor that is sure to ignite your holiday spirit.
Dec. 1-Jan. 7; Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., Navy Pier; Online: navypier.org
photo: Brookfield Zoo’s Talking Tree
(7) With over 1 million twinkling LED lights, Brookfield Zoo’s Holiday Magic is Chicagoland’s largest lights festival. Not only that, but it’s most likely the only place you’ll encounter a 41-foot talking tree. Besides the chatty evergreen, you’ll find a train display, carolers, ice carvers zoo chats and the indoor exhibits remain open for viewing of (and singing to) animals.
Dec. 2-3, 9-10, 16-17 & 26-31; Brookfield Zoo, 3300 Golf Rd., Brookfield; Online: czs.org
photo: Sprinkles Cupcakes
(8) If you prefer to get your holiday dose of lights done in a single shot, hook up with Chicago Trolley Co. for their annual Holiday Lights Tour. The lightly narrated two-and-a-half-hour adventure includes a Sprinkles cupcake to munch on while you cruise past the Mag Mile, Macy’s holiday windows, Christkindlmarket, the John Hancock and Daley Plaza trees, Millennium Park and make a stop at Lincoln Park’s ZooLights. Wham, bam, check “show kids pretty lights” off the to-dos.
Nov. 24-26, Dec. 1-3 & Dec. 8-23; Tour departs from the John Hancock Observatory, 875 N. Michigan Ave., Mag Mile; Online: chicagotrolley.com
Did ya know? One more thing before you go! We’ve basically sentenced you to a holiday season lived outdoors with this list, so this may be the year to invest in a Midwest-worthy winter jacket. Did you know Canada Goose just opened a new store on Michigan Ave.? Welp, they did and they’re pretty much the warmest option around, so give them a big welcome Chicago welcome!
Where’s your favorite spot to see holiday lights? Enlighten us in the Comments below!
— Maria Chambers