Chicago lights up around the holidays—literally. The Christmas season officially begins in the Windy City with The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, with Mickey and Minnie Mouse leading the charge as Grand Marshals. It is the Midwest, so dress in warm layers and bring your family for a weekend of city fun. Read on to learn more about this popular Chicago Christmas parade, including where families should line up for the best views, as well as where to stay and what to eat while downtown.
What You Need to Know
The festival, which attracts more than one million visitors, is much more than a parade. Your family can enjoy a whole weekend of events and holiday-themed happenings at this annual celebration, taking place around Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. From live musical performances to fireworks to The Caroling Connection merrymakers to photos with Santa, this festival is super fun for Chicagoans and visitors alike. Many of the shops along the parade route on Michigan Avenue offer special discounts and activities as well, kicking off the holiday shopping season.
Plan on taking public transportation to the festival as parking will be limited. If you’re coming from the suburbs, consider taking the Metra. In the city, you can take the Red Line to Grand Station or travel via ride share. If you plan on driving, you can pre-book a parking spot with SpotHero’s Magnificent Mile Parking for the best savings of up to 50% off. Garages and underground parking lots include John Hancock Center, 900 North Michigan Shops Garage, and Water Tower Place Parking Garage, among others. Note: Hotels and restaurants often offer valet parking services.
Tip: Follow along on The Magnificent Mile’s Facebook page for up-to-the-minute insight on the BMO Harris Magnificent Mile Lights Festival. You can also RSVP on the event page to stay informed and see photographs from the fiesta. Visit the website for this year’s map of the parade route as well as for helpful tips.
Fri., Nov. 22: 4 p.m.-8 p.m.
Pop over to Lights Festival Lane in Pioneer Court, located at the base of the Chicago Tribune Tower at 401 N. Michigan Ave., to take part in family-friendly activities. Enjoy live music, munch on treats, and keep your eyes peeled for Santa Claus.
Stop by the BMO Harris Bank Kids Zone tent for face painting and photo opportunities; meet 93.9 LITE-FM’s Edison mascot, a holiday reindeer, while listening to holiday music and enjoying snacks; and get geared up with light-up necklaces and wands at The Glow Zone Inc. booth. Other participants include Chicago Fire, Frango (remember their mints?), Garrett Popcorn, Pink Taco, Shedd Aquarium, and more.
Sat., Nov. 23: All Day & Night
The holiday-themed happenings at Lights Festival Lane happen again, from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free live musical performances run on the BMO Harris Bank stage and you can participate in meet-and-greets to fist bump with your favorite entertainers.
The parade starts at 5:30 p.m., however, you should prepare to find a spot well before that as the area will be crowded. The DuSable Bridge will close at 3:30 p.m. and North Michigan Ave. will close the area between Oak St. and Wacker Dr. at 4 p.m.
You’ll see a few of your favorites from Walt Disney World Resort as they parade through the city, traveling south from North Michigan Ave. at Oak St., illuminating one million twinkling lights on 200 trees as they go. Kids will love seeing the floats, Chicago sports mascots, and large balloons just as much as they’ll dig listening to live music from known performers as well as energetic cheerleaders and marching bands. Matt B, Ryan Cabrera, and Skylar Steckler perform along the parade route this year.
Fireworks will kick off at 6:55 p.m. over the Chicago River to put a cherry on top of the party at the end of the lights festival.
Sun., Nov. 24: 6 p.m.
Watch ABC 7 Chicago for the broadcast of the parade and try to spot your family on television.
Where to Stay
Many hotels near The Magnificent Mile offer discounts and special perks the weekend of the parade, and throughout the holiday and winter season. However, rooms tend to book quickly so make your plans well in advance. You’ll have more than 70 hotels to choose from on or near the Magnificent Mile, from luxury to affordable accommodations and from boutique to large-scale in size.
Hilton Hotels of Chicago, Kimpton Hotels (Gray, Monaco, Allegro, and Palomar), ACME Hotel, Fairmont Chicago Millennium Park, The Peninsula Chicago, Best Western River North, Loews Hotel and Swissotel Chicago are all family-friendly, offering great deals or special perks and experiences. For more hotel options, you can also read our story Staycation Spotlight: Hotels with Amazing Kid Amenities.
Where to Eat
Of course, there will be a variety of drinks and noshes at the festival (Connie’s Pizza will have a booth, for example), but if you’re looking for a more substantial meal, consider dining on casual American comfort food at Harry Caray’s 7th Inning Stretch or ordering a classic deep dish pie at Gino’s East River North. Shanghai Terrace has consistently won awards for its elevated Cantonese dishes. Rosebud on Rush has Italian favorites—noodles are generally a popular kid-friendly dish. Frontera Grill and Tanta Chicago are Latin favorites in the city. And, of course, Chicago is famous for their hot dogs—Downtown Dogs and Billy Goat Tavern serve up Chicago-style dogs.
photo: Chicago Helicopter Experience
Other Ways to View the Lights
Once the lights are flipped, take your viewing experience to new heights by scheduling an unforgettable helicopter tour of the lights with Chicago Helicopter Experience. Along with the Mag Mile lights, the charismatic pilot gives a guided tour of the lights at Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, Millennium Park and the Chicago skyline, which is breathtaking no matter the time of year but exponentially so during the holidays.
If you miss the Lights Festival, no worries! You can see the Mag Mile Lights and more on a 2 1/2 hour trolley tour with Chicago Trolley Co, Nov. 29-Dec. 31. The lightly narrated adventure shows the best of Chicago’s holiday lights and stops at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Zoolights show. Sights on the tour include The Magnificent Mile, Macy’s holiday windows, Christkindlmarket, 875 N. Michigan and Daley Plaza trees, Millennium Park and more.
— Wendy Altschuler