Editor’s Note: At the time of publishing, all of these activities were scheduled to occur according to plan. Please check prior to visiting to be sure nothing has changed due to COVID surges. It’s encouraged, and usually required, that you wear a mask when attending any of these outdoor activities.
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 social-distancing-friendly events to lift your holiday spirits, and fill the Insta feeds with gorgeous Christmas photos. Leave your grinch-y feelings at home and get out there and explore these memory-making gems with the littles.
For the Animal Lovers: Walk the Zoos!
Brookfield Zoo Holiday Magic
With over 1 million twinkling LED lights, Brookfield Zoo's Holiday Magic is Chicagoland's largest lights festival. In addition, it's most likely the only place you'll encounter a 41-foot talking tree. Besides the chatty evergreen, you'll find a 20-foot-lit orb you can stand inside and snap a memorable holiday photo. New this year, guests of all ages can play the Game of Gnome, a fun-filled scavenger hunt with 24 whimsical and enchanting themed gnomes located throughout the park.
Nov. 27-Dec. 31; 8400 W. 31st St., Brookfield; More info.
ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo
The most wonderful time of the year deserves the most wonderful event of the year. For that, join Lincoln Park Zoo for their annual celebration of ZooLights. This one-of-a-kind, festive holiday experience offers a free, merry, family-oriented celebration of joy right in the heart of the city.
ZooLights features hundreds of luminous displays and incredible seasonal activities, all under the glow of 2.5 million lights. Capacity will be limited this year, so be sure to pre-order tickets early.
Nov. 21-Jan. 3; 2001 N. Clark St., Lincoln Park; More info.
Stay Behind the Wheel
Illumination at the Morton Arboretum
Returning for the 8th year is the crowd-pleasing dazzler Illumination: Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum. This awe-inspiring winter tradition has been reimagined as a two-mile driving experience designed with guest safety in mind. Illumination will dazzle visitors with its unparalleled spectacle of color, light, and synced musical soundtrack they won’t experience anywhere else.
Nov. 20-Jan. 3; 4100 IL-Rte 53, Lisle; More info.
Stroll the Gardens
Lightscape at Chicago Botanic Garden
Wander into a festive world of wonder and light at Chicago Botanic Garden's Lightscape. Along a mile-long path, the night comes alive with color, imagination, and sound, from a playful choir of singing trees to a spectacular waterfall of light. At times, you’ll find yourself in the center of it all—stepping inside a cathedral of golden light, walking down an avenue of luminous linden trees, moving through colorful ribbons of light. This year's one-way path has been redesigned with the safety of visitors in mind.
Nov. 13-Jan. 3; 1000 Lake Cook Rd., Glencoe; More details.
Let the Museums Light Your World
Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light at MSI
EDITOR'S UPDATE: DUE TO NEW COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS, MSI IS TEMPORARILY CLOSING AS OF NOV. 18. What began in 1942 as a single tree, is now an international winter wonderland at Christmas Around the World and Holidays of Light at Museum of Science and Industry. The family is going to be enchanted by the trees and displays because they're decorated to represent the rich multicultural heritage of Chicago. The crown jewel will be the floor-to-dome Grand Tree with 30,000 twinkling lights, sparkly ornaments and all of the trimmings. Please read MSI's Know Before You Go page before visiting to understand COVID restrictions and procedures.
Nov. 13-Jan. 3; 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr., Hyde Park; More info.
Support a Local Suburb!
Vintage Holiday in Long Grove
Historic Downtown Long Grove invites holiday revelers to take a break from online shopping and rediscover the magic of the holiday season. The annual Long Grove Vintage Holidays campaign is what the classic holiday experience is all about. . . quaint shops, old-world charms, and family memories. A retooled Vintage Holidays 2020 has been reconfigured to keep crowds and lines to a minimum and features merchant open houses, holiday music, horse-drawn sleigh rides, a holiday selfie station and more!
Visit Long Grove's Facebook page for any COVID-related programming changes that may arise.
Activities begin Nov. 21, official tree lighting Dec. 5; Downtown Long Grove; More details.
8th Annual Naper Lights
Located on Naperville's beautiful riverwalk, you'll find the 8th Annual Naper Lights display. This free event is meant to bring holiday cheer and festivities to the community in a way that's conducive to social distancing.
Thanksgiving through New Years; 120 Water St., Naperville; More info.
Watch a Long-Time Favorite Ballet in a New Way
The Nutcracker on Art on theMART
With the cancellation of The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker, a newly animated digital display will be shown as part of Chicago's Art on theMART, the largest digital art projection in the world. Set to the music of Tchaikovsky’s beloved score, the projections—displayed on theMART’s 2.5-acre river-façade—can be viewed for free from the jetty section of the Chicago Riverwalk on Wacker Dr. between Wells St. & Franklin St.
Nov. 12-Dec. 30; 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza, River North; More info.
Be Dazzled by the City of Chicago
Holiday Programming at Millennium Park
Things will look at a bit different at Millennium Park this season because of COVID, but the cheer will still be present. All are invited to experience new virtual holiday programming premiering Nov. 19 on YouTube and to visit Millennium Park to see the City of Chicago Christmas Tree shining brightly near the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Washington St., Nov. 20-Jan. 7.
Nov. 20-Jan. 7; 201 E. Randolph, Millennium Park; More info.
Ice Skating at Maggie Daley
Because of its stellar city and lake views, the Maggie Daley Park ice skating ribbon is one of the best spots in the city to skate a figure eight. The railing that lines the loop is the perfect pick-me-up for wobbly skaters. Reservations are required for the 2020 skating season.
337 E. Randolph St., Loop; More info.
If You’d Prefer to Get Your Cheer at Home
Christkindlmarket Goes Virtual!
Christkindlmarkt brings the cherished German and European tradition of Germany's famed market to Chicago and adds heaps of local charm. This year, you won't see the market's signature wooden cabins topped with festive red-and-white canopies, but you can shop the handmade gifts, food and drinks and kids can participate in Kinder Club activities from the comforts of home, anywhere in the world.
Virtual Nov. 1-Dec. 31; More details.
— Maria Chambers