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Season’s greetings: From ZooLights and Christkindlmarket to Macy’s, there are plenty of great holiday traditions in Chicago

ZooLights photo by Todd Rosenberg

By Trent Modglin

This blog is courtesy of

Lincoln Park ZooLights

The Lincoln Park Zoo is an underrated treasure for the city of Chicago, located just a few miles north of downtown and wedged between Lake Michigan and the high-rise condos of the upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood.

This popular (and free) zoo goes all out for the holidays with its ZooLights celebration, decorating the entire property with a mind-boggling 2.5 million colorful lights, adorning everything from the trees to animal exhibits to the grass itself. The celebration, now in its 25th year, also includes lights synchronized to holiday music, animal-shaped yard decorations and activities like trains, a light maze, Ferris wheel and Sea Explorer 5D experience.

Bundle up and visit the polar bears and penguins while enjoying warm drinks, cool crafts, seasonal snacks, strolling carolers, shopping, ice carvings and even a visit with Santa.

Insider’s tip: The Chicago Trolley lights tour ( and Gray Line holiday bus tour ( both make stops at Lincoln Park Zoo for the ZooLights exhibit if you’re short on time but still want to soak it all in. ZooLights takes place from 4:30-9 p.m. Nov. 29-Dec. 1, Dec. 2-8, Dec. 13-23 and Dec. 26-Jan. 5.

2200 N. Cannon. 312-742-2000.


This incredibly popular annual outdoor market in Daley Plaza offers traditional German food (bratwurst, pretzels, roasted nuts, chocolate, etc.), drinks and live entertainment. Vendors in this charming, illuminated village sell handmade ornaments, nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks. The market has been a Chicago tradition since 1996 and is influenced by the Christkindlmarkt in Nuremberg, Germany (which began in 1545). Admission is free.

Insider’s tip: Not only do we recommend a boot-shaped mug of their famous spiced wine, but if you have a larger group, you can reserve a table in the heated tents — and even order a food and beverage package in advance through their website. Christkindlmarket Chicago runs Nov. 15-Dec. 24 Sun.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. and Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. 50 W. Washington. There is also a second Chicago Christkindlmarket location at Gallagher Way next to Wrigley Field running Nov. 22-Dec. 31. 312-494-2175.

Christmas Around the World and Holiday of Lights at the Museum of Science & Industry

This popular exhibit began back in 1942 with a single tree. Today, the annual celebration features a four-story Grand Tree that is surrounded by a forest of more than 50 other smaller trees and vibrant displays to represent holiday traditions from around the globe. Live holiday dance and choral performances, more than 30,000 lights and fake snowfalls add to the spirit of the season for visitors.

The exhibit is open through Jan. 5. 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr.

Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier

For 19th straight year, Navy Pier transforms its Festival Hall to offer families a wealth of indoor holiday thrills. Step in out of the cold to experience festive décor and a glittering forest of 500 trees and 25,000 ornaments, as well as 170,000 square feet of entertainment for all ages — from the ever-popular ice skating rink to the polar extreme obstacle course, bumper cars, cookie cottage, ice peaks climbing wall, miniature golf course, Arctic express train and several exciting rids like the Wind Chill, which whisks riders 53 feet off the ground.

Running Dec. 6-Jan. 12. Tickets available at

Macy’s fun

After taking in the 52nd annual Macy’s holiday windows (on display until Jan. 5), the Holiday Traditions Tour (which highlights the traditions of iconic State Street), stop by the 17,000-square-foot Walnut Room, a dining landmark on the seventh floor complete with Austrian chandeliers, Russian wood paneling and — most importantly during the holiday season — a 45-foot Christmas tree with 15,000 lights that sits directly in the center of the room.

Insider’s tip: The chicken pot pie and Grand Tree buffet are fantastic, but if the wait is too long to be seated in the Walnut Room, head to the adjoining wine bar that still offers views of the tree and an extensive, affordable wine list. And don’t forget to take the kids to Santaland on the fifth floor right up through Christmas Eve to meet the big guy himself. 111 N. State.