10 Can't-miss holiday experiences in Chicago

From Goodman's production of "A Christmas Carol" to the Santa Express, here's our list of 10 things it wouldn't be holidays in Chicago without.

ZooLights at the Lincoln Park Zoo

Enter a snow-blanketed winter wonderland (we hope), illuminated by millions of festive lights at Lincoln Park Zoo’s annual ZooLights. Enjoy visits with Santa Claus, live music, holiday crafts and large-scale ice carving. Escape from the chill by visiting with your favorite animals, especially the crocodiles, pygmy hippos and meerkats at the Regenstein African Journey. ZooLights runs on the weekends of Nov. 26-28; Dec. 3-5; and Dec. 10-12, as well as nightly from Dec. 17-Jan. 2 (closed Dec. 24 and 25). During ZooLights festivities, the zoo is open until 9 p.m. Admission is free. Details

Macy’s holiday windows

Since the early 1870s, Macy’s (aka Marshall Field’s) has been wowing children and adults alike with its famed holiday window displays and 45-foot Christmas Tree—the giant centerpiece of the wood-paneled Walnut Room. Marvel at the window displays, finish up your Christmas shopping (don’t forget the Frango Mints—made in Chicago!) and then enjoy lunch treeside in the Walnut Room. Details.

Goodman Theatre's "A Christmas Carol"

It’s a story that both children and adults adore: Ebenezer Scrooge, grumpiest man ever, is visited by the supernatural spirits of his past, present and future, and forced to re-examine his life. Will he continue on his path of utter scroogery or choose kindness? No one does Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol better than Chicago’s own Goodman Theater. Details

Bonus! Watch our video story about the kids in the cast

CTA Holiday Express

Even the city’s trains get into the holiday spirit. A plain old six-car CTA train is decked out in red bows and garland, and thousands of sparkling lights outline the windows and tops of the cars. Even the hand poles are decorated to look like candy canes. In the middle of the train are Santa and his reindeers, his sleigh perched atop an open-air flatbed car. At each stop, Santa and his elves hop off to treat passengers to minty candy canes. Details and schedule.

Caroling at the Bean

Share a special moment with your kids at 6 p.m. any Friday Nov. 26-Dec. 17 during the free Caroling at Cloud Gate. This holiday tradition brings families from near and far to hear Chicago choral groups sing holiday favorites. Don’t be shy, singing along is encouraged at this free event. Afterward, zip over to the park’s McCormick Tribune Ice Rink for frozen fun. Details

Winter Solstice Festival

Don your cold weather gear and celebrate the official start of winter outdoors at a nature oasis in the middle of the city. On Saturday Dec. 18, from 6-9 p.m., the Winter Solstice Festival at the North Park Nature Center welcomes the long Chicago winter with music, crafts and more. Take a walk along 1.5-mile, luminary-lit trails. Marvel at the frozen marsh. Visit with animals from the Big Run Wolf Ranch and enjoy chestnuts roasted on an open fire. Admission is free; no registration required. Details

Holiday Flower Show

The day after Thanksgiving, the Garfield Park Conservatory, one of our nation’s most beautiful and historic enclosed gardens, ushers in a giant bouquet of the holiday’s most characteristic flowers. From striking red poinsettias to Christmas cacti, the conservatory is the perfect spot to take off your coat and delight in nature’s holiday décor. It’s also a great backdrop for the perfect family photo for your holiday greeting cards. Details

Welcome Yule at CSO

Listen to the songs of the season as performed by the best musicians in the city: the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Arrangements both new and cherished will have you humming along. Be on your good behavior—a special rosy-cheeked guest from the North Pole stops by. Dec. 17-19, 21-13. Details/


Every holiday season, from Nov. 14 until Christmas Eve, Daley Plaza is transformed into the Christkindlmarket, a charming German village, complete with timber shops and cottages, Christmas trees and a vibrant open-air market offering everything from cuckoo clocks to traditional wooden ornaments and toys. Enjoy a selection of German treats—bratwurst, schnitzel, strudel and potato pancakes—and sip hot apple cider as you shop, visit with Santa and listen to carolers. Details

English Tea

Dress up in your holiday best and head over to the Four Seasons, Chicago’s most elegant hotel, for a fancy, traditional English tea. Your children will feel like princes and princesses as you sample finger sandwiches, sweet pastries and freshly baked scones and homemade preserves, all accompanied by a wide selection of fine teas. Kids are treated to their own special extra tea accompaniments, including fruit kabobs, cupcakes, cookies, gummy bears and a kid-size pot full of tea (or hot cocoa). Sumptuous surroundings, including an abundance of fresh flowers, holiday arrangements, a grand marble fountain and a view of fashionable Michigan Avenue, make this the perfect escape from last-minute shopping craziness. Details

Check out our 5 favorite afternoon tea spots in Chicago

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