Uniquely Chicago holiday traditions your family will love keeping

Between shopping, cooking, cleaning, decorating, traveling and checking the box on holiday mandatories, the holidays can be a hectic time of the year for busy moms. By the end of the season, we’ve spent so much time and energy worrying about accomplishing everything on our never-ending to-do lists that we often lose sight of what really matters—making memories together as a family.

We’re lucky to live in a city that offers so many options for holiday fun—there’s plenty to see, do and eat in Chicago that you can’t find anywhere else. This year, take a step back from the hustle and bustle of the season and try something new with your family that you can look forward to every year.

Here is a list of our favorite ‘uniquely Chicago’ holiday happenings:


Modeled after the famous Nuremberg Christmas market in 1545, Christkindlmarket gives visitors the chance to experience authentic German traditions without leaving Chicago.

Shop unique handmade trinkets (cuckoo clocks, beer steins, ornaments) from more than 60 vendors—many of whom flew in from Germany. Nosh on German delicacies like schnitzel, brats and potato pancakes and warm up with some glühwein, hot spiced wine that comes a cup shaped like a boot. Live music and dance performances take place on select days.

Free; through Dec. 24; Daley Plaza, 50 W. Washington St., Chicago

The Walnut Room

A beloved Chicago staple since 1907, The Walnut Room provides the perfect backdrop to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year. The restaurant combines traditional elegance (wood paneling imported from Russia, Austrian chandeliers) with the warmth of the holidays, as guests dine around a 50-foot Christmas tree. Make sure to try a piece of the famous Mrs. Hering’s Chicken Pot Pie, a dish that dates back to 1890. Reservations are not accepted, but while you wait for a table, catch a glimpse of the animated window scenes featuring DreamWorks’ Trolls, and pick up a box of Frango Mints, a Chicago confectionary that’s been around since the original Marshall Field’s.

Holiday hours through Jan. 2; Macy’s, 111 N. State St., 7th Floor, Chicago

Skating Ribbon at Maggie Daley Park

At a quarter mile long, this unique venue looks like a lazy river of ice. Twice the length of a lap around a traditional skating rink, the ribbon—which also features changes in elevation—can hold up to 700 skaters at once. As you skate your way around the ribbon (with stopping points for hot chocolate), you’ll be immersed in breathtaking views of the Chicago skyline.

Free (skate and locker rental additional); through March; Maggie Daley Park, 337 E. Randolph St., Chicago

CTA Holiday Train

Oh what fun it is to ride (or spot) the CTA Holiday Train! Adorned with colorful lights, strands of garland and holiday imagery, this six-car train embodies the spirit of the season. Inside, Santa’s helpers spread the holiday cheer by passing out candy canes and serenading passengers. As the holiday train pulls into each station, catch a glimpse of Santa as he waves to boarding passengers from his sleigh.

Normal CTA fares apply; the Holiday Train will travel all L lines through Dec. 23

Horwich Chanukah Bash

The magic of Hanukkah wouldn’t be complete without deep fried potato pancakes, otherwise known as latkes. Join the Bernard Horwich Jewish Community Center in Rogers Park for an annual Hanukkah celebration centered around this favorite holiday dish. The event features Hanukkah crafts, music and a latke bar, complete with all the fixings (applesauce, sour cream).

$25 per family; Dec. 18; Bernard Horwich JCC, 3003 W. Touhy, Chicago

Caroling at Cloud Gate

No two events are ever the same, as a different local choir group leads Friday evening caroling at The Bean each week. Bundle up for this part-concert, part-sing-along featuring everyone’s favorite seasonal tunes.

Free; 6 p.m. Fridays through Dec. 23, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph St., Chicago

Wonderland Express at Chicago Botanic Garden

Boasting one of the most intricate model train shows, the Chicago Botanic Garden showcases a miniature version of the city. The 10,000-square-foot indoor model train show weaves through Chicago’s most iconic landmarks (Soldier Field, Marina City, the Art Institute)—all of which are handcrafted using natural elements like pinecones, bark and gourds.  Wonderland Express also features a light show, greenhouse extravaganza and display of one-of-a-kind wreaths.

$10 kids 3 and up, $13 adults; through Jan. 2; 1000 Lake Cook Road, Glencoe

ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo

Nearly 2 million glittering lights shaped into holiday- and animal-inspired displays transform the zoo into the ultimate winter wonderland! Take in musical light shows, animal encounters and hop aboard the Endangered Species Carousel and Lionel Train Adventure. The kiddos will enjoy holiday crafts, photos with Santa, live ice sculpture carving and more.

Free; Dec. 2-4, 9-23, 26-31 and Jan. 1; 2001 N. Clark St., Chicago

Sauganash Holiday Lights

Crank up the holiday tunes and take a 15-20 minute drive through the far northwest corner of the city, where the whole family will “ooohh”and “ahhhh” at dozens of houses decked out in twinkling lights. A must-see is the Noonen family Christmas tree (6601 N. LeRoy Ave.) that stands three stories high and goes through the roof of the house.

Free; about Dec. 1-Jan. 1; Devon Avenue just west of the Edens Expressway

Noon Year’s Eve Party at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Let the little ones experience the excitement of ringing in the New Year without staying up past bedtime! Raise a glass of apple juice and count down to a balloon drop at noon at this green-themed celebration. This family-friendly event includes lunch, a dance party, eco-friendly party crafts, games and access to all exhibits.

$10 kids 2 and up, $25 adults; 11 a.m. Dec. 31; 2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago

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