Best Things to Do in December in Chicago

Snow fooling: Some of Chicago's coolest events and activities in December

In the most peculiar of years, there's still a sleigh-full of outdoor events and activities to entertain mind and body.

Consider traditional snow and glow options like Zoolights at Lincoln Park Zoo; Holiday Magic at Brookfield Zoo; plus seasonal Instagram worthy opportunities like the breathtaking Illumination: Tree Lights at the Morton Arboretum, a walking spectacle of color and light. In between dodging ice patches, ornery shoppers and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), head to Navy Pier's new Light Up the Lake, an indoor, toasty holiday experience, featuring a cornucopia of lights, activities and seasonal fare. One of the largest holiday lighting events in the country, The AMAZE Light Festival in Rosemont promises spectacular themed light shows, mirthful music, refreshments and outdoor fun. 

We've spent the last two years completely surrendered to the sofa, so it's time to see the best of Chicago during the holidays. For easy cold weather exercise, head to the ice ribbon at Maggie Daley Park. Charming Andersonville, known for its Swedish roots and named the second "coolest" neighborhood on the planet, has a festive schedule of shopping, dining and entertainment supporting more than 100 local businesses. The delicious fun of Chicago's Christkindlmarket has returned - in two city locations and Cirque du Soleil's first Christmas production is a thrilling spin on the classic 1823 Christmas poem commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Sing "ta-ta" to 2021 on a high note!



Celebrating its 40th year in 2021, Brookfield Zoo's annual Holiday Magic will be held on 23 nights. Don your winter duds to stroll various pathways lit with more than two-million LED lights, including the 600-foot-long Tunnel of Lights synchronized to music. Stand inside a 20-foot-lit orb or the new illuminated gingerbread house to snap holiday photos, and take in a few of larger-than-life illuminated animal sculptures. The West Mall showcases the new "Sea of Lights," a vibrant display created with lights measuring one mile long. Inside the North Gate, you can't miss the 41-foot-tree sashaying to choreographed music. Distract from the weirdness of 2021 by viewing open animal areas, including dolphin presentations at 4 and 6 p.m. Need to nosh? Outdoor food stands offer seasonal fare from funnel cakes and burgers to spiced wine, beer, and hot chocolate.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Holiday Magic checks off all the festive boxes for an spirited, outdoor December outing.

Jacky's expert tip: Advance admission tickets are required for all Holiday Magic dates.

Read more about Brookfield Zoo →

While it has folky performers, this excellent, intimate concert hall offers shows ranging from African music to myriad holiday shows in December. How about Mariachi Herencia de México: A Very Merry Christmas Concert; Irish Christmas in America; or Nefesh Mountain's Hannukah Holiday Concert? It's the 23rd edition of Songs of Good Cheer, a caroling party showcasing exceptional musicians from the School. Not a fan of holiday tunes? December also brings the fabulous sibling duo, Watkins Family Hour, for an early and late show on Dec. 15. The bluegrass musical collaborative led by siblings Sara and Sean Watkins (who are also two-thirds of Nickel Creek) will surely lift winter spirits. Check the web site for all December show dates. There's not a bad seat in the house, so don't hesitate to buy seats in the upper level. Ticket prices are extremely reasonable.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Old Town School of Folk Music is an intimate, comfortable room presenting uplifting live music in a great Chicago neighborhood.

Jacky's expert tip: There are more than a few excellent restaurants on the block, so consider grabbing dinner before or after a show for a completely wonderful evening in Chicago.

Read more about Old Town School of Folk Music →


Charming Andersonville is known for its Swedish roots, shopping and destination dining. And it was dubbed the second "coolest neighborhood" in the world and number one in the U.S. by Time Out. Don't miss the neighborhood's first-ever outdoor Winter Market from Dec. 3-5, 2021. The open-air bazaar offers gifts, handcrafted goods and vintage treasures from local artisans. Late Night Andersonville returns on Dec. 3rd and 17th with local businesses staying open late for after-hours holiday shopping. The free holiday trolley runs both nights so you can hop on and off at eight intersections throughout the business district. Julmarknad (Dec.4 - 5) is the Swedish American Museum's annual Christmas Bazaar, featuring traditional Scandinavian and modern handicrafts, games, Santa and entertainment. Celebrate St. Lucia Day Dec. 13, 2021 with a candle-lit procession at 5:15 pm from the Museum north on Clark Street, highlighted by "Lucia Girls," singing in long white robes and sparkly crowns. Among the shops in the National Historic District are more than a few antique and vintage stores; candy shops; bookstores; lots of spots featuring clothing and accessories; furniture; music; kitchenware; and foodstuffs.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Andersonville is recognized as the "shop local capital of Chicago," with the largest network of local and independent businesses.

Jacky's expert tip: Warm up with a cup or two of Simon's Tavern's famous Glögg, an Andersonville tradition.

Read more about Andersonville →

Lincoln Park

Celebrating its 27th season, ZooLights (select dates now through Jan. 2, 2022) transforms Lincoln Park Zoo into a luminous winter wonderland with 2.5 million lights. Kida will go for larger-than-life animal designs and everyone gets a lift from light shows set to holiday music. Work off some pandemic angst by strolling the sprawling grounds. New for 2021: sensory-friendly visit times; new lighting designs on the Main Mall and South Lawn; an enhanced fairy-tale Enchanted Forest; and a gorgeous 18-foot holiday tree at the zoo's new Pepper Family Wildlife Center. Stop at the holiday-themed pop-up bar, Snowy's Spirits & S'more, for s'mores, festive cocktails, hot drinks and sweets. Count on photos with Santa, shopping opportunities and animals in their outdoor exhibits. Look into optional ticketed experiences: BrewLights on Dec. 2; "A Charlie Brown Christmas" on Dec. 12; Adults Night Out: Holidaze on Dec. 16; and Zoo Year's Eve.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: A visit to ZooLights is invigorating, outdoor, holiday cheer for all ages.

Jacky's expert tip: Tickets are $5 per person Wednesday-Sunday but you can get in free Mondays and Tuesdays.

Read more about ZooLights →

Unlike its skating rink neighbor to the west at Millennium Park, the ice skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park weaves and turns through the park making for a more organic, natural experience, plus you're in the heart of downtown Chicago, with the unparalleled skyline as your scenery. For the 2021-2022 season, skaters are treated to Van Gogh-inspired visuals on the ice provided by Immersive Van Gogh Chicago. Glide across sunflowers and brushstrokes that enhance an already magical experience. Reservations are required to ice skate, whether you bring your own or rent skates, during the 2021-2022 season. The good news is annoying lines, interminable waiting and heaving crowds are eliminated as there are limited spots allowing skaters to safely skate and social distance. Skate rental is $16 when reserved online, $18 for walk-up rental or bring your own and skate for $5. Skate with your own skates free at the 11 am session.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: The skating ribbon provides a lively experience as skaters travel a path twice the length of a lap around a traditional skating rink.

Jacky's expert tip: There's a 500-skater capacity limit, so to guarantee a spot make a reservation. Plus, there's a $2 upcharge if tickets are purchased on-site.

Read more about Maggie Daley Park →

Think you have an exceptional Christmas tree? The Morton Arboretum is the champion of trees and Illumination: Tree Lights at the Arboretum revs it up for the ninth year with an interactive spectacle of color and light through Jan. 2, 2022. Fifty acres of the Arboretum's majestic trees are jazzed up with lights and music along a one-mile-long paved walking route with five new lighting features, including a special Human+Nature display. The exhibition takes guests on a journey along a one-mile, paved walking path amid festive music and lighting effects that highlight the beauty of trees in winter. Along the way, warm up by a toasty fire and roast marshmallows for s'mores, or stop in one of the concession tents for a snack and sip. The after-dark, illuminated trail features new experiences like the Enchanted Gateway, an entry portal of glowing lights leading to Meadow Lake; Golden Glade, a meadow of lights at the top of the Conifer trail; and Festival of Lanterns, 150 colorful lanterns at the top of Frost Hill. Purchase timed tickets in advance online, in-person at the Visitor Center in advance or or on-site each night of Illumination, as tickets remain available.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Show your ardor for arbor at the event starring 50 acres of the Arboretum's trees brought to life with LED lights, interactive elements and sound.

Jacky's expert tip: Get your tickets online in advance because many nights sell out, dress for the weather, and wear comfortable walking shoes or boots.

Read more about Morton Arboretum →

Men, women and children are equally awestruck by the colorful sets, rush of visuals, athleticism, music and the other-worldly dimension to which you travel in the course of 90-minutes during a Cirque du Soleil show. Take your chance to see "'Twas the Night Before…," for 17 performances only (Nov. 26 - Dec. 5, 2021), before it opens in New York's Madison Square Garden. Cirque du Soleil's first Christmas production is a spin on the classic Christmas story. Expect the band of merry performers' familiar humor punctuating acrobatics, larger-than-life characters, skaters and elegant athletes. The 49th original production of Cirque du Soleil is a mix of circus, musicals and a variety show, resulting in a new twist on the 1823 Christmas poem, " A Visit from St. Nicholas" or commonly known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" by Clement Clarke Moore. This story follows a young girl who has become jaded by Christmas then meets the characters from Moore's Christmas poem who help her regain her holiday spirit.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: This holiday show with Block Balancing, Hula Hoops, Aerial Hammocks, Hoop Diving and rearranged Christmas music with keep the attention of both grandma and the kids.

Jacky's expert tip: The 2019 Chicago run sold more than 50,000 tickets, completely selling out its 17-show engagement, so snag your seats ASAP.

Read more about "'Twas the Night Before…" by Cirque du Soleil →

Just when Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) sends you to the bakery and under the covers, there's the debut of The AMAZE Light Festival in Rosemont. Get ready for outdoor holiday activities for all ages, a display of more than one million holiday lights with timed light shows and seven themed illuminated worlds. Lift the keister from the couch and go tubing on "Thrill Hill," shop at a holiday market, nibble festive food and sip seasonal beverages, stop by the candy shop and visit Santa's Workshop for holiday craft making and take a train ride on the "Arctic Express." VIP tickets allow access to Impact Field's tented "Leinie Lodge," where you can snag specialty cocktails for purchase and premier viewing of timed light shows. Platinum tickets get you access to Impact Field's "Rivers Stadium Club" and an all-inclusive premium buffet as well as beer, wine and soft drinks. The AMAZE Light Festival is open through January 2, 2022 and visits to Santa's Workshop must be reserved in advance when purchasing tickets online.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: One of the largest holiday lighting events in the country, the AMAZE Light Festival promises spectacular light shows, festive music, refreshments and outdoor fun.

Jacky's expert tip: You're just a speedy sleigh ride to holiday shopping at Fashion Outlets of Chicago's 130+ stores.

Read more about The AMAZE Light Festival →


Navy Pier launches Light Up the Lake, an indoor, toasty holiday experience, featuring colossal light-sculpture displays, more than 600,000 twinkling lights; a regulation-size Alpine ice rink (bring your own skates, or skates will be available at no extra charge, pending availability), holiday beer garden, kids' train rides to Santa's Village and a gift market. The area's largest indoor light show features massive sculptures with holiday and toy box themes, including a giant Teddy Bear, a deer soaring 25-foot, high, 60-foot light tunnel and 40-foot tree. Purchase seasonal gifts, novelties and treats at the European-style holiday market and visit the Jolly Olde Post Office where you can post a letter to Santa. There's sit-down dining with a holiday-themed menu, signature cocktails, and seasonal brews in Festival Hall as well as grab-and-go meals and snacks throughout the event space. The new event runs from Nov. 26, 2021 through Jan. 2, 2022. Hours vary by date and purchase tickets at the Navy Pier web site.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Light Up the Lake incorporates popular attractions of Fifth Third Bank Winter WonderFest, but eliminates unsafe elements due to pandemic protocols.

Jacky's expert tip: Every ticket comes with a free ride on the Centennial Wheel, and be sure to experience all the free indoor and outdoor attractions which will be decked out for the holidays.

Read more about Light Up the Lake →

Christkindlmarket Chicago, the most authentic traditional holiday market of its kind outside of Europe, celebrates its 25th anniversary and returns in-person as well as online in 2021. Enjoy the German-style outdoor market at two locations: Daley Plaza and Wrigleyville. Shop for one-of-a-kind hand-blown ornaments, authentic nutcrackers, cuckoo clocks and beer steins, toys, home décor, jewelry and apparel. Enticing aromas waft through the market: sausages and sauerkraut, potato pancakes, Schnitzel and burgers. Take a slug of Gluehwein, a traditional German holiday market hot spiced wine, to warm up or laugh at the cold with a hearty German beer. Purchase treats to tote home like cookies, Stollen or baked strudel. Not keen on waiting in line? You can reserve tables for up to eight people, choose from different food and drink packages served in the heated Timber Haus. Reserve Stammtisch indoor dining online. Entertainment includes choirs, carolers, spirited German music and holiday music that'll kick the Grinch right out of your heart.

Recommended for Things to Do in December because: Christkindlmarket Chicago is the most authentic traditional holiday market of its kind outside of Europe and it's back, in-person in 2021.

Jacky's expert tip: The Wrigleyville location has ice skating, curling and skating lessons, Santa's Workshop, wreath making classes, holiday movie screenings and special programming at Hotel Zachary.

Read more about Christkindlmarket Chicago →


Meet Jacky Runice

Born in Bucktown when bulletproof was a home safety choice and not a coffee order, Jacky Runice has been knocking around Chicago as a professional print, online and broadcast journalist and...  More About Jacky