Chicago is one of the most beautiful cities in America, and around Christmastime, it turns into a winter wonderland. Although the weather can be nippy, it’s worth braving the cold to go out and explore everything Chicago has to offer during this festive time of year. The entire community comes together to put on events and celebrate the holiday season, so it’s a wonderful time to visit. Here are some of the most exciting things to do in Chicago at Christmas.

Zoo Lights at Lincoln Park Zoo

If you are looking for a beautiful, extravagant light display to enjoy this holiday season, Lincoln Park Zoo is your best bet in the Chicago area. The entire zoo completely transforms into a stunning fairy tale covered in lights, making for a magical evening you won’t soon forget. As you walk through the zoo, you’ll experience a huge range of beautiful light displays as well as the sounds of holiday carolers. There are even sculpters carving ice displays that will have you in awe. Throughout the month of December, there are many ticketed events at Zoo Lights as well, so check out their calendar to see if anything catches your eye.

Go Ice Skating in Millennium Park

Millennium Park is one of the most beautiful places in Chicago at any time of the year – you are surrounded by the beauty and grandiosity of the Chicago skyline and in eyesight of the famous Cloud Gate ‘bean’. In December, the city sets up a giant Christmas tree and a rink for ice skating. This is a classic Chicago Christmas activity that makes a great date or a fun night out with friends. It’s free to get into the rink, you’ll just have to pay to rent skates. If you’ve never learned how to skate, they offer free lessons on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

Shop at Christkindlmarket

One of the most unique and iconic activities Chicago has to offer during the Christmas season is the Christkindlmarket, which is a giant marketplace modeled after traditional Christmas markets in Germany. The market is located in Daley Plaza, and you can have fun perusing the booths for seasonal souvenirs like tree ornaments and nutcrackers, all made in traditional German style. There’s also plenty of authentic German food to enjoy, like sausages and spiced wine. This market is an ideal place to really immerse yourself in the festivities of the holiday season.

Tree Lights at Morton Arboretum

If you’re willing to venture out from downtown Chicago, you can immerse yourself in one of the most beautiful holiday events Chicago has to offer. During the Christmas season, Morton Arboretum sets up a mile-long trail of extravagant Christmas lights on their trees, immersing you in a beautiful winter wonderland. There’s much more than just lights – you can purchase seasonal snacks and drinks, listen to festive music, and check out work by modern Chicago artists while you’re wandering through the arboretum.

Ride The Polar Express

Head to Union Station to experience one of the most exciting holiday events for families in the Chicago area. During this time of year, Amtrak offers their Polar Express Ride, where they transform one of their trains into a replication of the famous storybook train. While you’re on the train, you get hot chocolate and Christmas cookies, a sleigh bell to keep, and plenty of festive entertainment options to immerse you in this classic story. The entire ride uses authentic details from the book that both kids and adults will love. The trip takes about an hour and takes you through the city of Chicago before returning to Union Station.

Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker

The Joffrey Ballet is one of the premiere ballet companies in the United States, and they recently debuted a new version of The Nutcracker that is set amongst the backdrop of the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. This reimagining of the classic holiday ballet is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, one of the world’s most sought-after dancemakers, and it features many unique touches that are a nod to the city of Chicago. The incredible dancers and the beloved Nutcracker score will put you in the Christmas spirit for days to come.

Holiday Shopping on the Magnificent Mile

The Magnificent Mile is home to a huge collection of stores where you can purchase the most sought-after brands and items. During the holidays, the entire area is bustling with amazing deals and holiday items that are worth taking a gander at. Take an afternoon to go holiday shopping and get all the last-minute presents you haven’t picked out yet.

Winter Wonderfest at Navy Pier

Navy Pier is one of Chicago’s must-see attractions at any time of the year, but during December, it transforms into a beautiful winter spectacle with plenty of exciting activities to enjoy. There are many exciting rides, including the Wintertube, Cliff Hanger, Hot Cocoa Cups, and even a classic carousel. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you can also check out a winter obstacle course and climbing wall. For those who aren’t so adventurous, there is ice skating, visits with Santa, cookie decorating, and plenty of other fun and festive activities.

Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around The World

Another fun tradition where you can stay indoors and avoid the cold is the Museum of Science and Industry’s annual Christmas Around The World event. This beautiful display features a Christmas tree that’s a whopping four stories tall, surrounded by other trees and lights. Throughout the museum, there are displays that celebrate holiday traditions from countries around the world. It’s a great way to celebrate the season and learn more about other cultures in the process.

If you are visiting Chicago for Christmas, you will want to stay in one of the many hotels in the downtown Chicago area to be close to these events. The Loop area in particular has plenty of lodging options and is right in the middle of the entire public transit system. From there, you can take trains to virtually any neighborhood you might want to visit. You will also be very close to a wide range of restaurants and nightlife options.

If you are visiting Chicago from abroad, you will need to apply for ESTA before coming to the United States. Only citizens from 27 ESTA countries can apply – if your country is not on the list, you will need to apply for a visitor or tourist visa before coming to the US. You can check ESTA application online, and it’s recommended that you complete it at least three days before your trip. Once your ESTA has been approved, it is valid for two years and can be updated online as necessary. This form allows the US government to pre-screen visitors before their departure, which makes the screening process at the airport much more efficient.

When the weather gets cold, Chicago steps up their game by turning into one of the most spirited cities in the United States. These are just a few of the many exciting holiday events going on during the Christmas season in Chicago, and they draw huge crowds of locals and visitors alike. When planning your trip to Chicago this December, be sure to put a few of these exciting events on your calendar.